Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Matrix: Gnostic or Christian?

This was originally posted on my other blog about a year ago.

Steven D. Greydanus has written a series of articles on The Matrix films that address an interesting question. He claims in the first article to have gotten more requests for reviews of The Matrix films than all other movies combined, and that these requests all dealt with the same question -- uncovering the foundational mythology driving the series. In his analysis, he treats the first movie separately from the two sequels. I think this is largely because of the large time-span (4 years) between the original film and the sequels (and both sequels were released just months apart), and also because he sees the "message" of the first film as quite different from that of the later two.

To sum up, Greydanus is examining whether The Matrix can more properly be treated as a Christian or a Gnostic sort of parable. His conclusion is that it is neither, and that if the films are read as such, it will be a very dissatisfying text indeed. Although, he grants, there are plenty of Christian and Gnostic allusions in the movies, these are not fully developed, and certainly don't serve as the foundation on which the film is built.

OK, that is where he gets us in his analysis of the first film (in the article linked above). But I want to think more about his examination of the two sequels. In his view (and I think he is more or less right), any ground for viewing the first film as either essentially a Christian story or essentially a Gnostic story is pretty much demolished by the two sequels. I like this best in his analysis. He writes:

It’s possible to debunk each of the theories separately — on the one hand, the charge of gnosticism seems not to fit the new films’ increasing focus on the "real" world rather than on the illusory Matrix world; on the other hand, further developments in Neo’s story-arc clearly diminish the christological resonance of the film’s mythology.

However, the real reason the Matrix sequels effectively undercut the gnostic-or-Christian debate is that the completed Matrix story lacks something that, ironically, is common to both gnosticism and Christianity — namely, transcendence.

By transcendence I mean something having to do with ultimate reality or absolute truth above and beyond the finitude of the created order. In this sense, both gnosticism and Christianity might be described as "transcendent" worldviews, in that they both involve truth-claims about ultimate reality.

He points to the undermining of the Oracle's "power," and even Neo's own diminishing power in the later two films as evidence for the lack of a transcendent principle. He sees the films as moving toward a sort of shadowy existentialism, with Choice becoming the ultimate (only) good, whereas love, freedom, etc., had formerly been seen as utlimate goods.

In the final analysis, Greydanus writes (and I know he is not alone in this opinion), "The original Matrix thus remains the most worthwhile, for it represents a stage in the story’s development when anything was possible and everything was interesting. The sequels merely squander the first film’s potential and erode what made it an evocative, interesting film."

I think, though, that he misses something important in the films. One important reason for this, I think, is that he misses the point of one scene to which he refers with nothing more than a glance. He treats as a parenthetical insertion his complaint that "another scene suggests that love is no more than programming." I believe he must be referring to the scene where the Indian family stands on the platform with Neo. The father asks Neo to take his daughter to freedom, telling him that he loves his daughter. Neo rejects this notion, since they are a family of programs, saying, "Love is a human emotion." To this the father responds, "No, it is a word. What matters is the connection it implies."

I think this scene gets to a real point, and not the existentialism Greydanus speaks of, which is at the centre of the films. I think it is pointing to the instability of language and its inability to anchor itself to concretes. Neo wants a one to one equivalence. Love=human emotion. And he knows exactly what that emotion is because he has felt it. But the father offers another view. Love is not anything more than a word (and one arbitrarily assigned, at that). What matters more is what one means by the word -- in his case his connection to his daughter. Whether that is satisfactorily emotional or not, it is what the word implies or means to him.

Greydanus is right in one thing -- this does point to the absence of a transcedental signified. This is not Plato's world of shadows dancing on the cave wall, simply representing the Realities at the back of the cave. This is a world in which words are more slippery, and not so neatly tied to what is "real." Indeed, it is a radical questioning of just how much we can know about what is real at all. And it is disconcerting for many viewers because of that.

This one scene, I think, sets up the later emphasis that Neo places on Choice. It is not merely an existentialist move, though I am sure there is some of this thought underlying it. Rather, it seems to me to be an understanding that some choice has to be made. Neo has to either choose to give up and die, or to stand up and fight. Interestingly, he sort of chooses both. But the real decision he chooses is what he sums up in a single word, "Peace." Then he gives himself up to the machines, our stalemate begins, and a new Matrix dawns.

But remember, this dawning is now of the seventh Matrix. The one just destroyed was the sixth, as the Architect told Neo. Six -- the number of Man, the number of Imperfection. Now the Seventh begins, the number of Completion.

The film doesn't tell us how it all ends. But it ends with the dawning of the Complete. And, it ends with a call to choice, setting the example of a choice for peace and a rejection of further violence.

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