The blockbuster sci-fi thriller The Matrix reached its conclusion last week with the release of Matrix Revolutions, the third and final installment in the series. The films have generated considerable interest, not just because of the stunning visual effects, but also because of an ambitious spiritual content.
A scene from "The Matrix Revolutions," the third part of a trilogy now in theaters. (Warner Bros.)
One reason for this connection is the creative use of religious ideas already familiar to us. The central character, Neo, is an obvious Christ figure. He emerges from obscurity and begins to manifest super-human powers. He is killed by the powers of darkness, but comes back to life to defeat those very forces. Even his name, Neo, is an anagram for his role as "the One." Neo also means "new," as in the "new man," or a "new day." Even his real name, Anderson, hints at Christian connections. "Anders son" literally means "son of man."
There are other spiritual links in the story audiences quickly recognize. The perennial question of destiny versus free will is played out dramatically between "the oracle," and "the architect." The oracle serves as a prophet who nudges the characters to use their free will to choose the right path. The architect wants everyone and everything to operate according to a fixed and predictable script with no variations. Variations are "glitches" in the system.
Then there is the end-time factor. In the second installment of the series, The Matrix Reloaded, Morpheus, a character who is part military general and part holy man, rises to address the citizens of Zion, the name given to the last human city. Huge machines directed by computers are literally knocking at the gates. If they are able to enter the city, Zion will be destroyed and the human race will continue to live under the tyranny of the Matrix. Morpheus' task is to calm the fears of his fellow citizens and give them hope.
As Morpheus stands to address the citizens of Zion, he recalls for them the prophecy of the "chosen one," whom he believes is Neo. Morpheus tells the anxious crowd, "when this prophecy is fulfilled, this world will end and a new world will begin."
That's where the story really grabs us. There is a longing in the hearts of many people for this world to end and new world to appear. We see it in the stunning success of Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, which chronicles the end of history. We hear it in the bombastic preaching of television evangelists warning us that "the time is near." And we feel it, in our bones, as we watch the daily horror of the evening news. How long can this misery continue?
Popular views about the end of this world generally fall into two categories. The first is the Tim LaHaye vision. The world is doomed and only God can fix it. Fortunately, God will. Revealed in a complicated prophecy found mostly in the book of Revelation, God promises to defeat the forces of evil and create a new earth. What role do we play? None. Our only task is to make sure we are on the right side when it all breaks loose.
The other popular view is revealed in the agenda of religious right. The new world will come about only when all of the institutions of government are handed over to God. So long as government is allowed to exist without acknowledging God, we will continue to see the destruction of our society.
What role do we play in this view? Well, it is up to us to vote for godly candidates who will make sure that the institutions of government conform to God's laws. When all of them do, God's true purpose for us will be revealed, and the ills we now face as a society will disappear.
It is hard not to ask what God's role is in this view, but I will save that for another day.
Without giving too much away, Matrix Revolutions employs a creative synthesis of these two ideas. A partnership between human energies and divine intervention brings about salvation. We have a part, but cannot do it alone. God has a part, but does not do all of it for us. The tricky part, as the movie affirms over and over again, is knowing when to act, and when to wait.
I am not suggesting we abandon our Bible studies and deconstruct The Matrix as a way of solving the riddle of the universe. However, the story, as is true for all art, does reveal something about us.
We feel betrayed and exploited by technology. We long for the world to be different, safer and saner. We struggle to know what we should do, what it is that God wants us to do and will not do for us. And of course we struggle to know what God will do, the part that we must wait and let God do.
The answer to these questions is not found in The Matrix, they are only posed there. Our longing for a better world will only find satisfaction in the crucible of our own existence as people of faith. In the living of a faithful life, we follow the best light we have, and act on truth we already possess. We can be pretty sure that is something God has left for us to do.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.