The New Gnostic GospelSTEVE KELLMEYER
Hollywood’s dabbling in religion again, and this time, they ain’t ringing The Bells of Saint Mary’s. In the box office hit The Matrix, they’re preaching that old-time religion . . . and we do mean old. The sets and costumes have changed, but the plot, characters and themes are all the same, borrowed from the first century A.D. Gnosticism, that ancient heresy, has come back — to a theater near you!
Two women lead a young man into a dusty, poorly-lit room. The furnishings are simple: two chairs and a table. Near the table stands a dark-skinned man. The young man had prepared for, longed for, this meeting for quite some time. Finally, he was about to meet the man he had known only by legend and rumor. The darker man motions towards a chair and both take a seat at the table. The dark man begins: "You want to know the answers to your questions." The younger man nods warily. "I can reveal them to you. Are you ready to learn?" The young man nods again. "The world has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. You are a slave, born into bondage, living in a dream world...."
As the speaker continues his revelations, the young man leans in close, drinking in every word.
Does this scenario seem vaguely familiar? If so, it may be that you're reminded of a similar scene in the hit movie The Matrix. Yet this is not a clip from a Hollywood movie. Even though artificial reality, illusions and delusions, and the building of dream worlds lies at the very heart of the modern movie industry, Hollywood's media moguls did not originate the ideas embodied in this scene.
Thousands of years before motion picture technology existed, the idea of artificial reality, of a dream world built for men, informed the lives of thousands of men and women throughout the Near East and beyond. The scene above is a composite drawn from the experiences of those men and women, whose philosophy seriously threatened Christianity almost from her birth. Now Hollywood has imported this dangerously false view of the world into an increasing number of its movies, showing us what it looks like when it's placed firmly into our time.
Remember when Hollywood produced wonderfully Catholic films such as The Bells of St. Mary? Times change. The wild success of the Star Wars series began a Hollywood trend in 'alternative' theologies that has recently become quite sophisticated, most especially in the cult favorite The Matrix.
Such a trend may seem discouraging to those of us who lament the deepening religious confusion of our culture. Yet Catholic apologists who recognize the theological roots of a film such as The Matrix, and who appreciate the reasons for its popularity, can use such a movie as an intriguing springboard for discussion with non-Christians. Analyzing Hollywood's aberrant theology allows us to contrast it with Catholic truth and thus to clarify the Faith.
GNOSTICISM, ANCIENT AND RECENT
Few realize that much of The Matrix's appeal lies in the quasi-Christian themes tightly woven into the plot, a plot that actually provides an excellent model for understanding the ancient religious movement called Gnosticism. While there were almost as many variations of Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, which means "knowledge") as there were Gnostics, most Gnostics had at least a few basic beliefs in common. Larry and Andy Wachowski, the brothers who wrote the script for The Matrix, did a technically superb job of presenting these popular beliefs in a dynamically visual setting. But in order to see how they accomplished this, we must first know something about the ancient believers in this religion.
Gnosticism flourished in the first and second century, and Gnostic ideas of one sort or another have reappeared in Christian trappings throughout Church history. In most recent times, the Gnostic worldview has reemerged within some strands of the New Age movement.
According to many ancient Gnostics, the Godhead is not a Trinity of Persons. Rather, it is a collection of roughly thirty or so spiritual entities called aeons. Together, these aeons comprise the pleroma, the "fullness," which is one of the Gnostic terms for the Godhead.
In Gnostic mythology, one of the aeons in the pleroma named Sophia ("wisdom") generated a spiritual being of great power but small intelligence, who thought he was the ultimate God. This being took a portion of the pleroma's divine essence and with it fashioned the whole of the created world, along with archons, spiritual rulers of the world. This work earned him the name Demiurgos, or in English, the Demiurge the semi-divine "craftsman."
Because the Demiurge was not too bright, he created a flawed world. Selfish and cruel, he trapped human souls by enclosing them in flesh and keeping them in the prison we call creation. Every human being knowingly or unknowingly serves this false god. According to the Gnostics who made use of Christian Scripture, the God of the Old Testament and the God of Creation is the Demiurge, whose attributes are clearly shown in the nastiness He displays in the Old Testament.
Sophia, seeing what happened, tried to free the first human beings, Adam and Eve. While Adam and Eve were in the garden, Sophia entered a serpent and, speaking through the serpent, told Adam and Eve that they could attain to the godhead, but only if they made contact with the divine spark that rests within each human being. Adam passed this knowledge on to his son Seth, and it continues to be passed on through each generation. Meanwhile, other aeons have been sent to inform us of the true nature of divinity, the last and greatest speaking one through Jesus. Jesus was an ordinary man, but one of the aeons, an aeon named Christ, spoke through him in order to tell us how to free ourselves.
Gnostic teaching relies heavily on myth and mythic images. According to Gnostics, the necessary knowledge for salvation is primarily formed by our direct experience of the world and the experience of the revealed knowledge about our spiritual origin. The world around us distracts us from the truth of who we are by intoxicating us with falsehoods. We can be freed from these falsehoods by "Messengers of Light," who teach and who establish salvific mysteries (sacraments) that put us in contact with our true selves.
GNOSTIC ELEMENTS IN THE MATRIX
Once we're acquainted with this worldview, we can see how The Matrix clearly unfolds as a modern retelling of the Gnostic version of salvation history. From the opening credits to the closing scene, a complex interweave of pagan myth and Christian symbol is used to create the Gnostic worldview right before our eyes. Openly Christian terms are deployed for effect as well.
Water, a reminder of baptism, is a constant theme. Thus, we see a waterfall digital display in the opening credits, which cuts to a pitch-dark room where we meet the woman we will later know as "Trinity." (The choice of this name is important not just for its obvious Christian meaning, but also because "Trinity" is the name of one of the aeons in ancient Gnosticism).
Trinity is in contact with Morpheus, a man named for the Greek god of sleep and dreams. Because Trinity is in serious danger in this opening scene, Morpheus directs her to the corner of Lake and Wells (subtle, aren't they?) so that she may be saved from agents who are trying to capture her. Throughout the movie, the agents will play the role of the archons, the rulers of this present world, while Trinity's boss and her friends represent the Messengers of Light. She is chased by agents in a dump truck (reminding us of what flawed creation really is), and is saved by literally being called out of this created world when she answers a ringing phone.
The rest of the movie can be divided into fairly clean segments: what we'll label "the Call," "the New Adam," "the Last Supper," "the Oracle," "the Passion and Descent into Death/Hell," and finally "the Resurrection/Ascension." Within each segment, symbols and imagery are used to foreshadow coming segments and summarize preceding segments.
In the first segment, "the Call," we're introduced to the protagonist, Neo, whose name is an anagram of "One" (as in "the One") and means "new" in Greek. He's asleep at a computer screen filled with news of Morpheus, thus foreshadowing what will soon be revealed: He is in a dreamworld.
After an interesting computer screen conversation, Neo assists a character named Troy, whose three-minute role serves to tell us who Neo is: "Hallelujah, you're my saviour, man, my own personal Jesus Christ." Neo soon meets Trinity, who warns him of impending danger, and tells him that Morpheus, whom Neo is looking for, will find him.
Neo is given a new cell phone through which Morpheus, acting as his guide, calls him, warning him that agents are even now searching the building for him. Neo is told to "get on the [window-washer's] scaffold and go to the roof," a reference to the scaffold of the cross upon which Jesus is raised. He refuses to follow this guidance and is consequently captured by three agents, who subject him to a trial.
These three persons interrogate him and plant a tracking device on him. During this interrogation, we discover that Neo's full name is Thomas A. Anderson. Most viewers would recognize the doubting Thomas reference, but only the careful viewer knows "Anderson" means "son of man."
THE NEW ADAM
The story now enters the "New Adam" sequence. Our doubting Thomas is told to go to Adams street, where he meets Trinity under a bridge from which water pours in sheets. Together, they pass through the water and Neo agrees to meet with Morpheus.
Trinity is able to remove the tracking device and they enter a building with chessboard tiles where Morpheus meets him. We hear Duke Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light" play in the background. In an unusual amalgam of Alice's Wonderland and Adam in the Garden of Eden, Neo is asked to eat a forbidden pill in order to move to the next level.
As he contemplates his choice, the first part of Gnostic philosophy is revealed to him: "The world has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. . . . You are a slave, born into bondage. . . . How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
Morpheus explains that words are insufficient. In order to know the truth, Neo must experience it, see it for himself. After eating the pill, Neo enters a mirror which is "c-c-cold [as death]" and which does, indeed, bring him to cardiac arrest, the first death.
This is a harbinger of the baptism in which he quickly finds himself, for he awakens in a womb-like bath of liquid, surrounded by snake-like cables in a totally different existence (compare Rom 6:4). He is rescued from the waters by Morpheus, who greets him with the words "Welcome to the real world," and who then re-builds (re-creates) his body.
Neo soon finds that he is on a large spaceship-style hovercraft, named the Nebuchadnezzar, after the Old Testament king of Babylon who destroyed Jerusalem, burned down the Temple, and sent the Hebrews into exile. He learns that the ship model is Mark 3, No. 11 (Mark 3:11). This subtle reference to Mark 3:11 was not accidental, but calculated to further the goal of identifying Neo as a Christ character, a savior who will defeat the computer rulers of the matrix: "And whenever unclean spirits saw him, they would fall down before him and shout, 'You are the son of God'" (Mark 3:11).
Neo is then introduced to the crew. Of these, the most notable are Cypher, presumably a take-off on the name Lucifer, the one who will betray Neo and Morpheus; and Dozer and Tank, brothers born in the last human city, Zion, the source of everyone's hope. Zion is of course another biblical name that refers in the Old Testament to Jerusalem and in the New Testament to heaven both viewed as the city of God.
Neo discovers that the Matrix is a computer-generated dreamworld, built so men could be enslaved and serve the computer that created it. This is very close to the Gnostic scenario: The pleroma (men) created an (artificially intelligent) entity who in turn creates an intentionally flawed "reality." Human beings are now trapped in this false reality and must be freed.
Neo learns that there was once a man born inside the Matrix who learned how to control the artificial reality, doing whatever he wanted. He freed the first men and taught them the truth. The Oracle (a prophet) predicted that at this man's return, all would be freed from bondage. Thus, these freed men and women now free others, looking for the One who has been prophesied.
Neo discovers that Morpheus believes him to be the One (the New Adam). Morpheus, again acting as guide, spends the next several scenes trying to free Neo's mind so that Neo can operate as the saviour he is. As this budding "Christ" rests between training sessions, Trinity feeds him.
THE LAST SUPPER
Following "the New Adam" segment, we see an extended paraphrase of the Last Supper. Cypher is on duty to watch the Matrix displays. Startled by Neo, Cypher exclaims, "Neo, you scared the bejesus out of me," and then shares a drink with him.
In the very next scene, Cypher is in the Matrix eating an excellent meal with the agents and promising to betray Zion, Morpheus and Neo. The scene following shows Neo eating with his friends, the hovercraft crewmen.
With the completion of "the Last Supper" sequence, Neo is now ready to go to the Oracle and find out who he really is. The team enters the Matrix, the false world that Neo formerly inhabited, and Cypher immediately begins their betrayal. Meanwhile, Neo is told that the Oracle is not right or wrong, but merely a guide.
Morpheus and Neo enter an elevator and rise to where the Oracle lives. As he waits for her, Neo is told to realize the truth: this Matrix "reality" does not exist. The Oracle meets him, gives a cryptic welcome, and warns of a coming choice.
THE PASSION AND DESCENT INTO DEATH/HELL
As the team tries to leave the Matrix, they discover they have been betrayed. This begins the "Passion and Descent Into Hell" segment. Some of the crew, including Neo, escape by descending down the walls into the sewers and running to a TV repair shop (a metaphor for Neo's attempt to repair the world of illusion that humans live) so they can be called out of the Matrix.
Meanwhile, the captured Morpheus is tortured while one of the agents explains that the computer intentionally created a flawed world because human beings didn't seem to thrive in any other kind. The agent drives home the point by referring to reality as "this zoo, this prison," throwing in a few modernist references to overpopulation and the cancer of humanity upon the earth. The crew members who successfully escape sadly believe that Morpheus, "the father to us," must inevitably be killed.
This last theme corresponds to a variant of ancient Gnosticism in which the Propater, the Father figure in the pleroma who is threatened by the Demiurge, is saved by the Christ. Knowing this, we should not be surprised to see that Neo decides to save Morpheus.
So Neo and Trinity together set out to rescue Morpheus. During this extremely violent project, the false witness of an agent concerning who Neo is ("only human") is contrasted with the true witness of Tank concerning Neo ("He's the One!" paraphrasing the centurion in Mark 15:39). Successful, Morpheus, Trinity and Neo head for a subway station with a phone line out of the Matrix.
After an extended subterranean fight with an agent, Neo is directed to Wabash and Lake, where the ringing phone, the call to salvation, will be found in the Heart of the City Hotel, Room 303: combined references to baptism, the eternal Trinity, and salvation in the Sacred Heart. In room 303, however, he is shot to death by an agent before he can answer the call.
THE RESURRECTION AND ASCENSION
Nevertheless, the love of Trinity in Nebuchadnezzar's real world is sufficient to raise him from the dead, both in reality and in the illusion which is the Matrix. When he rises from the dead, he finds he has full control of the Matrix and easily defeats the three persons (agents). The movie ends as Neo picks up a pay phone within the Matrix and tells the artificial intelligence, "I will show these people a world with no rules, no controls, borders, or boundaries. A world without you. What happens next is up to you." Neo then flies (ascends) into the heavens.
While several liberties had to be taken with the original Gnostic story in order to make it fit Hollywood's format, the movie outlines the essentials of this ancient religion. We live in an illusion, creation is an evil prison in which we serve its creator, and we must be freed. The careful attention to symbolic detail throughout the movie (the script went through seventeen rewrites), combined with the nearly constant paraphrasing of Scriptural concepts or stories, serves to magnify the power of the presentation.
The Matrix is only the first of a three-part series, with Matrix II and III being filmed back-to-back even as you read. Will the sequels continue their retelling of the ancient heresy, or will they degenerate into a couple of mindless shoot-em-ups, lacking the technical skill and intentional message of the original? Only one thing is for sure at this rate, it will be a long time before we see a new sequel to The Bells of St. Mary's.
Steve Kellmeyer "The New Gnostic Gospel: An Ancient, Secret Heresy Lurks Inside the Movie 'The Matrix'." Envoy Vol 4, No 5, AD 2000.
This article is reprinted with permission from Envoy Magazine.
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Steve Kellmeyer lives in Norfolk, Neb. He is a freelance writer with master's degrees in modern European history and theology who frequently writes on theological and life issues.
Copyright © 2001 Envoy
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