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The Spiritual Message of 'The Matrix'

Cover for the book <i>The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix</i> (Pinon Press)
Cover for the book The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix (Pinon Press)
Cover for the book <i>Matrix Warrior: Being the One</i> (Orion Publishing Co.)
Cover for the book Matrix Warrior: Being the One (Orion Publishing Co.)

The film The Matrix Reloaded -- the sequel to the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, and number two in a trilogy of films -- has excited philosophers, clerics and theologians who found the original science fiction film rich in spiritual meaning.

Among the dozens of authors inspired by the theme of The Matrix -- that humans live in a world that’s an illusion, manipulated by forces beyond our control -- is Jake Horsley.

His book, Matrix Warrior: Being the One, doesn't suggest that evil computers actually pump virtual reality directly into our brains.

He explains to NPR's Rick Karr that his book is a "thought experiment" based on the notion that this reality is, in fact, a dream world.

"If we act as if it is true, does that enhance our life and our experience? And my experience is that it does -- that things start to make a lot more sense when we begin to entertain the possibility that we are, in fact, living in a dream world controlled by invisible beings," he tells Karr.

Our particular dream world, he says, is created by technology, consumerism, the media and other aspects of "modern" civilization that distract humans from reaching their full potential.

This idea is not new -- it mirrors the 2,000-year-old spiritual tradition of Gnosticism, an early form of Christianity. "Gnosticism maintains that the world that we’re living in is not the ultimate reality," says Frances Flannery Dailey, who teaches religion at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. "It believes that the god who created this world is not the ultimate god -- there is a higher God, a transcendent reality."

In Gnosticism, the Christ-like redeemer brings the world knowledge. In The Matrix, that myth is embodied in Keanu Reeves' chacter Neo -- also known as "the One."

The Matrix offers up a stew of aspects from other religious traditions, particularly Buddhism. Dailey says it’s not surprising that the film combines aspects of Buddhism with Gnosticism. "They pose humanity's fundamental problem and solution in the same terms -- ignorance and enlightenment," she says.

In his book The Gospel Reloaded, Greg Garrett -- a professor of English at Baylor University -- says the action and violence of the film series may be the most effective way to draw in the crowds and communicate a spiritual message in a media-saturated world.

"Religion and spirituality are communicated to our culture by movies much more than they are by traditional venues of synagogue or church," Garrett says. "A really good myth does more than just create a symbolic world. It articulates the feelings that a culture already feels or believes."

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Rick Karr contributes reports on the arts to NPR News. He is a correspondent for the weekly PBS public affairs show Bill Moyers Journal and teaches radio journalism at Columbia University.
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