The Passion of Neo #2: The Theology of Revolutions
by Stephen Faller
The Theology of Revolutions
Theology is sort of a word for “religious philosophy.”Sometimes it has the connotation of a system of thought, like what we believe about God. These systems can be quite complex,arranging angels and devils alike, or arranging doctrine and dogma like a rigid legal code. Literally, the word means “language about God” or “God-language.”
Immediately we should see philosophical red flags and warnings. Whatever God is, most people believe God is that which is beyond the feeble constructs of human language. So it becomes pretty hard to talk about that which is categorically beyond language altogether. One way that human beings have struggled to articulate these things is through myth and story.
The focus of this installment of “The Passion of Neo” is to sketch out some of the theological elements of Revolutions. Again, this isn’t to say that Christianity is the only backdrop against which to watch the Wachowski masterpiece trilogy. I’ve read interesting articles exploring Hinduism and even the Baha‘i faith. But in terms of Christianity,there are some terms and concepts that the average viewer may find helpful.
When you use a narrative to explore theology, every detail of the belief system will impact the way that the story itself is told. This is very obvious in Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Mel’s beliefs about Christ absolutely permeate the story he tells. His movie starts in the garden of Gethsemane,and the viewer gets a very stylized interpretation. Mel’s Jesus, for example, has no doubts about why he’s going to do the terrible task ahead of him. He’s doing it to defeat evil once and for all, and this is depicted dramatically with serpent crushed under foot. But this kind of cosmic confidence is much more akin to what history records in the Gospel of John than in the Gospel of Mark (I’ll explain in the final article why I think the Wachowskis were most heavily influenced by Mark). Mark’s Jesus, by all accounts Divine, remains more in the human uncertainty and agony.
So in the space that remains here, let me uplift a few of the scenes that illuminate the theology of Revolutions.
With so much obvious emphasis on Neo, it is easy to overlook the Oracle. The Oracle is certainly a figure of the Divine, although in a form that we are less likely to recognize.Artists have more traditionally depicted the Almighty in a guise similar to the Architect. But the Wachowskis use minority against majority, stereotype against archetype. Others have commented how the Oracle and Architect complement each other in a gnostic schema. Without saying absolutely everything that has been said on the Oracle as God-figure, suffice it to say that the Oracle simply is such a figure representing both God and faith itself.And as such, it’s extremely significant that she too risks herself. Neo asks her how far she is willing to go. She answers that she is willing to go all of the way. One of the classic problems of Christian thought is that it becomes very hard to remember that it is God on the cross. In Revolutions, we have an expression where we can clearly appreciate God’s own self-risk. On the DVD you’ll be able to see it clearly: that absolutely is the Oracle lying in the puddle.
The rest of the discussion centers around the theology of the “Atonement” (Matrix fans can substitute that word for “Super Burly Brawl”). This is the Christian doctrine where Christ dies on the cross in exchange for the forgiveness of sins for the rest of the world. The core of the doctrine goes all the way back to Anselm, back to Scripture, and even before Scripture to the role of the sacrifice in Hebrew spirituality.This idea is perhaps the loudest of all in Gibson’s movie.It’s a very difficult idea, because every little nuance of how the story is told has ripple effects on the beliefs that are extracted from it. It is true that Christians believe the Crucifixion to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. But if the story is told in such a way that the prophecy is over-emphasized,then this creates philosophical problems for the category of free-will.If this was always “the plan,” then the principle players had no choice. And if you also hold the doctrine that Jesus freely chose this sacrifice then the prophecy can conflict with free-will. It makes it very hard to be a storyteller. Over the course of Western Christianity, different factions have stood up and emphasized different pieces of the tradition, almost always each group was sure they had the definitive view.
The relationship between Smith and Neo is very important to analyze for its spiritual and religious implications. In fact,Smith’s philosophy will be the entire focus of an article.There are many points of comparison. For example, Smith represents“the many” over and against “the One.”We may think of the scene from the Bible where Jesus faced off against the Garasene demoniac whose name was “Legion” (remember Reloaded where Smith tries to possess Neo). But to focus in on the Super Burly Brawl, I think there’s a very interesting expression of “Jesus taking on the sins of the world.” Neo literally absorbs, and is absorbed by, the evil of the world.Stepping back from the myth and mystery for a moment. and stepping into the realm of science fiction plot, this is necessary because the Deus Ex Machina needs to have direct access to the Smith program in order to destroy it. By allowing himself to be taken over, Neo becomes the link between Smith and the machine god.
Another key aspect of Revolutions theology is the aspect of choice. Neo chooses to go to the machine world. Neo chooses to jack in to face Smith. And finally, Neo chooses to be overtaken by Smith. “Because I choose to,” says Neo. And that is the key to the last fifteen minutes of the film. Neo chooses to sacrifice himself. We’ll explore this choice in more depth later, because Smith — and so many fans — cannot see past this choice that is not understood.
The last theological detail is the idea of complete victory through complete defeat. So it’s significant to point out that Neo is completely defeated. This disappointed many fans. We all wanted to see Neo beat Smith, beat the Merovingian,and even defeat the machines in the machine world. But we didn’t get this. We got a very mortal hero. We got a hero who is disfigured and blinded. This is also similar to the early Christian community who wanted a powerful political leader, and this is in part why they turned on Jesus: Jesus wasn’t the hero that they would have chosen. This is also one of the key components of classical Christian debates. Some early Christians could not get their minds around the idea that Jesus was really, really defeated. And so they believed that Jesus was only pretending. This became on eof the many heresies, this one known as Docetism.
This is sort of the difference between Yoda in Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones. In Empire Strikes Back we meet a feeble form with a powerful ally in the Force. In Attack of the Clones, we have a Yoda as action hero.
Does it matter? Is there anything wrong with a hero who is powerful outright? Maybe there’s not anything wrong with it. This is the kind of hero that Spider-Man is. He’s a super character with super powers. Okay. But when you’re talking about myth and mystery, and capital-T Truth, I think the Wachowskis have it right. That which is truly good doesn’t need worldly power to be victorious.