First, we are lulled by our illusions. The things that make us feel better are the very things that keep us from seeing reality. Whether that is the pursuit of a career, starting a family or waving a placard in protest, the identities we create for ourselves are actually the machinations of bigger forces manipulating our human vulnerabilities. The graphic image of endless pods of unconscious humans being living batteries for the Machine World while dreaming of being in control resonated with movie-goers. It tapped into that sense that there has to be more than wearing Calvin jeans, saving for your retirement or supporting our troops. We are constantly being sold ideologies through slick images. We see ourselves increasingly as commodities, individual consumers who feel powerless. We lose track of what we really think or feel as we start to respond automatically, through endless routine. We forget what it’s like to be part of real communities that help us stay human.
Second, when our consciousness is awakened, we see things as they are. Knowing the truth can set us free. The Matrix, in true apocalyptic tradition, paints the struggle between truth and illusion in stark terms. Being “unplugged” can blow our minds. Reality stripped of illusions appears stark. We can only wake up through making choices. And we must rely on that small voice prompting us to ask “is this all there is?” Often this voice is drowned out by our own collusion with ‘agents’ of ideology who seek to kill reflective thinking. It’s only as we break with our comfortable illusions, or allow them to be broken, that we begin to live honestly. But there is a strength in knowing we are no longer buying into a lie. Part of the allure of the apocalyptic decor and dress of the characters in the movie is that they capture the stark, essential nature of the spiritual battle we are engaged in.
Third, faith in the unknown is what gives us strength to continue. Morpheus and Trinity’s faith in the Oracle’s words is a key narrative dynamic in the movie. It isn’t clear whether the Oracle is right. Trinity isn’t even sure she believes and Neo certainly doesn’t at first. Nevertheless, the Oracle functions as the light that keeps them looking for possibilities and gives them strength to sacrifice for each other and the future. This search for faith echoes the hunger of our self-constructed world, where meaning is suspected as an illusion.
The portrayal of faith is one of the movie’s strengths. But faith in what? Whether religious or philosophical, a transcendent consciousness is what allows people to make true choices. The Matrix borrows a lot from the Buddhist tradition, but it adds in a sprinkling of Christian imagery and a good portion of philosophical determinism. This syncretistic approach is appealing to our pluralistic, post-modern culture that chafes at hierarchy and ancient traditions. But unwittingly a ‘tossed salad’ approach to spirituality ends up serving the consumer mentality it is trying to address. It actually retards dialogue because the uniqueness of any tradition is watered down in an attempt to minimize differences. Most spiritual traditions stress submission to a discipline or path. Digging deeply into the roots of a particular tradition in order to submit our ego to it can allow a deeper response to reality.
If faith in The Matrix is too eclectic to be meaningful, the idea of consciousness without community becomes sterile. The endless rows of pods of unconscious humans capture our post-modern sense of alienation. This is blamed partly on the machines taking over the world. The freed minds like those of the ship Nebuchadnezzer form small communities that attempt to address this. Zion is the last bastion of human freedom and togetherness. But the movie is still largely informed by an individualististic mentality. Mutually-submitted, inclusive human relationships are rare. Morpheus acts alone, accountable to no one but his conscience. Neo has some sort of mutuality with Trinity, but it is couched within a romantic relationship that seems to let no one else in. Even in Zion, Neo’s role as saviour or bodhisattva distances him from truly human relationships with anyone. True, the movie is an apocalyptic hero story, but it articulates our culture’s problem of alienation profoundly, without giving adequate answers.
Perhaps this is why the violence in the movie is actually the biggest illusion. In a post-9/11, post-Columbine world, the image of a black trenchcoat-clad Keanu Reeves invoking a semi-automatic bloodbath seems painfully gratuitous. I’m not suggesting this movie caused tragedies like Columbine. But because it makes us so aware of our consumerism and alienation, it gets us angry and doesn’t give a deep enough answer to that anger. That might be expecting too much of an action film, but the Wachowski brothers always maintained they wanted to make people think. Given the American love-affair with guns, the shoot-out scenes seem to cater more to comic book action than philosophy. The second and third Matrix movies do point to a different solution of sacrifice when Morpheus allows himself to be captured and Neo’s sacrifice in Machine City ultimately turns the war. Sacrifice is not nearly as entertaining, but is truer to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey which suggests that the hero must relinquish personal gain in order to bring back the boon to the community. The Matrix could have been more provocative in deepening the theme of sacrifice and forgoing the cavalier violence.
It seems that The Matrix got caught in what my friend’s question was pointing to: entertainment at the expense of education. When first released, The Matrix was a cool film that articulated the desire for meaning and freedom in our culture, especially for younger people. Now it seems like a mediocre movie, with a few gems of insight. 2001: A Space Odyssey was also the voice of a generation, but it is a classic now because it went beyond its time. Perhaps pop culture cannot answer its own questions; problems cannot be solved at the same level as their inception. Perhaps this is the real gift of The Matrix; if we allow ourselves to sit with the questions the film raises, and not opt for “cool” solutions, it leaves us in a sense unplugged, but freed. We have to do our own work of thinking, discussing and grappling with these questions in our own communities of meaning.
Communities of meaning are not just circles of mutual affirmation. These are the places that help keep you honest and compassionate, places that help us live meaningful lives, related to but not sold-out to our world. To think through the questions raised by culture, which is what “unplugged” is talking about, we have to know at least from where we draw our resources. Unlike ideology, which gives pat answers to complex questions, critically thinking through a tradition involves knowing historical background, textual and literary analysis and anthropological understandings. This forces you to understand the tradition well enough to interpret both the culture in which it arose and your own culture.
Within the Christian tradition, the “breaking news” or gospel that Christ sets captives free and brings sight to the blind allows me to see reality honestly, but live in hope and compassion. If I stay at the surface, I will be concerned with appearing good, or asserting power in culture. Becoming unplugged from Christendom, deepening my understanding of the Christian tradition through higher criticism, disciplines of prayer and community, allows me to listen for the Spirit of Christ that is not contained in any structure, even the church. I see this Spirit at work in my community in spontaneous acts of loving service that come from people being changed in relationship to this Spirit. The central symbol of this Spirit, the cross, shows how deeply God identified with humans, suffering through death and beyond. This allows us to have hope in the face of the suffering of our world. This hope bears fruit in day-to-day encounters: a respite worker treating his mentally challenged client as a person instead of a problem, a young photographer seeing beauty through the pain of the inner city, isolated neighbours opening their doors and sharing a meal. Critique and compassion can be held in tension.
“What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?” This biblical saying could be a trite response to my friend’s earlier question. But it could also point out that any true response to our world needs to come from beyond it. To become unplugged, to see beyond the horizon is to be truly awake.