Dune and the Movie Messiahs

When this Oscars series was first proposed, we assumed that people would be able to see the films in the theatres, and that was true for a little while. But since many of you may not have seen Dune, let me give a brief summary of the plot. 

Dune is a science fiction epic based on the famous novel by Frank Herbert.  

It is the story of a desert planet, called Arrakis.There are no lakes or oceans on Dune, the planet’s only water is underground.  

Its indigenous people have created a fascinating culture which relies on saving every drop of water and recycling it. It is a compliment if someone spits at you – it shows they are willing to lose some water as a sign of respect. Arrakis would be a forgotten world except that it harbours massive creatures called sandworms who excrete a special blue spice. In humans, it acts like a hallucinogen which allows starship navigators to steer through the void of space. Thanks to the spice, space travel is possible. For that reason, this planet is controlled by the emperor, and the locals deeply resent this invasion.  

They have prophecies that predict that an outsider will arrive to be their Messiah. To deliver them from their conquerors and turn their planet into a wet oasis.  

The movie Dune is the story of the teenager who may be that Messiah, Paul Atreides. His father has been given the job of ruling Arrakis for the emperor. Paul is being groomed to be his successor.  

He learns combat training, as well as how to rule a planet. But Paul doesn’t realize that the universe may have other plans for him.  

His mother is part of secret society of women who have mind control powers. Against the rules, Paul’s mother has taught him these arts, so that with a special way of speaking, he can control the will of others.    

Paul arrives on Arrakis fascinated by this new world his father has been asked to run, but before long trouble arrives. His father has been double crossed by the emperor. Another fiefdom violently takes over the planet with the emperor’s support. Paul and his mother flee into the desert to live with the desert people, known as the Fremen. Some of these Fremen wonder if he might be the Messiah they have been waiting for. He seems to know too much about their culture and ways. His actions fit with ancient prophecies.  

Much to Paul’s surprise, he begins to have visions that give him glimpses of the future. In his visions he sees himself working with and leading the Fremen, even marrying one of them. Whether he likes it or not, he appears to have a destiny here on Arrakis, one that is entirely different from the one which his father or mother envisioned for him. He has been chosen as the Messiah for this desert people.  

Dune is a wonderful film, a sort of science fiction Lawrence of Arabia.  

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve fell in love with the book when he was a teenager and dreamed of bringing it to life.  

He lovingly films real deserts to create the environment of Arrakis, and masterfully uses special effects to bring the massive, deadly sandworms to life.  

From my perspective, there is only weakness in the film, and that is the messiah plot. Paul’s growing awareness that he may have a secret destiny seems old hat now. It feels like we have seen this story before.

In the past few decades other science fiction series have also featured messiah-like figures.  

In Star Wars, there is a prophecy that someone will be born who will unify the force –the young man known as Luke Skywalker.  

In The Matrix movies, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is the messiah figure. He is the one who can manipulate the forces of the matrix to fight off the evil agents who rule this false reality.  

These movies and their stories were conceived after Dune was written in the 1960s. In some ways, they are all in debt to Dune. By now, a story about a young man who is needed to save the universe seems old hat and unoriginal. In the book, Paul’s prophetic visions were sexy because they were in such strong contrast to the realpolitik of his upbringing under his father. But now, they just seem unoriginal, one more story of a white male messiah figure who must rescue the universe. 

Of course, as Christians, we can cry foul for other reasons. Dune is clearly cribbing off the original Messiah story, the one we find in the Bible with Jesus Christ.  

The word messiah comes from a Hebrew word that means to be “anointed.”  

To anoint a person, you typically poured oil over their head. This was a sign that they had been chosen by someone important to lead others into liberation. 2000 years ago, The Jews had expected a messiah to come for many centuries, one anointed by God to save the people from the evil powers who have taken over. People like the Romans. When Jesus of Nazareth arrived on the scene, some became convinced that he was the Messiah, the one anointed by God. When his story was written down, the evangelists chose to record it in Greek, the language that was common across the empire.  

In Greek, the word for “anointed” is Christos.  

So, the words Messiah and Christ both mean the anointed one. Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name, but his title – Jesus the Anointed one – Jesus the Messiah.  

Now, in our day and age, fewer and fewer people believe that Jesus is the world’s messiah. Recently, there was an article in the Economist about this, which a few of you have sent me.[1] It describes how church attendance in the United States has dropped sharply over the past 20 years. Adherence to any religion is also down, especially among Christians. About 30 percent now consider themselves non-religious, a category which is growing.[2] So, fewer and fewer people in our culture believe that Jesus is the Messiah, or even that any messiah will ever come.  

And that’s ironic because while fewer people go to church, stories about messiahs do very well in the movie theatres. Star Wars, The Matrix, Dune – all of them present us with Messiah figures. They are all echoes of the Christian messiah story. In the Jesus story, Christ is presented as a man who is human, but has access to another dimension of reality that determines how the everyday world functions. When Christ is baptized, the heavens break open, and God’s voice is heard declaring  

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” ( Matthew 3:17) Then Christ receives the holy spirit. The heavenly dimension enters into Jesus as he stands there in the river.  

He has access to the spiritual power that runs the universe. It is this access that makes Jesus capable of being the Messiah, and to perform all sorts of miracles.  

We see echoes of this in our movie messiahs. In Stars Wars the deeper reality that rules the universe is called the Force. Those who can channel the force make miracles occur – objects levitate, people can be healed, people can be killed with a thought.  

Often in these stories, the messiah has doubts or even tries to escape their destiny. This makes them appealing as characters. Perhaps it is because all of us go through a stage of serious transformation during adolescent. The scrawny kid becomes a large adult, the tall kid ends up short, the awkward child becomes a talented public figure. In a way we are all the kid who pulls the sword from the stone, like King Arthur, finally discovering who we were always meant to be. In this sense, every movie messiah is a model for human growth, from uncertainty to certainty, from weakness to power.  

Yet, this is where there is a key difference with Christ’s story in the Bible. Jesus never doubts that he should be the Messiah. There’s no point in any of the gospels that Jesus says, “hang on God, I need a few days to think about this.” At no point does Jesus wish he could cast off his role as the chosen one. The closest He gets is on the night of his arrest when he prays to God that this cup of death – his crucifixion – should be taken away from him ( Matthew 26:39). His human side is scared of the torture that lies ahead. But he says in his fear and trembling that if it be God’s will, so be it. Even faced with excruciating torture, he doesn’t doubt his role, or what needs to be done if it is God’s plan. Unlike the movie messiahs, he does not waver.  

Why? Wouldn’t Jesus make for a more relatable figure if he acted more like us, consumed with doubts and trepidation? Christ’s certainty may seem to make him seem less human, or just too superhuman. But I think there’s deep wisdom at work here. There’s a reason that Jesus doesn’t act like the confused and doubtful movie messiahs.  

Jesus the Messiah is trying to show us who we really are. Movie messiahs, on the other hand, are one of a kind. They are unique. Although they can train others in the way of the force, ultimately, they are the only one the universe has chosen for their role.  

Christ chooses to spread a different message. Over and over again, he tells us that he has come to help us all become the sons and daughters of God, as He is. He tells us that his goal is help us relate to God the same way he does, to share and partake in that close relationship. That’s why the Lord’s prayer starts with “Our father.” Jesus sees God as a loving parent, and he wants us to feel that relationship, too. In His time, pagan gods were often seen as distant, dangerous figures – Neptune the god of the Sea, Mars the god of War, Zeus, the Thunder God. You could pray to these gods, but there was no kidding yourself into thinking you could have a close relationship with them. They were elephants, you were ants, period. But Christ offers something much richer and more intimate. In the Christian faith we are invited to be adopted children in the divine family. Not slaves who just take orders, but the children of God, who can talk and joke around with God, cry on God’s shoulder, and ask for help. That’s the kind of intimacy Christ offers with God. An intimacy that he already feels, and which he says can be ours, too.  

It’s for that reason that Jesus chooses to be baptized.  

Christ’s baptism is not a one-time deal, for Jesus only. Instead, all Christians are invited to be baptized. This messiah wants us to be anointed, too. That’s the point of baptism, to let the holy spirit, God’s mind and spirit, settle into you. We Christians get baptized because, like Jesus, we are supposed to be a place where God’s spirit can dwell. A place where God’s way of seeing and feeling and doing can become part of our lives.  

This rarely happens in dramatic ways. Usually, it is simply in realizing there is another way of dealing with a situation. Should we judge that person or let them be? Should we lash out or respond calmly? Should we condemn those people as lazy good for nothings, or see them as human beings going through a rough patch? It’s like we have access to an alternative operating system, which can change the way we see, feel and act in the world.  

The movie messiahs feel this extra operating system too – Luke meets the Force, Neo takes the red pill, Paul has visions. But in their stories, they can all walk away if they want to. We’re glad that they don’t, their movies would be pretty boring if they went back to their ordinary lives. But they do have that choice. But Christ shows no interest in an alternative. He wants to activate this God operating system. His confidence in being the Messiah makes an existential point that the movie messiahs miss. The Christ story is meant to be read as the story of all humanity. We were created as a union of heaven and Earth, God’s breath into dust. It started in Eden. We were made to be at home with God’s way of seeing the world.  

Christ gets baptized to remind us that being with God is not human 2.0, but human 1.0. We were built to be at home with God, to be beings made of spirit and flesh in equal measure. That’s who we are. That’s why Jesus the Messiah doesn’t have moments of doubt or worry about who he is. He’s trying to show us that there is no growing into this role, no choosing it – every human being is already there. That’s who we are. Our problem is that we keep forgetting. We keep forgetting that we are the anointed ones, just by being human. God wants to be with us, God *is* with us, all the time. But it takes a shift in consciousness to be aware of God’s presence, so we can hear that compassionate wise voice. It’s always whispering to us. We can do things to make it easier to hear – meditate, pray, read scripture regularly, go for silent nature walks, no headphones on. It’s hard to hear God when we’re listening to something else. We keep returning to these stories of Jesus because he is the model human being. The fact that he seems so distant is a reminder of the distance we have to go to fully live into our humanity. And every step towards him, no matter how small, is a step towards us.    



[1] “The world’s religions face a post- pandemic reckoning,” The Economist, January 8, 2022   [2]