One Baaad Messiah
I’ve thought of a hundred different ways to begin this essay. All of them seek to establish one thing: Christians think Neo and The Matrix are gospelicious! I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point. If you’ve been around movie-going Christians, you’ve no doubt heard the giddy similarities between Neo and Christ. I will not bore you with these obvious comparisons; instead, I will give you two reasons why I prefer Neo over Christ.
Neo is reluctant. Yes, he doubts himself, and that pleases me. There is something to be said about cockiness, I admit, but after awhile it becomes somewhat nauseating, and I want nothing more than to see the person who claims to be above all others taste the humiliation of defeat. Mike Tyson stunned and blurry-eyed on the canvas makes me smile. When Joseph of the Old Testament tells his older brothers that they will one day bow to him, I understand why he suddenly finds himself at the bottom of a well. “Yeah Joseph, you young punk, who’s number one now? What? I can’t hear you.”
But Jesus is Joseph multiplied by infinity. It is not a set of brothers that Jesus claims will bow down to him but the whole universe, past and present. I imagine that his self-proclamations annoyed the hell out of some people. I am the bread. I am the living water. I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. I am the Son of Man. I am the Son of God. Enough already. Give me a self-doubting, reluctant hero like Neo, and I will cheer for his ultimate victory. I will pat him on the back and encourage him to believe in himself. I will tell him that he is a lot more important than he could ever imagine. But what can I offer a self-proclaiming messiah who not only believes that he is worthy of worship but expects it from me? The thought of such a messiah rubs me the wrong way.
Neo kicks ass. What is better than a reluctant hero who can kick ass? It is the perfect messianic combination. And Neo kicks ass like no other cinematic savior before him. Indeed, he makes the squealing Luke Skywalker seem like a second-rate messiah. Light sabers may rock (and they do), but kung fu kicks serious ass, literally and figuratively, especially if it is digitally sacred and Hong Kong heavenly. I don’t know about you, but I want a messiah that can stop bullets with a raised hand, soar through the air at will, shoot guns like Chow Yun Fat, and, most importantly, kick anyone’s ass who might doubt or challenge his power. The very thought of such a messiah makes me want to pump my fist in the air and give someone a high-five. I would gladly follow Neo to the center of the earth and the end of the Matrix, especially if I got to sport some of his killer duds.
(Sigh.) But Jesus.
If Neo’s reluctance and kick-ass power are the perfect messianic combination, then Jesus’ insistence on being the One combined with his refusal to kick ass is nothing but scandalous. What kind of messiah claims to be the One and then insists on suffering and dying? When Neo dies, it is in the context of fighting and is the result of not fully understanding his power. That’s acceptable. Thanks for trying Neo. You’re dead, but you’ve learned your lesson. Now resurrect yourself, and kick some more ass! But Jesus doesn’t even try. He understands his power but refuses to use it.
Saint Peter would have preferred Neo over Christ. Peter rebukes Jesus for telling people that he is going to suffer and die. Several days later soldiers surround Jesus. Peter knows that Christ could (and should) kick ass, but the self-proclaimed messiah just stands there. Peter slices an ear off one of the soldiers but is reprimanded by Jesus. Neo would have kung-fooed the snot out of everyone, but Christ does nothing. And so Peter denies ever knowing such a disappointing messiah.
Hollywood messiahs are far more fulfilling. They rarely choose suffering over ass-kicking. In this regard, Neo is the antithesis of Christ. Neo struggles with his messianic identity but acts according to messianic expectations (that is, ass-kicking). Christ, on the other hand, does not struggle with his messianic identity but acts contrary to messianic expectations (that is, ass-kicking). Indeed, Christ was rejected and despised because he was not more Neo-like. And who wouldn’t want a more Neo-like messiah? Neo fails as a Christ figure because he is everything that our cinematic hearts would ever want in a messiah. He is Barabbas with the power of the Almighty. Christ is something else entirely. He is a holy scandal.