**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Dune and for the first two books of the Dune series.**
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”
This is not a full review of Denis Villeneuve’s exceptional movie Dune, other than to say that I’ve watched it three times and I love it. As a fan of Frank Herbert’s novel, I can confidently say that Villeneuve condenses the many rich layers of meaning in the book into a beautifully crafted, audiovisual poem, faithful to the deeper meanings of Dune even when it departs in some of the details (as any screen adaptation must, especially one with such philosophical and psychological source material). The film largely foregoes exposition and voiceover to explain itself, using instead Hans Zimmer’s “hallucinatory” and “spiritual” score to properly tune our emotions to the moment: we feel the truth even without knowing all the facts. The grandeur of Villeneuve’s cinematography and world-building is balanced by the intimacy of the relationships he paints between father, mother, and son. The way he brings the “Duniverse” to the screen rivals the richness of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, and the family tragedy is positively Shakespearean. IMAX never had it so good.
But like I said, I’m not here to review it, so much as to run with it. The fact that the film is so exquisitely produced and well-acted will hopefully make Herbert’s cautionary message a little easier to swallow. A spoonful of sugar, as they say.
Where Do You Stop the Story?
Dune takes place some 20,000 years in the future amidst a feudal, interstellar society that is thick with religious belief and political intrigue. The story follows the Atreides family—Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his concubine and Bene Gesserit acolyte Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and his vision-haunted teenage son Paul (Timothée Chalamet). House Atreides has been called to take on stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune), a coveted and dangerous fief and sole producer of “the spice” on which intergalactic travel runs. In jealous fear, the galactic emperor and Dune’s former stewards (house Harkonnen) betray House Atreides and all but destroy it. Paul and Jessica survive the attack and join the fierce, Bedouin-like desert tribe of the Fremen, whose prophecies of a coming messiah prime them to welcome Paul as much as they hated their Harkonnen oppressors. Instead of fleeing off-world, Paul chooses to remain on Arrakis and adopt the ways of the Fremen, leaving open the possibility of avenging his father’s death and regaining his birthright. The film ends about halfway into the novel.
As K. B. Hoyle points out in her excellent article on Dune: Part One, by viewing this film as Paul’s coming-of-age story, his personal journey from childhood to adulthood, it can stand on its own as a complete arc. When Dune’s credits start rolling, we still have a good hero. Fifteen-year-old Paul is noble, loyal, affectionate, strong, perceptive, brave, and honorable. Some viewers unfamiliar with the novel complained at what felt like the film’s abrupt conclusion. But as someone who knows what’s coming next, I’m grateful for where Villeneuve stopped the story, allowing it to be about the loss of Paul’s innocence rather than the rise of a messiah.
But Herbert was always interested in ecology—in the web of relationships which make up a world—and in the long-term consequences of human choices over decades, centuries, and millennia. Herbert follows Paul beyond his individual life, exploring what his evolution into the Kwitsatz Haderach (the mind that bridges space and time, past and future) means for the Fremen, for the great houses of the Landsraad, and for the whole galaxy. “The difference between a hero and an antihero,” Frank Herbert said, “is where you stop the story.” Keep it going long enough, and the pragmatic, morally expedient decision of the moment may become a point of no return for a future flood of disaster. One man’s ascendancy may mean the annihilation of worlds.
When Paul chooses (against his mother’s wishes) to stay on Arrakis and join himself to the Fremen’s “desert power,” his bloody visions of the future pass from the realm of the possible into the predestined. “This is only the beginning,” the mysterious young woman of Paul’s dreams hints, as she turns around to speak to him in the movie’s closing scene (and a slight smile spreads across his lips in return). But the last “word” of the movie is given to Jessica’s apprehensive eyes. The beginning of what? they seem to say, as she watches her son walk toward the sunrise.
Charismatic Leaders May Be Dangerous to Your Health
Herbert began the original Dune trilogy as one long story about “the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us.” He once said, “I wrote the Dune Saga because I had this idea that charismatic1 leaders ought to come with a warning label on the forehead: May be dangerous to your health.”
In the future, the Fremen will begin to worship Paul as their Savior, the fulfillment of their prophecies of deliverance. He will accept their worship and make use of it instead of deflecting or neutralizing it. Thanks to the psychedelic spice, his vision of the past and future will grow to godlike proportions. Paul, no longer able to foresee a future without violence, feels trapped.
Paul Atreides is a picture of how someone initially good can be pushed forward into a future that turns horribly wrong. At first, he is just trying to cope with his disturbing dreams and visions, trying to honor his father’s memory and moral example, trying to protect his mother, trying to simply not die. If we admire Paul and feel inwardly moved by his transformation from a puppy-eyed, skinny boy into a man of courage, purpose, and prescience, then Herbert and Villeneuve have us right where they want us. Look, they say, look how easy it is to fall in love with the hero, to see yourself in him, to root for him to find his footing and ascend.
From boy to man to leader to messianic Mahdi of the oppressed, our noble hero will ride the wave of Fremen fanaticism into the galactic jihad of his visions. The Fremen and their prophesied Lisan al-Gaib will kill sixty billion people in the holy war that marks their ascent to imperial power. In Villeneuve’s film, Paul becomes a man; in the future, Paul will become a Hero, a human messiah, and this should fill us with dread. Herbert warns us through the mouth of one of his characters, “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”
Herbert thought the messiah-seeking impulse of the human heart was a deadly, seductive force: when combined with a charismatic leader who comes at just the right time, and in just the right way, it can lead to the crusade, the jihad, the holocaust, the genocide—the violent certainties of the self-righteous, convinced of the justice of their cause. “Heroes are painful, superheroes are a catastrophe,” he wrote. “The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster.”
Superheroes Wear the “Myth Fabric” of Our Society
To Herbert, the superhero doesn’t need preternatural strength, special tech, genetic mutations, or colorful tights (as we’re used to seeing in the MCU): he just needs to have a feeling for the myth that the people of his time are living within, and an ability to inhabit the role they desire of him. “People tend to give over every decision-making capacity to any leader who can wrap himself in the myth fabric of the society,” Herbert wrote. “Hitler did it. Churchill did it. Franklin Roosevelt did it. Stalin did it. Mussolini did it.” These historical superheroes didn’t wear spandex: they wore the stories their people needed them to wear. Sometimes the results were glorious, but more often than not, they were ghastly.
The greatness of a charismatic leader “depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind,” Herbert wrote in Dune. People are only “great” when they are imagined to be so by the admiring masses, whose gaze and projections create the heroes just as surely as the heroes’ actions and words inspire their love. The hero—the human messiah—is a joint creation of the leader and the people. The superheroes Herbert saw in history and those he crafted in his novels don’t come to us from the outside as divine Saviors who fight evil on our behalf: they are rather a piece of us, an outgrowth of the people, one that emerges at just the right time to express and fulfill our unconscious desires by clothing themselves in our “myth fabric.” Whatever flaws the messianic hero possesses are magnified by his vast influence and repeated by his followers. While such superheroes may promise to save us from our enemies, they can’t save us from ourselves.
When Religion and Politics Travel in the Same Cart
Dune relates an old Bene Gesserit proverb which goes like this:
When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong–faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.
As Paul Atreides clothes himself in the Fremen myth of the Lisan al-Gaib, it is “only the beginning” and “too late” at the same time. The great aristocratic houses with their political clout, and the manipulative Bene Gesserit (who planted seeds of religious mythology now ripe for prophetic fulfillment), have been traveling in the same cart for thousands of years, attempting to steer the course of human history through political alliances and the curation of bloodlines. Together, they seemed unstoppable. And now Paul must face the consequences of the machinations of both political and religious forces, these overconfident riders that have handed him the reins and placed him as the driver of this cart as it races toward the precipice. Paul senses in his visions the bloody hell that waits them all at the bottom, and how—no matter what he chooses this late in the game—the fall seems unavoidable. For all the warnings Herbert gives about charismatic leaders, it’s clear that those who participate in the set-up beforehand, and those followers who let themselves get swept away with admiration (and faith) in the moment, are equally culpable.
The psychologist Carl Jung, whose ideas heavily influenced Herbert’s fiction, wrote that the greatest danger to humanity doesn’t come from natural disasters or cancer or pandemics, but from man himself, because we cannot protect ourselves from “psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes . . . The greatest danger of all comes from the masses,” Jung insisted, “in whom the effects of the unconscious pile up cumulatively and the reasonableness of the conscious mind is stifled . . . It lets loose effects which no man wants and no man can stop.”
It would be much too convenient to blame Paul alone for the holy war in which billions of people die. Yes, Paul rides atop that unstoppable wave of mass irrationality, but he didn’t generate those violent desires, or the circumstances in which they would find their expression. The multi-generational collective unconscious of “we the people” is what creates disaster. We avoid awareness of our complicity by scapegoating the front man when it all falls to pieces. As the primary religious text of the Dune universe puts it,
“Beware the seeds you sow and the crops you reap. Do not curse God for the punishment you inflict upon yourself” (The Orange Catholic Bible).
Dangerous leaders seldom inflict themselves upon us: more often than not, we create them and hand them the reins, often with the best of intentions. The Bene Gesserit, the Landsraad, the Imperium, the Spacing Guild, the Fremen—all play a part, alongside Paul, in creating the terrible, inexorable future.
Put Not Your Trust in Personality
Here’s where we switch from Frank Herbert’s saga and Villeneuve’s film studio, to church sanctuaries and social media accounts. The dangerous nature of messianic leaders is both a religious and a political problem. Evangelical churches in America, with their distinctive lack of a unified institutional hierarchy, have long been vulnerable to the lure of charismatic preachers whose talents enable them to rise to the top. When preaching is valued over both sacraments and personal integrity, then the best church is the one with the best speaker: top-down authority is replaced by bottom-up personality cults. Amplify those talents with an internet algorithm, and you’ve got a digital megachurch superhero. Leaders (and social media influencers) are naturally incentivized to draw a crowd and reflect back to them what they want to hear, and as Saint Paul warned us, congregations are always tempted to “heap up teachers attuned to their own preferences” (2 Tim. 4:3).
Like the Fremen, we Christians aren’t immune to the longing to see a leader draped in our own distinctive “myth fabric” (akin to what we like to call a “worldview”), to hear our cherished doctrines and ethical stances articulated with rhetorical flourish, perhaps even to watch those sermons or speeches “go viral” (for the sake of the gospel, of course!). We too, like Paul as he joins with the Fremen, are liable to fall into the trap of moral expediency—the temptation to care more about winning (winning souls, winning elections, winning the culture war) than about holiness and humble service.
We forget Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning, that by placing the church and the state in the cart together, the church is liable to become either the state’s master or its servant, forfeiting its prophetic role as the state’s conscience and critic. We can come to champion politicians who promise us pragmatic victories for our values—Supreme Court justices, judges, and laws—regardless of that individual’s lack of personal integrity. In the words of historian Molly Worthen, American evangelicals “[want] a hero who would stand up for their instincts about human nature, social order, and biblical law.” If he dons our myth fabric and he can get things done, then he’s our man.
Two personalities immediately come to mind—one religious and one political—whose meteoric rise to fame and influence speaks directly to our need for Dune’s sharp warning about charismatic leaders. Mark Driscoll, former pastor of the network of Mars Hill churches in Seattle, is a prominent example of a pastoral megachurch “superhero” who was once the talented darling of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. But His anger, massive ego, and controlling personality led to the implosion of his church and a world of hurt for thousands.
Of course the schadenfreude of scapegoating Driscoll alone is a keen temptation. What Pharisee doesn’t revel in well-produced “failure porn”? (I’m guilty of binge-listening to CT’s podcast about him even more greedily than I drank up his sermons in the late aughts). But hopefully Driscoll’s rise and fall will trigger soul-searching on the part of the evangelical church: how is it that we are collectively generating and rewarding such leaders, and how can we stop doing so? What if “charisma” is no longer a divine gift of grace to those prophets who renew society’s moral core and reinvigorate its traditions? What if today’s charisma is simply the game Kierkegaard warned us about? “For to win a crowd is not so great a trick; one only needs some talent, a certain dose of untruth, and a little acquaintance with the human passions.”
And whatever you may think of Donald Trump, it’s fair to say that he has been able to wrap himself in the “myth fabric” of a segment of our society (including 80% of evangelicals), and generate remarkable devotion and loyalty to himself personally, above and beyond his platform or party. The instantaneous global reach of Trump’s (former) Twitter account magnified his misdeeds and his fighting words on the grandest of scales. Our common political life has been in convulsions ever since he took office. The January 6th insurrection at the Capitol, which was the culmination of Trump’s nigh-refusal to leave office, is case in point.
As the polarization of our country intensifies, it’s worth asking whether we as religious believers are getting into the same cart with political movements (of either party), and racing headlong towards the edge of a precipice? And can we really place all the blame on the leaders driving those carts toward potential disaster if we are the ones who created the conditions for their rise, and we are the ones handing them the reins? We are the ones who have given over our decision-making capacity to the leaders most keenly attuned to our preferences and whose superpowers include the ability to channel the worst angels of our nature.
“Run Like Hell” and Remember You’re Not Immune
I’m not saying that we should stop imitating people with admirable qualities—far from it. Evangelicals need their saints just as much as Catholics do, those concrete and highly particular examples of goodness in action. The apostle Paul thought of himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), and yet he still said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Whether we like it or not, hierarchies of all kinds are inevitable, and so is our habit of imitating those higher up in the ranks. But the only way that hierarchy and imitation stay healthy is when they are hierarchies of holiness and humility, not of power and charisma. Christian’s should honor hierarchies of kenosis, in which the first makes himself last, and the servant of all (Mark 9:35).
Frank Herbert advised people to “run like hell” from anything that smelled like a personality cult, in which “the first” relishes being first. He encouraged us to ask penetrating questions and think for ourselves (which is not to say “do your own research,” or get “red-pilled,” but rather to have a healthy skepticism towards people’s motivations—including your own—heck, including mine!). The choice before every charismatic leader and every mass movement is the same choice presented to each of us in moments of conflict: to put the blade into our enemy’s back, or to pick up the cross and carry it. If a charismatic personality points a finger of blame anywhere but toward his own heart, be very careful.
There is only one true Savior, Jesus the Anointed, and he refused to pick up the sword against his Roman oppressors. Christ’s execution by the state was not a moment of weakness, but was rather the beginning of His victory over the powers of darkness: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15, emphasis added). He didn’t triumph through an uprising or a religious war, but through self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and resurrection. In the words of philosopher Rene Girard, “The God of Christianity isn’t the violent God of archaic religion, but the non-violent God who willingly becomes a victim in order to free us from our violence.” Jesus is the only hero who doesn’t require a warning label. His love and holiness are incorruptible.
But if you think you’re exempt from the lure of watching your all-too-human heroes rise—if you think you’re unaffected by messianic longings that can attach themselves to a charismatic person with feet of clay—just remember how much you resonated with young Paul Atreides on the screen. Remember how inspired you felt by him, how much his story gripped you. Remember how you willed him through the Gom Jabbar, raced with him as he fled the sand worms, held your breath as he battled Jamis, smiled as he followed Chani to his new home in the desert. Now you’re waiting eagerly for Dune: Part Two, just like me.
But can you hear Herbert whispering: good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes; heroes don’t always remain heroes; your enemies aren’t made of fundamentally different stuff from you.
We can love Paul, for sure; we just can’t trust him. Neither can we trust ourselves. None of us are immune.
Lead us not into temptation,
And deliver us from evil.
1 The word “charismatic” is used throughout this piece for its adjectival meaning: “exercising a compelling charm which inspires devotion in others.” In no way am I referring to, or criticizing, the “Charismatic Movement” within Christianity which emphasizes the gifts of the Holy Spirit in and through the church.