When The Matrix came out in 1999, I was late to the party. The first details I heard about it came from the former youth group worship leader at my church who was home visiting from college. With great precision, he described the opening action sequence: the astounding fight between Trinity and the Agents chasing her through a building. It was a spoiler-rich summary, which annoyed me, but he was so happy to relive the experience that I didn’t have the heart to interrupt him. When he finished the recap, his excitement waned for a moment, and then he said that The Matrix is a great allegory of the Christian faith. We all go about our lives as in a dream, caught up in this world and its pursuits while the true reality, God’s reality, goes on without us. And part of being a Christian means waking up from our slumber and learning to live in the real world.

At the time I was skeptical of my friend’s allegorical reading of The Matrix. It felt a little tacked on, and I think I was worried that he was just looking for a way to baptize the film, to justify what seemed like a “secular” pleasure. And after that day my skepticism only grew. I came to agree with the critics who pointed out that the film was not a Christian allegory at all, but a gnostic one, since the “world” is treated as a mere illusion. But what troubled me more was this idea of interpreting Holy Scripture using Hollywood Scripts.

Of course, if you’ve been in the Church any time at all, you know how common this is. Maybe the only thing more cliché than a pastor ripping some Old Testament figure out of context to prop up his application about Breaking Down your Personal Jericho Walls is ripping some Hollywood figure out of context to prop up the same application. We do it with films, songs, books, TV shows, and sports. Pastors in the U.S. make use of every corner of pop culture to use as relevant sermon illustrations and it kills me.

What feels so offensive about interpreting the Bible with secular culture is that it often results in distorting the Bible and the art work. I couldn’t watch The Matrix without thinking about it as an allegory of the Christian life, even if I thought the allegory was dumb. And to some extent at least, this “allegory” shaped the way I interpret some biblical passages: Awake, O sleeper, and arise from your sleeping pod and you may fight against your robot overlords.

And then I remember Acts 17:28. And it ruins everything.

For
“In him we live and move and have our being”;
as even some of your own poets have said,

“For we are indeed his offspring.”

Paul is in Athens at the Areopagus witnessing to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and in the middle of his speech he quotes two pagan poets. The first is thought to be a quote from Epimenides of Crete and the second from Aratus’s poem “Phainomena.” Both poems extol the greatness of Zeus. These very lines which Paul uses to refer to the one true, living God were written to a false god. He’s envisioning our relationship to God through pagan culture, and all envisioning is really just another way of interpreting, gaining insight and perspective on a text. Come on, Paul. What side are you on?

I don’t like Acts 17:28. It’s jarring, really. Paul doesn’t just quote these poets, which would be offensive enough to some believers alive today. He takes these words written for idolatry and uses them from true worship. Why would Paul use what is profane and blasphemous to explain what is holy and good? Probably because the alternative doesn’t exist.

Paul uses pagan poetry to interpret Scripture because that’s how humans perceive and comprehend the world. No one interprets Scripture in isolation; we always interpret and comprehend it in reference to our experiences and the ever-growing stories we’ve heard throughout our lives. Our minds make millions of connections between Christ’s words and stories of forgiveness and sacrifice and sin and the wilderness that we have read since we were children. When Christ tells parables of winepresses, it elicits a synapse-fast image in my mind of Lucy frantically crushing grapes with her feet in I Love Lucy. And when I read the command to awake, I think of The Matrix.

Acts 17:28 reminds us that the Word is always embodied through our culture and its stories. That doesn’t make it “relative” or “subjective.” Christ’s Word is Holy and True; it is God-breathed, just as Adam was God-breathed and we are as well. To be honest, I’m not comfortable with Paul’s use of pagan poetry because it means that on some level the common use of cultural works to interpret the Word is right and good. I tell myself that I’d much rather live in a world in which I can chastise a pastor for using Die Hard in his sermon illustration. But I’m wrong. Of course there are better and worse ways to use culture to communicate, so there’s always the possibility of criticizing, but there isn’t a nice neat rule that will let us to categorically reject culture used this way.

All our minds ever do is incorporate new stories into the vast web of tales in our minds. The Bible interprets all our stories, if we have ears to hear, placing them rightly in relation to God and our neighbor and the world He created. But those stories also interpret the Bible for us, giving the Word images and context, never adding to it but always enriching it as only interpretation can. Making all things new, and calling the rocks and stones and stories to worship our Lord.

This article was adapted from the editor’s letter in the most recent issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, Gospel through Culture.”


5 Comments

  1. Much as there may well be plenty of silly parallels drawn from popular culture in the service of a sermon point (preferably alliterative and one of three), some of which I have made myself, my thinking on it is that the more different ways one communicates Biblical truth, the more people understand it. So if the reading and explaining of a biblical point makes sense to one churchgoer, and a movie clip expressing the same point does the same for another, and a not-necessarily-Christian poem does the same for another, then all the better as many learning styles are catered for.

    Also, if we are all made in the image of God, our creative natures too, then what non-Christians have created will reflect God in some way, so why not look for those elements and use them to aid our understanding of Scripture (while always remembering that the latter is our ultimate source if truth).

  2. “Of course there are better and worse ways to use culture to communicate, so there’s always the possibility of criticizing, but there isn’t a nice neat rule that will let us to categorically reject culture used this way.”

    I agree, but many of the illustrations being used are indeed worthy of criticizing because they communicate something other than the revealed truth. It is a real problem if The Matrix was essentially gnostic and that many Christians (including the preachers) did not notice that they were importing gnostic values into their Christian identity formation.

    Paul at least turned his quotations toward legitimate Christian ends.

    Alan, I trust that your antennae are up. Thanks.

  3. I’m reminded of the controversial, “Bruchko” who deliberately went into the midst of the Motilone Indians and found what he said was the “light that lightens every person who comes into the world.” Of course, he scandalized the mission world of the 1970’s but perhaps freed some missionaries from the colonial mindset so prevalent in the first half of the last century.

  4. I find those scare quotes around “relative” and “subjective” to be pretty funny. Oh you and your baby steps into mainstream literary analyzation. Of course the Bible can be interpreted through culture, but you sound as though you’re afraid that that’s the ONLY lens it would be viewed through. It is possible to view the same text through different lenses at the same time. We might be monotheistic about God, but we don’t have to be monotheistic about literary criticism.

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