A Conversation With Film Expert Greg Garrett (Jul-Aug 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

by Greg Taylor
July – August, 2003

NW: You co-authored a book (with Chris Seay) that explores themes of spirituality in The Matrix movies, but this is not your first book.

Garrett: This is my first non-fiction book. I published a novel last year called Free Bird that is out in paperback this summer and a second novel called Cycling that will be out this fall…

NW: So when you go to a book signing, do people shout “Free Bird” to you?

Garrett: That’s been known to happen! Yes!

NW: What I wanted to talk about is should we as Christians hitch our trains to cultural ideas like The Matrix and if so, how do we do that and how do we use it as a way to interact with our culture?

Garrett: Well, I think in some ways it’s going to be a matter of individual belief and conscience. Chris and I think it’s important for Christians to take note of what’s happening in culture. But it’s also true that individual Christians are going to have individual choices about how much they want to participate in culture. So, there are some people who are going to say, ‘The Matrix is an R rated movie and just as a matter of principle I don’t go see R rated movies’ and I would understand that decision completely. On the other hand there are millions of people who are going to see The Matrix who are going to be exposed to faith questions and to opportunities for Christians to talk about faith questions. So for Chris and I it seems like a very important thing to be involved in. But again, I think it’s going to depend on each person. We think that a lot of people in the Christian world will want to be involved in looking at culture because you can find some inspirational and important spiritual ideas that can help to reaffirm the faith that we take back to the Bible.

NW: Do you think that there is some kind of overt or covert Christian or I guess Jewish themes in the movie or do you think it’s just religious or as Christians do we often view movies through our eyes and sort of interpret it that way and could for instance a Hindu find similar concepts looking through their lens?

Garrett: Well, I think with a movie like The Matrix it’s so full of different references to lots of different spiritual traditions that there really probably is something for everybody watching it. There are very strong Buddhist themes; there are strong Christian themes; and we know that the Wachowski brothers, the writers and directors of the film, have said very few things about what they think the movie should be interpreted as. But in an interview with Time magazine when the first Matrix film came out, they did say point blank that mythology, the Bible, physics—those were all ways that humans have tried to answer the big questions and those were things they were very interested in. I don’t think there is a right or wrong interpretation of The Matrix and I don’t think that we should see it as a Christian movie because it’s not intended as some sort of allegorical treatment of the Messiah figure. I do think we can all go in and we can find some reinforcement for the ideas that we hold dear.

NW: What are some of those striking themes that come out of The Matrix… both the original movie and I guess in particular the second movie?

 

Garrett: Well, for Christians obviously I think we are going to be drawn to the aspects of the character called Neo, played by Keanu Reeves. He is said to be the one—the chosen—the person who is going to save the world in this monumental struggle of good and evil—the conflict—that The Matrix films. He is very clearly a Messianic figure and again the Wachowski brothers did at least let that slip when the first movie came out—that they consciously intended him to represent that in the Jewish and Christian tradition. So, I think it’s a good way for us to see acted out the story of incarnation—the idea of the divine and the human put together. I think the fact the actor who plays the character of Neo is Keanu Reeves helps make incarnation even a little bit—it makes it come to life for me a little bit more.

NW: You mean the fact that he played in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?

Garrett: Yes, exactly (laughter). When you think about it, the whole idea of incarnation is such a mind-blowing concept—the vast disparity between the divine and the human. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of difference whether you see God incarnated in Martin Luther King, Jr. or Keanu Reeves. Human is human. We are all imperfect; we’re all creatures of flesh. But to imagine God coming down and taking the form of a human—we say in the book that really if Keanu Reeves can be the savior, that makes that whole idea of incarnation really come clear to us—that incredible disparity—that miraculous nature of what God did in incarnation.

NW: I’m also interested to know how you might connect up The Matrix with organized religion. Do you see any parallels?

Garrett: I think that one of the themes of The Matrix movies is that one of our tasks as thinking people and as people of faith is to ask hard questions. One of my students actually wrote a long and pretty compelling response to some questions that I set out for my film class this semester about The Matrix.

NW: So you teach film?

Garrett: I do. I teach film and fiction writing at Baylor University. And this student who is sort of in his early throes of rebellion, said for him The Matrix corresponded to organized religion—at least in the tradition he’d grown up. There was the tendency not to ask questions, not to try and make the faith your own, but just to accept what you’d been taught—accept what your parents gave you. And I think that’s something that a lot of us do. The Matrix movies give us a horrifying vision of a world in which everything that we’ve been told is wrong and actually a lie that’s been planted in us to keep us compliant. That encourages the idea that we are supposed to ask hard questions and not just take faith as we have received it, but to actually make it our own. Not just my parents said this so it must be true, but I believe this.

NW: So do movies like The Matrix have a big impact on your college students in using this as a way of teaching. How have you found that to be a good collocational method? How do you bring film in to talk about faith?

Garrett: Well, I think that Chris and I both have similar experiences; I teach college age kids and Chris ministers to mostly Gen-X and Gen-Y people. What you may already know what demographics tell us is that Gen-X and Gen-Y generally speaking don’t do religion in the same traditional ways that older generations have done it. They are more drawn to spirituality through story, through music, through art; and so what Chris discovered in the sermons that he gives and what I’ve discovered in class discussion is that people of a certain age are really drawn to faith questions, to religious questions, to spiritual questions if they are communicated in an interesting story. And so one of the things that actually makes up the heart of Chris’ ministry in some ways is the whole idea that as Christians we can take some lessons from the culture and recognize that one of the things we can do better is to communicate how compelling the Christian story really is. When you see some of these themes and ideas that are brought out in The Matrix about a Messianic character or about a character struggling with faith and doubt or struggling to walk a path after they’ve made a faith decision, it’s a way for us to say Yes, this is a great story and it reminds me of another great story. One of the things we try and do in The Gospel Reloaded as often as we can is to bring things back to the Biblical basis—to say this is a great story and here’s one of the places it comes from.

NW: I’ve seen The Matrix, the second movie, The Matrix Reloaded, but plan also to go with a couple of neighbors. How can I bring that discussion into a discussion of spiritual things with my neighbors?

Garrett: Well, I think one of the things that The Matrix films do is they really ask the same question that faith compels us to ask and try and answer. What the Wachowski brothers called the big questions when they were still doing interviews and so there’s a very real sense that the Wachowski brothers set out not to answer questions in The Matrix, but to bring them out in the open. So there are things in The Matrix that are the heart of our faith—what’s real, what are we doing here, how can we be of service to others, what’s worth believing in. Those concepts are part and parcel of the stories that the Wachowski brothers tell in The Matrix. What we can do in the process of talking about the movie is to make those analogies that in many cases they make in the film—Neo can be a Christ figure. Morpheus, the character played by Laurence Fishburne can represent John the Baptist; in some places he can represent God the Father. Trinity, the character played by Carrie-Anne Moss can be a figure of Mary Magdalene; she can be a figure of the Holy Spirit. There are enough clear analogies—clear references—to Biblical tradition, to names and characters from the Bible that it becomes pretty easy to say, well, in the Bible this is who Nebuchadnezzar was and this is why I think this is a really interesting symbol in the film because this is the Biblical basis for that. So, I think there is an entry there and again it comes through the story. This is a compelling story—a story of taking a leap of faith and then walking that path. That’s what I believe in my faith tradition.

NW: What do you think are some negative impacts on cultural ideas in movies like The Matrix that may have, for instance I believe it’s Richard Corliss said in an article in Time magazine that The Matrix is the Bible meets Batman and just thinking about some of these convoluted ways that a young person could really begin to see sort of what you refer to in your book as a post-modern stew of ideas. Do you see some negative impact on our culture?

Garrett: One of the things we point out several times in the book is that you shouldn’t try and read The Matrix (and this is true of lots of different artifacts in popular culture) as the gospel according to the Wachowski brothers. It’s not a religious tract, it’s not a theological statement, and it’s a popular entertainment that happens to have a lot of interesting ideas imbedded in it. So, for example, if you try and read the movie purely through the filter of Neo as a Christ character then it’s going to be disappointing to you, you may be offended by it. Most artifacts of popular culture don’t work as straight allegory—you can’t make a one-to-one correspondence. So what you have to do is pick and choose; you have to say here is something I can use, here is a little nugget of wisdom that I can take away or here is a piece of inspiration I can take to heart.

NW: Did you go to The Matrix with your son? Do you go to movies like this to experience with your son?

Garrett: Actually some of the movies like this I have seen with him. He watched The Matrix, the first film, with me several times and he watched some of the Japanese anime films that were influential on the Wachowski brothers with me. He is a good filter for me to get a feel for what’s going on with his generation. I see it some with my kids at school, but it’s good to have an 18 year-old who is articulate about what he thinks and about what he believes. He was helpful for me in the writing of the book in lots of ways.

Editor’s Note: Most of the above portion appeared in our print magazine. The remaining portion below is an exclusive ONLINE EXTRA.

NW: How do you see movies as our cultural way of telling story that we really as Christians should take advantage of, for instance, going with our children to influential movies and talking and having spiritual conversations?

Garrett: Well, we talked earlier about the ways that Gen-X and Gen-Y seem to relate to spiritual ideas in movies more directly that they do to say church or synagogue or the mosque. I think the other thing that is at work here is what Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers talked about in their PBS interview. They pretty much came to an agreement that in many ways movies represent a sort of new mythology for people. It’s a way of telling stories that are culturally relevant for us and there are enough symbols and trappings attached to it. You come in and you buy your ticket and you stand in line, you sit in a darkened theatre; it’s one of those things where you actually have ritual attached to it. You sit in an actual place and you consume ritual food! So there is an element of powerful mythology that is attached to movies as well; there’s the story and then there’s the trappings that are attached to it that make movies that much more powerful when we go to the theatre.

NW: I want to do an exercise with you here. No preparation. I’m going to give you two or three different genres and I want you to give me the first movie that comes to your mind and that you would want to see or in that genre is your favorite. First category: Action.

Garrett: Well, with action I think I would say The Matrix.

NW: Good pick!

Garrett: Most critics who look back over the last ten years think of The Matrix as maybe the best action film of the decade. If I had to pick a non-Matrix film, I would probably pick the John Woo movie, Hardboiled—a Hong Kong action film.

NW: Romantic comedy

Garrett: I’d say, When Harry Met Sally.

NW: Comedy, straight comedy.

Garrett: Annie Hall.

NW: Annie Hall. Stop the exercise for a second and talk about Bruce Almighty, have you seen that yet?

Garrett: No, I have not seen it yet. I’m not a huge Jim Carrey fan and so I don’t know that I will see it anytime in the foreseeable future. But I could see why that would be a movie that would be of some interest.

NW: You can see it’s a pretty good setup for the lesson at the end.

Garrett: I think it probably will be very interesting and people of faith, of course, will be really interested in knowing how God’s going to be represented. We’re always sort of a little bit leery about somebody playing God in literature and film. It makes us a little nervous. It will be interesting to see how God comes across.

NW: What about Drama?

Garrett: That’s kind of a wide field.

NW: Divide it for me. How do you typically divide genres of drama?

Garrett: You can divide it up into Real Life Drama. I think one of my favorites there would be American Beauty.

NW: Foreign Films.

Garrett: I’m not a huge fan of foreign films, not because I don’t like subtitles or anything, but just because my own interest and my own writing tend to focus on American films. There are some Japanese and some films from Hong Kong that I am very drawn to and so I’m going to say the Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo which was a film about a master less Samurai that’s been very influential in American movies.

NW: Historical movies.

Garrett: Well, that’s not a genre that I’m particularly drawn to.

NW: When I think of that I think of movies like Gandhi or The Mission.

Garrett: Yes, The Mission is a great film; Lawrence of Arabia is a great film. I’m also really drawn to sort of cross genre films that are like detective films or action films that are set in past places. So I like lots of the films set in like Los Angeles in the 30’s and 40’s, the kind of Hardboiled detective films that really get at a lot of serious moral questions. Lots of them or either consciously or unconsciously in a sort of expediential kind of mode—the choices that the detective characters make are determining who it is they are and what they believe. L.A. Confidential would be a good sort of contemporary film in that genre.

NW: We had a writer (you said you are at Baylor), a professor in the business school named Blaine McCormick write for us in one of our last recent issues on faith and vocation. I would be interested in having you write a movie review for us. What would be in the next say six months a movie that you would review and if you could hand pick one what would you review?

Garrett: Well, you know, the third Matrix movie comes out in November. And I’m sort of interested naturally to see how they are going to wrap up all the different themes, what kind of Messiah Neo’s going to end up being. That’s one that I think would be of real interest to me. The third Terminator movie, the Terminator films have also asked a lot of powerful questions and have had a very strong sort of Messianic figure, a savior of the world (coincidentally with the initials J.C.—John Conner!). That’s another movie that’s interesting. And then of course I think the next Lord of the Rings movie will be out in December. And that’s one of interest to me as well from both a cinematic and faith perspective.

NW: I’m interested in how we get in all those trilogies; how we really get wrapped up in a story and how the story carries us and our imagination and how that’s wrapped up in who we are and in the Christian story—in the gospel story—or God’s Old Testament story. There are so many parallels I think you are bringing in your book.

Garrett: Yes, there is this very powerful sense that we are part of an ongoing story. In the Christian tradition we don’t just think about Jesus, we think about David, we think about Moses, we think about all the characters that we read in the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament and we are living that ongoing story as well. So when we find works of literature that are more than just little bleeps and blips—one movie that takes us out of ourselves for 90 minutes—that can be powerful. When you have a network series that’s ongoing where you come back to the same story week after week and the characters grow and develop, not like the characters in a sitcom where they are essentially the same people the last week of the series as they were in the first week, but as in a dramatic series. A good example of a pop culture that did that well was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the characters grew, they changed, some of them died, they dealt with serious and powerful questions. Whether it is a long-running network series or a trilogy of books or a trilogy of films, to be drawn into that ongoing story is to remind us that’s what we’re part of—we have a past, we have a present; we have a future and were all a part of that story. For Christians especially, that is a powerful message to know that were part of an ongoing story, that everyday were helping to write the story of Christ on earth.

NW: Does it seem to you that a lot of Christians miss those kind of stories coming out of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer because we’re just initially offended by the more obvious references to cult or things were scared of and so we miss a lot of the themes of Buffy really trying to destroy the fears in her own life as a high-school or college student.

Garrett: Yes, that was a powerful—an epic—story of good vs. evil. In a sense a sort of Messiah figure if you will. For us sometimes we’re caught up in the literal trappings of our faith and for us to think about a female Messiah figure, for example, that may set us off. Or to say this doesn’t correspond doctrinally to what I believe, that may set us off. I think you may be right, that there are also times when there may be things that are offensive to us or scary to us in terms of our faith and what we believe and they keep us from taking in some of the powerful messages from everyday life that we might be able to make use of.

NW: It’s been great talking to you, Greg. This has been very insightful to visit with you and I appreciate your insights there.

Garrett: Do keep me in mind if you would like for me to write something later on; I have a couple of books in the hopper for this summer, but I would be please to take a stab at something for the fall.

NW: That would be great. I would want to possibly roll up some of those three that you mentioned, The Matrix, Terminator, and Lord of the Rings, and talk about how these trilogies have kept us moving along in a story and then relate it back how you did a minute ago to this ongoing story of Scripture that we become a part of—that we join.

Garrett: That would be fun, a sort of a review essay.New Wineskins

Greg Taylor

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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