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Dune, Belief, and the Entrepreneur Messiah


Dune: Part Two raises the question of whether all religions are synthetic.


Dune: Part Two—the second installment of Denis Villeneuve’s planned trilogy based on the Frank Herbert science-fiction saga—raises a problem for believers. That problem is the historicity of faith: the fact that intense, sincere religious belief has often taken hold among people as a result of social conditions, a hustling clerisy, or both. The movie’s principal theme is the formation of faith under such circumstances, and it confronts us with a challenge: To look too closely at the human and historical agency involved in the spread of religion is to endanger the possibility of faith.

Set some 8,000 years in the future, Dune centers on the fate of Arrakis, the desert planet supplying the mysterious “spice” that fuels interstellar travel for our distant human descendants. Arrakis’s vaguely Islamic indigenous population is ruled despotically by the feudal Imperium. The Fremen, as they are known, mostly acquiesce in their oppression, only occasionally mounting guerilla attacks against the imperialists’ spice-mining operations.

What keeps most Fremen passive is the belief that a Mahdi figure will one day bring them succor and salvation. This faith has been propagated by the Bene Gesserit, a Jesuit-ish order of priestesses who help stabilize the feudal regime—even as, for generations, they have secretly been crossing genetic lines to bring forth a super-being, the Kwisatz Haderach, who they believe will “bridge space and time” and usher in a brighter future for all.

Our protagonist, the young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), seems to possess some of the powers of the Kwisatz Haderach. In the first installment, Paul’s humane House Atreides was granted control of Arrakis, only to lose it to the brutish, post-human House Harkonnen. With his father dead and the Atreides army destroyed, Paul found himself cast into the planet’s wilderness, where he sought refuge with the Fremen, some of whom suspected that he might be their long-awaited Mahdi.

At the outset of the second film, Paul’s mother, a Bene Gesserit acolyte named Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), urges him to embrace his prophetic role and exploit the legends disseminated by her cultish sisterhood. Paul is reluctant to play the messiah. He prefers to lead the Fremen as an adopted member of their community, learning their language and desert ways and even taking a Fremen lover, Chani (Zendaya). The film’s funniest, most poignant moments involve the Fremen insisting he must be the messiah. When Paul demurs, they take it as one more sign: The Mahdi would be humble. A Fremen leader, Stilgar (Javier Bardem in a moving turn), tells him, “I don’t care what you believe—I believe!

But gradually Paul accepts the role of Mahdi. In depicting this transformation, Villeneuve achieves a remarkably realistic character study, notwithstanding the fantastical backdrop. Prodded by his mother and his own ambition, Paul uses the sincere fervor of the Fremen to bring his family to victory over its aristocratic rivals. At the film’s end, Paul urges the Fremen to take on the other feudal houses, ordering Stilgar to “lead them to paradise.”

Amid the disruption of their world by social change, people naturally yearn for a messiah. A spiritual entrepreneur knows how to capitalize on patterns of belief to become the master subject of existing prophetic traditions. True of Dune’s warrior Mahdi, this demystifying account is important also in understanding the origins of at least one ancient Mideast religion.

In this real-world religion’s own telling, the prophet’s body was sown in the womb of a woman named Mary. As he grew to manhood, he was called by the Holy Spirit to confront his people with a bold new teaching: that purity comes from freeing the divine spark trapped in fallen flesh. Though he performed miracles, healed the sick, and won many disciples, the new teacher was reviled by religious authorities. Tried before the temporal power, he was tortured and crucified. Yet the church he founded would go on to win adherents across the known world, stretching from the Latin West, where it attracted a young seeker named Augustine, all the way to eastern China. After his martyrdom, the prophet would continue to guide his church’s affairs from heaven, making himself present in their most important liturgy, which commemorated his passion.

I’m speaking of Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, the world’s first truly global religion—and a figure who, as the historian Jason BeDuhn has written, “in key ways helped to define what a ‘religion’ is.” Mani’s religion was perhaps the strongest and strangest expression of the gnostic impulse that seized the “East” in Late Antiquity. It also benefited from Mani’s astonishing talents as a mythmaker, artist, linguistic innovator, and church organizer.

Mani was born in the early third century AD in Persian-ruled Babylonia, in present-day Iraq. According to the tradition of the church he founded, his mother’s name was Mar Maryam (Mary). She and Mani’s father were descendants of Parthian and Persian royalty, respectively — hagiographic flourishes likely intended to parallel the birth story and Davidic lineage of Jesus.

The community he grew up in spoke Aramaic and was broadly Judeo-Christian: These believers thought the Christ event had taken place, but they continued to observe purity rituals redolent of Jewish law. For example, only certain vegetables could be eaten, and then only if they were “baptized” beforehand. “Male”-coded vegetables were kosher, “female” ones weren’t.

As a young man, Mani began to reject his community’s ritual precepts. Since the body itself was impure, he taught, no ablution could stave off impurity. Rather, salvation required liberating the elements of spiritual light which, admixed with the darkness of physical matter, made up the human person and, indeed, the whole cosmos.

His missionary travels resembled those of Paul—though unlike the Christian apostle, who preached Christ Jesus, Mani preached himself. Shapur I of Persia’s Sassanid dynasty granted him permission to preach his new religion. “By 270,” the scholar Michel Tardieu summarizes, “Mani’s religion was established throughout Iran; outside this country, the network of missions extended, as Mani [himself said]…‘from East to West.’ ”

Yet after Shapur I’s death in AD 272 or 273, Mani lost ground to the Zoroastrian prelate Karder, the figure most responsible for codifying Zoroastrianism into an orthodoxy and enshrining it as the public religion of the Persian Empire. In the end, Karder prevailed on the throne to suppress a figure he viewed as his rival. Mani was fettered with more than 100 pounds of chains and died in detention, though Manichaean legend had the Sassanids flaying his skin and stuffing his body with straw before crucifying him.

Manichaeism’s influence ranged 6,200 miles, from the East China Sea to the Mediterranean, before persecution and internal contradiction sounded its death knell. Scholars today consider it the only major world religion to have disappeared completely.

Mani saw himself as the heir to the Jewish line of patriarchs and prophets running “vertically” from Noah to Jesus. But as Tardieu notes, he also expanded the prophetic line “horizontally,” to include Buddha and Zoroaster. He blended these sources, adding his own genius for intricate revelation-making. The result was what scholars Iain Gardner and Samuel N. C. Lieu have called the “first real ‘religion,’ in the modern sense.” That is, “Mani established it directly and deliberately, with its scriptures and its rituals and its organization all in place.” Mani’s religion promoted some of the most radical and disturbing but also heartbreakingly beautiful—ideas in human history.

Mani’s labyrinthine cosmology defies brief summary. It boasts a huge cast of characters divine and demonic, including a Trinitarian-ish Father who acquiesces in the “crucifixion” of his Son—a distinct person and event from the historical Jesus and his execution—and numerous other demigods and angelic beings. The basic cosmic drama is simple enough, however. It was set in motion when the primordial forces of darkness—slithering, disgusting, embodied creatures—glimpsed the realm of light and resolved to conquer it.

The created world we know came about amid the ensuing tug-of-war between light and dark. The universe was constructed out of the bodies of dead demons in battles between these cosmic antipodes: dark and filthy matter, suffused with shards of light. The demons, desperate to hold on to the light they had, fashioned Adam and Eve in the images of the divine beings whose beautiful forms had driven them to a sexual frenzy. They then poured the light sparks into these new creatures—man and woman. Humankind emerged out of a literal demonic orgy, the product of the darkness’s determination to prevent the divine sparks from ascending to their true home; thereafter, each baby conceived in Eve’s descendants furthered the imprisonment of light.

In the present scene of our cosmic misery, spirit and matter are tragically intermingled. The kingdom of light sent many prophets to awaken humankind to this disturbing truth behind mundane reality, including Buddha, Zoroaster, and the historical Jesus. Mani saw himself as the last and definitive figure in this prophetic line, called to proclaim the truth about the spark within and to recruit a religious elect.

The Manichaean elect would practice the religion’s rigors. These included the avoidance of sex, alcohol, agricultural labor, and any other action that could harm the light particles trapped in matter or, in the case of coitus, to trap yet more light-spirit in matter. In this way, Mani’s elect would lead the way to the final redemption willed by the light gods: the liberation of spirit from matter and its return to an acosmic home.

Like Dune’s Fremen, the peoples of the “East” had suffered a series of disorienting events in the period before Mani’s rise. Most notably, Alexander the Great and his troops had swept the Middle East and North Africa in the late fourth century BC, bringing in train a confidently rationalistic way of being in the world. This infusion of Hellenic ideas generated the synthesis of philosophy and revelation that defined historic Christianity well into the medieval period.

Yet as Hans Jonas, the great philosophical interpreter of Gnosticism, argued, Hellenic cultural ascendancy also gave rise to a subversive counterattack, a “subsurface stream” of “secret tradition” that resisted Greek rationality and its picture of human beings as part of an orderly cosmic whole. Gnosticism was a rebellion against cosmic at-homeness. It’s easy to see why, with their own little cosmos a site of geopolitical and ideological contestation, people might come to believe their own existence the product of a cosmic mishap.

And like Dune’s synthetic Mahdi and his Bene Gesserit allies, Mani prepared the ground for his own acceptance as a prophet. First, he brought forth an elaborate revelation, presenting a clear, if bizarre, answer to the timeless problems of being human, especially the mystery of evil and our sense of alienation from the world. The other prophets had likewise addressed these problems, but Mani believed that their teaching had been garbled: Jesus, Buddha, and Zoroaster had spoken allegorically, whereas Mani claimed to speak in “precise, plain, literal language,” as BeDuhn, the historian, tells us.

Next, Mani inscribed his own message. One Manichaean text has him saying: “For all the apostles, my brothers, that came before me, [they did not write] their wisdom in books, as I have written it.” Not only did Mani write his own scriptures, he created an alphabet to render them accessible to his main audience, Iranians. He was a master of his native Aramaic, written in Syriac script. To reach Iranians, however, he had to translate his message into their language. Trouble was, ideographic Persian writing was prone to ambiguity, and it bloated even short texts.

Mani’s audacious solution was to reform how Persian was written, substituting the Syriac script, with its 22 letters, for the old ideograms, to ensure “that Iranian would be written as it was pronounced,” per Tardieu. The resulting system, called the Manichaean Alphabet, “was so practical and so clear that it not only became an indispensable tool of Manichaean missions throughout the Iranian domain but was also adopted by non-Manichaeans to translate the Indian and Buddhist scriptures.”

Mani wasn’t content just to transmit his ideas in words. He had a keen appreciation for the power of images to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. A painter of great talent, he illustrated his own scriptures in a work called Image. The book proved immensely popular in Persia and later in the wider Islamic world, where he came to be reviled as a heretic but honored as an artist.

A great systematizer and organizer, he created a formal structure, his church, to develop and spread his religion. It featured a supreme pontiff, major and minor orders, and lay followers or “hearers.” (Augustine was a Manichaean hearer before converting to Catholicism.) Interestingly, women were not barred from climbing the Manichaean hierarchy.

In short, Mani hustled. He was Jesus, Paul, Augustine, and Caravaggio rolled into one. Yet precisely his resourcefulness, his mastery of the Zeitgeist and willingness to fashion a religion that suited it, raises the problem central to Dune: Doesn’t all religion boil down to the soothing promise of a transmundane salvation, of a “Voice from the Outer World” coming to save us from confusion and misery?

How different, really, was Mani from Jesus of Nazareth? Hadn’t Jesus played a similar role among Roman-occupied Jews two centuries earlier, offering the consolations of the transmundane Kingdom of God? Jonas, the philosophical interpreter of Late Antique Gnosticism, more or less considered Christianity an iteration of the same phenomenon: an “acosmic” faith for a people whose own little cosmos had been thrown into chaos.

Here, I mustn’t speak “objectively” in defense of religion as such. I carry no brief for Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard, later figures who replicated Mani’s self-conscious religion-making. I can only speak as a Christian. Reading Mani’s life, let alone that of Paul Atreides, finally doesn’t menace my faith in Jesus, for a reason offered by C. S. Lewis: namely, that if you set about creating a religion, you wouldn’t invent Christianity. It’s a faith that, at key points, is defined by divine vulnerability, featuring a God who condescends to come into the world as an infant, and who later permits his creation to scourge, humiliate, and crucify him.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of Christianity’s “great reversal” of humanity’s natural religious expectations. We anticipate otherworldly fire and thunder but find instead a cooing infant in a manger, or a man breaking bread with his friends, or the same man crying out, “Eloi, eloi… For Pope Benedict, this great reversal was prefigured in the development of the image of God in the Hebrew Bible. “Elijah,” he wrote in the second book of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, “was granted a transformed version of the Sinai experience: He experienced God passing by, not in the storm or in the fire or in the earthquake, but in the still small breeze.” In Jesus, the reversal is complete: “God’s power is now revealed in his mildness, his greatness in simplicity and closeness”—finally in “crucified love.”

It is also of great consequence that the religion of Jesus didn’t develop into the cult of an easy messiah with antinomian precepts. That was certainly true of gnostic Christian offshoots like Marcionism, and of standalone gnostic faiths like Manichaeism. Notwithstanding the rigors prescribed by Mani to his spiritual elites, Manichaeism had no concept of natural law; this-worldly creation was fashioned out of filth, after all.

Historic Christianity arose from a similar context. And though its founder insisted that his kingdom was not of this world, Christianity never succumbed to the radical hatred of nature and creation that marked other movements of its kind. This was because Christianity saw itself as the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, and the Jews had always insisted that creation was good, because the one God had made it. Then, as it spread its new faith among the Hellenes, the early Church appealed to Greek reason: God was reasonable—indeed, reason itself—and his reasonableness could be detected in his orderly creation.

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True, Christianity taught that human beings couldn’t complete their journey to final perfection in this world, nor reach the destination without the aid of grace. Yet the basic structure remained: Creation has a norm, and we are called to exercise freedom and responsibility in conforming ourselves to it.

Again, if I were making up a religion, I’d make it all easier. The “easiness” of a faith, of course, needn’t equate to an absence of ascetic demands. Manichaeism had plenty of those, including some that were downright bonkers. But ascending the heights of asceticism out of a fear of contamination by filthy creation isn’t the same as living freely and responsibly in the Christian way, fulfilling the norms inscribed into nature.

The sheer arduousness of the latter kind of religion reassures me that in Jesus I’m not dealing with a huckster or spiritual entrepreneur, nor in Christianity with a religion born merely of the political conditions of an oppressed people in a specific time and place. Still, faith is faith, and there are limits to such arguments. The thoughtful believer is at times forced to confront the secular historian of religion with the same attitude as Dune’s Stilgar: I don’t care what you believe—I believe!


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