Same Tune, Different Lyrics

Michael Metzger

You take the red pill and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Fans of “The Matrix” remember Morpheus’ unnerving invitation. Now the film’s scriptwriters go deeper down the rabbit-hole. “Cloud Atlas” opens in theaters October 26. Same tune, different lyrics. But who is most likely to recognize the tune? And who knows the lyrics?

“The Matrix” hit theaters in 1999. It was co-written by Larry and Andy Wachowski, the same duo who co-wrote “Cloud Atlas” The credits however read Lana and Andy Wachowski. Larry is transgender and in 2002 became Lana. Based on David Mitchell’s 2004 best-selling novel, Lana describes “Cloud Atlas” as depicting the struggle “between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.”1 That’s the same tune the Wachowskis played in “The Matrix.”

It’s a tune that began playing in their head after seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Larry and Andy wondered whether technology could one day create an illusory world. They began writing a story about a dystopian future where machines keep people perpetually placated inside a virtual reality called the Matrix. By 1994, they had completed the first script. Their agent read it and said it was a story about Descartes.

Read that last sentence again. Descartes? Where have we heard this tune?

René Descartes was a leading spokesperson for the Enlightenment, or what is called modernity. “The Matrix” is a story of Westerners being placidly mollified inside the Matrix of Modernity. This is the same tune Lewis Carroll heard. An educator, he believed modernity was ruining mathematics. The lyrics he wrote involved Alice having to go down the rabbit-hole to Wonderland to see reality.

This is the same tune Lesslie Newbigin heard. A missionary, he believed modernity had malformed missions. His lyrics described “Christian missions as among the main carriers” of the Enlightenment. “The churches of Europe and their cultural offshoots in the Americas have largely come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment.”2 However, Newbigin would likely to have never come up with these lyrics without escaping the West, working as a missionary in India for over 30 years.

This is the same tune Iain McGilchrist is hearing. A neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, his lyrics have to do with how Westerners think. All societies in the past started with metaphor (a right hemisphere function) and moved to reason (a left hemisphere function). Descartes and Enlightenment thinkers put reason before metaphor, meaning Westerners start their thinking in the left hemisphere.3 This presents two problems. Neuroimaging reveals how it is only in the right that we experience the world as it truly is. The left only explains experience, “re-presenting” it in a “virtual world.” Second, left hemisphere is parasitic. If it takes the lead, it “takes over the entire process,” McGilchrist writes. A lead-with-the-left society becomes trapped in a left-hemisphere virtual world, mollified in the Matrix of Modernity.

There is good news in all this. A growing number of Christians are also hearing the tune. Few however know the lyrics, especially those who attend evangelical churches. They feel like outsiders, since evangelicalism generally doesn’t recognize the tune. These outsiders feel stuck. Getting unstuck might include watching “The Matrix” again. Lyrics abound.

For starters, catch the names of Morpehus’ first and second ships – Nabonidus and Nebuchadnezzar. Nabonidus is derived from Nebonidus, Babylon’s last king. Nebuchadnezzar was king during the Judeans’ exile. The Wachowskis seem to suggest the Matrix of Modernity is similar to the Babylonian exile. Back then, only the sons of Judah recognized the exile. The older, established Judean leaders didn’t. Many analysts liken today’s world to the Babylonian exile, suggesting Christians are “exiles in a land of exile.”4 One study labels upwards of 20 million evangelicals in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 29 as “exiles.”5 They recognize the tune. Their church doesn’t. Thus, exiles can learn these lyrics – they will feel like outsiders in church; displaced and lonely.

Second, those who don’t see the Matrix are stale. McGilchrist says those who lead-with-the-left are “forever re-experiencing the familiar, the world forever going stale.” Stale is having the life sucked out of you – like those who don’t see the Matrix. Exiles feel this. Most evangelicals don’t. Sermons and studies merely replay the familiar. Paradigms are never challenged. The faith is never unsettled. Idols are never upended. These “Matrix” lyrics can help exiles. They suggest that exiles are going to have to escape the Matrix to live. Some already have, migrating to historic faith traditions.6 Most however have simply stopped attending church. That’s not a solution. It is a sign of an individualistic faith where church is not central to maturity. It’s parenthetical. It’s a killer.

Finally, notice how someone outside the Matrix – a Morpheus – had to help those inside the Matrix escape. McGilchrist says those who lead-with-the-left are trapped in a hall of mirrors. They can’t see what they can’t see. One example. A few weeks back I attended a seminar in Washington, D.C. where a group of evangelicals critiqued the Enlightenment approach to learning by using the Enlightenment approach to learning. It was a lecture with an offer of additional follow-up “conversations.” That’s very left-brain. “The Matrix” has better lyrics. Find someone outside the Matrix who has the red pill.

Taking the red pill means solving real problems in the real world – not just talking about them. McGilchrist says right-brain knowledge is experiential. This means getting out of virtual reality (“worldviews,” principles, and abstractions) and getting into actual reality (experiencing real problems and trying to solve them). This requires a roundtable (, or what in business is called a “skunk works.” Books and blogs (like this one) have a place, but they don’t bring you out of the Matrix. You have to get your entire body out – not just your brain. It can be done. For today’s exiles, it begins by marrying the lyrics with the tune and getting your boots on.

1 Alexander Hemon, “Beyond The Matrix,” New Yorker, September 10, 2012
2 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 33.
3 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
4 James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford Press, 2010), p. 277.
5 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011)
6 Colleen Carroll Campbell, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002).


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  1. Mike,

    Please be careful. If you keep up such encouragement, I might actually “do” something. That could be dangerous.

    I recently heard a lecture on being an Acts 1:8 church that didn’t seem quite right but I did not have the words to express it. I would now express it as “an Enlightenment approach to Missions”.

    Tracing the consequences of ideas through history is very helpful for me.

    Much appreciate your willingness to share.

  2. Hey Mike,

    A couple of questions:
    1. Is there a reason why you noted the gender – beyond being able to ‘connect’ the dots (that these are the same author)?
    2. Is skunk works then a method to be employed that encourages the right brain’s use? In other words
    3. How similar is this to the ‘socratic’ method? Having been taught from the socratic method and experiencing the skunk works model, I find them similar in many ways.

    Great piece, however I will need to read it a few more times to fully absorb it = thanks

  3. Gender was mentioned to avoid confusion. Sharp eyes will observe Larry co-wrote “The Matrix” yet Lana co-wrote “Cloud Atlas.” Same person.

    Yes, a skunk works starts in the right hemisphere (hands-on, real problems, etc). It is similar to the Socratic method, in that a sage and devils advocate ask questions similar to Socrates.’ However, without these two having a place at the roundtable, you get an Enlightenment-style seminar – not a skunk works.

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