Throughout the movie, Paul is trying to discover who he is. He wants to understand why he is having strange visions. He doesn’t know if he wants to inherit the leadership of House Atreides after his father. As an ever-looming, mysterious destiny comes closer to him, things become less and less clear. He doesn’t understand the power that his mother is teaching him to use. He overhears the leader of the Bene Gesserit, a strange religious sect that works from the shadows, and his mother talking about him being “the one” and learns that he may be the messiah that the galaxy and the natives of Arrakis, the Fremen, have waited for. His journey consists of trying to reconcile the conflicting cultures and beliefs that seem to pull him in every direction, yet he doesn’t know which way to go. He is struggling to know if he is this messiah and whether he wants to answer the call.
The director, Denis Villeneuve, says that Dune is ultimately about “the triumph of the human spirit.” It is about seeing whether a person can overcome their baser nature to become something new and better, but not to overcome in a way that causes them to lose their human spirit. Paul is pulled in so many directions that he often doesn’t know which path he should take. He doesn’t know if he wants the mantle of messiah because he doesn’t know if he wants to take on the responsibility of it. What he does know is that there is something deep inside of him that is calling him to the Fremen. By the end of the movie, he finally knows which way to go. He decides to answer the call that the power inside of him has offered, wherever that leads.
Dune and Spirituality
There is a sense of an ancient power in Dune that colors every part of the movie. Paul’s messianic identity is from that ancient power buried deep within him, separate from but entwined with who he is. The closer that he comes to facing what he sees in his visions, the closer to the surface the power comes. The more it is revealed in him, the more his supernatural abilities grow. He goes from having visions to being able to know future and past events with certainty. His developing powers that were once difficult to use begin to come more naturally. The more he finds alignment with the path that the ancient power is setting him on, the closer he comes to fulfilling the messianic prophecies. In a way, following this path allows him to become more fully himself.
This kind of spirituality has a strong alignment with modern-day Eastern and New Age spirituality, where one can be ‘spiritual’ but not religious. People who follow these practices find peace by aligning themselves with the universe or the energy around them. They believe that all the courage and greatness they need is already inside of them just waiting to be released. By finding peace within themselves and with the world, they can access their power. These ideas have been around for centuries, but they have recently found popularity through series like Star Wars, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and many others. There is something about stories that portray this kind of ‘spirituality’ that attracts people to them and pulls at something buried inside of everyone.
A Fascination with Spirituality
A character in Dune says “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience. A process that cannot be understood by stopping it. We must move with the flow of the process. We must join it. We must flow with it. Let go.” Life does seem to be a mystery that we will never be able to solve. For many, trying to force their way through life in the direction that they want to go has left them tired and hopeless. Eastern or New Age spirituality seems to be a way to live that tugs at a desire that all humans have to live with purpose and to have peace. The desire doesn’t look the same for everyone, but in one way or another, it is there.
This is one reason why practices like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness have become so popular. Almost everyone wants the key to living life well, successfully, and happily. The idea that the key is within ourselves and we can access it through spiritual or mystic practices is appealing to many. Spiritual practices seem ancient and sacred to many Westerners who live in a culture that seems to have forgotten what it means for something to be sacred. Because of this, it is easy to admire the ideals that are found in many Eastern cultures. They remind people of the big picture—that there is more to life and the universe than what they experience. These ideals and spiritual practices can help followers to slow down and remember to take time for the important parts of life, rather than focusing on the urgent ones alone. Perhaps best of all, these practices don’t involve strict and inconvenient moral codes. People want the peace that ‘spirituality’ promises without the constraints of these kinds of regulations, and there are times when it seems like New Age and Eastern mysticism will deliver.
There are countless stories of people who find peace through meditation. Some overcome anxiety by using mindfulness techniques. Such examples show that real-world problems can be alleviated through these methods. These spiritual practices often have practical benefits, likely because they are not unique to New Age and Eastern mystics (Psalm 1:1-2, Genesis 24:62-63). Even so, someone can ease the problems that they experience and still have the same emptiness inside that says that something is missing.
Mysticism attempts to fill the vacuum inside each one of us with something that is outside of the physical world. Some Eastern spiritualities say that people who are able to ‘let go of the self’ will find ultimate fulfillment. New Age spirituality says that fulfillment and peace are found by trusting and connecting to the energy of the universe that is always flowing around and through people. But no matter how complete this kind of fulfillment seems, it is still only a shadow of what it means to fill that emptiness.
While there is certainly truth and wisdom that can be found in these kinds of ‘spiritualities,’ they are only half-truths. It is not that they can’t bring us some satisfaction. It is that they can never fully satisfy us because they do not point to the whole truth found only in Jesus Christ. As Aaron Wilson of the Gospel Coalition says, “The little gods that we make up and lift up in life can’t deliver on what they promise. There is something within us that longs for something that even the greatest gods that this world has to offer can’t fulfill.”1 Accepting this kind of ‘spirituality’ is like accepting counterfeit money. At first glance, it looks and feels real. Having it makes you think that you are richer or better off because of it. But when the time comes to cash in on it, you find out that it doesn’t matter how real it seemed or felt. It can’t buy what you ultimately want. This is where the most ‘spiritual’ people in the world fall short—true life cannot come from what they are chasing (Luke 18:10-14).
Christianity and Spirituality
In Dune, the mystic power that gives Paul uncanny abilities is attractive to the viewer because it makes him extraordinary and able to fulfill a grand destiny set before him. As Christians, we already have a part written for us in an even greater destiny—an even greater adventure. This is one way that the worldview presented in Dune is similar to Christianity—Paul is challenged by the power within himself to be a part of something greater than himself. The God who calls us by name to our great adventure is high above any power that could exist in this world. People love stories like Dune because they are about people who dare to live out their part in the Grand Story they are called to—a desire that is ingrained in us by God. The stories that resonate most with people have at least some truth in them. But, as Benjamin Franklin once put it, “half the truth is often a great lie.”2
Mystical experiences, such as the visions Paul has in Dune, resonate with people because they touch on something that is true. The quote mentioned above, that “the mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience,” could be applied to God—God isn’t a mystery to solve but a reality to experience. However, statements like these could also be applied to a plethora of different religions and gods as well. They do not point particularly to the God of Christianity. That is why statements like these, which are often found in Eastern and New Age spirituality, are half-truths. They cannot be rightly understood except in relation to the Christian story and the Christian God. Religions that speak of the mystery of life all have similarities to Christianity, but none of them contain the full truth. The vital difference is the personal, loving, and sacrificial God of Christianity.
What we can learn from these sorts of religions and spiritualities is the art of slowing down, listening to, and spending time with, the ancient Power—God, who is more person than power. A Christian cannot be spiritually healthy if they don’t have a personal relationship with God. Christian forms of meditation and mindfulness are often a part of this relationship, though they differ from Eastern forms in origin and practice (although they may be referred to using the same terms). The Bible mentions meditating on God’s word; it tells us to be mindful of our thoughts by taking them captive, and to stay in the present by not worrying about tomorrow. These things are biblically founded and can bring us closer to God. Christian Mysticism often combines practices like these with the Bible to come to personal revelations of God which may be inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, any spiritual practice should be approached with caution and tested against what the Bible says to ensure that Christian spiritual practices are not being confused with their Eastern counterparts (Psalm 1:1-2).
Movies like Dune can help Christians remember that we can’t fully understand God and his ways. They can remind us that truth, power, and courage don’t come from ourselves: they come from God through the Holy Spirit. But most of all, they can remind us to thoughtfully consider what the truth is. At the heart of the comparison between Christianity and other religions or forms of spirituality is not which one ‘works’ for us, but which one is true. Is Christianity true, or is some other religion or form of spirituality? Christianity says the truth is that we are all sinners in need of a savior (Romans 3:23, Romans 5:8). It says that Jesus is that savior (John 14:6). The gift of salvation through Christ isn’t fake and it gives a satisfaction that will not ultimately fail us. It is transformational and founded on ultimate truth (Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:22-24). Without it, sin cannot be forgiven. And there cannot be a triumph of the true human spirit without an uprooting of sin.
By Rebecca Sachaj
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