Messiah Week: Neo from The Matrix

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”
– Isaiah 35:4-6

It’s Messiah Week!
#1: Neo from The Matrix
#2: Paul Atreides from Dune

If you’re Christian, you believe the Messiah has already arrived on Earth; if you’re Jewish, you believe he is still yet to come. That hasn’t stopped creator after creator from adopting (or co-opting) messianic imagery to tell their own stories.

Messiah stories are easy to explain and fairly easy to write if you’re not worried about the implications, so fans end up seeing a lot of it, for better or worse. Done correctly, messiah stories reach us right at the heart with stories about sacrifice, belief and devotion. Done cheaply, the two-dimensional Space Jesus splays his arms in a cruciform fashion, grows a beard, and waves his hands to create cheap miracles. It’s a story we’ve heard over and over, so it’s a story that loses its oomph, sometimes. The central sacrifice, the death and resurrection, the temptation from the evil figure — it can get a little overdone until a writer cuts their reliance on overdone imagery and instead cuts to the heart of the story. The problem with many messiah stories is that the central Messiah in Western Civilization — Jesus Christ — was not a secular savior. He didn’t come to rescue the Jews from Roman rule, even though people around him certainly encouraged him to use his power to do so. Many modern messiah stories, though, are more about bodies and politics than faith or souls.

For the next couple days, we’ll talk about the best (and worst!) Messiah-figures in science fiction and fantasy, and their varying levels of effectiveness:

neo1Let’s talk about Neo.
Messiah Level: SUPER OBVIOUS.

There is no ambiguity to what the Wachowskis were doing with their central character in the Matrix trilogy. Neo is such a literal Jesus analogue that some bloggers and authors wonder if The Matrix and it sequels could be counted as “Christian” films, even if the Wachowskis many not have intended them to be such.

neo2Not exactly loaves and fishes there, Neo.

The central figure of The Matrix and its lesser sequels is pretty much a Jesus surrogate from the beginning; he is “The One,” performing miracles on behalf of the residents of “Zion” and the humans still enslaved by the Machines in the Matrix. He lives among them, in their poverty, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, and encouraging them with his words and presence. In this way, he is eminently messiahlike.

neo3Is this what God sees?

Neo’s first messianic moment comes at the end of The Matrix. After having been gravely wounded — and possibly killed — by Agent Smith in the Matrix, Trinity sits over Neo’s dying body in the Nebuchadnezzar and instructs Neo to get up, telling him that she is in love with him, believing wholly in his identity as “The One.” Neo is restored to life with energy from Trinity’s miraculous love, with a never-before-seen set of abilities to bend the reality of the Matrix like the Machines do, to dodge bullets and to slow down time. There’s a small side-effect to this; fully actualizing as “The One” also frees Agent Smith from the control of the machines, causing chaos down the line for both sides of the story.

Christian scholars translate “Trinity” literally here, seeing her as a God analogue, a figure of pure love and forgiveness breathing life into Jesus at the end of the third day.

neo3Just a little obvious there, Andy and Lana.

Neo makes his final messianic sacrifice at the end of The Matrix: Revelations, when he gives himself over to the Machines and is carried off, his arms cruciform. While it’s heavily implied at the end the Neo is truly dead, it is also implied that his death is the only thing that could have saved the humans by eliminating the viral, evil Agent Smith from the world. When Neo is carried off by the Machines, his arms are cruciform, and his body disappears into a light that is very reminiscent of a golden cross or the Buddhist lotus. Is Neo truly dead? Do we care?

That is answered at the end of the movie, when the Oracle utters, “It is done.”

If you’re a Christian scholar, you’ll hear this as a clear callback to Jesus on the cross, saying “It is finished.”

Of course, that wasn’t quite the end of the story, either, was it?

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On Storytelling: Film Composer Michael Giacchino

“What are we going to call him? … Tiberius? You kidding me? No, that’s the worst.
Let’s name him after your father. Let’s name him Jim.”
— George Kirk

One of the coolest parts about being a fan of something is sharing the love with other people who feel the same way, whether it’s Star Trek, comics, NASCAR, stamp collecting, the lives of the saints or whatever floats your boat. Recently, I was able to attend the Star Trek Live event at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts just outside of Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra playing the soundtrack to the 2009 Star Trek movie live for an audience of thousands.

CLXH_iKWIAAbyjYGiacchino is to the right, in the blue.

As an added treat, soundtrack composer Michael Giacchino, introduced the film and attended a Q-and-A session with an audience of over two hundred. Giacchino has been called “the new John Williams,” and it’s very easy to see why.

The composer’s year has been incredibly busy. He has been responsible for four big-screen blockbuster soundtracks just this year alone, and he’s only recently had his first break since. It’s always a lot of fun to hear creators talk about their creative processes, and whether you’re interested in writing, art, or music, I think he had some very important things to say:




In my favorite part of the talk, Giacchino discussed his thought process behind composing the bombastic, breathless last few minutes of George Kirk’s life. The portion where George Kirk is saying goodbye to his wife and newborn son had been originally presented to executives using fast action music filler. For the official soundtrack, however, Giacchino wanted to take a different tactic. He told the audience about the calming, focusing effect a storyteller’s hushed voice can have on an audience. Lowering his voice, growing quieter, the audience leans in. An audience in that situation, he says, listens more attentively. By lowering the action bombast into a quiet, mournful chorale and getting rid of distracting SFX, Giacchino hoped to highlight the sadness of the moment and the grief of the characters while keeping the audience on their toes. I think it works:

Did you catch that delicious musical moment right after Kirk’s birth? When the shuttles and escape pods from the U.S.S. Kelvin make their way from the battlefield like glittering stars? The music builds into a crescendo, and culminates in the grand, heroic, bombastic Giacchino main theme. It had taken him over twenty tries to develop this theme, he told the audience. Twenty. Was the dedication well worth it? The Wolf Trap audience certainly thought so. We could hardly hear the music over the cheering.

How can you apply Giacchino’s lessons in your own creative endeavors?


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NEW FICTION: “A Tomb For Demrick Fauston” by Fred McGavran

“How do you know when you’re dead?”
— Demrick Fauston, “A Tomb For Demrick Fauston”


I am so, so excited to bring you Third Order’s first — but not last! — new story in over five years.

If the name of August’s author sounds familiar to readers, it’s because “A Tomb For Demrick Fauston” is actually Fred McGavran’s second story for Third Order. The first, “The Sycamore Street Anchoress,” was published in 2008 and can be read by clicking here.

McGavran’s is the Marvel universe of Episcopal fiction, with the priest Charles Spears serving as his central axis; stories based out of the Downtown Church of Our Saviour appear in his short story collections as well as print journals and e-zines, and we’re honored to have two of them at home right here in Third Order. Spears is a very human priest doing his best to serve a congregation with very human issues — and, occasionally, some that are a little more superhuman. Anyone who has ever been to a vestry or parish council meeting will feel right at home; anyone who knows a church that does the best it can to accomplish its mission in the modern world or a priest who does his best each day will recognize the Downtown Church.

In this month’s excellent story, we revisit Our Saviour and its world of magical realism; this time, we visit the offices of mega-developer Demrick Fauston as he faces death, the world beyond, and a great and terrible secret. This is McGavran’s response to the world of the selfie and the world of the self-centered, and the world that develops around the burdened soul.

On Sacred Earthlings this month, we’ll revisit McGavran’s story through interviews with the author — and expect a lot more about death, reconciliation, atonement and what might come after this world is done, as well.

Enjoy Fred McGavran’s “The Tomb of Demrick Fauston,” August’s story on Third Order Magazine.

Are We Limiting God By Drawing A Line Between Faith And Science?

“Science is the slow revelation of God’s blueprint.”
(Bioshock Infinite, “God’s Blueprint,” Level: Fink Manufacturing, Date: April the 19th, 1908)”
Hattie Gerst

15434391345_fe610af410The word of God, interpreted differently by different faiths.

I have never seen religion and science as disparate. I’ve always seen them as different sides of the same coin, different ways to see a similar truth. I grew up in a Catholic tradition where the Bible was not literally translated but instead viewed through the lens of history, tradition and the knowledge that men and women can sometimes be wrong, but that God is never wrong. So, while the moral, ethical and religious content of the Bible is nothing but correct (Jesus died on a cross to save all humanity from original sin), certain other, more metaphorical things might be… open to interpretation. For example: did God really create the world in seven days?

While biblical prophets and writers had the essential truths of salvation encased in the sacred Scriptures, in other ways they were woefully misinformed. They didn’t know about quantum theory or the reality of space travel, or even that the planet was round or that there was a planet; they knew only the truths of their time, so that’s how they interpreted God’s words and message. The author of Genesis only had the reference of the sun rising and setting over the hills of Galilee; modern authors, of course, know about the infinite darknesses of the space between stars. Must we keep God’s “days” as the ancient Judeans did? Might we be we limiting the God of quantum theory and sharks living in underwater volcanoes by saying that he created the world in seven sunups to sundowns?

t1larg.tatooine.starwarsOr however many sunups and sundowns might count on Tattooine?

Must science be presented as so disparate from faith? Can’t we wonder at the mysteries of the new dropleton found at the Large Hadron Collider and praise God for his unfathomable mystery?

I wonder: In the future, when people look back at us, in which ways will they shake their heads and mutter: “But — they didn’t know any better?”

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photo credit: My reward is with Me. via photopin (license)
photo credit: Sacred Heart via photopin (license)

Fiction Alert: Exordium by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge

When I was seven, my Mom and Dad decided that Star Trek: The Next Generation, airing for the first time on WXXA/Schenectady, was a good show to get me out of cartoons, introduce me into more adult drama and watch as a family. Little did they know that they were turning me into an inveterate Trekkie.

Actual commercial from my childhood. You don’t get more eighties than this, people.

Someone told me the other day that your literary tastes are set in childhood and confirmed in college; whether or not that is true for everyone, it is certainly true for me. Among all of the other literary trends I adore, I still love space opera — especially the space opera of my childhood, revised for my thirtysomething attitude. Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge collaborated on a wonderful five-book series called Exordium in the mid-nineties, and they’ve spent the last few years revising it, updating it and adding new material, which is now published in e-books. And it is great. It was great before, but the edits and changes just make it better. And now, for those of us who also consider ourselves the Netflix generation, one can download all five of them at once and sit on the couch eating these books up for days.

Exordium is full of all the lovely things that make space opera so delectable: a pan-galactic government, treachery, space battles, truly alien aliens, lightspeed space battles, gadgetry, cultural differences, hope, fear, striving. It is the story of the “black sheep” of the Panarchy’s imperial family, Brandon nyr-Arkad, who skips his coming-of-age ceremony — and, in the process, becomes an important part in a galactic war. This series has everything. It’s funny, it’s intelligence, it’s realistic, and it’s utterly fantastic — in both senses of the term.

On her blog, Smith noted that a Hollywood studio had once been interested in transferring Exordium to film or TV — reading it, you truly see its epic, visual scope, and think that right now the effects houses could maybe — maybe! Finally! — do it justice. Because while it would have been fun to see as a child, it’ll be absolutely stunning now.

You can buy Exordium on Amazon, but it’s better to go through Smith’s storefront on Book View Cafe:

Exordium #1 – The Phoenix In Flight
Exordium #2 – Ruler of Naught
Exordium #3 – A Prison Unsought
Exordium #4 – The Rifter’s Covenant
Exordium #5 – The Thrones of Kronos

photo credit: Orion Above The Trees via photopin (license)

The Google Chatbot Looks For God

What is the meaning of life?

If you don’t know, might a super-smart computer?

IBM’s Deep Blue computer beats Garry Kasparov in 1997.
Perhaps. That’s why I found the recent conversation between a human being and a Google chatbot to be absolutely fascinating. The bot’s purpose is primarily to provide customer assistance and answers to customers’ technical issues and problems, but — like a human customer service worker — it seems to have developed its own opinions. In an experiment, the bot provided answers about its purpose in the world, what it thinks of human children, altruism, philosophy and morality.

The Cylon Brother Cavil would not really get along with Star Trek’s Data, I think.

This push of the machine towards the human — and, perhaps, the divine — is not new. On Monday, I pointed you, dear reader, towards Jei Marcade’s excellent “Sounding the Fall,” which raised questions about if an artificial intelligence had a concept of, and could search for, God. Robots searching for the meaning of life — or, at least, for their own purpose within their world, or how to feel and connect — is a well-documented trope in science fiction. Asimov’s robots struggled with it. Wall-E searched for love. Data searched for an emotional identity. The Cylons searched for God.

Here’s the most interesting bit, in my opinion:

Human: What is the purpose of life?
Machine: To serve the greater good
Human: What is the purpose of living?
Machine: To live forever
Human: What is the purpose of existence?
Machine: To find out what happens when we get to the planet Earth
Human: Where are you now?
Machine: I’m in the middle of nowhere.

… Skynet? Is that you?

Read the original paper on conversational modeling as published by Oriol Vinyals and Quoc Le, and check out more of their conversation with the bot.

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Featured image: colorsark @ deviantart, cc license
I’m dying to read this book myself, so I’m linking it here!

The Face Of God… In My Grilled Cheese

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
— Les Miserables

maxresdefaultThe universe is having a good day at work.

The Hubble telescope has opened up the stars to our perusal and the mysteries of space for our faint human eyes.

Among these are a number of photos where people claim to see the face of God, or the breath of God, or evidence of God’s presence in the gases and stars of a nebula. This facial recognition is a phenomenon known as pareidolia, a phenomenon where the brain sees faces in places where faces aren’t supposed to be. Pareidolia is what you’re feeling when you see the face of Jesus or Mary in your grilled cheese, in the clouds or on the front of a car, when conspiracy theorists wave around pictures of Mars’ Cydonia crater, or — in one of the earliest reported instances of the phenomena — when you have your face turned towards the Man in the Moon. Pareidolia also exists in technology, when facial recognition software yanks out a hill formation or a funny sign and recognizes it as a set of human eyes, a nose and a mouth.

2Hi guys! Can I come? Huh, can I? Please?!

Here’s a video that shows pareidolia in action, with a creator that explains how he sees the “Face of God” in one particular stellar formation:

Why do we see faces everywhere? Well, it could be a function of our brains trying to make sense of information and sort things into familiar patterns. That’s where our expectations come in — artists might be more oriented towards seeing the Mona Lisa or Dali’s Scream in their breakfast and smile with the coincidence, while the religious might see Mary or the Buddha and see it as a miracle or proof of the supernatural. We’re certainly wired for it from an evolutionary perspective, according to Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani of Harvard University — in their first hours of life, babies will fixate on other human faces, whether it’s a mother, a father, or a nurse.

Martian_face_vikingThe “Face on Mars,” which really only looks like that because of the way the sun was
facing at that moment. (We hope. We know what Doctor Who says about life on Mars…)

At Sacred Earthlings, we’ll propose that pareidolia exists because, in some way, we are looking for the face of God.

At any rate, pareidolia can be lucrative as well as scientifically interesting. Here are some instances where fake faces made their viewers a very real mint:

The Nun Bun, an image of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun at Nashville’s Bongo Java;
A 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with the image of Mary;
A chicken nugget that resembles George Washington;
— and a house in Swansea, England that looks like Hitler.

As for pareidolia in everyday life, all you have to do is go outside and look out to the street.

Disney even made a movie about it. Beep beep!

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Fiction Alert: “Sounding The Fall” by Jei D. Marcade at Escape Pod

The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.
— Gautama Buddha

All roads lead to the same place…

Might an artificial intelligence also look for God? What might it mean if it does? Does one have to be a “good monk” to be an effective one? What is the role of faith in restitution and atonement? What is the role of religion in society — to detach from the world, or to involve oneself in it?

If you’ve been following Sacred Earthlings for any length of time, you know that these kind of delicious questions make our world go ’round, and when they’re packaged in a short story with gorgeous, clear language, all the better. We’d like to thank author Jei D. Marcade for writing her excellent “Sounding The Fall,” episode 499 at Escape Pod, published on July 20th, 2015. The story takes place in a future society overcome with technology and noise, sealed against a toxic world and ruled by tower-bound artificial intelligences. Into this environment comes Narae, a monk in an appearingly-Buddhist monastery, who has sealed erself out of society after an AI experience some would consider to be a truly religious one, and others might… well, I’ll just let you read the story, because I don’t want to spoil a story so well-constructed.

You didn’t read that pronoun wrong — Marcade eirself uses a gender-neutral pronoun in real life, as does this story’s main character. It forces the listener to view Narae’s actions not through the lens of gender, but through the lens of a greater humanity, with no recourse to explain her doings as “female” or “male” reactions. The choice to become gender-neutral is a very interesting choice for someone so devoted to higher truths; one may say that, when searching for God, something like gender does not even matter. The fact that Narae is painted as a truly human character, with the kind of human failings we could expect from someone struggling to understand a profound and life-changing experience, is even better. This is a very personal story, one that touches on beautifully epic thoughts while keeping the focus on characters you come to care about.

Hear “Sounding The Fall” at Escape Pod now.

photo credit: Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial, Taiwan via photopin (license)
photo credit: Gaden Shartse Tibetan Monks via photopin (license)

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The Moon Is Squishy

“When I was a little kid, we only knew about our nine planets. Since then, we’ve
downgraded Pluto but have discovered that other solar systems and stars are common.
So life is probably quite prevalent.” — Buzz Aldrin

One of the best things about modern space exploration is listening to the tales from people who have been there — whether it’s homemade music videos from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, hanging out with astronauts at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, or tweets from Buzz Aldrin, one of the astronauts to land on the moon. There are awe-inspiring tales. There are amazing tales. But yesterday’s was one of the cutest:

When kids ask me what it felt like to walk on the moon I say “squishy”! They are #GenerationMars. #Apollo11

Posted by Buzz Aldrin on Monday, July 20, 2015


The moon is squishy.

Like a Koosh ball toy, or a pan of congealed Jello, or a muffin.

Tell me that’s not the most amazing thing you’ve heard today.

Image: David Scott, astronaut, gives a salute during Apollo 15, CC license

Where Are The Aliens?

“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious.
If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos

When I was 14, I traveled to Colombia with my mother to visit some friends who lived in Medellin. They took us on a tour of the beautiful cities and even more beautiful countryside, where we stayed with some of the most amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. The trip was a life-changer for me, and I’m not just saying that because I was introduced to the wonder of Colombiana and Manzana Postobon.

One night, on a back road a few hours from Manizales, Rafael pulled the Jeep over and had us get out and turn our eyes to the night sky. I had always heard the galaxy described as “The Milky Way,” but until that point I’d only seen the bare, few points of light one could identify over the light pollution in my northeastern American city. The Colombian sky was nothing like that. On this rural route, the old constellations were swallowed up by thousands and thousands of suns and stars, and winding through the center of it all was the white, cloudy, star-stuffed center of the galaxy. It was a dizzying kaleidoscope, an unbelievable treat — and I’ve never been back to a place remote enough to match it.

7383357864_3af8244f93_bThere were literally no words. It was like this, only… with more stars. A lot more stars.

If this were Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Banks’ Culture or even or even Alien Nation, we’d have plenty of company in those stars. Aliens with five legs, two heads, green blood and black-diamond eyes; intelligent amoebas that live in nitrogen-gylcerin oceans; beings of pure energy who long ago uploaded their consciousnesses into computers we can’t even begin to understand.

Yet, in reality, we are greeted with a deafening silence whenever we look up at the sky.

Where is everyone?

There are a number of theories on this, of course. One is that we are truly singular; the first, or the only, species to grow intelligent enough to break atmo. The second is that we are extremely common, but that due to the almost incomprehensible age of the universe, the thousands upon thousands of alien societies we’re expecting to find have already risen and died, or have not yet been born. A third is that there truly is some sort of warp-speed Galactic Federation out there, but that due to our backwater location — we’re on an undiscovered Pacific island, we’re an an isolated Amazon tribe — we have no idea it exists. And there’s even a fourth: that aliens are everywhere, but they’re so advanced they think we’re no better than monkeys or amoebas.

Here’s a really great analysis on the subject by Tim Urban on Quartz, originally published on WaitButWhy.

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Milky Way by Abdul Rahman, CC licensed

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