Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Dune and the Making of a Messiah

Art by bumhand

Art by bumhand

Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of those books that appears on every serious science fiction lover’s bucket list (or, at least, it should). It’s a winner of both a Hugo award and a Nebula award, and it deeply influenced the whole science fiction genre. I could make a strong argument that without Dune and its two sequels, there would be no Star Wars, though I’ll save that for another time. Yet Dune doesn’t occupy that kind of place in pop culture; we don’t often hear “Herbert” accompanying names like “Asimov” and “Bradbury” (although we should).

Dune is the story of Paul Atreides and his ascendancy to the Messiah-like Muad’Dib during a geopolitical conflict known as the “Arrakis Affair”. That may sound pretty dry; I assure you it’s not. It’s more like dropping Warrior Jesus into A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for you HBO peeps), set on Tattooine. There are many things I can say about Dune. But since today is the day Western Christians celebrate Easter, I want to examine how Paul grows into his role as a Christ figure, limited to the first book of the trilogy. In fact, it’s the ways in which he breaks the stereotype that make Dune so interesting.

Spoilers for Dune after the jump, of course.

“Dune” is another name for the desert planet Arrakis. There are no bodies of water, it never rains, and there are plenty of giant sand worm monsters. Set about 20,000 years in our future, the Dune universe is controlled by a delicate balance between a feudal system of Great Houses, Minor Houses, a Guild of traders, and the Bene Gesserit religious order, with the Padishah Emperor at the very top. While there are a few smugglers on Arrakis who eke out a meager existence, the native Fremen people live beyond the edges of the Emperor’s control. No one would bother with Arrakis if it weren’t the only source of melange, or “spice”. The best description of spice might be “a combination of petroleum and cocaine.” Spice is delicious, highly addictive, and vital for space travel. Withdrawal from spice addiction always results in death.

The Bene Gesserit religious order of women derive their abilities from spice, coupled with intense physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual training. Many can detect lies, influence people, see the future, and the most powerful Reverend Mothers share some level of telepathy. They serve as important advisers, wives, and concubines to powerful people. But the all-female Bene Gesserit order cannot see into the masculine aspect of spiritual existence, so for thousands of years they have been scheming with a system of selective breeding with the hopes of producing a being with the ability to see into both masculine and feminine spiritual aspects, the “Kwisatz Haderach”.

Paul of House Atreides, the teenage son of the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica and the Duke Leto Atreides, is rumored to be this mythical person. House Harkonnen has controlled much of Arrakis’ spice for nearly a century, and when the Emperor gives control of Arrakis to House Atreides, it reignites the old feud between the two Houses. Betrayed to the Harkonnens by one of their own, Jessica and Paul are forced to flee into the desert. The Bene Gesserit send missionaries to plant religions on planets to protect their members in times of peril, and Arrakis is no exception. Between the Bene Gesserit mythology implanted in the Fremen community and Duke Leto’s intial attempts to ally with these desert people, Paul and Jessica find a place among them. Paul is then able to begin planning for revenge and restoration of his House.

"Pantokrator" icon, one artist's attempt to capture Christ's dual nature.

“Pantokrator” icon, one artist’s attempt to capture Christ’s dual nature.

Before we consider how Paul functions as a Messiah, it’s helpful to understand two points of Christian theology. First, most Christians believe Jesus Christ was God incarnate, that Jesus was fully divine and fully human at the same time. What most Christians have trouble agreeing on is exactly what that experience was like for Jesus. What happens when you combine an infinite deity with a human being? Did Jesus know everything about everything from the very beginning of his life? Maybe, but the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life in the Bible do mention that he learned and grew with age. Did Jesus never really have a full grasp of divine knowledge, and had to have faith and hope that God the Father wasn’t just going to abandon him as he died on the cross? Maybe, but the Gospels make it seem like he had a pretty good idea of what the plan was. There is a whole spectrum full of interpretations of what being an incarnate God is like, and they all draw from scriptural evidence.

Second, most Christians believe that the central message of Jesus’s ministry had to do with the Kingdom of God. In the Gospels, Jesus spends a lot of time preaching about how the Kingdom of God is coming, uses parables (analogies) to describe what the Kingdom of God is like, and is pretty clear that the Kingdom of God isn’t the way it was in Christ’s present day. Again, there’s a wide variety of ways to interpret what Jesus means. On one hand, the Kingdom of God might refer to heavenly rewards for the faithful, a new creation after the end of the world with eternal life for the just and eternal suffering for the wicked. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God might refer to the way we live our lives in this world, that we’re supposed to fight injustice and serve others in order to make this world more closely resemble the way a loving God wants us to live. Both interpretations can be supported by the Bible, as well as answers that fall somewhere in between.

When Paul is forced to flee into the desert, the spice-rich environment spurs a kind of spiritual awakening. He had always experienced a sensitivity to higher consciousness and visions of the future, but for the first time he becomes fully aware of his ability to sense reality on a higher plane. His personality changes, and his mother isn’t quite sure what to make of him. When he joins the Fremen community, he easily adapts to the strict ascetic desert lifestyle. He continues to grow and understand his own superhuman abilities. Christians have been going to the desert since the very beginning, in search of enlightenment brought from time spent alone or in an intentional community, living an ascetic lifestyle. This models Christ’s own forty days alone in the desert after his baptism. When Christ emerges, he begins his public ministry. Paul gives us one model of looking at how Christ may have come to understand his own divine nature in the desert.

It’s in the desert that Paul sees a vision of a jihad, a holy war, spread out through the whole universe in his name. The thought terrifies him, and he works hard to avoid it. He learns from the Fremen that a planetary ecologist showed them the possibility of transforming Arrakis into a green and fertile planet, with rivers of water flowing freely. Paul intends to help the Fremen realize their vision once he reclaims his rightful place as Duke on Arrakis. Paul’s “Kingdom of God” is an eschatological vision of paradise, one that can be brought about in a very physical way in a barren, desolate world.

In Paul, we have two distinct interpretations of two mysterious points of Christian theology. We have a young man coming to terms with his unique, god-like abilities and a message for him to carry. At the climax of the story, Paul is challenged to fight to the death by Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, in the presence of the Emperor. It’s in this moment that Paul realizes that he can’t see for certain if the confrontation will result in his victory or death. But what he can see for certain is that no matter which outcome, the legendary myth surrounding his person in the collective consciousness of the people has grown so large that the jihad cannot be stopped. If he dies, Paul will be a martyr. If he lives, he can become the Emperor. Looking at Paul through a Christological lens, we see a clear parallel to Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemene before he is taken away to be tried (and convicted) of blasphemy. Paul is a Christ who sees the future and is powerless to stop it. What he can choose is either martyrdom or power.

Jesus Christ, as Christians know, chooses martyrdom. The Gospels tell the story of a compliant, passive Christ who is tried and convicted of blasphemy, is sent to the governor of Judea. The governor, already dealing with problems of insurrection, condemns Christ to death by crucifixion. Paul Atreides chooses power. Paul kills Feyd-Rautha and demands the Emperor’s daughter’s hand in marriage—solidifying his own role as future Emperor. And of course Paul chooses power: while it’s textually ambiguous whether or not Christ’s Kingdom of God is meant to be largely of this world or the next, Paul’s “Kingdom of God” is manifesting a physical paradise on Arrakis and restoring his House to power. This leaves Paul able to direct the course of the jihad. Both Jesus and Paul rose to become incredibly influential religious figures, and both challenged the status quo of the ruling class. But the key difference between them is the way they fully settle into their messianic roles. In Christianity, it’s only in martyrdom that Christ truly becomes the people’s messiah. Paul takes the complete opposite course of action, fully realizing his role as Messiah when he takes on the mantle of as much temporal power as he can.

Dune ends rather abruptly. Immediately after killing his Harkonnen challenger, Paul brokers a political marriage agreement with the Emperor; Paul is to marry the Emperor’s daughter, and her dowry is to include fabulous rewards for all of Paul’s men. We don’t get to see what Paul does now that he’s become the Messiah (that’s left to the sequel, Dune Messiah). Christianity preaches love and service to the poor, but once its leaders gained political power, great and terrible things were done in its name. If a religion founded by a martyr can’t avoid the perils of power, I don’t have much hope for Paul. He’s clearly poised to become the leader he often feared he would be. But Paul no longer fears this, neither the jihad nor his leadership. Has our Messianic Hero become a villain? In 1985, Herbert commented: “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.” I’ll have to read Dune Messiah to see if my suspicions are confirmed.

dune messiah


Follow Lady Geek Girl and Friends on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook!