The Gospel According to Dune

An “Ogre and Saint”: Thank God, Jesus Alone Is Messiah

Zack Verham / 5.14.20

Note: Dune spoilers ahead!

It has been delightful to see Dune re-enter the public consciousness. It happened in response to the recent Vanity Fair articles about the upcoming film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic. Although David Lynch’s 1984 theatrical release *ahem* exists, I haven’t been able to make it through the whole thing, and Dune is my favorite book of all time. His was a controversial adaptation, to say the least, and it injects a healthy dose of trepidation into my not-well-hidden mania for Denis Villeneuve’s current attempt to bring Arrakis to the big screen. My excitement stems from Villeneuve’s track record (Arrival, Bladerunner 2049), and the extremely powerful cast (lil’ Timmy Chalamet, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, etc. etc.), but fear churns deep in the sands of my soul like the Maker because any attempt to translate Dune will be tremendously difficult. Much of the beauty of Herbert’s original novel comes from experiencing the interior psychology of the characters — a narrative beat which is uniquely fitted to the prose of Herbert’s text.

As an example, take one of the main protagonists of the novel: Paul Atredies. Among many other things, Paul becomes a pseudo-messianic figure, referred to as either the Kwisatz Haderach or Muad’Dib by various factions in the Dune universe. For context: As Paul learns to live on the desert planet Dune throughout the book, he fulfills various messianic prophecies among the battle-hardened native peoples known as the Fremen. These prophecies, however, were planted on Dune generations ago by the same faction that has created Paul through centuries of careful genetic sculpting by way of cross-marriages between powerful feudal houses. Paul is the culmination of a grand genetic experiment which attempted to “create” a messiah. This process is completely outside of his control, and through the effects of his lineage he is able to enter Dune as its Christ figure, earning the trust of the Fremen before leading them in vicious warfare against the imperial throne and the systems that support it (oh, hello there, Star Wars, nice to see you).

Obviously, the plot itself isn’t simple. Good luck trying to explain any of that without the rather large appendix tucked into the end of the novel. But additionally, because Paul’s arc is defined by his internal struggle over who he is and what he will become, most of his actions are inscrutable without access to his realtime headspace during his rise to messiahship.

An in-fiction historical account of Paul’s messianic rise, written external to Paul’s psychological landscape, shows how utterly enigmatic, unflattering, and even barbaric some of his “messianic” actions seem to an outsider looking in:

He was a warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, the fox and the innocent, chivalrous, ruthless, less than a god, more than a man. There is no measuring Muad’Dib’s motives by ordinary standards. … Remember, we speak now of the Muad’Dib who ordered battle drums made from his enemies’ skins, the Muad’Dib who denied the conventions of his ducal past with the wave of the hand, saying merely: ‘I am the Kiwsatz Haderach. That is reason enough.’ (757)

But if we step outside of the explicit dialogue of the book and look at Paul’s non-quoted self-speak, we are given a different interpretative lens entirely. Peering into Paul’s mind, we see the self-condemning voice of someone who is trapped in systems which are beyond his control:

But he felt no letup in the cold precision of his being. He sensed that his new awareness was only a beginning, that it was growing. The sense of terrible purpose he’d first experienced with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim pervaded him. His right hand — the hand of remembered pain — tingled and throbbed. Is this what it is to be their Kwisatz Haderach? he wondered. (307)

While there is a lot that could be unpacked here, I want to briefly sketch out some thoughts on how Dune inverts the notion of messiahship as Christianity expresses it, before I go back to obsessively refreshing Google for more news on the upcoming movie.

Paul’s messiahship is pretty explicitly (and I believe at least somewhat intentionally) the photo-negative of the Christian messiah. Paul becomes the political and military messiah that Jesus explicitly refuses to be, and he leads a terrible trans-planetary military conquest by the end of the novel, rising up “against the Romans,” in the Biblical imagery. Similarly, Paul obviously rules “from above” when he usurps the imperial throne at the end of the novel, rather than “alongside of” or “below” as Jesus does while he ministers in Palestine among the poor and outcast.

Jesus clarifies that, within the Godhead, messiahship is not the political and economic kingship undertaken by Paul by the end of the novel. Paul’s messiahship intentionally manipulates and stokes the flames of religious power through messianic prophecy to meet his own goals, while Jesus uses prophecy to contradict and subvert conventional religious power. Consider the messiah of Dune:

[Paul] glanced back, noted that the wounded and dead had been removed, and he thought bitterly that here was another chapter in the legend of Paul-Muad’Dib. I didn’t even draw my knife, but it’ll be said of this day that I slew twenty Sardaukar [elite imperial soldiers] by my own hand. (688)

And note his rapid transition from bitterness to authoritative control:

The Fremen around the hall glanced knowingly at each other. Did the legend not say: “And his word shall carry death eternal to those who stand against righteousness.” (776)

Contrast these instances with the messiah who preached and ministered in ancient Palestine:

The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,
For he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
That the blind will see,
That the oppressed will be set free,
And that the time of the LORD’s favor has come. (Luke 4:17-19)

Where Paul’s internal dialogue obfuscates his character and reveals his powerlessness in the face of forces outside or beyond himself, Jesus, as the external Logos which expresses the internal dialogue of the Godhead, clarifies messiahship as something which completely subverts the messiah that Paul eventually becomes. Jesus is the expression of messiahship as grace, companionship, and sacrifice, not authoritarian control and manipulative skewing of narrative.

In Dune, Herbert expresses deep care and thought about religion, and in Dune’s sequels, the danger of Paul’s blighted messiahship comes into clear focus. Thank God that through Jesus’ clarification of God’s definition of messiahship and God’s feelings towards us, we receive nothing but good news, grace upon grace.

Reflections on internal / external dialogue and its relationship to messiahship run all throughout Herbert’s novel. It is one of the strongest narrative beats in both Dune and its sequels, and all I hope is that the Villeneuve adaptation is able to capture it.

Now I’m just praying that God will pour unending mercy over this upcoming flick — please please please please please God. Please. Don’t let my heart be broken again. Please.

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5 responses to “The Gospel According to Dune”

  1. David Zahl says:

    I pray that same prayer, Zack. Maybe one day Lynch will allow us to see the rumored 4 hour cut…

  2. Sam Paschall says:

    May the Lord’s face shine upon DV’s adaptation! Wonderful words, contrasting Jesus’s self-possession and Paul’s fatalism. Real nice Clark!

  3. Ian says:

    Without doubt that closing paragraph is one of the earnest prayers I’ve ever read, and one I echo wholeheartedly.

  4. […] of praise. With that in mind, I wanted to highlight my buddy Zack Verham’s essay “The Gospel According to Dune,” written in response to the film’s promo buzz last year. You might already know that […]

  5. […] No, what I’m talking about is the way author Frank Herbert weaved religion into the fabric of the universe he created in his masterpiece of science fiction, first published between 1963 and 1965 in serial form. In fact, the central protagonist of the novel is very obviously a savior, a prophesied messiah figure, though, in the words of one writer, one imbued with a “blighted messiahship.” […]

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