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The resurrection of Jesus Christ is history’s most monumental event. No wonder it’s a motif storytellers can’t shake—2,000 years later. In our secular age, “resurrection” remains a compelling and oft-explored concept, even if it’s been recast in expressive individualist (“new you!”) terms.
In a post-Christian culture saturated with the cross-pressured residue of religion, it’s fascinating to observe how contemporary movies, for example, riff on resurrection as essentially a metaphor for a fresh start—escaping painful things, breaking free from perceived limitations, and discovering the fully realized self. Shorn of the specificity (and bloody details) of the Christian gospel, “resurrection” becomes a vague proxy for whatever it is someone wants to overcome or become.
Consider how three recent films display visions of “resurrection” in a secular age, but also the emptiness of seeking new life on our own terms. Spoilers follow.
The Matrix Resurrections — Life After Binaries
“Resurrection” is in the very title here, and it fits on a number of levels. The film is a “resurrection” of a franchise many thought finished. It also features the “resurrection” of characters thought dead in the previous films. But as with the original Matrix films, the idea of resurrection is most fundamentally an existential rallying cry. Taking the red pill is the way to be free, to find truth, and to encounter reality outside the controlling narratives in which you’ve been forced to live. The franchise uses the metaphor of a computer simulation (“the Matrix”) to critique the ways “reality” is forced upon us in manipulative ways that serve powerful people. To take the red pill is to free your mind, and your expressive identity, to live in whatever way you deem fit—free of any externally designed parameters.
Shorn of the specificity of the Christian gospel, ‘resurrection’ becomes a vague proxy for whatever it is someone wants to overcome or become.
That the original Matrix trilogy was directed by two brothers (Larry and Andy Wachowski) who have since declared themselves sisters (trans women Lana and Lilly) means the films have been rightly reinterpreted as trans allegories. The newest installment, directed solely by Lana Wachowski, makes the trans themes arguably more explicit. In the film’s climax, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) defiantly emancipates herself from her fake/simulated family life (complete with husband and kids), where she goes by the gendered, bourgeois name “Tiffany.” In a scene channeling trans angst about deadnaming (and recalling the “My name is Neo!” climax of the 1999 original), she responds to someone calling her Tiffany: “I wish you would [bleeping] stop calling me that. I hate that name. My name is Trinity and you better take your hands off of me.” Earlier in the film, as she talks about motherhood with Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity/Tiffany asks, “How do you know if you want something yourself or if your upbringing programmed you to want it?”
In Trinity’s character, as with other characters in the film, “resurrection” is the rejection of pre-programmed norms, desires, expectations, and cisgender labels—and an embrace of total autonomy and individual agency. As an idea, this sounds cool and transgressive (and maybe it was in the late 90s). But is it workable? And is the idea that we are born into existing realities, commitments, and norms—enmeshed within family systems and societal rules from birth—really so detestable?
The film’s trans themes also play out in a muddled discussion of “binaries.” Midway through the film we discover the “humans vs. machines” binary of the first three films is now outmoded. The lines between corporeal bodies and virtual programs are blurry and should be embraced as such. The only character in the film who seems to relish binaries is the villain Smith (Jonathan Groff). “I’ve been thinking about us, Tom,” Smith says to Neo at one point. “Look how binary is the form, the nature of things. Ones and zeros. Light and dark. Choice and its absence. Anderson and Smith.” But even the Anderson/Smith (good/evil) binary is blurred by film’s end.
The thing about abolishing binaries, however, is that it eradicates life’s dynamics, drama, and beauty. When all is a spectrum and nothing is clearly this or that, it’s hard to get your bearings. Dramatic momentum is lost because it’s directionless. Stakes are low. Any sort of coherent moral—or narrative—architecture becomes formless and void. That’s how I experienced The Matrix: Resurrections. It’s an amorphous blob of a movie, full of sleepy action scenes and scatterbrained philosophical one-liners. Even as the film celebrates the secular “resurrection” of being freed (again) to reboot one’s identity (“Another chance” is the film’s final line, uttered by Trinity as we hear a gender-shifted cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up”), it’s not at all convincing that the “new life” of self-programmed reality is more fulfilling than what it replaces.
The Lost Daughter — Life After Motherhood
If The Matrix: Resurrections contains a sort of transgender riff on resurrection, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s acclaimed directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, narrates a depressing vision of “resurrection” in the form of feminist liberation. Well-acted by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley (playing the same woman, Leda, in different time periods), the film’s protagonist is a self-professed “unnatural mom” who makes small talk with pregnant moms-to-be on the beach by bluntly saying things like, “children are a crushing responsibility.” As the film progresses, we gradually discover why Leda is so triggered by watching other moms with their children. Decades earlier, she so loathed mothering her two daughters that she abandoned them, and their father, to pursue her academic career and run off with a new lover (Peter Sarsgaard). Rotten fruit is a recurring motif in the film, to underscore Leda’s ominous feelings toward the fruit of her womb (in direct contrast to Psalm 127:3, “the fruit of the womb a reward”).
But does absconding marital and parental responsibility really lead to new freedom, happiness, and “resurrection” in any form? No. To Gyllenhaal’s credit, the film—based on Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel—doesn’t pretend it does. The film never romanticizes Leda’s choice. It instead suggests that the “freedom” gained by unshackling from motherhood’s “crushing responsibility” only makes Leda more miserable and lonely. So it goes with the false promises of expressive individualism. When mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives ditch commitments in search of the true self, it’s a move that fails to satisfy. It’s an escape but not a solution.
When mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives ditch commitments in search of the true self, it’s a move that fails to satisfy. It’s an escape, but not a solution.
Perhaps unintentionally, The Lost Daughter functions as a scathing critique of aspects of contemporary feminism—specifically the conviction that motherhood is a problem to be solved more than a gift to embrace. To be a mom, or to be a spouse, is in part to embrace a form of death. To say yes to this person, and this responsibility, is necessarily to say no to other options and paths. We can’t do it all. Limits are for our good.
The Lost Daughter is right to acknowledge that motherhood doesn’t come as naturally to some as to others. Most moms probably have occasional thoughts of wanting “another life,” free from the endless demands and unceasingly shrill voices shouting “Mommy! Mommy!” But motherhood, like marriage, is sustained not by feeling but by commitment. True empowerment is choosing to love, and remain committed, in spite of feelings that ebb and flow. To give in to the fickle inertia of our fallen heart—which constantly pulls us from fidelity in all its forms—is to lose agency and be disempowered. To be ruled by restless, carnal desire is to be helplessly passive and subjugated. Far from liberation, unencumbered and unattached autonomy is its own prison.
Spider-Man: No Way Home — Life After Being Canceled
Our restless secular culture is itching for transcendence, escape, and a “way out” of the mess (both personal and societal). Perhaps the prevalence of “reboot” films, in addition to being a Hollywood money grab, also speaks to our current resonance with the idea of a re-do or, as Trinity puts it at the end of Resurrections, “another chance.”
The pop culture appeal of the metaverse is also evidence of this secular resurrection. If things aren’t going well in this timeline or this reality—perhaps we’ve made some mistake that gets us canceled—maybe there’s another version of me in another timeline, where I can do better. Spider-Man: No Way Home is just the latest example. “Resurrection” here comes in the form of Peter Parker/Spider-Man getting a fresh start after the world’s memory of him is erased. In this case his “resurrection” is more virtuous than those we see in The Matrix or The Lost Daughter, because he’s rebooting less for his own sake than out of sacrificial love for others (indeed, his own “rebirth” comes at significant cost to him).
Still, the crushing pressure of “getting it right this time” will chase Peter for however many more reboots he gets. Is that really the sort of resurrection we want? Also, the ease with which “clean slate” renewal is magically attained in the film (both for Peter and for the array of villains who are given a second chance) strikes me as a bit too cheap. The villain plot arc especially bugged me, not because any villain is too far gone to be redeemed (we’re all depraved sinners after all), but because the reality of sin and evil feels psychologized and pacified, in the manner of recent “rehabilitating villain” origin stories like Joker or Cruella. The neutering of evil always diminishes the drama of redemption. This is probably why, for all its entertaining merits, Spider-Man: No Way Home felt to me more like a low-stakes trifle than a thrilling epic. Its riff on resurrection is closer to Christianity than some, but still nowhere near the real thing.
Resurrection in Christ — Eternal Life After Death
The Christian resurrection is profound because it doesn’t minimize our sin or sugarcoat our undeserving state. We can have life after death, but not because we deserve it or because we can pull the right strings (or cast the right spell) to attain it. All we can do is repent and be in union with the one who does deserve it: Jesus Christ. But this doesn’t play well in a contemporary culture convinced of its own self-creating, self-renewing power.
This is the world, after all, where no blemish is so great that it can’t be corrected with Photoshop (or plastic surgery); no “biology” so binding that it can’t be ignored if it conflicts with one’s feelings; no “truth” so inconvenient that it can’t be discredited on some partisan technicality. No, the Age of Authenticity abides no intrusions into autonomy or obstacles to unfettered freedom. If I want a “new me” on my terms and timeline, by God, I will get it. Or so goes the logic of our age.
The Age of Authenticity abides no intrusions into autonomy or obstacles to unfettered freedom.
But this self-prescribed resurrection always fails us. We cannot resurrect ourselves. True, eternal freedom and liberation is a gift we receive, not a prize we fight for and earn. And it’s a resurrection that lasts.
While these films miss the mark, it’s good that the need and longing for resurrection is palpable and pervasive in pop culture. Christians ought to engage these expressions but redirect them away from the self—and toward the salvific Christ.
The answer to a broken self is not just a reconceived self. It’s a new self. It’s crucifying the old self. It’s losing our life to find it. Not on our own terms but on Christ’s (Rom. 6:5–11), and not for our own glory, but for his (Rom. 9:22–24).