God-talk after The Matrix, part II

Predicting the future is dangerous, especially when a world-be prophet puts her thoughts in writing.

But that's what author Phyllis Tickle did two decades ago when she wrote: "Books are about to become the portable pastors of America." That turned out to be true. Now, in light of "The Matrix," she is updating that prophecy about how Americans talk about faith.

It helps to flashback to a statistical earthquake that rattled the book business.

In 1992 the company that dominates sales to libraries saw a stunning 92 percent rise in its religious trade. Then in 1994 religious sales by the giant Ingram Book Group soared 246 percent. In a few years this niche grew 500 percent, said Tickle, who has covered this trend for Publishers Weekly and in several of her two-dozen books.

The growth "was malignant," she said. "Bookstore owners kept telling me people would vanish into that back corner where the religious shelves were and stay for hours. When they did that, you just knew they should have been going to see their pastors. But they weren't doing that."

These seekers didn't buy into doctrines and denominations. They didn't want "theology." They wanted new ideas, images and spiritual stories. They wanted what Tickle began calling "God-talk" and millions started finding it with the help of cappuccino and Oprah.

And in 1999 everything changed again.

"When 'The Matrix' came out, it became the best treatise on God-talk that has ever been made," said Tickle. "It could not have been done with a book. It could not have been done with words. ... The primacy of place in creative, cutting-edge God-talk has shifted from non-fiction in the 1980s to fiction in the 1990s and now it is shifting again to the world of the visual, especially to the kinds of myths and stories we see in movies such as 'The Matrix.' We're talking about the manipulation of theological fantasies and this is a natural fit for visual media."

"Theology," she said, is found in the world of doctrine, history, academic credentials and ecclesiastical authority. But "God-talk" thrives far from most pulpits. Its standards are flexible, evolving, user-defined and rooted in small communities. This is a true "democratization of theology," she said, and can been seen as an extension of Protestantism's division into thousands and thousands of independent denominations, movements and churches.

But God-talk leaders are more likely to work in popular media than in religious institutions. As creators of "The Matrix" trilogy, Andy and Larry Wachowski are touching millions of lives. The first film grossed $460 million worldwide and shaped countless movies, computer games, music videos and commercials. Now, "The Matrix Reloaded" -- on a record 8,517 screens -- topped $130 million at the box office in its first four days. "The Matrix Revolutions" hits in November.

Writing in the Journal of Religion and Film, James L. Ford of Wake Forest University argues that these films offer a powerful fusion of themes from Buddhism, clashing brands of Christianity, Greek mythology, cyber-culture and legions of other sources.

"It is impossible to know what narratives will become the foundation myths of our culture," noted Ford, in his "Buddhism, Christianity and The Matrix" essay. "But epic films like The Matrix are the modern-day equivalent of The Iliad-Odyssey ... or various biblical myths. Indeed, one might well argue that popular films like 'The Matrix' and 'Star Wars' carry more influence among young adults than the traditional religious myths of our culture."

Tickle can trace this trend for decades, from the generic God of Alcoholics Anonymous to the nearly generic God of "Touched By An Angel," from the rise of the self-help publishing industry to waves of immigration that brought the mysteries of Eastern religion to Hollywood.

Mainstream religious leaders can argue about the ultimate meaning of all this, she said. But they cannot ignore it.

"The Matrix" has "posited a new theological framework," she said. "Now we have to find out the details. What is the primal cause for this world? Where is God? Who is God? Does what is going on in these films support or oppose a basic Judeo-Christian approach to morality? We don't know the answers to these questions yet"