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About halfway through the umpteenth sweeping battle sequence in Dune: Part 2, I thought to myself: I’m bored. Oh yes, I know: the cinematography is amazing! The production design incredible! The acting top-notch! The directing visionary! Meh. I was bored. Upon reflection, I think my “meh” might have nothing to do with cinematic craft. It has to do with what we could call narrative saturation.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Frank Herbert’s original book Dune nor its sequels. There are plenty of Dune geeks out there, though, and of course once the movie came out (following on 2021’s Dune: Part One), the Dune geeks had a great time debating whether director Denis Villeneuve got things right or ruined the story, etc. One of the debates I overheard on social media focused on whether or not we’re supposed to cheer along with the main protagonist, Paul Atreides, or maintain a critical distance from him. In other words: are we supposed to enjoy this version of the old messianic “Chosen One” figure? or disdain him?

In the original novel, Paul is the result of many generations of careful genetic manipulation and propaganda by a quasi-religious sect of women-priestesses. They’re trying to create a messiah figure to, I don’t know, free the galaxy or something? The galaxy is ruled—of course it is—by an emperor and a few powerful family clans who are all defending their control over the most valuable commodity in the galaxy: worm spice. No, really: worm spice. The spice allows space travel and hallucinogenic experiences—it’s sci-fi, just go with it.

The narrative arc of Dune (the book as well as the two recent movies) deals with a big fight over the spice planet, Arrakis. (Critic Glen Weldon cheekily calls the story a “spice opera.”) Two warring families are fighting for control of it, and the hideously depraved family wins temporarily, but the native people of the planet, the Fremen, are sick and tired of being colonized. Paul winds up in the planet, gets embedded with the Fremen, and leads them to victory over the nasty overlords, all with numerous sweeping battle scenes and some inexplicable but impressive hand-to-hand combat moments. Hooray!

We know this story; we love this story. The Scrappy-but-Virtuous Underdogs beat the Gigantic Evil Empire. It’s Star Wars, it’s Braveheart, it’s Independence Day, it’s many other epic tales. Moreover, it’s a narrative we have been well-trained to watch. We know whom to hate, we know whom to cheer.

However, Herbert himself was actually trying to tell an anti-messiah story. He wanted to show the complications and dangers of Paul’s transformation into a kind of Chosen One/White Savior-ish figure. Apparently, no one quite got that part when the first book came out in 1965. So Herbert wrote Dune Messiah to make his critique of messiah figures more apparent.

Well, Villeneuve’s movies are apparently having the same trouble with audiences, despite Villeneuve’s efforts to telegraph that Paul (played by Timothée Chalamet) is not the straightforwardly cheer-worthy hero we want him to be. Villeneuve makes the religious propaganda aspect of the story entirely clear: all the prophecies about someone fitting Paul’s description turning up to save the Fremen?—that was all planted by the priestess ladies generations ago. And Villeneuve also turns a character from the novels, Paul’s Fremen girlfriend, Chani, into a much more interesting figure. Chani (played by Zendaya) is now a tough guerilla fighter herself as well as a religious skeptic—she doesn’t believe those prophecies, even less when they’re about her new hottie, Paul. And when, at the end of the movie, Paul more or less tells Chani, “I’ll love you forever, darling, but I have to marry the Emperor’s daughter now,” we are invited to be utterly peeved off along with Chani. Then again, the emperor’s daughter is played by Florence Pugh, so … who can blame Paul? This sort of thing is inevitable in this kind of story. We know that.

So commentators have been noting that, despite Villeneuve’s efforts to complicate our feelings toward Paul as a messiah figure, we don’t want complication. We want our heroes! So what if they’re a little bit cynically manipulative and they ditch they girlfriends! Audiences are still “reading” the movie like, “Hooray! good guys win!”

One guy on Twitter/X, @AJA_Cortes, summarized the problem thus:

Based on the audience response, people did not care about the “messiah heroism is BAD” plotting. They want to see Paul WIN. At this point you’ve spent 5 hours watching him get his whole life taken from him, watched Baron Harkonnen kill his dad, watched a bunch of sexual sadists butchering people, seen Paul go through a narrative arc of naive boy to seasoned warrior and leader, and now he can lead his people into Ultimate Victory as the ONE and become Master of the Universe? People enjoyed the film for a reason. It is INSPIRING. It is the Triumph of fulfilling one’s Destiny. It is a Good man defeating Evil Men.

As Glen Weldon and the Pop Culture Happy Hour panel noted, this response, while conditioned and therefore unsurprising, also has a lot do with the terrific acting and aesthetic beauty of Zendaya and Chalomet. Zendaya takes crap from no one while still letting the audience see her emotional throughline. And Chalamet broods through the film with “raven hair,” Weldon writes, that “couldn’t seem to help but swoop Byronically.” Who among us can step back in critical distance from a handsome hero we know very well we’re supposed to love?

Movies are about story-telling, but they thrive on sensation: the gorgeous actors’ faces in close-up, the design detail on the costumes and sets, the stunning landscapes, the special effects in the action sequences. Dune 2 really is incredible movie-making. The Paul-rides-the-giant-worm scene is worth seeing on a big screen, even if you don’t care about the rest of the movie.

So why was I bored?

I think I’m just bored with the story line in which violence solves the problem: big battle scenes, hand-to-hand combat. I’m bored with stories in which people want power for the sake of power, and someone comes along and overthrows the Big Bad Power through scrappy, strategic violence and then, inevitably, all the premises of power and battle and dominance remain stubbornly present, with the players just shuffled around. Nothing really changes. I’m bored, in general, with stories about power conflicts and masculine heroes who wield violence to solve the conflicts. These narratives work great in movies because they provide plenty of huge-scale sensation. But our media culture is utterly saturated with these stories, and … eh. I’m done.

I’ve been thinking about all this again today, on the eve of Palm Sunday. At this point, I might be tempted to declare: And so my friends, Jesus offers us an alternative narrative! Which is true. You have to appreciate Jesus countering the theatrics of power—plenty real in his day, even before the advent of cinema—with the theatrics of humility. And who doesn’t love a good donkey?

Jesus’ narrative deliberately refuses us the satisfaction of good guys beating bad guys through violence and power. Well and good. Unfortunately, Jesus’ counternarrative involves martyrdom. Which might be one reason why Christians sometimes try to fit Jesus into the Dominating-Hero-in-Good/Evil-Battle trope.

The truth is, I understand the resistance to Jesus’ vulnerability and weakness on the cross. I’m not wild about conforming my life to a narrative shape that says: You can’t beat the Gigantic Evil Empire on a tidy narrative timescale. The only way to begin turning the tables is: martyrdom.

Some people understand the martyrdom story all too well and bravely live into it. They take up their cross and they defy whatever evil empire they face through non-violent sacrifice. I’m thinking of Gandhi. I’m thinking of the courageous souls who walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in March of 1965—incidentally just a few months before Dune was published.

If Jesus made the once-for-all sacrifice, though, isn’t it possible that martyrdom isn’t the only counter-narrative to dominate-with-violence? Couldn’t whatever evil empire is plaguing us, real or metaphorical, be dis-integrated some other way, even if slowly? I want to believe that’s true, at least sometimes. I think history offers examples. The problem is: that’s a less dramatic, less sensational, much harder story to tell, and thus imagine, and thus enact.

The great sci-fi writer Ursula LeGuin wrote about this problem in her famous 1986 essay “The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction.” Basically, the essay suggests that we are obsessed with telling stories about spears, so to speak—about singular heroes (usually male), domination, violence, winning. However, the first important human tool was not the spear but the vessel, the carrier bag, in which things are gathered and held, and from which things are shared. Couldn’t we tell more “carrier bag” stories, in which a bunch of people work through the messiness and eventually figure out how to solve their differences and move on together? If we can’t tell those stories, how can we imagine our way into living beyond systems of domination, violence, and indeed, martyrdom?

The problem, of course, is that heroic spear stories are fabulously exciting to tell. Writer Siobhan Letty comments:

While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account. The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations—they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?

I don’t know. Maybe I do. I’m well and truly sick of the narrative in which some messianic violence-wielder wins in a spectacular clash of forces, and oh well about all the collateral damage to people (and everything else, actually). Instead, I want to imagine other ways to live, to solve problems, to make change. I want to imagine that the real Messiah, on his humble donkey, engaged the necessity of martyrdom but also, because of the Resurrection, opened to us the possibilities of other, better ways.

Image credit, featured image: Niko Tavernise/Warners Bros.
Image credit, scary Jesus: Will Novosedlik/Midjourney
Image credit, donkey: Kathleen Tyler Conklin/Modern Farmer
The quotation from @AJA_Cortes is slightly edited for grammatical clarity.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Most excellent. The Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and then the movie . . . The History of the Church, Part 1! But most excellent.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Yes. Thank-you for saying this, and for saying it so beautifully.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Absolutely marvelous, as always. Thank you, Debra.

  • RZ says:

    “….bored with the story line in which violence solves the problem.” A quote for the ages! Bored and then some.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thanks again, Debra. I think I know now why I’ve never seen Terminator, despite Jake Peralta’s constant reminders of what I didn’t want to know that I’d missed. But the best part of the very first Dune movie years ago was riding the worms. Always wanted to do that.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Oh that worm bit in the 1984 movie is cheesy and dumb compared to the worm-ride in the new movie! (How long, do you suppose, before worm-riding is an attraction at Disney World?)

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Your essay reminded me of the first chapter of Robert Farrar Capon’s book about the parables where he distinguishes between straight right-handed power vs. paradoxical left-handed power. Jesus’ left-handed power is more open, intuitive, and imaginative, but looks to most of the world as weakness and non-intervention (as in turn the other cheek). We just have to have faith and trust in Jesus and be willing to die. Not sure how to turn that into a movie that isn’t just full of martyrs and other misfits but that’s how it goes.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Right on, Debra!
    Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount does not include “Blessed are the powerful, for they shall rule the earth.”

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    As a grandparent I’ve had to sit through The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe a few time. I thought it was a horrible thing to foist on young minds….for the very reason. Good triumphs over evil on a battlefield.
    Aslon is a lion, not a lamb. Violence wins. Consistent maybe with a portrayal of a second coming of a Jesus swinging a sword and wearing jackboots instead of washing feet and hugging the unloved. It’s no wonder Christianity suffers from holy schizophrenia. Bombs for Israel …. hasten Armeggedon…. and air dropping bologna sandwiches to starving Gazans to show we’re also compassionate people. Jesus would surely shake his head in disbelief, saying “You just didn’t get it.”

  • Pam Adams says:

    Debra, I had the same reaction to the book and movies. I originally read Dune many years ago and saw the movie and really liked them. Knowing Dune was coming out again I reread it and was bored also. I watched the first movie and was not impressed. I did like the second movie much more but not like I did the original version. I know I have changed to be more peace loving and respectful of life. I do remember the next books (I have not reread them) as clearing things up. They are Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. I might give them a read, but I am not sure about that because, just like you, I don’t see any of the gospel in the premise.

  • Rana (Saba-)Hekman says:

    With family members huddled in churches in Gaza for over 6 months, and multiple generations of us enduring trauma and suffering … I’m grateful this was posted and reposted on Facebook and from Calvin University a place close to my family’s heart.
    We desperately need art and spaces to discuss art/ as in theater, film, etc with “talkback” spaces.
    Please, God is able to do exceedingly more than we ask or imagine ✨🙏🏼✨
    Thank you Jesus, come quickly Lord Jesus.
    “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that crushed it.”
    -Mark Twain

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