Dune has been called “Science Fiction’s Supreme Masterpiece.” I say that this tagline is accurate. The depth of the saga is breathtaking, and its majesty is at times overpowering. Here, I’ll take a look at some key themes in the book from a Christian perspective. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.
Prophecy is found throughout the various factions in Dune. The Bene Gesserit is a school composed of women who are working to bring about a prophesied man–but to use him for their own ends. The Fremen, inhabitants of the desert, also have prophecies of one who would bring their world–Arrakis–to fertility and unite the Fremen against their enemies.
Prophecy has a function, which will be fulfilled one way or another. Often, this involves the conscious working of persons towards the fulfillment. This is unlike prophecy in the Bible, which is sometimes fulfilled in quite unexpected ways or even has double applications (such as the virgin birth).
Religion is a theme throughout the book, as there are many different philosophies of life on offer, but few which seem genuine. Herbert’s vision of religion is that it is essentially a function of humanity and one which is constructed through the interplay of power and belief. For example, in one biographical entry about Paul Atreides, the protagonist, the Princess Irulan writes:
You cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion. The power struggle permeates the training, educating and disciplining of the orthodox community… the leaders of such a community… must face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price of maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic. (401)
Hebert also channels much wariness about any engagement of politics and religion throughout the book. Representative is a saying allegedly from the Muad’Dib–the name given to Paul Atreides after he is seen as the fulfillment of various prophecies: “When law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual” (408).
Yet this is not to say there is no genuine belief in the world of Dune. Debates over determinism and divinely decreed futures are placed throughout the book, and Paul Atreides himself struggles with his own role as an apparent Messiah.
The religious mixture of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity found in the various factions provides much food for discussion and engagement for those who want to dialogue on these topics. How should we interact with those of other faiths? What lines of correlation may we see in other religions and how might we use these to engage believers in other faith traditions? These are questions which arise in Dune, and Herbert also offers challenges to believers to see what harm might be in their beliefs and to search out those aspects of their faith which lead astray from the truth.
There are many more philosophical, theological, and political questions which could be asked after reading a masterwork like Dune. A fundamental issue is that of truth. The issues of religion and prophecy listed above make one read the world of the work with a rather ambiguous eye: there seems to be some deception, but some truth, in various aspects of the different factions’ belief systems and what they present to the world as the truth.
From a Christian perspective, there is but one truth and that is found in Jesus Christ. Similarly, even on the world of Arrakis, we find that there is an objective standard of truth, it just isn’t always cut-and-dried as to how we might discern it. It is a reflection of the fallenness of the real world in which often the truth is intermingled with lies. We should work ever towards seeking the truth and working to bring it forward.
Weeks after reading Dune, I can still feel the hot sand under my feet, and still smell the Spice in the air. It is a simply incredible read which demands hours of reflection afterwards. I recommend it highly to you, dear readers. It will get your mind going, and it will also perhaps force some thought into one’s own faith and life–are we living a genuine life of faith, or have we turned it into a perversion?
A Solar System and Cosmos Filled with Life?- A reflection on Ben Bova’s “Farside” and “New Earth”– I explore the notion that life should be expected all over the place in a post that looks at some of Bova’s most recent works.
“Fitzpatrick’s War”- Religion, truth, and forgiveness in Theodore Judson’s epic steampunk tale– I take a look at the book Fitzpatrick’s War, a novel of alternative history with steampunk. What could be better? Check out some of the worldview issues brought up in the book.
I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.
Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Ace, 1990). Originally printed 1965.
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