Dune Part Two: What Good Is a Messiah Without a God?

By Timothy Furnish Published on March 6, 2024

Dune Part Two is the biggest movie in the world right now. It’s the sequel to 2021’s first Dune film, finishing the story told in Frank Herbert’s huge, and hugely influential, 1965 novel. A third movie is already being planned (which will incorporate Herbert’s second novel, Dune Messiah). What The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy, Dune is to science fiction. (Besides the original novel, Herbert wrote five more. And there have been 17 more prequels and sequels, penned by his son, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson.)

A Long, Long Time in the Future…in a Galaxy Very, Very Close

The first book and thus these first two movies are set 23,000 years in the future. One major character’s reference to the year 10,191 is misleading, for humans devise another calendar besides the Christian one. (Even when disguised as “CE,” “Common Era,” the baseline date is the same as “Anno Domini”: the birth year of Jesus Christ.) It is based on the creation of the Spacing Guild, which allows for instantaneous travel between star systems, in 13,000 AD.

Religion, Space Travel, and Politics!

Christianity survives, as do many other religions, in the galaxy-spanning human civilization Herbert envisions. In fact, religion is a major motif in Dune Two, just as it is in the book, along with interstellar travel and “galaxio” politics. Also, unlike most other epic science fiction works, humans are the only sentient beings in Herbert’s Duniverse. So humanity’s problems, indeed its enemies, are created by humans themselves. The greatest existential threat to humans had been sentient computers and killer robots. These emerged thousands of years before the time of the movie, and were defeated at great cost. In their place, mankind developed specialized people to do calculations — notably Mentats, “human computers” and Spacing Guild Navigators. The latter, in order to pilot ships instantly between solar systems, require the drug “spice,” or “mélange,” produced only on the desert planet Arrakis — or “Dune.” Hence that planet’s key importance to the vast Empire.

The Personal Motive

This movie picks up just where the other left off. Paul Atreides and his mother, Jessica, have survived the brutal slaughter of most of his ducal family and their supporters by the Harkonnens — a cult-like and savage but highly intelligent people who have long hated the noble Duke Leto Atreides, Paul’s father, and are helped by the Galactic Emperor. Paul and his mother are saved by the Bedouin-like Fremen, who also despise the occupying Harkonnens.

Future Islam? 

The Fremen practice a quasi-Islamic religion, which includes the expectation of the Mahdi (“divinely guided one” in Arabic) who will come from off-world to liberate them and make their barren planet flow with water. As luck — or prophecy — would have it, Paul is the  product of 90 generations of selective breeding by the mystical Bene Gesserit sisterhood with the goal of producing a male capable of not only of seeing past lives, as the order’s “witches” can do, but more importantly, of seeing into the future and serving as humanity’s political savior. The Bene Gesserit refer to this man as the “Kwisatz Haderach.” (Herbert almost certainly took this term from Hebrew mysticism.)

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Paul does prove to be this figure. The Fremen follow him as their Mahdi, and help him defeat the Harkonnens, avenge his father, and assume the imperial throne. They then launch a galaxy-wide jihad to spread the faith in their warlord messiah. That’s where Dune Two ends.

Book v. Movie(s)

Although relatively few, there are some disconnects between the novel and movie.

For example, the film has the Fremen waging “holy war,” avoiding the term “jihad” frequently used in the books. This is probably to avoid possibly upsetting Muslims. Paul’s Fremen girlfriend and later wife, Chani, is portrayed as a sulking teenager when he announces he will marry Emperor Shaddam’s daughter to cement his rule. Herbert’s character, on the contrary, coolly accepted this, especially as Paul assured her it was purely political. Of course we get the timeline-shortening requisite for most epic movies (thanks, Peter Jackson). Instead of living for years with the Fremen, Paul and Jessica spend what seems to be a few months. The biggest departure from the book was the contrived distinction between the more sophisticated “northern” Fremen and “southern fundamentalists.” In the book, all Fremen were basically “Zensunni” fundamentalists. None of them would have expressed the view, put into Chani’s mouth, that “telling people to believe in a messiah so they won’t work for the future is a way to control them.”

Religion as Weaponized Opiate of the Masses

On one level, the movie follows Herbert’s novel in showing that humanity will still need religion, even many millennia in the future. Dune thus takes religion far more seriously than many other science fiction novels and films. (By contrast, two titans of sci-fi, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, thought religion a superstitious nuisance at best.) But for Herbert, and in these movies, religion is simply a weapon to be wielded in war and politics. A powerful tool, but merely a sharpened one. All religions are simply cultural constructs that allow the masses to deal with the vicissitudes of life and their rulers to manipulate them. (In fact, the “prophecies” of the Mahdi on Arrakis were simply religious propaganda disseminated there centuries before by the Bene Gesserit, as they had spread similar beliefs on other planets.) If there is to be a messiah, humanity must engineer its own. Man thus fashions his own savior — in his own image.

A Galactic Mahdi?

Paul Atreides, as the Mahdi Muad’dib (his Fremen name), is very much in the Islamic tradition. But instead of a desert warlord who will take over the earth, this Mahdi will come to rule the entire galaxy following a jihad that kills billions and wipes out most other religions. The Muslim messiah does at least acknowledge a deity, Allah. Muad’dib, however, puts himself in that place. And for all his good intentions, he turns out to be history’s greatest mass murderer. His claims that humanity would have suffered even more without him thus ring rather hollow.

Dune Fits Modern America

Although written 60 years ago, Dune fits today’s zeitgeist all too well. Many Americans feel either forgotten or exploited by the ruling classes. Our “elites” in Washington and Silicon Valley weave webs to control us. Traditional religious faith is mocked while (woke) politics is lionized. In fact, those who agree with the latter approach seek their own earthly messiah.

Real v. False and Fictional Messiahs

But such a one is always and forever a false prophet. The true Messiah, Jesus Christ, came not to kill, but to be killed — and resurrected, thus making salvation possible for every individual human, not just the human collective. God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, thus far outstrips any ostensible political savior, real or fictional.

Man Is NOT the Measure of All Things 

The Dune novels and movies are impressive and engaging storytelling. But the universe they portray is a horrifyingly depressing one, devoid of true Christianity and premised on the inevitability of pure power politics and the conviction that “man is the measure of all things.” No, he is not. And thank God for that!

 

Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults with  The Stream on matters of international security.

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