There’s familiar barrenness and religiosity that permeates the world of Dune by Frank Herbert. Though set in the far future, it’s barrenness that seems much too similar to ours and a religiosity that seems far too close to home. There is a certain simplicity of theme in the whole of Dune that is characterized by barrenness and religiosity.
This, of course, isn’t to suggest that the book is simple in its form and presentation—it’s anything but that. From the very beginning to the end, like a piece of origami that you come to appreciate with each undoing of the folds, a complex world filled with its own politics, culture, and religion unravels with each page. One could develop an entire critique of the modern economic system by tracing one made-up word in the book, “melange,” the chemical that controls the entire galactic economy. A world of complexity and poignant details opens up and invites the reader in— it's marvelous what a man can conjure up in the playground of the mind. However, as always, at the end of the unfolding of the origami, there always lies a single sheet of paper. It turns out, that even the most complicated origami piece is merely a piece of paper. No matter how complex the form of the final product, the material, in the beginning, is always rather simple—a wrinkled piece of paper remains. In Dune, this material, the “paper,” with its certain texture and color, rigidity, and expression, is one characterized by barrenness and religiosity.
The recent film adaptation directed by Dennis Villeneuve does an exceptional job portraying this idea visually. With the wide-angle shots of shades of beige and black, the characters involved in the sci-fi epic almost fade into the brush strokes of the environment itself, their beige and black skins camouflaging them into the narrative. The blistering seas of sand drown nobles and commoners alike into the burning grains of sand, and the walls of cold granite melt the warm flesh into the frigid shadows—both literally and metaphorically. The small man sinks into the background of the grand environment of the torturous, desert planet Arrakis, and in the barren landscape of the dunes, man becomes as insignificant as the next grain of sand that blows in the tumultuous winds. Barrenness surrounds and overcomes, compromising the whole thrust of the story. Man is shown to be just another part of nature, another particle in the wind.
Yet, in the midst of this ambiguation of barrenness, there arises a peculiar phenomenon. These characters who are merely the backgrounds of the setting, float up to the surface of the narrative to assert themselves through brief moments of color against the beige and black. In sudden bursts of what seem to be defiant explosions of expression, the characters sprout up like flowers against the backdrop of a harsh and unforgiving desert. The main character, Paul Atreides, has doses of visions and dreams that seem far too colorful in contrast to the realities in which he lives. The visions, with their vibrant flashes of images and disruptive sounds, feel more real than the reality in which he lives. The Fremen, the oppressed desert men who oppose the violence of the Emperor, yearn and hope against hope for “The Voice from the Outer World” who, as their messiah, will defeat the enemy and usher in an age of lush vegetation and great bodies of water to overcome the desert— their bright blue eyes against their sun-roasted skins hint at this hope of an oasis in their hearts. Men of all origins utter, under their breath, prayers of scripture from the “Orange Catholic Bible,” an amalgamation of religious texts from ages past. The characters exclaim its passages in heartfelt catharsis when they encounter things they see to be fulfillments. Somehow, against the backdrop of barrenness, religiosity surreptitiously flourishes like a fluttering flower in the merciless desert wind.
It sounds beautiful—a shoot of color breaking forth up out of the dry ground of a monotone world. It even looks like hope.
Yet, it’s a contradiction. If the world of barrenness that Herbert constructs is the objective reality, the spark of hope in religiosity is the foolish concoction of a grasping mind. In the world of Dune, mankind is but a part of nature, a part of the ecosystem of infinite maverick particles blowing in a chaotic dance of chance like grains of sand lost in the desert heat. What these meaningless human beings produce in their minds out of religious devotion is beautiful in form only—the religiosity is but a figment.
It’s all false. It turns out that the “Orange Catholic Bible” is but a manipulative document conjured up by the political powers to ally mankind in a movement towards humanistic goals. The messiah that the Fremen have hoped for all this time is but the result of a breeding program for the purposes of politics. The lush forests and bodies of water that the Fremen long for are but the fruit of cultural conditioning by the same political powers who have bred their “messiah.” Paul, the main character, is that messiah— a freak of nature produced by generations of meticulous breeding, a cocktail of genes that makes him the most suitable mind to act as the “messiah.” His visions and dreams, though somewhat foretelling of the future, are merely very accurate predictions made by accelerated cerebral calculations induced by that chemical, “melange.” Each religious phenomenon has a rational explanation, and religiosity is accounted for as fanaticism unaccounted. This is what makes Dune science fiction, not fantasy. There are no supernatural occurrences, all things are just natural, materialistic occurrences based on chance.
Yet, Dune is a marvelous read precisely for its religiosity. It’s undeniable that the religious acts of the zealots, of both the manipulators and the manipulated, make the story what it is. Each of the characters in the story moves and acts because of their convictions and beliefs— there is no movement in Dune without religiosity. And without movement, there is no story. However, if religion and faith are but the result of human beings puppeted by natural processes, why is it that the religious devotions of man are the center of the story? Why is the story fascinated with religiosity?
I can’t read the mind of an author, yet I can at least speak into what the story does show about mankind. That is because I know Herbert is a man, and because the Scriptures explain certain things about men, I can speculate about why a man believing in a materialistic, natural universe like Dune may be so intrigued with religion. I believe it’s more than curiosity or cynicism— even cynicism is proof of interest. It’s more than a mere empirical allegorizing of the world around him. I believe it's something deeper and more internal to the man himself. I think it’s about something that no man can shake out from within himself no matter how hard he tried. It’s about that innate religiosity. It’s about man’s inherent need to worship.
Like any good novel, Dune, asks about something fundamental to man. It asks whether our religious actions are justified despite the barrenness of our condition. Every human being worships something—they chase after it with religious devotion. It may be money and power—like for the Emperor in the book. Or control and authority—like the Bene Gesserit. Or paradise and relief from pain—like the Fremen. Or it may be purpose and meaning—like for Paul Atreides. Man worships something because he needs to worship.
Yes, in one sense, along with the cynic, Herbert ridicules this human desire to worship—but he does so in his suppression of the truth of God. We live in a culture that views the world in a fashion not too dissimilar from that which is present in Dune. To them, the world is apathetic and impersonal—barren of reason and purpose. To them, the world is a train pummeling through the fabric of time and space, and the man is but a bolt in the siding. Yet, no human being is moved by such an idea. No man wakes up and stirs himself up for the day because he believes himself to be a particle of sand floating aimlessly in the desert air. So, instead, he concocts false solutions and gives himself a choice: despair, for God is dead, or rejoice, for you are god. Herbert chooses the latter—he chooses the origami paper of barrenness seeded by false religiosity. Man fabricates religion to give himself a purpose to live. The religiosity of man is mica, fool’s gold, but at least man has a raison d’etre!
You see, it’s to such a people we are sent—Dune explains a barren dune that is not so far, far away.
We reject their two options to give them the third—the only true option. We go out, into the world, into the barrenness of the desert—as insane men, we go out into the barrenness of the city of a billion men, and we shout, “God is alive! And you have not killed him! You know him, and yet you deny him—you kill yourselves! Come and live!”. We don’t throw our lanterns on the ground to see it shatter and mutter, “I come too late.” No, we bare our hearts to shine the Light who is never late, “O Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did! The time is coming, and is now here!” O friends, yes, they are vile sinners. They deserve hell and nothing less. Yet, they are also barren, and unable to fulfill the fruitfulness they were commissioned to. They dress that barrenness with the religiosity of sludge, producing wicked fruit. For them, we have the only solution—Christ incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and ascended. Through Christ they were made and for Christ they were made, and by faith, they can be remade through him and for him to bear fruit out of his abundance. They go from religiosity in barrenness to fruitfulness in Christianity.