O Root of Jesse, Who standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom kings shall shut their mouths, unto Whom the Gentiles shall pray: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.
Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) is one of a handful of science fiction novels deservingly called “definitive.”
Herbert’s elaborately imagined vision of humanity’s distant future is plausibly extrapolated from hard science, keenly attuned to political dynamics, bursting with provocative philosophical speculation, and thick with religious and mystical texture.
Yes, some of that texture could be seen as questionable appropriation of Islamic culture and belief. Some critics claim director Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film adaptation is similarly problematic, and perhaps even more so, for failing to include more Muslim actors.
I think Herbert, at least, was respectful toward his sources of inspiration. I can acknowledge he might have written the book differently today and still find value in what he did write.
At Dune’s center is Paul Atreides, the son of a duke who, after his father’s assassination, is thrust into a struggle for survival among the Fremen, nomadic inhabitants of the desert planet Arrakis.
Paul is also, though he doesn’t know it, the Kwisatz Haderach: the product of a centuries-long program of selective breeding carried out by the Bene Gesserit, a manipulative religious sisterhood. They sought to create a messianic figure and, in Paul, they succeeded. But Dune follows him as he redefines his special identity, rising to power as the Fremen leader “Muad’Dib,” recreating himself and his world in ways the Bene Gesserit never anticipated.
David Lynch’s oft-maligned film adapation of the book (1984) ends with a scene that isn’t faithful to the novel’s text but does dramatize the new life Paul brings to the planet and its people:
The Savior We Did Not Expect
During Advent, Christians remember how so many of God’s people longed for a Messiah, a Savior, from King David’s lineage. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” said the prophet Isaiah, “and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11.1). Jesse was David’s father and a many-times great-grandfather of Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father. The prospects for a king of Davidic stock seemed dead, stump-like, by the first century C.E., but Jesus, as Joseph’s adopted son, was, as the old hymn says, “great David’s greater son.”
But he was also the son of some seemingly unlikely characters. Matthew mentions four female ancestors of Jesus in the genealogy (1.1-17)—not that common an ancient Jewish practice. And these particular women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsehba—all “were either Gentiles or had significant Gentile associations” (Craig Keener), and were involved in sexually scandalous situations.
The family tree of the “flower of Jesse” isn’t some perfectly pruned, gleaming and glittering holiday Tannenbaum. It’s messy because it’s made up of real people—people like you and me, people whom Jesus is unashamed to call brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2.11). He is God’s unexpected answer to our longing for a Savior.
We can either play the Bene Gesserit, rejecting the radical new life God creates; or, like the Fremen, we can welcome it and him, as we would welcome miraculous and refreshing rain in the desert, a downpour of grace that will cause it to “rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35.1).
Where does God want to bring forth a shoot of new growth in whatever wilderness you face? How are you helping nurture its growth?
Scripture quotations are NRSVUE. Antiphon texts are from The Advent Antiphons by A.C.A. Hall, 1914 (http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/acahall/antiphons.html). A version of this post first appeared on The Sci-Fi Christian, December 19, 2014.