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Cinema & the Arts as Sermons: DUNE - Frank Herbert- Life, Religion & The Books (Part 1)

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Video from NBC News

DUNE - Frank Herbert- Life, Religion & The Books Author Frank Herbert - NBC Interview (1982)

“The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”

Frank Herbert, Dune

I belonged to the generation that grew up with the works of authors such as J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula LeGuin, Arthur C Clarke, Issasic Asimov and yes Frank Herbert to name a few. I remember when many of those now classics were published.

Frank Herbert was a world builder, like many other writers.

"Dune" is science fiction on a galactic scale which requires a broad brush by Herbert. Director Villeneuve does an excellent job of imagining the same galactic sweep in the 2021 movie. A similar galactic empire was imagined in the movie "The Chronicles of Riddick". A video to follow gives you a taste of that depiction.

Dune is set several thousand years in humanity’s future and follows the young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), only son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his consort, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). The House Atreides is a wealthy and innovative clan within the Padishah Empire and its complex web of interplanetary feudalism. This ultimately makes Atreides a political target. Threatened by House Atreides, the Padishah Emperor conspires against the house with its long time enemies, the Harkonnens. Paul must then find his way out of this treachery.

Herbert’s world is populated with memorable characters and extraordinary settings. Dune really is a story about the seen/unseen, diabolical forces that move the universe not only politically but economically, and spiritually.

Like Cocaine etc. in our world in the universe of Dune there is Spice. Spice is humanity’s most precious commodity which is found only on the desert planet of Arrakis. It extends human life ( unlike cocaine in our world) and, in larger quantities, grants a degree of prescience. Without spice, interplanetary travel would collapse, along with the empire that encompasses the known universe. The Spacing Guild maintains a monopoly on interstellar travel, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV maintains his position at the top of the feudal hierarchy , members of the clan Harkonnen maintain their financial foothold as the lords of Dune.

Of course the parallels with our world are on purpose.

Dune is without doubt a political novel about ecology, politics, religion, and human emotion. Dune is absent real technology in its plot, even in the ecological points it tries to make. No computers, no cell phones, no PCs etc.

Religion in the books and the movie is shallow and only given surface treatment. Herbert is clearly a Humanist/Atheist. The Fremen are depicted as some sort of Muslim variant but we see little evidence of their faith. Christianity is never referenced in the story. The mystic ‘Bene Gesserits’ call their leaders ‘Reverend Mother’ in a nod to Catholicism's Mother Superior.

As a flight of human imagination and a relatively well written series of books I would highly recommend it. But in the end it does not hold up to producing any deep wisdom biblical or otherwise. The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia quickly overtake Dune as books of substance.

God's gift of creativity is on exhibit in Dune but he is not honored in it. -Andy

"..Two Separate Ideas Merged to Create It Frank Herbert had assembled a moderately impressive publishing resumé by the time he started working on Dune. His debut novel, Under Pressure, was serialized in 1955, and later released as the standalone title The Dragon in the Sea. Working on that book kindled an interest in religion, the psychology of leadership, and how each affected the minds of followers. Herbert researched, collected notes, and read nearly 200 books as he dove into the topic, building a database of story ideas as he went..." from the article: Herbert’s 1957 trip to the dunes of Oregon turned out to be a moment of inspiration. Seeing how the piles of sand held such sway over the life and landscape around them sparked an interest in ecology. He imagined a world overtaken by desert, and a lone planetologist obsessed with reclaiming it. This seed found fertile ground, growing into early outlines of what would become the setting of Dune—but the true soul of the book wasn’t born until the environment was fused with his research into the psychology of a messiah and his followers.." from the article: 10 Things You Might Not Know About Frank Herbert’s Dune

"The Spice Melange is a spice found in the sands of the planet Arrakis that can be inhaled or ingested by humans. Added to food, it can provide medicinal benefits, like extending people’s lives or enhancing their senses. When inhaled, it can inspire psychedelic episodes for certain susceptible minds. The moment that Paul inhales a cloud of spice coincides with the moment that his Sight awakens and he begins seeing future events and hearing voices with more clarity. The film explicitly says this moment is when the Kwistatz Haderach awakens; that is Paul becomes “The One” who can bridge space and time with his mind. All thanks to the Spice!.." from the article: What is the Spice in ‘Dune’? Meaning Explained

The Catholic Influences Found in ‘Dune’

Author Frank Herbert was raised Catholic, and his experiences with the religion found their way into 'Dune.'

The latest sci-fi action movie Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 book of the same name. When watching the movie, much of the original spirit of the novel shines through, which was originally influenced by the Catholic faith.

Herbert was raised Catholic, though his experience wasn’t very positive and is one of the reasons he abandoned his faith later in life.

Jesuits and religious nuns

According to a biography written by Frank’s son, Brian Herbert, Lady Jessica and the “Bene Gessarit” group of women were directly influenced by Jesuits and his Catholic aunts who raised him in the Catholic religion.

His Irish Catholic maternal aunts, who attempted to force religion on him, became the models for the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood of Dune. It is no accident that the pronunciations of ‘Gesserit’ and ‘Jesuit’ are similar, as he envisioned his maternal aunts and the Bene Gesserit of Dune as female Jesuits. The attempted brainwashing by his aunts, as he later termed it, was performed over the protestations of F. H. [Frank Patrick Herbert, Sr.], who was an agnostic... from the article: The Catholic Influences Found in ‘Dune’

"Fear is the Mind Killer!" -Bene Gesserit

Messianism in "Dune"

The movie explores the perils of messianism as expressed in a blind support of charismatic leaders or the uncritical embrace of ideologies. Messianism is a complicated concept. It can be the result of the overlapping of many different, equally complex matters — eschatology, history, genealogy, politics, and law, among others. Broadly speaking, scholars agree it is a typically Abrahamic, originally Jewish belief in the advent of a savior who would either liberate, redeem, or offer restitution to a group of people, a nation, or a kingdom, ushering in the end of days, an era of everlasting peace, or both... from the article: ‘Dune’: A cautionary tale of the dangers of messianism

"The Messianic Movements that Inspired “Dune”

Frank Herbert's "Dune" refers to a religious desert people who are desperate for a savior to overthrow an evil empire. Sound familiar?

People behave oddly during hard times. When war, disease, famine, conquest, or natural disaster befall societies, it’s pretty much a sociohistorical rule that there’ll be a rise in apocalyptic and messianic cults. When the Black Death swept across Eurasia and North Africa, it was seen as a divine punishment for humanity’s sinfulness by both Muslims and Christians. Only the faithful were spared. Facing deadly crises, people often turn to puritanism and apocalyptic fanaticism.

That is why the novel and movie Dune is such an accurate account of human nature. The Freman people are desert nomads, grown hard by countless generations of water scarcity, sandstorms, and enforced slavery, similar to the Jews of the Hebrew Bible, the people of 1st-century Judea, or the Arabs of 6th-century Arabia. Through their prophecies and superstitions, the Freman were desperate to find their “Mahdi” — the one who will lead them to paradise.

So how do various messianic traditions compare, and what does Dune get right?.." from the article: The Messianic Movements that Inspired “Dune”

Galactic Scale Story Telling

"The Chronicles of Riddick is a 2004 sci-fi film featuring the characters established in Pitch Black. David Twohy wrote and directed the film and Vin Diesel co-produced. The Chronicles takes place five years after the events in Pitch Black, and is set 505 years in the future, where Riddick who's been in hiding is now forced back on the map after a bounty has been put on his head from a man he once knew. In the end he will find out that his true destiny is to rule the universe..." from

"The Chronicles of Riddick is a 2004 American science fiction adventure film which follows the adventures of Richard B. Riddick as he attempts to elude capture after the events depicted in the 2000 film Pitch Black." from video introduction.

Time in the DUNE Universe

Video from whycreate

"The story of Dune takes place in a distant timeline far beyond many similar science fiction franchises. Unlike works such as director Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 – which imagines a dystopian near-future – Dune is set approximately 20,000 years further into human existence. Not only does this help the saga to feel completely unique, but also allows it to explore familiar themes in an entirely new and exhilarating setting..." from the article: Dune Timeline Explained: Present To The Year 10191

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