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I was trying to get fairy tales, myths, and religion down to a distilled state, studying the pure form to see how and why it worked. . . . I wanted to make a kids’ film that would strengthen contemporary mythology and introduce a kind of basic morality.1
The central religious element of the Star Wars story is “the Force.” In Part 1 we saw that for George Lucas the Force largely represents the need for moral decision in a morally ambiguous world. Underlying such a moral decision, according to Lucas, is a belief in God:
I put the Force into the movie in order to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, “Is there a God or is there not a God?” – that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. . . . I think it is important to have a belief system and to have faith.2
Lucas stresses, though, that he is not advocating the religion of the Force as depicted in Star Wars the answer to these questions. Star Wars is intended, he says, to provoke young people to think about the questions and to take God and religion seriously, not to provide the answers:
That’s why I would hesitate to call the Force God. It’s designed primarily to make young people think about the mystery. Not to say, “Here’s the answer.” It’s to say, “Think about this for a second. Is there a God? What does God look like? What does God sound like? What does God feel like? How do we relate to God?” Just getting young people to think at that level is what I’ve been trying to do in the films. What eventual manifestation that takes place in terms of how they describe their God, what form their faith takes, is not the point of the movie.3
Although Lucas denies that the Force represents any particular religion’s take on God, it is clear that the Force is explained in the movies along lines quite similar to Zen Buddhism and Taoism. The parallels are especially striking with Taoism (pronounced DOW-ism), a Chinese religion with some affinities to Buddhism. In Taoism, “the Tao” has a light and a dark side, but neither side is pure: there is always a little light in the darkness and a little darkness in the light (as represented by the famous circular symbol of the Tao).
|“the Force”||“the Tao”|
|the Force “flows” through the Jedi||the Tao often compared to flowing water|
|the Force is an energy created by life||the Tao is an energy that produced all life|
|the Force empowers the Jedi but also obeys the Jedi’s commands||the Tao empowers all life but “does not demand to be Lord”|
|calmness, passivity, nonaggression as the “good side”; anger, aggression, hatred as the “dark side”||calmness, passivity, nonaggression as yin (the “dark” side); anger, aggression as yang|
|Good to be found even in Vader||Good found within all so-called evil|
|“letting go” in order to feel the Force move through you||“letting go” to allow the Tao (or ch’i) to flow|
|possibility of longevity (Yoda lives to be 900 years old)||possibility of longevity (some Taoists reported to live for centuries)|
|The Empire seeks control, order; the Rebellion seeks freedom, bringing “balance to the Force”||Confucianism emphasized order, structure; Taoism emphasized balance, simplicity|
|“Wars not make one great” (Yoda)||Warriors/soldiers valued below other classes of men|
|Truth is relative (Kenobi tells Luke that Vader did kill Luke’s father “from a certain point of view”)||Truth is relative (yin becomes yang and vice versa)|
When asked by Bill Moyers about the relationship of the Force to Buddhism, Lucas reluctantly admits the connection but insists that the Force represents a broader, more universal approach:
I guess it’s more specific in Buddhism, but it is a notion that’s been around before that. When I wrote the first Star Wars, I had to come up with a whole cosmology: what do people believe in? I had to do something that was relevant, something that imitated a belief system that has been around for thousands of years, and that most people on the planet, one way or another, have some kind of connection to. I didn’t want to invent a religion. I wanted to try to explain in a different way the religions that have already existed. I wanted to express it all.4
Lucas’s desire to create a religion for his characters that connected with all of the different religions of the real world was based on his own personal belief, as he plainly says, “that all the religions are true.” According to Lucas, this is the conclusion he has reached in answer to the question of why there are so many religions if there is only one God.5
Ironically, the belief that all religions are equally valid is consistent with most forms of the Eastern religions Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but is incompatible with traditional forms of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The religions that begin with the foundational premise that there is only one God are the very religions that deny that all religions are equally true. The reason for this conclusion is simple: If there is only one God, the only sensible explanation for the multiplicity of different, contradictory religions is that most or all of us have lost our way.
Probably the most important figure shaping Lucas’s views on myth and religion was Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). Campbell was Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College from 1934 to 1972 and authored numerous books on mythology. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell argued that a monomyth (a term taken from the Irish novelist James Joyce) can be discerned in all religions – a myth of the hero’s adventurous journey to obtain a prize and return to his people with it. Campbell became highly popular, though, because of his 1986 PBS series The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers and the book based on that series, in which everything from the Bible to Star Wars is interpreted in terms of the mythic hero.6
On the basis of this monomythic reading of the world’s religions, Lucas felt as comfortable mixing and matching elements of different religions and mythologies in the Star Wars movies as he did ransacking fairy tales, literature, and movies for thematic elements. The concept of the Force, as we have seen, owes a great deal to Taoism or Buddhism. The term itself, however, derives from Carlos Castaneda’s book Tales of Power, in which a Mexican Indian sorcerer speaks of “the life force.” Yoda, the Jedi Master, is modeled on Zen masters, issuing enigmatic instructions and urging his student to “unlearn what you have learned” (Yoda even carries a stick, as do some Zen masters). Yoda’s home planet is called Dagobah, named after the Dagoba, a Buddhist dome-shaped temple found in India and Burma. The Jedi Knights are modeled after Samurai warriors, who practiced Zen and martial arts. The name Qui-Gon, the senior Jedi hero of Phantom, is apparently based on the term Qi-Gong, which refers to a Chinese discipline involving meditation and martial arts. (The words qi and chi are variants of the same term, referring to the energy thought to flow through all living things from the Tao.) These and other elements of the film derive primarily from Eastern and Native American religions and myths, the spiritual milieu in which Lucas seems most comfortable.
Other elements of Star Wars, on the other hand, derive from the Bible and Christianity. Most of these elements are conscious and deliberate. Darth Maul, the horned, demonic-looking warrior who battles the Jedi in Phantom, was obviously modeled on the Devil, especially as depicted in medieval Christianity. Lucas says as much, though he adds that he drew on other religious representations of evil, such as Hindu icons and monsters in Greek mythology.7 Darth Vader and the Emperor’s efforts to tempt Luke to convert to the dark side of the Force (in Empire and Jedi) recall Satan’s temptations of Christ: both in effect offer Luke “the kingdoms of the world” (i.e., shared rule over the Galaxy) if he will join forces with them. Lucas has acknowledged that he consciously drew upon the Temptation narrative, though again he hastens to point out that there are temptation stories in other religions.8 When the Millennium Falcon hides from the Empire in what its crew thinks is a cave inside an asteroid, only to discover they are inside the belly of a huge space slug (in Empire), it’s a clear allusion to the book of Jonah.9
Other allusions are more ambiguous and possibly unintended. Many Christians after seeing Star Wars for the first time thought it was a veiled retelling of the story of Christ. They noted that Obi-Wan Kenobi voluntarily allows himself to be struck down by Darth Vader so that Luke and his friends can escape the Death Star, a sacrifice that seems to allude to the death of Jesus on the cross. “If you strike me down,” Obi-Wan warns Darth Vader, “I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” During the rest of the story, Obi-Wan is able to speak to Luke, encouraging and guiding him, in a way that reminded many Christians of the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The parallels in this case, though, are superficial. Unlike Jesus, Obi-Wan does not rise from the dead; in the sequels he returns as a luminous spirit, more in the tradition of Greek mythology than biblical theology. Obi-Wan functions more like the spirit-guides of Native American and New Age belief than the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it turns out that Lucas had Obi-Wan die in the middle of Hope because there was really nothing left for the character to do in the story. When Alec Guinness protested at having his character eliminated halfway through the film, Lucas settled on a compromise in which Obi-Wan is not physically present but can speak to Luke at crucial junctures. Of such behind-the-scenes negotiations are the final story lines of movies typically born.
The most interesting and controversial allusions to Christianity in the Star Wars saga come in the most recent film, The Phantom Menace. Here Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (who at this point in the story is Qui-Gon’s pupil) encounter Anakin Skywalker for the first time, when he is only nine years old. Qui-Gon finds Anakin to be so strong with the Force that he has his blood tested and discovers that Anakin has a higher concentration of midi-chlorians than anyone else – even Yoda, the most revered of all the Jedi Masters. Curious, Qui-Gon asks Anakin’s mother Shmi who the boy’s father was. “There is no father,” she answered. “I carried him, I gave birth to him. I raised him. I can’t tell you anything more than that.” Later, when Qui-Gon appears before the Jedi Council to request permission to train Anakin as a Jedi, he tells them that Anakin may have been “conceived by midi-chlorians.” This comes very close to identifying Anakin as the son of the Force.
The allusion to the Virgin Birth of Christ is obvious and caught many Christians by surprise. No doubt Lucas introduced this element into the story under the influence of Joseph Campbell, who argued in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that the story of a virgin who miraculously bore a child was part of the monomyth of the hero.10 But the “virgin birth” of Anakin is part of a larger picture of this particular hero: Qui-Gon thinks that Anakin is “the Chosen One” who was “prophesied” ages ago and who “will bring balance to the Force.” It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the religious figure on whom these descriptions are based is the biblical Messiah.
On the other hand, even here Lucas clearly is not simply telling his own version of the Christ story. Anakin is a flawed hero, and we know from the previous movies that he will fall prey to the dark side of the Force and become an agent of evil. It is Anakin’s son Luke, not Anakin himself, who will eventually “bring balance to the Force” by winning Anakin (who has become Darth Vader) back to the good side. As Lucas has said, when the series of films is complete ultimately they “will be about how young Anakin Skywalker became evil and then was redeemed by his son.”11 Lucas’s striking use of the Christian term redeemed in this setting shows at once both how indebted his story is to Christian themes as well as how far the story departs from a Christian perspective. As Lucas uses the term, children “redeem” their parents by bringing the best out of them and forcing parents to become responsible, loving people – something Lucas sees his own children as having done for him. The idea is neither Christian nor mystical, but humanistic: it is about people, faced with choices in life, bringing the best or worst out of each other and themselves.
As we have seen, Star Wars draws on many genres and operates on many levels. It blends elements of science fiction and fantasy, fairy tales, mythology, and religion to produce a romantic adventure story with a moral and spiritual challenge. How should Christians view the Star Wars movies?
First, as the term is usually defined neither George Lucas nor the Star Wars films are “New Age.” The essential beliefs of the New Age movement include pantheism, reincarnation, and moral relativism.12 The concept of reincarnation is so far completely missing from Star Wars, and Lucas has never endorsed it. As we have seen, Lucas adheres to a fairly old-fashioned notion of good and evil. He can hardly be accused of teaching moral relativism in the Star Wars films, which emphasize moral responsibility, loyalty to family and friends, and individual liberty (against government oppression).
Pantheism is the doctrine that God is all, or that God is the divine reality underlying everything that we see and experience. It is true that the Force in Star Wars resembles some pantheistic conceptions, but it stops short of actual pantheism and is in any case a fictional construct for a complex fantasy story. Moreover, when Lucas talks about God, as he does a lot, he generally speaks about God as a personal Being, even one to whom Lucas feels accountable. Dale Pollock reports that Lucas worries that when he dies “God will look at him and say, ‘You’ve had your chance and you blew it. Get out.’”13 Lucas professes to be sure that there is a God but unsure as to what God is.14 His theology may at some point become pantheistic, but for now Lucas’s theology seems more like deism – there is a God, we are somehow accountable to God, but God has not made himself known and we really don’t know very much about God.
Lucas is not, then, a New Ager, nor are the Star Wars films propaganda for the New Age movement. On the other hand, Star Wars is broadly compatible with the larger cultural trend in our society toward a broadly humanistic spirituality that self-consciously embraces Eastern and Native American religious myths and concepts and re-thinks Christian beliefs in that light. If this is what is meant by “New Age,” then George Lucas clearly would be classifiable as a New Ager. But Lucas’s agenda is not about viewing ourselves as God, or trying to escape the wheel of reincarnation and achieve higher levels of consciousness, or working behind the scenes to bring in the Age of Aquarius. Lucas’s agenda is the more classically humanistic one of encouraging our children to embrace the old-fashioned values of their parents without necessarily embracing their particular religion.
Second, we need to be prepared to respond to people who take the specific religious ideas of Star Wars too seriously. As we have pointed out, even Lucas himself has criticized the extremes to which some fans have gone in making Star Wars their actual religion. There are whole Web sites devoted to proclaiming the message of the Force, taking the fictional religion of the Jedi in an extremely literalistic way. One recent book entitled The Science of STAR WARS concludes with an entire chapter drawing on quantum physics as the basis for speculating how the Force might turn out to be a scientific possibility.15 Our response to these people should not be to endorse their uses of the film as faithful to its message, but to point out that they have misunderstood its meaning. Of course, we should also offer evidence against the existence of a literal “Force” and contrast that fictional notion with the God of the Bible.
This leads us to a third point: We must contrast the mythical religious themes and motifs on which Lucas drew to create Star Wars with the biblical narratives that those myths superficially parallel. Christianity is based on fact, not on myth. We do not need to trash the myths to make this point; we only need to put them in their proper place.
It is helpful to think of stories as falling into four categories depending on two factors: are the stories historical or not, and are they of religious or sacred meaning or not (see Table). Nonhistorical stories of no religious significance we may call tales; these include fairy tales like Cinderella, folk tales like the Paul Bunyan stories, and fables like those of Aesop. Nonhistorical stories that have religious significance are myths, like the Hindu stories about Krishna, or the stories about the gods in Homer. Since the Star Wars films intend to raise religious issues but not to inculcate specific religious beliefs, they may be classified as a quasi-mythical tale.
Historical stories of no religious significance are simply history, such as the story of Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address. Finally, historical stories of religious significance are sacred history. These include the stories of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and other biblical stories. There are also nonbiblical stories that are properly classified as sacred history, such as Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina, the event from which Muslims date their calendar. Thus, the fact that a story has religious significance does not automatically make it a myth.
(e.g., Paul Bunyan, Cinderella)
(e.g., Krishna stories, Star Wars)
(e.g., Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)
(e.g., Jesus’ resurrection)
Making these distinctions helps us to explain to non-Christians why it is important to recognize the miraculous events of the Bible as historical fact rather than myth. The point of a myth, such as the story in Star Wars, is not whether something like it did or could happen; rather, the point of a myth is that it conveys certain spiritual and moral values in a compelling way. On the other hand, the point of sacred history is very much whether it happened or not. If God did not do the miracles reported in the book of Exodus, then the Old Testament’s claim that the God of the Israelites proved himself to be the true God through those mighty miracles is simply false. If Jesus did not really rise from the dead, then the New Testament’s claim that in Jesus we have the hope of resurrection and eternal life in a reconciled relationship with God is utterly without foundation. As Paul put it, if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
This is not a matter of Christians mistakenly thinking that their myths are to be taken more literally than the myths of other religions. Rather, it is a matter of recognizing the difference between myth and sacred history. True myths make no pretense to have taken place in actual space-time history. That is why Lucas begins Star Wars with the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”; the words actually convey the idea that the story is more like a fairy tale than literal history. Contrast those words with texts in the Gospels like this: “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea” (Luke 3:1). These words, following the conventions of historical writing of the Greco-Roman culture, serve to place the story of Jesus in a real time and place.
Finally, we can use Star Wars as an evangelistic reference point, an opportunity to present the gospel by comparing or contrasting it with elements of the Star Wars story. For example, we can fruitfully contrast the personal God of the Bible with the impersonal Force of Star Wars. An impersonal Force cannot guarantee victory over evil; on the other hand, a personal God can – and he has guaranteed it through Christ’s victory over sin and death.
An impersonal Force can be used; a personal God must be trusted. Rather than teaching our children to trust their own feelings, as Star Wars does, the Bible would have us teach our children to trust in God. We can and should make this point without denying the value and validity of human intuition and the importance of our God-given capacity for feeling.
An impersonal Force cannot change the heart; a personal God can. The heroes of Star Wars must somehow change themselves, overcoming their own fear, anger, and greed by their own resources – and here the Force actually can be a hindrance because of the seductive power of “the dark side.” Ironically, here Lucas has managed to echo the teachings of virtually all of the world’s religions, which challenge their adherents to moral heroism and self-reformation. But Christianity is different: the Bible summons us to admit humbly that we cannot redeem ourselves and to turn to God in Christ to redeem us.
Christians do not need to view Star Wars as a “menace.” Rather, we should view it as providing an opportunity to present the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially to young people. As they thrill to the mythic story of the hero who overcomes evil and saves the galaxy, we should enthusiastically tell them the Greatest Story Ever Told, about a Man who really did overcome evil and gave his life to save the world from sin and death. And this story, as amazing as it is, actually is true.