A long time ago, in a movie multiplex not so far away, a child looked up and asked: "Mom, Dad, is the Force the same thing as God?"
Children have been asking that question for 20 years. The simple answer is "yes." But this raises another question: Which god or God is at the center of the "Star Wars" universe?
The trilogy's creator was well aware that his work invaded turf traditionally reserved for parents, priests and preachers. George Lucas wrote "Star Wars" shortly after the cultural revolution of the '60s. He sensed a spiritual void.
"I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand," said Lucas, in a recent New Yorker interview. "There is always a lesson to be learned. ... Traditionally, we get them from church, the family, art and in the modern world we get them from the media -- from movies."
Lucas set out to create a modern mythology to teach right and wrong. The result was a fusion of "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" and Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," of Arthurian legends and Japanese samurai epics, of Carlos Castaneda's "Tales of Power" and the Narnia tales of C.S. Lewis. Along the way, Lucas sold $1.3 billion worth of tickets and "Star Wars" merchandise sales have topped $4 billion. Now, a revamped "Star Wars" is back in theaters, to be followed by its sequels, "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Return of the Jedi." A trilogy of "prequels" is set to begin in 1999.
The impact of Lucas' work has led some researchers to speak in terms of a "Star Wars" generation. A modern preacher who wants to discuss self sacrifice will be understood by more people if he refers to the death of Jedi knight Obi Wan Kenobi, rather than that of St. Stephen.
"It was natural that my generation would latch on to these stories," said Jason Ruspini, webmaster of the unofficial "Star Wars Home Page," one of nearly 1,000 "Star Wars" Internet sites. "They were much more attractive and appropriate than the ancient myths of Judeo-Christian theology. How could these draconian and antiquated stories possibly compete with the majesty and scope of the Star Wars universe?"
Lucas grew up in the 1950s in Modesto, Calif., reading comics, escaping to movies and watching TV. Although he attended a Methodist church with his family, biographer Dale Pollock notes that he was turned off by the "self-serving piety" of Sunday school. Lucas also visited the housekeeper's German Lutheran congregation, where he was impressed by the elaborate rituals.
Traces of these experiences are woven into his work. "The message of `Star Wars' is religious: God isn't dead, he's there if you want him to be," writes Pollock, in his book "Skywalking." Lucas puts it this way: "The laws really are in yourself."
The faith in "Star Wars" is hard to label. The Force is defined as "an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us." It contains both good and evil. Jedi master Yoda clearly teaches a form of Buddhism. Yet the Lucas liturgy also proclaims "May the Force be with you," a variation on the Christian phrase "May the Lord be with you." The plot includes other symbols and themes from biblical faith. Lucas has embraced both "passive Oriental philosophies and the Judeo- Christian ethic of responsibility and self-sacrifice," according to Pollock.
Thus, some Christians hail "Star Wars" as evidence of a cultural search for moral absolutes. On the World Wide Web, others use the films as glowing icons that teach Eastern philosophy. Welcome to the theological mall.
At the end of Pollock's book, Lucas acknowledges that, by setting his goals so high, he is asking to be judged by very high standards. The creator of "Star Wars" explains that one of his least favorite fantasies is about what will happen when he dies. Perhaps, he said, he will come face to face with God and hear these words: "You've had your chance and you blew it. Get out."