The Rev. Calvin Miller is one Southern Baptist preacher - a seminary professor, no less - who openly admits that he communed with the Star Wars faithful on the opening day of "The Phantom Menace."
He pretty much got what he expected - high tech fantasy and lowest-common-denominator mysticism, stone-faced knights and wisecracking sidekicks ready for toy-store shelves. George Lucas keeps offering a pinch of Freud, a shot of Oedipus and a baptism into Buddhism. Miller grimaced, but wasn't shocked, when the mythmaker even tossed in a virgin birth and a messianic prophecy.
"We have to understand that people are out there hunting for metaphors to help them make sense of their lives," said Miller, who teaches preaching at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala. He also has written more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction, including a set of poetic novels entitled "The Singer Trilogy."
"This is what we all do. We pick a metaphor and then we indulge ourselves for 50 or 60 years. Some people change in midstream. ... We need metaphors and narratives that tell us who we are. It shouldn't surprise anyone that millions of people find these big stories at the movies."
In the classroom, Miller tries to convince seminarians that pastors should help people interpret the myths they buy at the mall -- to separate the wheat from the chaff. Preachers also can lay claim to a rich Judeo-Christian heritage of storytelling, he said. In the Bible, the doctrine and the drama are intertwined. For centuries, rabbis told dramatic stories and then interpreted them. Priests inspired the young with vivid accounts of the lives of the saints.
In other words, the fires of hell would not consume the sanctuary if a preacher dared to speak the words "a long time ago" and then told a parable in the pulpit.
"No one can deny that art and drama and icons and stories are important parts of human life and have been part of the church's traditions for centuries," said Miller.
But this is a tough sell, these days. In most congregations, the word "sermon" means a verse-by-verse explanation of scripture, perhaps enlivened with occasional illustrations from daily life. Thus, most people hear academic lectures at church, then turn to mass media to find inspiring tales of heroes and villains, triumph and tragedy, sin and redemption, heaven and hell.
Part of the problem, argues Catholic writer Roberto Rivera, is that science has claimed the right to define what is and isn't real. Scientists, of course, insist that truth be found through propositions and hypotheses, not through symbols and stories. In response, the church has tended to ask worshippers to subscribe to a list of propositions about God, rather than offering them sweeping, dramatic narratives about God's work in history.
Yet people still yearn for stories that feed the soul. If traditional religious groups keep offering "arid propositions that leave us cold and bored," people will seek other sanctuaries, said Rivera. The Star Wars series is merely one example of this trend toward stories that are highly commercialized, yet undeniably spiritual.
"If you want to engage people where they really live, you've got to reach for more than their heads or even their hearts," said Rivera, a researcher with the Wilberforce Forum led by evangelical leader Chuck Colson. "You've got to engage their imaginations. ... If you want to teach moral lessons, there's no substitute for a good story."
Thus, legions of Lucas disciples fill their homes with icons and statues and gather on thousands of World Wide Web sites. Many yearn for a personal audience with Lucas. Star Wars has a lot going for it as a spiritual story, noted Rivera. Its devotees don't have to get up on Sunday mornings and there's no moral code to make them uncomfortable.
"The problem," he said, "is that, after you've lined up, memorized the dialog and made the pilgrimage to Skywalker Ranch, what have you got to show for it? And, heaven forbid, what if 'The Phantom Menace' disappoints? What's your fallback position? After all, it's still only a movie."