Trust your feelings, Darth?

No wonder Anakin Skywalker seems so confused.

Every time the Jedi apprentice turns around, a spiritual master tells him to trust his feelings, search his feelings or follow his feelings. Trouble is, the young super-warrior in "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones" is a tornado of feelings. He feels love. He feels hate, ambition, desire, frustration, fear and fury.

Yet when he follows his heart, the Jedi tell him to set aside his desires and do his duty.

Well, do feelings trump duty or is it the other way around?

"I don't know what it says in the Jedi handbook, but it's obvious that George Lucas hasn't answered this question," says Catholic writer Roberto Rivera, who is best known for his pop-culture research for evangelical leader Chuck Colson.

"It's especially interesting that the characters that represent the good side of the Force -- like Obi-Wan Kenobi -- stress the importance of following your feelings. But the characters that represent the dark side -- like Chancellor Palpatine -- are also telling Anakin he must learn to trust his feelings. Why do the good guys and the bad guys agree with each other?"

This may sound like the geeky Star Wars nit-picking that thrives in cyberspace, where legions of Lucas acolytes circulate catechisms detailing how many Jedi can twirl on the point of a light saber. But these are not meaningless questions for the generations baptized in images from the original trilogy and its sequels. The grand finale looms ahead on May 25, 2005.

Like it or not, what Lucas says about God and man is important.

"Star Wars is the closest thing many Americans have to a myth -- by which I mean the stories that help us make sense of our lives and the world around us, and the traditional means by which cultures transmit their values and beliefs," argues Rivera, in a essay called "Love, Sacrifice and Free Will in Star Wars."

Thus, it matters if Lucas has created a myth that makes any sense, even on its own terms. It matters if the Force provides a coherent framework for the actions of his characters. It matters if Lucas is stuck somewhere between karma and Calvinism, spinning morality tales in a universe ruled by an impersonal "energy field created by all living things" that somehow has a will and a plan for the souls it controls.

After all, notes Rivera, it "was Lucas who called Star Wars the story of a man's fall from grace and his subsequent redemption. These are terms with moral, if not religious, significance."

The key is that Lucas created a pop faith the same way he created his monsters. He took the head of one creature, attached it to the body of another, stuck on the tail of something else and enlarged the result to awesome size.

"I didn't want to invent a religion," Lucas once told journalist Bill Moyers. "I wanted to try to explain in a different way the religions that already existed. ... I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people -- more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system."

The bottom line: "The conclusion I have come to is that all the religions are true."

Yet Lucas wanted an epic story of good and evil, darkness and light. His films center on the life of an anointed one who "will bring balance" between the yin and the yang of the Force, yet Lucas never defines his terms. He never says what is good and what is evil and why. Heroes and villains alike have to follow their feelings.

"There is zero evidence in the Star Wars films that anyone is ever taught anything about what is right and what is wrong," notes Rivera. "We don't even know why the dark side is dark. It's a mystery. It's a concept with no meaning. ...

"Everybody is supposed to do the right thing, but nobody wants to stop and give any serious thought as to how a person is supposed to know what is the right thing to do. That is a rather important question to leave unanswered, if you stop and think about it."