Star Wars

Yes, those Star Wars theology wars are heating up -- again

Yes, those Star Wars theology wars are heating up -- again

Debates about "Star Wars" theology have come a long way since the first "Star Wars generation" children asked: "Is the Force the same thing as God?"

Later, kids viewing the second George Lucas trilogy faced the puzzling Nativity story of Anakin Skywalker. The future Darth Vader was conceived by bloodstream midi-chlorians -- the essence of life -- acting in union with the Force? His mother explained: "There is no father."

Now the middle film in the new trilogy -- "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" -- has believers debating whether the mythology created by Lucas has evolved into something more polemical, political and commercial, all at the same time. The big question: Can those who loved the early films trust Disney to protect the true faith?

From the beginning, it was clear Lucas was blending the comparative religion scholarship of Joseph "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" Campbell with dashes of Arthurian legend, samurai epics and Flash Gordon. At the heart of it all was the "monomyth" of Luke Skywalker and his epic spiritual quest, noted Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"A young man (typically) is summoned out of the comfort of his domestic life and compelled to go on a dangerous adventure," argued Barron, at his "Word on Fire" website. "In the process, he comes to realize and conquer his weakness, to face down enemies, and finally to commune with the deep spiritual powers that are at play in the cosmos. … Usually, as a preparation for his mission, he is trained by a spiritual master."

Some of these themes remain in "The Last Jedi," noted Barron, and it's obvious that Rey is a young heroine on her own quest. The problem, argued the bishop, is what has happened to Luke Skywalker and the rest of the ensemble. The old myths and archetypes have been buried in "an aggressively feminist ideology."

Concerning those British battles about 'Star Wars' and the Lord's Prayer

Imagine this scene in a London movie theater, moments before the archetypal fanfare signaling the Dec. 18 arrival of the new "Star Wars" epic.

Imagine a beautiful, dignified advertisement appearing onscreen in which Muslims -- workers, refugees, artists and imams -- each recite one of the opening phrases of the Quran.

"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek."

How would this be received in modern England, a tense land rocked by decades of debate about multiculturalism and whether it remains "Christian," in any meaningful sense of the word?

That's an intriguing question, after the decision by the dominant managers of British theaters to reject a Church of England advertisement -- targeting throngs at "Star Wars" rites -- in which Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others recite phrases from The Lord's Prayer. It's important to ponder this comparison, argued theologian Andrew Perriman of London, at a website called "An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age."

"Context is everything. It seems to me that the assumption that the Lord's Prayer is culturally and religiously innocuous points to some complacency on the part of the church," wrote Perriman, author of "The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church."

The decision to use this symbolic New Testament prayer in this public-square context, he argued, suggests that, "we have not let go of the Christendom mentality that expects everyone in this country to be, deep-down, innately, whether-they-like-it-or-not Christian."

Star Culture Wars

While tweaking the original Star Wars movie for re-release, director George Lucas decided that he needed to clarify the status of pilot Han Solo's soul.

In the old version, Solo shot first in his cantina showdown with a bounty hunter. But in the new one, Lucas addressed this moral dilemma with a slick edit that showed Greedo firing first. Thus, Solo was not a murderer, but a mere scoundrel on the way to redemption.

"Lucas wanted to make sure that people knew that Han didn't shoot someone in cold blood," said broadcaster Dick Staub. "That would raise serious questions about his character, because we all know that murder if absolutely wrong."

The Star Wars films do, at times, have a strong sense of good and evil.

Yet in the climactic scene of the new "Revenge of the Sith," the evil Darth Vader warns his former master: "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes."

Say what? If that is true, how did Lucas decide it was wrong for Solo to gun down a bounty hunter? Isn't that a moral absolute? If so, why are absolutes absolutely wrong in the saga's latest film? Good questions, according to Staub.

While we're at it, the Jedi knights keep saying they must resist the "dark side" of the mysterious, deistic Force. But they also yearn for a "chosen one" who will "bring balance" to the Force, a balance between good and evil.

"There is this amazing internal inconsistency in Lucas that shows how much conflict there is between the Eastern religious beliefs that he wants to embrace and all those Judeo-Christian beliefs that he grew up with," said Staub, author of a book for young people entitled "Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters."

"I mean, you're supposed balance the light and the dark? How does that work?"

The key is that Lucas -- who calls himself a "Buddhist Methodist" -- believes all kinds of things, even when the beliefs clash. This approach allows the digital visionary to take chunks of the world's major religions and swirl them in the blender of his imagination. Thus, the Force contains elements of Judaism, Christianity, Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and even Islam.

None of this is surprising. Lucas merely echoes the beliefs of many artists in his generation and those who have followed. But the czar of Star Wars also has helped shape the imaginations of millions of spiritual consumers. His fun, non-judgmental faith was a big hit at the mall.

It is impossible, said Staub, to calculate the cultural impact of this franchise since the 1977 release of the first film -- episode IV, "A New Hope." The films have influenced almost all moviegoers, but especially Americans 40 and under.

"I don't think there is anything coherent that you could call the Gospel According to Star Wars," stressed Staub. "But I do think there are things we can learn from Star Wars. ... I think what we have here is a teachable moment, a point at which millions of people are talking about what it means to choose the dark side or the light side.

"Who wants to dark side to win? Most Americans want to see good triumph over evil, but they have no solid reasons for why they do. They have no idea what any of this has to do with their lives."

Staub is especially concerned about young Star Wars fans. He believes that many yearn for some kind of mystical religious experience, taught by masters who hand down ancient traditions and parables that lead to truths that have stood the test of time, age after age. These young people "want to find their Yoda, but they don't think real Yodas exist anymore," especially not in the world of organized religion, he said.

In the end, it's easier to go to the movies.

Meanwhile, many traditional religious leaders bemoan the fact that they cannot reach the young. So they try to modernize the faith instead of digging back to ancient mysteries and disciplines, said Staub.

"So many churches are choosing to go shallow, when many young people want to go deep," he said. "There are people who just want to be entertained. But there are others who want to be Jedis, for real."

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 Boundless.org 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."