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."

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

It was conventional wisdom, in the Middle Ages, that women were more pious than men and that women went to Confession and took Communion during great church feasts "while few men do," as a Dominican priest observed.

Austrian theologian Johann B. Hafen saw this trend in 1843: "During the year who surrounds most frequently and willingly the confessional? The wives and maidens! Who kneels most devoutly before our altars? Again, the female sex!"

Early YMCA leaders found that one out of 20 young men claimed church membership and that 75 percent of men "never attend church" at all. A Church News study in 1902 found that, in Manhattan, the ratio of Catholic women to men was 3 to 1.

What about today? To see what is happening in Catholic sanctuaries worshippers just have look around.

"You may have noticed that in many Catholic churches everyone in the sanctuary except the priest is female and sometimes the masculinity of the priest is doubtful. I remember a 50-year-old priest with a page-boy haircut," observed author Leon J. Podles, speaking at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore.

"Most Catholic pastoral ministers in this country and elsewhere are female, so often there is not a male in sight during Communion services. ... There have been recent changes in some countries in the ratio of women to men in the church, but it has not been a result of more men, but fewer women attending."

Candidate Hillary Clinton casts judgment on our very religious world

Looking at women's lives worldwide, Hillary Clinton is convinced that faith ioffers strength and hope to many, while "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases" continue to oppress others.

The Democratic presidential candidate cited her own Methodist heritage as an example of positive faith during the recent Women in the World Summit in New York City. But religion's dark side, she said, is easily seen when doctrines limit access to "reproductive health care" and cause discrimination against gays and the transgendered.

In the future, she stressed, politicians will need to force religious leaders to change these ancient teachings to fit modern laws.

"Far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health," said Clinton, focusing on issues she emphasized as secretary of state.

"All the laws that we've passed don't count for much if they're not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will and deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed."

The Kennedy Center crowd responded with cheers and applause.

That Da Vinci sex code

In the beginning, Judaism was a faith built on sacred sex.

At least, that's what Dan Brown told 60 million readers in "The Da Vinci Code," speaking though a fictional Harvard University scholar named Robert Langdon. And while the characters are fiction, the novelist continues to affirm the statement that opens his book: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

One of those "secret rituals" is an eye-opener.

"Langdon's Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the Temple, no less," wrote Brown, in one of many long speeches that explain his iconoclastic plot. "Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses ... with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union."

For most people, the big news in "The Da Vinci Code" story was its message that Jesus was a brilliant and charismatic man -- but not the Son of God -- who was married to St. Mary Magdalene, had a child and tried to start a church built on secret truths and goddess worship. But Jesus was killed and, after a few centuries, powerful men crushed the Gnostic Christians. Meanwhile, the secret bloodline of Jesus lived on in Europe.

That's the side of the book, and now the movie, that makes headlines. But there is a message in the novel that is even more controversial and, for traditional Christians and Jews, more radical, according to philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi, who was born and educated in the diverse religious culture of India.

"The Da Vinci Code" is absolutely right when it states that the Judeo-Christian tradition, through the ages, did everything that it could to suppress sexual mysticism, fertility rites and goddess worship. The early church, he stressed, emerged in a world that was packed with pagan sanctuaries filled with scores of temple prostitutes.

The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasized the holiness of marriage, but never taught that sexual intercourse was -- in and of itself -- a sacred rite in which the spirit escapes the body and is able commune with some all-embracing deity.

"Dan Brown is right about the following: some pagan converts to Christ did bring sexual mysticism into the early church," said Mangalwadi, in a speech he delivered this week at Hollywood (Calif.) Presbyterian Church. In fact, the Book of Revelation condemns two early churches that tolerated believers who "practiced religious sex. It is possible that before becoming Christians these women and men had participated in prostitution in pagan temples. ...

"Given the fact that Christianity was an ascending religious force, they may have found it to their advantage to attract customers in the name of Christ. Some may well have re-written the life of Christ in the light of pagan spirituality to justify their preferred 'religious' practice."

In "The Da Vinci Code" itself, Brown stresses that the use of sexual rituals to create union with the gods and goddesses is older than the Christian faith and could, he claimed, be seen in Judaism. A one point, a central character witnesses a modern ritual in which a couple has sexual intercourse while surrounded by a circle of other members of the secret society that is preserving the true Christianity.

Thus, Brown's alter ego explains: "Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis -- knowledge of the divine. ... 'By communing with woman,' Langdon said, 'man could achieve a climactic instance when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.' "

The key is that this experience is the "sole means" for transformation. This theme is explicit in the novel, even though the movie does not stress it.

"Dan Brown is promoting a mystic experience in which our mind goes 'totally blank' -- beyond words, thoughts, ideals, beliefs and values," argued Mangalwadi. "This is a non-rational experience. Mystics promote it because the consider the intellect to be the source of ignorance, not a means to gaining knowledge."

Stalking the pro-life feminists

Few journalists paid attention when two teen-aged mothers from Grant County, Ky., won their legal fight to enter the National Honor Society.

Somer Chipman and Chasity Glass were barred from the 1998 induction ceremony for one simple reason -- both were pregnant. The American Civil Liberties Union said this was illegal discrimination.

Feminists for Life agreed and backed the ACLU case. Executive director Serrin Foster told the court: "If Ms. Chipman and Ms. Glass had had abortions, their sexual activity would not have become known to school officials. Actions such as those of the Grant County School District thus send a message that a decision to carry a pregnancy to term will be punished."

This court affidavit was quietly handled by the group's legal counsel -- Jane Sullivan Roberts.

Little ink was spilled.

That was then. This is now.

"We've had our share of media attention, but I've never seen anything like what is happening in the mainstream press right now," said Foster, referring to the storm caused by this link between Feminists for Life and the wife of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts Jr. "Maybe the time is ripe. It's been three decades since Roe and it seems that some people are beginning to realize that abortion isn't solving all the problems it was supposed to solve."

Then again, it is also possible that journalists cannot resist stories involving (a) abortion, (b) the Supreme Court, (c) feminism, (d) Catholicism or (e) "all of the above." The twist in the Roberts case is that Feminists for Life is a nonsectarian group and is often viewed as the odd secular sister at faith-based rallies against abortion.

Over and over, Foster has explained that this 33-year-old organization is as committed to the welfare of women as it is to defending the unborn. This is a hard sell in America's balkanized public square, where everything is starkly divided into blue vs. red, "pro-choice" vs. "pro-life," Democrats vs. Republicans, Anthony Kennedy Catholics vs. Antonin Scalia Catholics.

Foster and her colleagues winced when journalists pinned a "committed anti-abortion activist" label on Roberts, and by proxy her husband, because of her volunteer work with Feminists for Life. But Foster was surprised that some scribes kept listening.

The New York Times did quote the group's mission statement: "Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion." Foster went further, confirming that "reversing Roe v. Wade ... is a goal," but also telling the Times that this action is "not enough."

This is precisely the two-pronged message what progressives who are opposed to abortion have been trying to communicate for decades, said theologian Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. Hopefully, the upcoming confirmation hearings for John Roberts can focus on both sides of this delicate equation.

"What this all illustrates is the fact there are many Christians -- evangelicals and Catholics alike -- who are strong defenders of human life, yet are in no way right-wingers on many other issues," said Sider, who two decades ago wrote a manifesto entitled "Completely Pro-Life: Building a Consistent Stance on Abortion, the Family, Nuclear Weapons, the Poor."

"I suspect," he added, "that a majority of the American people want to find a way -- somehow -- to respect and protect unborn children while respecting and protecting the rights of women. Can we find the will to do both?"

Foster has felt that tension and, as a result, has started referring to herself as a "Demorepublicat." Then there is the tension caused by those who assume that her fight against abortion is built on religious dogma alone, rather than a heritage of early feminist opposition to "child murder" and "foeticide."

More than once, Foster has described her beliefs and heard journalists say, "That sounds Catholic to me." Issues linked to the sanctity of life are too complex for this old framework, she said. It will be hard to fit groups such as "Wiccans for Life" and "Gays and Lesbians for Life" into the old stereotypes.

"We can pledge to support every mother and to welcome every child," she said. "We don't have to be at war with our own bodies and our own children. We don't have to settle for that. We can change the status quo."