To celebrate Star Wars Day (May 4th), here’s a summary of key points from a talk by Jon the freelance theologian on the subject of Star Wars.
Star Wars was released in 1977 and became a huge success, despite only initially opening in a limited number of smaller cinemas. By 1978 Star Wars fever was in full swing, with the ubiquitous toys owned by nearly every child old enough, and more merchandise than had veer accompanied a film release before.
Star Wars was titled ‘Episode IV – A New Hope’. It’s success meant creator/director George Lucas was given an increased budget for two sequels, episodes V and VI, called The Empire Strikes Back (released 1980), and The Return of the Jedi (released 1983). In 1999, some twenty years after the original films became such a smash, The Phantom Menace, the first of the prequel films was released, followed by Episodes II and III in 2004 and 2006.
This talk concentrates on the original trilogy, which I’ll be referring to as Star Wars, Empire and Jedi. The reasons I’m concentrating on these three is because a) they’re much better films, and b) their significance in shaping the cultural philosophy, particularly among men my age is quite important in the development in contemporary discussions of spirituality.
Key aspects of spirituality in Star Wars
- It redefines the concept of ‘god’ in a godless society
- Particularly, it describes ‘god’ in a technological age – working in harmony with technology
- It contrasts an awareness of God with two forms of materialism – the imperial attitude to power and a mercenary attitude based in experience
- It has an emphasis on sacrifice as a means of retaining choice and free will instead of giving in to evil.
- There is a concept of ‘life after death’.
- The belief in the spiritual offers an underlying depth to our reality
- The struggle between good and evil is an internal struggle initially, that manifests as an external struggle. The reality of the inner life shapes the cosmos around it.
- The battle between good and evil is won (and lost) when we are tempted to embrace ‘the dark side’
- However, there is always a possibility of redemption and a rediscovery of our true self
- Redemption may involve self-sacrifice; it is costly, and it can be costly to redeem others including the need to place oneself in jeopardy.
There are several scenes that can be viewed to unpack what Star Wars is saying about spiritual concepts. The following is a brief list, tied to the aspects of spirituality, above.
‘The Force’ redefines the concept of ‘god’ in a godless society, but this is ‘god’ in a technological age – working in harmony with technology
0.31.14 (chapter 14) Obi Wan tells Luke about his father, hears the message from Leia, and talks about the force – this leads straight into a discussion on the Death Star between Darth Vader and an Imperial officer about the power of the force.
There are two forms of materialism – the imperial attitude to power, as seen in Clip 1 when Motti boasts that the Death Star is the ultimate power in the universe – science/modernity has killed religion/superstition and a mercenary attitude based in experience – as seen in the next clip where Han Solo dismisses the Force as a ‘hokey religion’
0.56.00 (chapter 27) Obi Wan senses a disturbance in the force (destruction of Alderaan); Luke is practicing with his lightsaber; Han dismisses the force as nonsense.
Self-sacrifice is a way to retain choice/free will when faced with evil and destruction.
1.26.00 Darth Vader fights and kills Obi Wan
There is, however, ‘life after death’, but not understood in a Judeo-Christian sense of resurrection, although in later films Obi Wan’s ‘spirit’ has an almost tangible, and certainly visual, reality.
1.50.00 Obi Wan guides Luke down the Death Star trench to make the crucial shot.
Empire Strikes Back
Belief in the spiritual offers an underlying depth to our reality. The struggle between good and evil is an internal struggle – is shown in a clip featuring Luke and Yoda , where Luke enters a cave which is ‘strong with the dark side’, and fights an apparition of Darth Vader. When Darth Vader’s mask is removed it reveals ‘Luke’s face’ – this is a warning that Luke has the potential to become as big a monster, or as evil a person, as Darth Vader
Clips 5, 6, 7
0.44.20 Luke meets Yoda on Dagobah
0.52.30 Luke learns Yoda’s identity
1.05.28 Jedi training – Yoda rescues Luke’s X-Wing from the lake
The struggle between good and evil is an internal struggle that is won (and lost) when we are tempted to embrace ‘the dark side’; Luke learns a shocking truth about Darth Vader and discovers his potential when Vader offers him co-rulership of the Empire. NB – this closely parallels the temptation of Christ, and Luke, like Christ, turns the tempter down
1.40.00 Darth Vader tells Luke “Your destiny lies with me”; offers Luke the opportunity to join him; reveals he is Luke’s father; Luke chooses to drop off the tower
Return of the Jedi
The battle between good and evil is won (and lost) when we are tempted to embrace ‘the dark side’; Luke realises his father’s fall is a warning of what could befall him.
0.41.30 Luke is warned to “Beware the dark side”; he has a conversation with Obi-Wan discussing the fall of Anakin Skywalker.
However, there is always a possibility of redemption and a rediscovery of our true self.
1.20.30 Luke tells Darth Vader that ‘his true self’ is Anakin Skywalker.
Redemption may involve self-sacrifice; it is costly. Luke discover his true self (“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,”) and reaffirms the potential for redemption. When Darth Vader intervenes his redeeming act is sacrificial.
1.47.10 Vader taunts Luke into attacking him; Luke wins and is ready to deal killing blow; he chooses not to; the Emperor attacks him; Vader rescues Luke.
1.54.55 Vader takes his mask off, confirming his redemption.
What do the Star Wars films offer us in terms of understanding contemporary cultural spirituality? Certainly, as films, they were among the first popular expressions of what has become known as the post-modern world-view. The idea that, in an advanced, technological society, there is still room for mystery, the ‘spiritual’, and a morality based on good versus evil.
However, there are some caveats. Evil is represented mainly as a threat to freedom, rather than any particular action. Morality isn’t black and white – one of the main heroic characters is a smuggler with a history of narcotic trafficking. The concept of ‘god’ that is ‘The Force’ isn’t a transcendent, prescriptive god to be worshipped, but, in theological terms, an immanent, impersonal divinity to be used and shaped. Rather than ‘god’ seeking to transform humans, human beings in the Star Wars galaxy seek to alter the world around them by ‘changing god’.
Star Wars does, however, offer a challenge to us. We still live in a culture where science and technology seek to suppress, oppress and repress our innate awareness of the spiritual. And the materialistic emphasis of our culture separates us from the Judeo-Christian image of a transcendent, and holy, God, which many Christians hold. The idea that God may be found everywhere, binding all things together, is both Biblical and important.
The idea of a ‘god’ which works in partnership with us makes us responsible for moral decisions. And, crucially, the promise of redemption, from materialism, from ambivalent ‘sin’, and from moral evil that you have chosen to participate in, is one of the most important and compelling aspects of the whole Star Wars saga. I would suggest the redemption motif is the reason Star Wars retains it’s appeal after several decades; perhaps because what we are all seeking is redemption.
Star Wars underlines that possibility of redemption, but it is something we have to actively choose, in a universe where ‘god’ gives us the freedom to make our own moral decisions and lets us live with the consequences.