Man gropes for a glimpse of metaphysical combat that Scripture has already outlined in blinding relief.
As i drove away from the theater my six-year-old daughter, Kelly, asked, “Daddy, is the Force Jesus?” We had just seen the second George Lucas space epic, The Empire Strikes Back. I had gone to decide whether or not the Star Wars sequel merited a metaphysical checkup in CHRISTIANITY TODAY. My daughter’s question rendered the issue rhetorical.
The fabric of this galactic odyssey is woven from what Lucas calls the ultimate search. He explains that, “On a theoretical/philosophical level the ultimate search is still the most fascinating search, what is it all about—why are we here and how big is it and where does it go—what is God and all that?” But dressing up this good guys-bad guys series as a philosophical heavyweight would encumber it with a seriousness it doesn’t deserve. It’s not that these films are undeserving in any critical sense. Lucas first of all means to reinspire today’s youth with the spirit of fun and adventure he portrayed in his first moneymaker, American Graffiti. “The sort of [childhood] heritage we built up since the war,” says Lucas, “had been wiped out in the sixties and it wasn’t groovy to act that way anymore. Now you just sort of sat there and got stoned.”
So Lucas, who has said, “I don’t like to come out with a big sign and say this is significant,” doesn’t take the Star Wars serial seriously in the same way Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was meant to be taken.
Nevertheless, comparison of the messages, the anthropological content of these films, may reflect some subtle shifts in the popular culture over the two intervening decades. Like Kubrick, Lucas focuses his cinematographic sights on the inner man, though what comes up on the screen is decidedly more brilliant than the lifeless pastels of 2001. Kubrick’s space travelers are insipid, humorless, lacking imagination. They respond with boredom to the vast magnitude and beauty of the cosmos that surrounds them. The 9000 computer, HAL, shows more “human” emotion than the human technocrats it serves. Man is sent on his evolutionary journey unmoved and unaware. He comes off as an empty, soulless creature.
Lucas, by contrast, immerses man in the epic struggle with “the force” of good and evil. John Wayne-type battle satanic villains. They engage “gods” (the Force) in the struggle to remain free—to choose good over evil, to remain noble, heroic, responsible.
Lucas then, when he again infuses man with nobility and pits him against the dark side, reflects a sociotheological shift away from Kubrick’s evolved soulless intelligence and back to the mystical faith elements scientists themselves may feel compelled to reclaim.
The Force, Lucas’s faith element in Star Wars, comes into clearer focus in The Empire. The Empire draws more power from the Force than did the first film. The Force identifies a metaphysical dimension in Lucas’s universe, a power to be used for good or evil. If man’s “faith” is sufficient he can accomplish extraordinary feats by drawing “on its power.”
We learn most about the Force as we see the sage-like elf, Yoda, tutoring Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi knight, the space-age embodiment of virtue and courage, the Force-filled life. Yoda warns Luke, “If you once start down the dark side [of the Force] it will forever determine your destiny.” Luke’s temptations by archvillain Darth Vader to join forces with the dark side provide moments of high suspense that play out the metaphysical and moral significance of the film and add a level of moral drama to the swirling pace of physical danger. (Violence in this film has a tempered make-believe quality since most of those “killed” are android warriors, agents of the dark side. Rarely are men shown dying, and even then, it is usually the bad guys who fall victim to their leader, Darth Vader.)
Yoda tells us and Luke that good will triumph in the end. Lucas describes his romantic vision for the film as “a sort of wholesome, honest vision about the way you want the world to be.” While Luke trains under Yoda’s tutelage, elsewhere in the galaxies the satanic spirit-like emperor summons the treacherous Darth Vader and tells him that there is a great disturbance in the Force, a phenomenon apparently generated as Luke Skywalker bites into a portion of the metaphysical pie. Faith is a fundamental prerequisite to partaking of the power of the Force. Yoda tells Luke “there is no trying, only do … the Force’s energy surrounds us. It’s between you and me, it’s in the rock, it’s everywhere.” Through the Force he will see things in the future, friends from the past long since gone. When Luke fails to appropriate enough mental power to raise his space fighter from the ooze in which it is mired Yoda tells him, “You don’t believe—that is why you fail.” Luke learns in an unnerving moment that the enemy to be feared and fought most is the enemy within himself.
Through his training Luke begins to “tune in” to the Force and, in mystical fashion, he senses that his compatriots in the interstellar rebellion are in danger. Against Yoda’s advice he cuts short his training to go to their rescue. Yoda warns him, “You feel the Force but you cannot control it,” which, in Star Wars exegesis reads, “You still lack sufficient spiritual maturity to engage the Force to battle against evil.” Those qualities of maturity, we learn from Yoda, are: looking to the present instead of always thinking future, having a spirit of peace, patience, and steadfastness.
Obe Ben Kenobi, the Jedi knight slain by Vader in the first episode, whose spirit returns in the second, laments to Yoda that matters are worse now that Luke knows so much more but has left before finishing the course. At points such as this Christians can set the analogies off within a biblical frame.
These films flirt with spiritual truth, which is an emotional trap for any devout Christian. But the broad picture is an eclectic montage taken from many “good” sources. As with my daughter, they can start discussions with spiritually sensitive individuals.
No, Kelly, the Force is not Jesus. Nor can it be likened to a personal God who seeks us out. But he, like the Force, is the one Source and Creator of all power in the universe. Beginning with Satan (the dark side), we have all misdirected that power for which we will one day be accountable. Some of us, by his love and grace, will be standing in the shadow of the Cross. Lucas suggests no sense of the substitutionary motif nor any other allowance for wrong moral choices. Neither does he see the necessity to satisfy a righteous God—the only definition of what is good and just. Lucas, like other good people, assumes and understands virtue and honor without knowing why.
For the characters in Star Wars, belief, as a factor of faith, is belief and confidence in oneself. The Force is a god of resource status, though the often-used expression, “May the Force be with you,” has a semantic ring of encouragement that is theologically confused.
Like Kubrick, Lucas senses that there is an unknown, mystical dimension—something beyond human intelligence—but Kubrick sends man uninspired through the cosmos, with survival the primary benefit.
With Lucas and his Star Wars series the book is not yet closed. The Force confronts man with choices and moves him to act. It is fun, romantic, exhilarating. Lucas says the choices we make in everyday life matter. It remains for the Christian to say why.
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