Yoda, from Lucasfilm, (fair use)
As we enjoy the release of the next installment from the fantasy movie universe known as “Star Wars”, it seems a good time to meditate upon some of the themes that resonate with Christianity, that can be traced through many of these stories.
1. There are unseen realities that govern the visible universe.
That’s a pretty generic religious assertion, but it fits the Christian worldview, in contrast with a purely atheistic and materialistic worldview. In the “Star Wars” universe, an invisible Force governs the fate of the galaxy. Foreknowledge, and other kinds of supernatural powers are available to mortals. The Force often preserves the lives of the just, and thwarts the malignant designs of the evil.
In “Star Wars” the exact nature of the force and any higher Intelligence behind it remains vague and nebulous. George Lucas borrowed richly from religious and mythic themes, but he was clearly about entertainment rather than theology.
Christianity proposes that the Universe has a living God, who is more than merely an impersonal force. We believe in a being of immense power and wisdom who has not only communicated with humanity but squeezed into human form and stepped into history as one of its players. More on that in a moment.
2. There is a cosmic battle between good and evil.
“Star Wars” boldly offers that there is a distinction between Good and Evil, between Light and Dark. As Yoda says in “The Empire Strikes Back”:
“But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”
When Luke asks if the dark side is stronger, Yoda replies, “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”
Already this takes us in a counter-cultural direction. In the last few generations, at least in Western cultures, we have greatly weakened the concepts of Good and Evil. This idea finds consonance with Christian thought, though.
The apostle Paul warns his readers in Ephesians 6:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
As in “Star Wars” movies, this battle against evil is often desperate, and seemingly hopeless, but those who engage in it cling beyond reason to hope. In the original “Star Wars” movie, later named “Episode IV: A New Hope”, that hope is a possibility to overthrow oppression, specifically thanks to a transmission of secret plans that reveal a weakness in the fearsome Death Star. For Christians, it is a person, Jesus, who is our “New Hope”. He promises to overthrow oppression and liberate us from evil. Ultimately, however lost the cause may seem, the good will prevail, and the Light will vanquish the Darkness.
3. People can fall into temptation and evil.
Jedi warriors are sometimes tempted and seduced by the power of the Dark Side. The major example of this is Darth Vader, once a good man who fought for the Republic. By the time his son, Luke comes of age, Obi Wan muses that Vader is “more machine now than man, twisted and evil”. In the prequel we are treated to another ex-Jedi turned evil, Count Dooku, who was formerly a pupil of Yoda.
Christianity goes a step further–all of us have succumbed to the darkness. “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). However, there is hope for redemption.
4. There is a long prophesied “Chosen One”, who will put things right.
In the prequel movies, we are given the idea that a “chosen one” has been long prophesied. Qui Gon Jinn becomes convinced that Anakin Skywalker is the “chosen one”.
In the Bible, numerous passages of the Old Testament predicted the coming of “messiah”, literally the “anointed one”, or in essence “chosen one”. Anointing by oil is a sign that one has been chosen by God; an example would be the anointing of the shepherd boy David to indicate his selection by God to be the next king of Israel.
In the New Testament, which was written in Greek rather than Hebrew, we have the word “Christ,” which is identical in meaning to “messiah”. (“Christ” isn’t a last name of Jesus, like “Smith” or “Johnson” or “Carter” might be for us, but rather it is an identification of Jesus as “the chosen one”).
We have this story of Jesus from Matthew 16:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
5. Sometimes a heroic character sacrifices self for the good of all.
We see numerous examples of this. In “Rogue One”, Jin and her colleagues bravely go to their deaths trying to retrieve the Death Star plans that may revive the flagging hopes of the Rebellion. In “A New Hope”, Ben Kenobi sacrifices himself to allow his comrades to escape from the Death Star. In “Return of the Jedi” Luke prepares to die at the hands of the Emperor in hopes of saving his father.
Christianity has as its central story the sacrificial death of Jesus to atone for our “manifold sins and wickedness” (Book of Common Prayer), and offer a way of reconciliation between God and humans. He essentially pulled an Obi Wan that we might escape our metaphoric Death Star, which in the end is Death itself.
6. For even the baddest of people, there is an opportunity for forgiveness and redemption.
The main narrative of the first six movies is the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Initially a brave pilot and able Jedi knight, he is lured into the Dark Side through fear of losing his wife and anger at his mother’s death. He makes a “deal with the devil” in a sense, when he chooses to serve the nefarious Palpitine (who becomes the Emperor) and betray and destroy the Jedi. He becomes Death Vader, the black robed villain and chief hitman for the Emperor.
Ultimately, he turns from the dark path after his son Luke comes to him in “Return of the Jedi.” After dispatching the evil emperor by tossing him into the reactor core of the new Death Star, he is weakened and struggles to walk. Luke tries to get him to safety but Anakin collapses. Although he is about to die physically, he knows that his spirit has been saved, as emphasized in his final dialogue:
Luke: “You’re coming with me. I’ll not leave you here, I’ ve got to save you.”
Anakin: “You already… have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister… you were right …”
7. This life is not the end.
Star Wars proposes life after death, as when Yoda remarked to Luke, “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter”. In almost every movie dead characters speak or appear as apparitions to guide the hero on his quest, and to give a kind of glowing benediction at the end of the first movie trilogy. Yoda’s words echo those of one of my favorite Christian authors, C. S. Lewis, who elaborated on the Christian idea that we are beings who possess an immortal soul:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
(Lewis, The Weight of Glory, HarperOne, reprinted in 2001: pp. 45-46).