The Spiritual Significance of Star Wars

SW_SenatorTheatre_smThe same excitement that makes Star Wars a great entry point to the rudiments of physics, for example, also makes it a great resource for spiritual reflection and discussion. Numerous authors have recognized this potential of the story and have written books on philosophy and religion using Star Wars as a point of departure. Several of these have even approached the films from an explicitly Christian perspective, drawing lessons and illustrations from them in conversation with the Bible. Books like Dick Staub’s Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters (Jossey Bass, 2005) explore how the Star Wars saga reinforces elements of the biblical gospel, even without deliberate efforts on the part of the filmmakers to imbue the work with Christian doctrine. Instead of consciously echoing biblical themes, the fictional stories communicate general spiritual truths, expressing the fragments of the Christian narrative lingering within American culture. Whether these vestiges are the product of general revelation that God instills through the human conscience or the legacy of a fading Western Christendom culture, they still remain central to the most compelling stories.

Of course, there is another side to the spirituality of Star Wars. The influence of Eastern dualism is apparent in the delicate equilibrium of the Force. No omnipotent deity reigns within the Star Wars universe; instead, the opposing Forces of light and dark vie for ascendancy, locking the galaxy in a perpetual cycle of progress and decline. Several authors have amply critiqued the Jedi “religion” for serving such an impersonal, diffuse power, an inadequate alternative to the Trinitarian monotheism of Christianity. One would hope that Star Wars viewers would recognize the fictional nature of the films rather than direct their own spiritual activity in this world to the Force, but the opposite sometimes occurs.

Cults of “Jediism” purporting to be a legitimate postmodern religious sect devoted to the Force have appeared, in a few instances gaining enough support to garner legal recognition. In the 2001 UK census, 127 people wrote in “Jedi” as their religious preference. Although most of these respondents were likely making a joke at demographers’ expense, Cambridge researcher Beth Singler estimates that as many as 2,000 people are sincere believers, making the British “Jedi” population roughly as large as the Church of Scientology in the UK. The emergence of Jediism as a new religious movement is not unique to the UK: 2011 census results identify 9,000 Jedi in Canada, more than 15,000 in the Czech Republic, and 65,000 in Australia.

Such abuse of the Star Wars story, however, is certainly the exception rather than the rule. Most fans, regardless of their religious convictions, recognize the movies as science-fiction fantasy, an outlet for two hours’ escape (or in a marathon showing, perhaps an entire day’s entertainment).

Article Lead - wide1007722271gnz04yimage.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.gnyzhb.png1459851389184.jpg-620x349For those who do return from the fictional world to the real world, however, dangers still lurk. Fans who would never consider bowing at the altar of the Force still absorb implicit spiritual messages about the nature of truth, the challenge of evil, and the hope of personal redemption from the movies. Christians are by no means exempt from these influences. Even mature believers alert to rival religious claims may unconsciously absorb many of the assumptions that lie behind the Jedi way, such as resistance to absolute truth or fatalism about the inevitability of temptation. In the words of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!”

This is probably not deliberate, subliminal deception by George Lucas or any of the other creative influences behind Star Wars. Lucas and his collaborators, simply intending to tell a fascinating tale, most likely included these spiritual landmines just as unwittingly as they communicated elements of the gospel. The faulty understanding of reality that the Jedi communicate is a product and reflection of the misshapen worldview common to us all apart from Christ. Even within a culture steeped in Christian tradition, those who do not know the God of the Bible have become “futile in their thinking,” having their hearts darkened (Rom 1:21). Within this darkness, the only hope is to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

The inadvertent pitfalls of the spirituality of Star Wars render it no less dangerous. In fact, the latency of themes that undermine the gospel within such a compelling story probably makes them more threatening than a direct frontal assault on Christianity. C. S. Lewis discusses this danger in his essay “Christian Apologetics.”

Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books.

The same formative power that Lewis warns against here within nonfiction lurks within fiction as well. Lewis himself of course recognized this potential, harnessing it on behalf of the gospel through his Narnia stories, Space Trilogy, and other fiction. Stories that capture the imagination powerfully sculpt their audiences’ basic understandings of reality, whether for good or for ill.

The proper response to the implicit theology and worldview of Star Wars is neither boycott nor wholesale embrace. Paul encourages believers to “hate what is evil” but to “cling to what is good” (Rom 12:9). To reject the movies outright is to deprive oneself of important lessons about justice, truth, and reconciliation, not to mention the simple joy of a good story. On the other hand, however, John charges Christians to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). Active discernment is required to identify the worldview advocated by the Jedi masters and evaluate it according to the word of God.

This critical discernment can be difficult, particularly for those like me who have fallen in love with the heroes of Star Wars. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Luke Skywalker are mentors of sorts who have won our admiration. Sometimes another mentor can help to identify the challenges that these Jedi pose. For this reason, explorations of Star Wars spirituality that draw exclusively positive lessons are inadequate by themselves. The aim of this book is to offer another perspective. Far from disparaging the Jedi and debunking the Force, it intends to bring balance to the discussion (a goal that the Jedi themselves would certainly affirm).

a_true_hope_xxlThis is an excerpt from the Introduction of A True Hope: Jedi Perils and the Way of Jesus by Joshua Hays.

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