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Is This Star Wars The One?

Episode 3 Now Out on DVD

Just prior to its US release, May 19, Star Wars fans were wondering, "Is Revenge of the Sith the One?" That question, circulating in Star Wars fan club websites and blogs, echoes the question that was once asked of Jesus Christ, "Is he the One, or shall we look for another?" The combination of science fiction and spirituality is what George Lucas does best, so the question, reflecting as it does, a passage straight out of the New Testament, makes it well worth thinking once again about the new art form of which Lucas is a leading practitioner: not science fiction, but spirituality fiction.

Thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah, proposed that the moral and religious center of American culture is not Christianity, as preachers and politicians are accustomed to proclaiming, but rather what he called "civil religion." Not Christianity, nor Judaism, nor any other particular religion, but rather a spirituality that combines elements of those traditions with pragmatism, rationalism, Jeffersonian democracy, patriotism and faith in the efficacy of science.

Since the late sixties, when Bellah's theory was widely debated, and ferociously attacked, it has become more difficult to argue that American culture has a center -- of any kind. Today our diversity is the one thing most commentators agree upon. And this is true especially when one considers the religious diversity of the US: the resurgence of fundamentalism, the growth of Muslim populations, the popularity of Buddhism and New Age Spiritualities, to mention only a few of the sometimes contradictory trends.

In the Star Wars series, we have strong evidence that there is a moral and religious center of popular culture, and it looks very much like an updated version of Bellah's civil religion. While many critics have panned the Star Wars movies, even the harshest critics have noted the surprising depth of devotion that drives large audiences to these films.

Roger Ebert came very close to catching the essence of the series in his review of Episode I: "The series is essentially human mythology, set in space, but not occupying it. If Stanley Kubrick gave us man humbled by the universe, Lucas gives us the universe domesticated by man."

In a culture which is as diverse as ours, the formal religious organizations, wedded as they are to ancient traditions with particular histories, creeds and practices, cannot hope to give expression to those common beliefs that form the core of the wider culture. Indeed, it is the role the those religious organizations to stand apart from culture, and offer an alternative view. The movie makers are bound by no such constraints, however. In fact, their very success depends upon evoking the deepest feelings, and giving voice to the most profound myths of the largest possible publics.

Few come closer to the core of pop spirituality than George Lucas.

In Star Wars, Episode I, we saw the essence of the secular message of hope that Americans are very much yearning to hear as the bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, and as stories of political infighting dominate so much domestic news.

Star Wars is about what every religion is about. Namely, the contest between good and evil and how a particular individual, and by extension, an entire people, can triumph over evil.

Following nearly every high profile example of a teenager in America going on a shooting spree somewhere, we are told over and over again, how violent US society truly is, how its youth culture is dominated by demonic feelings of fear and anger, how the media is fueling the dark side of the human psyche and driving children down a road that leads only to destruction.

In Star Wars, by contrast, we are told that there is a childlike innocence still very much alive and well in the hearts and minds of the people, that there are still heroes who will do battle against the forces of evil. And moreover, when confronted by evil, if one calls upon the benign power of "the Force," one can triumph over the worst that evil can do.

There are specific references to traditional religious themes in the series, of course. Christ figures like Qui-Gon Jinn in Episode I, the very image of a bearded and robed teacher who sacrifices his life that the world may be saved. His enemy was clearly a stand in for Satan as Darth Maul, red skin and horns to make the parallel complete, their first confrontation took place in the desert. Add to these traditional themes, drawn in part, from the Bible, a Zen like substitution of the power of meditation for the power of prayer, a very New Age trust in the efficacy of intuition and feeling, and a distinctly American reliance upon technology as an agent of liberation/salvation, and you have a package that is hard to resist.

Or has George Lucas Turned to the Dark Side?

The throngs that are now seeing Episode III are as hungry as ever for a message of hope in a time of doubt and despair. And as many reviewers have noted, the dark side of Episode III is more pronounced. Some have compared Revenge of the Sith to Shakespeare in this respect. That is a stretch. For Shakespearean tragedy is darker by far, and most important, the screen play, the sheer power of language, cuts far deeper.

Only recently I had the pleasure of seeing Denzel Washington play Brutus in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." No one does the dark side better than William Shakespeare, and no one tells the story of how evil corrupts even the most sublime human hopes than the bard of Avalon. One does not leave a William Shakespeare tragedy filled with good feelings about the inevitability of the triumph of the good over evil. Rather, one leaves the theater, stunned by the fact that one can find even a small redeeming note within the fury of battle and mayhem.

Some have pointed out that George Lucas was aiming at George Bush, who tries to justify warmaking as good, while naming those who dispute his judgment in doing so his enemies, as does Anakin Skywalker as he trods that well worn path to perdition. I agree that Revenge of the Sith is the most pointedly political in the series. But even the descent of Anakin Skywalker into the technological hell made possible by twenty-first century computer graphics, lacks the profundity of Shakespearean tragedy.

Shakespearean tragedy does not have the "happy ending" Americans have come to expect in life, as well as in art.

At bottom, Revenge of the Sith is a variation on an old theme, not a new one. For no matter how spectacular its battle scenes are, an no matter how complete the transformation of Anakin Skywalker from good to evil may be, for every Darth Vader created, a new hero, or two, are born. And the Force will always be with us. In the end, if not an entirely "happy ending," at least there is hope.

The Star Wars series is a prime example of contemporary American mythmaking; and "Revenge of the Sith" confirms what I have chronicled in reviews of prior Lucas productions, as well as the Matrix series, the Rings trilogy, and others. Namely, the emergence of the movie as an art form, which like the stained glass, architecture, and painting of a prior age, gives powerful expression to the life giving spirit of a people: spirituality fiction.


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.