Why The Theology of Star Wars Is Deeper Than It Might Seem 24 December 2015

With the release of the new Star Wars film, Abdul-Azim Ahmed suggests that the Force and it’s relation to religion might be deeper than it first seems.

Luke first sight by Chawakarn KhongprasertWho could deny Star Wars is one of the largest, most influential, stories of the modern world? Just as we study the Middle-Eastern Epic of Gilgamesh, the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or the European chronicle of Beowulf as an insight into the lives of the people that wrote them, it is easy to imagine a future historian examining Star Wars as the great mythology of our era.

Mythology and religion go hand in hand of course. The greatest stories often belong to sacred scriptures; the Hindu Mahabharata or the Moses of the Hebrew Bible rank as some of the most influential stories of human history. What of religion in Star Wars then? What role does it play in the saga?

I’ve been a Star Wars fan for some time, though admittedly, not a hard-core one. I watched the original trilogy when I was young and, perhaps controversially, I enjoyed the prequels when they were released. For me, Star Wars was a powerful story about political repression, tyranny and revolution. I used to think however, on my first viewings of the saga, that its approach to religion was lacking. It seemed wishy-washy; a non-committal and shallow description of faith. I’ve come to realise I was wrong however, and Stars Wars in fact provides a theology much deeper than I had anticipated, authored carefully by creator George Lucas.

Certainly part of the reason I thought of religion in Star Wars as fickle was due to the now infamous “Jedi” movement. After the introduction of a question on religious identity on the 2001 UK census, thousands protested by listing their religion as “Jedi”. Likewise, when Muslim students in a Turkish university launched a petition for a mosque on campus, some protested by calling for a Jedi temple. A famous case in Wales involved Daniel Jones, a self-proclaimed member of the Jedi Church, refusing to take down his hood in a supermarket since his Jedi religion “demanded it of him”. Jediism came to represent in public consciousness a critique, sometimes a satire, of religious believers, their identities, and their practices.

Perhaps the other reason I didn’t appreciate the role of religion in Star Wars was the generational gap. I was a child of the eighties, and so raised during a time when religion was becoming increasingly part of the daily narrative – on the news, in politics and within our popular culture too. The original Star Wars trilogy was released to an audience for whom religion was peripheral, and secularism was seen to be the unavoidable consequence of developed societies. The movies were speaking at a very different time than today.

Revisiting the series, in light of Lucas’ own statements on religion in Star Wars, I came to appreciate something new in the classic movies. Lucas had crafted the theology in Star Wars incredibly carefully – few things were an accident and rather than religion being an afterthought in the world Lucas had created, it was something that was at the forefront of Lucas’ mind. In his own words, the spirituality of Star Wars is intentional, and symbolic –  ‘all I was trying to say in a very simple and straightforward way, is that there is a God and there is a good and bad side.’

A Reaction Against Secularism

TimeIn the era in which Star Wars was first released, Western society was in the midst of an era of secularisation. Religious worship and attendance were falling, various forms of non-belief were beginning to emerge, and scientific discovery had taken humanity further than any civilisation had gone in the past. Religion was seen as an outdated cultural artefact. This zeitgeist of the time is most powerfully depicted in the cover of the 1966 Time magazine, which asked in bold red letters “Is God Dead?” Naturally, this wasn’t the whole story. Religion was still an important part of life for many in Europe and North America, but the Time cover captured a feeling that God and faith were being replaced by science and technology.

In this cultural backdrop then, a particular scene in A New Hope sets out Lucas’ view on the issue.

MOTTI: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they’ve obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it!

VADER: Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

MOTTI: Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebel’s hidden fort…

VADER: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Vader responds to Admiral Motti’s scepticism with a display of power, choking him with the Force in one of cinema’s most famous scenes. Besides acting as the audience’s first display of Vader’s access to the mystical and all pervasive Force, it also says something about the relationship between scientific power and religious faith – there are powers out there greater than technology, Lucas tells the viewer.

The Force

The Force of course introduces us to something else too – morality.”The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together” Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke. Yoda later warns our protagonist “A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side”.

The Force, mystical and undefined, can be used for good or for evil we are told. The Force acts as a signifier for the transcendental and metaphysical, something that stretches beyond our immediate senses.

My first views on the Force were that it was a simple plot device, a power for the villains and heroes to wield that has no more religious weight than the magic in the world of Harry Potter. But not for Lucas, who says “I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.”

With this in mind, I reconsidered the way the Force is introduced, discussed and presented in the movies. For Abrahamic viewers, the Force certainly echoes the way in which God is spoken of.  “May the Force be with you” is the valediction used by Jedi monks, which would certainly sound familiar to the ears of Christians, Jews and Muslims, perhaps most strikingly with the Islamic saying “as-salaamu alaykum” or “peace be with you”. In Faith and Film, Bryan Stone remarks “clearly, the Holy Spirit does bear some resemblance to the Force of Star Wars” but, he argues, “it is much more like the Tao, which in Chinese thought is understood as the all-embracing, harmonious principle that holds the universe together”.

The Force is something that echoes religion, introduces many of the same concepts as religions themselves discuss, but does so in a way so as not to estrange the believer in any tradition, or even the disbeliever.

The Light and the Dark

The dualism of the Force too is elegantly presented. Some have compared it to Yin and Yang, but this is a cumbersome comparison. Yin and Yang are complimentary opposites, and balance between the two is seen as good. By contrast, it is not balance, but a rejection of the dark, that is morally good in the world of Star Wars. In this sense, it is much more about morality than about the interconnectedness of opposites.

TatooineThe Light and the Dark of the Force are emblematic of a deeper question, often seen in the ancient duotheistic theology of Manichaeism, and to a lesser degree, Zoratarianism. There is the Good God but also the Dark God. In Manichaeism, the created world represents a battle between the Good God and the Dark God, and human beings represent this struggle in their very nature. A Manichaean would agree with Yoda wholeheartedly that “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!” They believed the human being was a spark of light trapped in the body of lowly (dark) physical matter.

But there are times when the Force breaks away from the idea of an impersonal but absolute power. Obi Wan’s advice, “remember… the Force will be with you, always” is only comforting if the Force is more than just power, but something more akin to a personal, knowing, God. Certainly in the second trilogy, when Qui-Gon Jinn remarks about Anakin, “finding him was the will of the Force”, we begin to a sense that the Force is more than just life-force, but sentient.

The Force is then morality, and an expression of eternal absolutes. Returning to Lucas, “I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distillt hem down into a more modern and easily accessible construct”. The Force is theology for a less religious audience.

Prophetic Stories Retold

Joseph Campbell developed the idea of the monomyth – the motif at the heart of every hero story. He cited Moses as the original story, and cited Star Wars as the best example of the modern monomyth. Luke is called to a greater mission through Princess Leia’s message, he is given supernatural aid (through the Force under Obi Wan and Yoda’s tutelage), he is tempted by the devil (when facing Emperor Palpatine), and eventually, reconciles with his past (in the form of his father, Darth Vader’s redemption). These are all common stages in Campbell’s concept of the monomyth.

Luke mirrors Moses, but Anakin’s virgin birth of course mirrors that of Jesus Christ. Anakin had no father, but was conceived by the Force. He is the Chosen One, foretold in prophecy. However, rather than following the traditional narrative of the Saviour, Anakin becomes an anti-Christ figure. He gives in to the temptation of evil, and ultimately fulfils the purpose of the Dark Side of the Force. There are elements of Milton’s Paradise Lost in the grand story of Anakin’s fall from grace – he is part Saviour, part Anti-Christ, part Lucifer.

The Biblical themes even extend to the locations themselves. Tatooine is like the deserts in which Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all wandered; Corsuscant and Cloud City, the metropolises in which the struggle for good and evil takes place; the volcanic Mustafar, the hell into which Anakin falls.

This was certainly intentional on Lucas’ behalf: “With Star Wars I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs. I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today”.

Eastern Imagination

Star Wars certainly would resonate with anyone even vaguely familiar with Abrahamic traditions. But as philosopher and scholar of religions John Caputo has suggested, the “religious schema of Star Wars is rather more Eastern than Judeo-Christian”.

The absence of a specific deity certainly puts Star Wars closer to nontheistic elements within Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. The Jedi robes invoke the ancient warrior nobility of the Samurai, Darth Vader’s armour is a modern take on the Samurai’s protective clothing, and even the Jedi code and its focus on altruism, benevolence and discipline is like that of the Bushido, the Samurai code.

Yoda is also presented as a typical yogi, an ascetic who lives in the wilderness, simultaneously full of wisdom while being light-hearted. The similarity of the name Yoda to yogi is unlikely to be an accident. Yoda is often found presented meditating, like a Buddha who has achieved enlightenment, and his detached acceptance of death and the cycle of re-birth echoes the theologies of the East.

A Universal Force?

Between the questions of morality, of Biblical prophethood and Eastern ascetism, lies Star Wars, the Force, and its simple theology.

Star Wars has sometimes been accused of vacuous spirituality, but dig a little deeper, and you find a carefully constructed world of religion and faith, designed so that everyone can relate and find something that resonates with themselves, believer or non-believer. Lucas says so himself, “I didn’t want to invent a religion. I wanted to try to explain in a different way the religions that have already existed. I wanted to express it all.”

On Religion magazine discusses current affairs, society and popular culture in the light of religion. To subscribe to the print magazine for just £19 a year or to find out more, click here.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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