I firmly believe that one of the reasons why Star Wars is going to stand the test of time is because it’s the classic hero’s journey. Our plucky hero hears the call to adventure, but needs reassurance before they begin. Once our hero sets out, they meet all kinds of interesting characters and gains knowledge and training and spiffy tools to help them with their mission. Just when they think they’re at their lowest, they’re pulled out from despair and prepared for the final boss battle. Our hero wins, we celebrate, and our hero is a changed person for it. This model worked for the original trilogy, and it looks like it’s working for The Force Awakens, too.
You could probably name dozens of stories that fit this model without much effort. You see shadows of this model all throughout the Bible, too. In the Old and New Testaments we have all kinds of stories of people that follow a similar (or the same) framework. So it’d be easy to say that Star Wars is a Christian story, right? We have a great fight between good and evil, the Jedi are a lot like monks, and even the evil Darth Vader has that gloriously religious line: “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Christian groups clamor to ride the hype train by injecting Star Wars themes into religious services. Alissa Wilkinson’s article in Christianity Today shows just how popular a “spirituality of Star Wars” is becoming in all sorts of religious groups, especially among Christians. But does it work? Is Star Wars really a universe compatible with Christian beliefs?
Spoilers abound below.
I think the main reason why Christians want to be able to claim Star Wars is because we connect so strongly with the characters. But this is hardly unique to Christians. How many of us have felt the desire to be part of something greater than ourselves? Many have experienced our own call to adventure. Sure, we aren’t going to be Jedi unless we want to fork over about ten bucks, though it’s not going to give us powers anytime soon. But we’ve all experienced significant changes. Flying across the country (or driving across the state) to attend college for the first time feels like an adventure. Starting a new job in our chosen field feels like the beginning of an adventure. Hitting a relationship milestone, whether it be a first date or getting married, can feel like an adventure. Changes also force us to do some serious soul searching and change who we are to become someone new. Resolving to get sober, committing to a healthy lifestyle and body image, embracing cognitive behavioral therapy, or struggling to detach ourselves from whatever physical or spiritual vice is holding us back helps us become our most authentic, life-giving selves. The great heroes of Christianity are people who went on these kinds of adventures, whether they be physical (traveling to a new place or state in life) or more spiritual (scouring your soul of bad habits and attachments). Luke’s (and Rey’s, I hope) journey to become a Jedi is something Christians can strongly identify with.
We also see that most people who encounter the Force and those who serve the Light become better people for it, even if they don’t become Jedi themselves. Star Wars is fundamentally a story about good versus evil, and (spoiler alert) so far the good has always won, in the end. Han Solo is a great example: he begins the story as a morally corrupt (or grey, at best) character who doesn’t believe in the Force in A New Hope, and he ends up a great retired war hero in The Force Awakens who assures Rey that the Jedi and the Force are real, they aren’t just nice stories. Luke is able to finally convert his father Darth Vader to the Light, and we see Anakin Skywalker show up as a Force Ghost. Essentially, Luke was able to save his soul. Sounds pretty Christian, right?
But writing off Star Wars as a Christian story totally forgets about the mechanics of its universe. The Force of Star Wars seems an awful lot like the Holy Spirit. Both seem like this divine mysterious entity that guides and inspires and empowers people. But the Force is less like a god and more like animism, the “breath of life” that animates all living things. With the introduction of midichlorians in the prequel trilogy, we have a way to physically measure the presence of an entirely spiritual entity. Suddenly the Force is real because it can be measured. Even without the midichlorians, the power of the Force is beheld in displays of biblical proportions when our heroes and villains exercise their force powers.
There’s also the popular idea that the “balance” of the Force refers to some duality between the light and the dark aspects, locked together in an eternal struggle. If we take one interpretation of the “balance in the Force” conundrum, we get a kind of dualistic pseudo-deity. Dualism is basically the idea that two divine entities are locked together for eternity, one evil, destructive, or “dark” and another good, creative, or “light”. This is the kind of dualism found in Taoism or in some parts of Hinduism and Buddhism. Overall, it’s a view of the divine that’s much more influenced by Eastern spirituality than by Western spirituality. It should be noted that some believe the duality of the Force is a common misconception. Rather, the Dark Side is a corruption of the Force, and the proliferation of the Light Side is what brings balance to the world. But even so, there’s still ambiguity about what balance actually means.
Even if we buy the argument that Light equals balance, there are still problems with the way the Force is used. The Light is so obviously equated with goodness, and yet mind control is perfectly fine. There’s no real stipulation on when Jedi can or cannot use it. In the original trilogy and The Force Awakens we see our heroes use the power to escape the baddies, or to help their friends escape the baddies. But there’s nothing that says the power wouldn’t work on good people, or couldn’t be exploited. Are there Force-consequences for misusing your Force-powers? The movies don’t show us any. Vanity Fair reported that early concepts of The Force Awakens had Anakin Skywalker appearing in a kind of half Anakin, half Vader. The idea was scrapped from this movie, but it might show up in future films. Does it mean Force Ghost Anakin isn’t really redeemed? Only good Jedi are supposed to get to be Force Ghosts when they die. Is it just a vision in the mind of Kylo Ren? Who knows. Either way, there’s a lot that’s left unclear about the true nature of the Force. So the Force is more like a pantheistic animating entity that can be measured scientifically, and is silent when it comes to consequences for misusing one’s Force-given abilities. It’s a lot different from a personal Creator-God that cannot be measured by our own tools and religions that sin exists and there are consequences for it.
What we have is a movie franchise that gives us characters that are easily identified with by Christians but a divine structure that has not much to do with Christianity in the first place. The servants of the Force are like Christians, but the Force isn’t the Christian God. I think this is where any person of belief has to be careful about what kinds of media they embrace or reject. For most Christians, it would be disingenuous to say that the Star Wars Universe is compatible with their belief system, and hosting Star Wars themed worship services is not much more than embracing a popular trend in order to spike your attendance numbers. On the other hand, it would also be wrong to totally reject the series as amoral or antiChristian, as the hero’s journey model produces the kinds of characters people of faith can relate to. We can find so much inspiration beyond the scope of our own religious texts. But people of faith need to be able to accept what is healthy in popular culture while remaining careful to be true to their faith. From one standpoint, having one of the most popular franchises in Western pop culture include serious nods to Eastern spiritual ideas is a win for diversity, and helps make Western societies more inclusive to those who follow something other than an Abrahamic religion. On the other hand, because their ideas of the divine are so different, Christians who casually incorporate Luke Skywalker into their sermons and worship services may not be sending the kind of messages they intend. It’s one thing to be inspired by our beloved Star Wars heroes, it’s an entirely different thing to aspire to be just like them. The beliefs of the Jedi may be starting to be recognized as an actual (nontheistic) religion, but we should be careful to recognize it as something new, not something automatically incorporated into the local dominant religion.
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Christianity–being another religion that is a theological descendant of Zoroastrianism, the original dualist religion–is actually much more dualistic, in the terms you described it, than Taoism. Some aspects of Taoism may seem binaristic, but they are far from dualistic: there is no sense ever in Taoism that “yin”–even if it is understood as dark (and feminine), that it is thus “evil.” Moral absolutism is absent from Taoism entirely, in most schools of it. The same is true of Buddhism and Hinduism: there is a sense of “lawful”-ness and even of “positive”-ness in these religions, but not necessarily “good” in an absolute moral sense. One seeks a “Right Livelihood” in Buddhism if one is a practitioner, and thus a job that is compassionate and does not harm other beings; but, there is no consonant condemnation of those who do not seek such work, nor is there a lack of compassion for them and why they might have to have a livelihood that involves harm (e.g. a butcher is not “evil,” they’re just someone who has to deal with the death of animals on a regular basis).
The Star Wars movies are filled with the simplistic black-or-white, good-or-evil morality so beloved by monotheisms. The light side vs. the dark side! Good vs. evil! God vs. Satan! That’s one of the reasons it’s so popular, especially with Christians.
Very interesting thoughts. I liked what you had to say about being inspired by the characters rather than aspiring to be them. Very important for any fan (of any franchise) to keep in mind. I think the Star Wars universe incorporates many religious themes, but many stories do. It’s important that fans not get too caught up in whether something is “Christian” or not. We can just enjoy the story and reflect on the lessons it does teach us as well as whether it glorifies God or not. Thanks for this post!
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