What the trades did not predict, and what religion did not expect, was that Star Wars would become one of the major cultural phenomenona of the century. For, even today, what child's room is without some Star Wars toy, poster, or bedding. And what child isn't on a first-name basis with such Star Wars characters as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princes Leia, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi and Darth Vader. Or learned the names of Star Wars' exotic creatures, space hardware and far away places—Chewbacca, light sabers, Alderaan, and the Death Star. Or at some time uttered the familiar farewell, "May the Force be with you."
The Secret of Star Wars' Success
All of this begs the question: "What is the secret of Star Wars' success? "Star Wars is at once an all-new experience and yet filled with the familiar—familiar characters, familiar plot, and familiar moral issues of good and evil. It is new because it deals with a time and place far distant from our own. It is familiar because it's characters and plot are borrowed from the past—the past we either experienced in person or heard about in myths and fairy tales. Indeed, Star Wars is a modern myth.
But why is it so popular? What is the mysterious, irresistible force that draws people into movie theaters to see these enchanting films again and again?
Of course, people flock to see this modern myth because they are so wonderfully entertained.
But there are other reasons.
Star Wars has deeper meaning that speaks to people's innermost needs. Star War's technology, while dented, dirty and worn, is capable of doing so many things that we would like for today's technology to do, but does not.
We would like to have space ships that can blast off across the universe with the ease and simplicity of climbing into the family car and driving across town. We would like to have computers that can do more, do it faster, and do it with less operator effort. We would like for robots to serve us—but more than that, to show the same warmth and loyalty of man's best friend, the family dog. See Threepio and Artoo Detoo give us all that.
The Great American Dream
Star Wars burst upon the public consciousness at a time when many people had given up the American dream and were searching for a new one. In the early years of our nation, the American dream drew us together. In The American Adam, R. W. B. Lewis gives this summary of what he called the American myth:
God decided to give man another chance by opening up a new world across the sea. Practically vacant, this glorious land had almost inexhaustible natural resources. Many people came to this new world. They were people of special energy, self-reliance, intuitive intelligence, and purity of heart.... This nation's special mission in the world would be to serve as the moral guide for all other nations.(1)
Belief in this myth of America soon went beyond the continental limits of the United States, and there were believers in other countries.
An example can be found in the book, Democracy in America, a most perceptive history of America that was written in the last century by French statesman and author, Alexis de Tocqueville. He wrote that America was great because its people were basically good. Lose that good, he believed, and America would lose its greatness.
After World War Two, the American dream promised to become a reality. But little more than a decade passed and the dream began to fade for many Americans.
By the time of Star Wars, many people believed that America had lost its greatness.
Some were skeptical about America and its future. They believed new frontiers no longer existed, that the national morality was no longer a model for Americans or the world.
Then as now, crisis in leadership, drug abuse, the sexual revolution, and the disintegration of the family were symbols of America's decadence.
The fading American dream had left a void, and the time was right for the myth of Star Wars to capture our attention and give us a feeling of cultural unity and purpose. And many are still captivated by Star Wars.
We seem to want power: a kind much greater than we possess within ourselves. This external or supernatural power is needed to get what we want, deal decisively with our enemies, and in other ways compensate for our insecurities. We want a sort of Force, and we want to know its ways so we can surpass our mortal potential. We want truthful answers to questions about morality.
Star Wars cut through the confusing gray areas of modern morality and showed us that evil and good are as clear to distinguish as black and white. (And it boldly showed us the consequences of following one or the other.)
Perhaps we see some of our own idealism in Luke Skywalker. He is a young man not content with the here and now; an adolescent who yearns for maturity, wisdom and power; a visionary who believes the future promises a better life; an adventurer who is eager to answer the call of destiny; a man of character who believes that walking the path of righteousness is the best way.
The Search For Reality
George Lucas said that people like Star Wars because it allows them to live out childhood fantasies. But that fantasy is only a pretty wrapper around the real gift of Star Wars. For these films deliver more than fantasy: they combine as a morality play to deal with good and evil, virtues and values—the stuff that reality is made of.
Many young people see the world as artificial—a fantasy, if you will—and are searching for reality. Star Wars goes far beyond the thin veneer of mere science fiction entertainment and gives us a glimpse of reality—a hope for something more meaningful than the fantasy of everyday life so many people are living.
Our world is filled with fantasies just waiting for people to attempt to act out. Among the numerous examples: the idea that the accumulation of things—especially money—is the key to contentment; the playboy philosophy that a sex-centered lifestyle can give true furfillment. Do drugs bring real happiness? Or alcohol? Or the pursuit of fame and power?
Ask any of the casualties.
Or ask those who are trying to help them put their bodies, minds and lives back together again.
Or those who arrest them or perform autopsies on them.
They'll all tell you, in so many words, that diluted values and compromised morals are gnawing away at the dying body of American character.
Happily, there is a bright side: The more young people are exposed to the truth, the wiser they are to the world's self-destructive deceptions. But they have questions that cry out for answers, needs that yearn to be met, and a sense of destiny that longs for the revelation of meaning and purpose in life. So they continue to search here and there for truth and reality—even at the movies. History's largest movie audiences saw the Star Wars films because they are outstanding motion picture achievements. But also because Star Wars touched some deeper needs and gave them hope for a better tomorrow.
Lucas on morality and Values
A newspaper reporter asked George Lucas: "Do you believe that your films contribute to a better world by having characters like Luke and Ben Kenobi with superhuman powers?"
"Star Wars was done with that in mind," answered Lucas. "I feel strongly about the role myths and fairy tales play in setting up young people for the way they're supposed to handle themselves in society. It's the kind of thing psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim talks about, the importance of childhood.(2)
"I realized before I did Star Wars that there was no contemporary fairy tale, and that the number of parents who sit down and tell their children fairy tales is dwindling. As families begin to break up, kids are left more to the television, and they don't hear bedtime stories. As a result, people are learning their mythology from TV, which makes them very confused because it has no point of view, no sense of morality. It's a very amoral thing and as a result, unless a child has a very strong family life or is involved with the church, there's no anchor to hold on to. "So when I developed Star Wars I did it as a contemporary fairy tale. I think that's one of the reasons it has universal appeal."(3)
Star Wars says to the moviegoer: "Listen! There's something better in life than wallowing in the mud of pornography, dope, materialism, and vain philosophies.
"You have a higher calling—a calling to be someone, to do something. You have a date with destiny.
"You have potential in you that you haven't begun to develop."
George Lucas spoke with Time magazine about his spiritual motivation for creating Star Wars: "I was trying to say in a very simple way, knowing that the film was made for a young audience, that there is a God and there is both a good side and a bad side. You have a choice between them, but the world works better if you're on the good side. It's just that simple."
"Is Star Wars a morality play?" Lucas was asked in a 1980 newspaper interview. "Do you believe that your films contribute to a better world by having characters like Luke and Ben Kenobi with superhuman powers?"
Lucas answered: "[Star Wars is] also a psychological tool that children can use to understand the world better and their place in it and how to adjust to that. It's very basic. It's where religion came from. Fairy tales and religion were all designed to teach man the right way to live and give him a moral anchor."(4)
A God In Whose Image?
The central religious figure in Star Wars is, of course, the fictional deity called the Force.
Was it created by Lucas as a make-believe god with imaginary powers and characteristics?
Or is the Force a model of God as actually perceived by George Lucas?
Marcia Lucas, his former wife, indicated to Time magazine that the Force is very real to George and that he believes in it: "George says he doesn't, because he thinks people will consider him a freak if he does. But deep down, part of his unconscious believes in it, I think."
Lucas apparently believes his offerings of the Star Wars saga to the world are God-directed.
He is quoted by biographer Dale Pollock: "I am simply trying to struggle through life; trying to do God's bidding."(5)
George Lucas seems to have genuine concern for people—particularly young people—and a deep commitment to do what he believes God wants him to do. However, threaded throughout his films is a story of God that is more the Gospel According to Lucas than the Gospel according to the Bible.
Interestingly, Lucas is the Latinized form of Lukas, the word used by the original Greek New Testament for Luke, as in "The Gospel According to...."(6) Their names are similar, but their Gospels are not.
Dave Pollock, who interviewed Lucas in great length in preparing his biography, writes that Lucas's concept of the Force was heavily influenced by Carlos Castaneda's Tales of Power, the book about a Mexican Indian sorcerer, Don Juan, who uses the phrase "life force."
"The Force embraces passive Oriental philosophies and the Judeo-Christian ethic of responsibility and self-sacrifice," wrote Pollock. "Yoda's philosophy is Buddhist—he tells Luke that the Force requires him to be calm, at peace, and passive; it should be used for knowledge and defense, not greed and aggression. The Force demands optimism, not the pessimism that characterizes Luke (and Lucas)...."
To Lucas, the Force means looking into yourself, recognizing your potential, and the obstacles that stand in your way. He had undergone just this kind of introspection following his car accident—it was his religious conversion, and he wanted to share it with everyone."(7)
Irvin Kershner, who directed The Empire Strikes Back, also wanted to share his religious convictions in that second Star Wars film. A conversation on the subject was recalled by Billy Dee Williams (who played Lando Calrissian).
It took place one evening during a visit with the film's director: "Kershner and I sat down at my home in California and we talked about Eastern philosophy. He's into Zen, and I've been into Zen since I was about 26....
"Kershner said, 'I wanna introduce some Zen here because I don't want the kids to walk away just feeling that everything is shoot-'em-up, but that there's also a little something to think about in terms of yourself and your surroundings.'
"That's what Yoda, who's a Zen master is saying," Williams added, "your better self is your mind."(8)
The Force is influenced by Eastern religions and outright imagination, as well as Christianity. Lucas drew heavily on the theology of the trinity of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
While the Force is an unseen spirit-being, we sense that it is personified in Ben Kenobi. His resurrection and frequent reappearances round-out the Star Wars trinity: the Force (the Father) Ben Kenobi (the Son), and Kenobi's spirit (the Holy Spirit).
The relationship between Kenobi and the Force is subtle, but in earlier versions of the Star Wars screenplay, Lucas envisioned Ben Kenobi coming "in the times of greatest despair" as "a savior, and he shall be known as ‘The Son of Suns."'(9)
By the second screenplay, which was finished on January 28, 1975, the Force had a good side and a bad side. The good side of the Force was called Ashla, which Pollock points out is reminiscent of Aslan, the lion and Christ symbol in C. S. Lewis's famous Narnia books. The bad side was called the Bogan, or paraforce, representing evil. In this earlier version of the story, Darth Vader was modeled after the Devil, and Luke Starkiller (changed at the last minute to Skywalker) was God.(10)
The final concept of the deity called the Force is seen by Lucas as having a dual nature—a good side and an evil side. The Force also is a dualistic entity, sometimes hinted to be a personality and other times as an impersonal, powerful energy field that was and continues to be created by all living things (just the opposite of the biblical account of God, the Creator of all things).
The Force has a passive personality when its good side is called upon, and responds when those who have adequate faith call upon it for power to do their own bidding. Its dark side, however, is seductive and can tempt people into doing evil.
"Beware of anger, fear, and aggression, the dark side are they," Yoda warns Luke in Jedi. "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." It is for this reason that Luke had to deal with such a critical moral decision. He hated Darth Vader, who he learned was his father, and was faced with the temptation to kill him. To kill Vader would bring his destiny more under the seductive influence of the dark side of the Force, but to overcome his hatred and deal with Vader in some other way would keep him on the good side of the Force. Because the Force can be manipulated for good or evil purposes, it possesses no morality of its own.
God, of course, has only a good side; He is holy and righteous. And Jesus never committed a single sin. While the Force is a composite god of many religions—including Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity—it does not clearly represent any one deity. Certainly not the God of the Bible.
A science fiction religion centered around the fabricated deity of the Force is crucial to the development of characters and plots in the Star Wars films, say the producers. And so they make no claim to present a true religion or true theology; only to take a strong moral position for good.
Yet movie-goers can interpret wrongly and be adversely influenced. Some might interpret the Force to be the God of the Bible, and by doing so walk out of the theater with a mistaken view of who God is, what He is like, and how man can relate with Him. Many are left to interpret the religious themes in Star Wars on their own.
Those who have no basis for comparison, may well accept the fantasies of Star Wars as "teachings" on a humanistic, philosophical level because they "seem to make sense." When people take this approach to understanding God, however, man-made religions develop which create an image of God according to their own concepts. Such as the Force of Star Wars.
Unlocking The Mystery Of The Force
The Whole-Hearted Christian
Notes: (1) Skywalking, by Dale Pollock (Harmony Books, New York, 1983, page 3; 2,) “The Art of Moving Pictures,” by Bruno Bettelheim (Harper’s, October 1981, page 82); (3) “George Lucas Believes in the Force of Myths, Fairy Tales,” interview with Joanne Waterman Williams, Chicago Sun-Times, May 18, 1980 (from The Gospel from Outer Space, by Robert Short, Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco, Calif., 1983, page 49); (4) Ibid.; (5) Skywalking, page 141; (6) Suggested in The Gospel from Outer Space, p. 45; (7) Skywalking, page 140; (8) Rolling Stone magazine, July 24, 1980 (from “The Empire Strikes Out,” by Bob Larson, Charisma magazine, Nov.- Dec.1980, page 60; (9) Skywalking, page 145; (10) Ibid.
Copyright ©2015 Frank Allnutt. All rights reserved.