December 17th, 2015
At risk of appearing desperate for material, it’s worth noting and briefly exploring when a country is as transfixed on the opening of a film as it is on domestic terror, immigration policy, and interest rates.
One might easily conclude that people camping out for weeks in front of a theater; or purchasing tickets months in advance (who does that?); or people getting married–yes, married–as they wait for the film to premiere is symptomatic of our culture’s addiction to entertainment. That surely figures in. But one might just as easily counter that the Star Wars saga’s resonance with multiple generations and cultures testifies to something more than the mere desire for distraction from the mundane.
Film, as with most art, reflects ideas, sensibilities, and attitudes that have taken hold or which the film helps to crystallize. A storyline can signal a shift in thinking in ways no news story, biography, or history book can.
So what might this sci-fi film’s fanatic following indicate about the culture(s) in which it has become a prominent artifact?
On the cusp of releasing the prequels in 1999 (those much maligned installments chronologically antecedent to the blockbusters of the late 70s and early 80s), filmmaker George Lucas sat down with journalist, author, former presidential press-secretary, and (in case you didn’t know) graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bill Moyers. As an adept cultural analyst as well as someone who was familiar with theological sensibilities, Moyers directed part of the interview toward the themes in the Star Wars narrative arc that appealed to the metaphysical, if not theological, dimension:
. . .
MOYERS: What do you make of the fact that so many people have interpreted your work as being profoundly religious?
LUCAS: I don’t see Star Wars as profoundly religious. I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct–that there is a greater mystery out there. . . .
MOYERS: One explanation for the popularity of Star Wars when it appeared is that by the end of the 1970s, the hunger for spiritual experience was no longer being satisfied sufficiently by the traditional vessels of faith.
LUCAS: 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. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, “Is there a God or is there not a God?”–that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, “I’m looking. I’m very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer, then I’ll die trying.” I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith. . . .
MOYERS: The central ethic of our culture has been the Bible. Like your stories, it’s about the fall, wandering, redemption, return. But the Bible no longer occupies that central place in our culture today. Young people in particular are turning to movies for their inspiration, not to organized religion.
LUCAS: Well, I hope that doesn’t end up being the course this whole thing takes, because I think there’s definitely a place for organized religion. I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience.
Appealing to the likes of Charles Taylor before, and even more recently the Pew Study on America’s religious landscape, it’s no news to report that there is a secularizing drift in western culture; you heard as much from Greg Thompson in last week’s Backstory. For Lucas to express ambivalence if not concern for how entertainment might’ve begun to displace religious forms as that to which we give our wholehearted allegiance is as remarkable as the craze for the storyline which, in his own words, represented an “old myth told in a new way.”
Lucas admits the incalculable influence of Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) on the mythic quality of the films. And while his appreciation for religious forms is evident, he prefers to gives priority to none in particular, likening all traditions as “containers for faith” that allow one to remain “stable and balanced.”
Lucas’ more general appreciation for any and all religious sensibilities makes all the more striking the particular sensibility of perhaps the most famous actor he had a privilege to work with.
Sir Alec Guinness was more than the sage figure of Obi-Won Kenobi. He was in some sense the moral conscience of the films. He embodied the keenest awareness of the Force, felt its movements so deeply as to be temporarily hobbled when all goodness was being threatened. And of course, his character established the significance of sacrifice as the way to redemption of that galaxy far, far away–a sacrifice that set a precedent for another, and one from whom we least expected it.
It is a remarkable convergence perhaps that Guinness’ character in Lucas’ films reflected the moral anchoring that Guinness the man demonstrated off-screen. He came to faith in Roman Catholicism after a season as an atheist. But his faith was no unreflective, superficial expression. In a letter to his wife he reveals a thoroughgoing understanding of God’s presence to humanity:
. . .God [gives] each man and woman, according to their capacity, a glimpse of His promise to them, an impression of what eternity could mean, a glimpse of their adoption as Sons of God, and by its withdrawal a realization of what the Fall of man means. . . . It’s a golden carrot held up to donkeys—who could be gods. . . .
This is no generic nod to a presumptively benevolent deity who wants our best life now. This is acclamation of particular promises with specific reference to an “adoption” that came by way of a singular act of Passionate Sacrifice. This is not to deny rich and beautiful dimensions to other faith traditions; there’s no need to and it is unbecoming a Christian to think and speak so. But neither is it to merely place what we’re noting in this season as but one among many acts of nobility, as if to say all lead to the same conclusions. God is Not One. To say so is to disrespect the divine conceptions of all.
But I digress. So let me conclude this little piece.
Elsewhere in Moyers’ interview with Lucas, the filmmaker was asked how he thought about the myriad interpretations of his work:
MOYERS: Have you made peace with the fact that people read into your movies what you didn’t necessarily invest there?
LUCAS: Yes, I find it amusing. I also find it very interesting, especially in terms of the academic world, that they will take a work and dissect it in so many different ways. Some of the ways are very profound, and some are very accurate. A lot of it, though, is just the person using their imagination to put things in there that really weren’t there, which I don’t mind either. I mean, one of the things I like about Star Wars is that it stimulates the imagination, and that’s why I don’t have any qualms about the toys or about any of the things that are going on around Star Wars, because it does allow young people to use their imagination and think outside the box.
The folks over at Think Christian have taken the license Lucas was glad to grant them. They’ve penned a series of essays that takes a look at the earlier Star Wars films (don’t worry–no spoilers!) and finds credible, if unintended, connections between that mythical universe and the one we find articulated by the Christ. For those of you who were “off-planet” during most of the original hubbub, these short articles can help acquaint you with the saga’s substance. But for all who read them, they are a a way of finding the gospel embedded in stories that our hearts’ find inexplicably but irrefutably “good” (even when the film itself is less so.)
Anything that awakens us to realities not readily seen, but not easily dismissed; that enlarges our wonder at a Presence nearer to us than anything we know; that ennobles the act of sacrifice as an irreducible act of love. That is something that ushers us into the vestibule of Advent where we are taken by the hand to behold the fulness of glory in the highest. That is a force to be reckoned with.
I hope you could see the glee on teachers’ faces that their wishes had been fulfilled. It was truly a special gift to them, and thank you and the whole CtK community for your thoughtfulness. I hope you all have a very special Christmas Eve service in our Commons!
Those were the words of Sandy Doerge, Provost of Canterbury Episcopal School in reference to our delivering to their faculty and staff several of the supplies you helped underwrite. Thanks to everyone in helping us grace them with gifts. We are grateful to have found a new and abiding friendship with the school and its administration.
Secondly, Sunday Night will be a full affair. We’ll browse, we’ll eat, we’ll bid, and we’ll sing. While the kids will have a snowball fight whatever the weather, and imagine if the Nativity had been populated by chickens.
Bring something in a crock-pot to eat. We’ll provide the bread, crackers, and drinks.
Then as for our “auction,” here’s the skinny:
Before the auction begins:
1. Look around your house. Find something useful, fun, valuable, or unique* that you don’t need or use anymore.
2. Dust it off. Clean it up.
3. Bring it (unwrapped) to Patrick and Christy’s home on Sunday at 4:00 pm.
4. Put it on the table, so everyone can see what a wonderful bargain it will be.
5. Take a look at the display of other valuable items others have brought and decide which ones you will want to bid on.
How the auction works:
1. Each participating man, woman, and child will be given scrip, in the form of 75 pinto beans.
2. NO SHARING of scrip. What’s yours is yours. What’s your friend’s, or spouse’s is NOT yours! Only your 75 beans are yours.
3. Further instructions will be given before the bidding starts.
Come and find out what might be worth your little hill of beans!
Finally, we’ll gather Christmas Eve at 6pm at CES for a service of “lessons and carols.” All are invited. Bring a friend.