Pop Theology


This past week, millions of moviegoers around the world flocked to cineplexes to see "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," the final installment of George Lucas's science fiction film saga. As one of the cinema's most enduring series, "Star Wars" has attained the status of modern mythology or even global meta-narrative — a mythology which also demonstrates the growing influence of popular culture (over the last several decades) on the beliefs and worldview of people today. The intense media frenzy anticipating the movie's opening says a lot more about our culture than the cinematic merits (or lack thereof) of "Revenge of the Sith." That is, society is far more passionate about fantasy than God's truth.

In the nearly three decades since the original film's release, Christians have debated amongst themselves the hermeneutics of "Star Wars" in relation to Biblical truth and Christian living. A great deal of Christian ambivalence towards "Star Wars" can be attributed to the series' pantheistic mix of Eastern monism and Judeo-Christian allegory, i.e. themes of redemption and good versus evil.*

Some believe, however, that "Star Wars" movies should remain immune to Christian criticism because they're so-called family-friendly entertainment, that they are just make-believe. Indeed it is rare when a pop culture product these days isn't a soul-destroying enterprise. But the "Star Wars" series have attained a prominence reaching far beyond the world of cinema. In Western society where Bible-based Christianity has largely been abandoned, shallow and transient worldviews, such as those promoted in the very popular "Star Wars" films, rush in to fill the void. "Star Wars" has cultural resonance not so much for its intrinsic truth, but because of the lack of truth in contemporary society.

The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians Chapter Five (KJV):

6 Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?
Secularism's modern preeminence has caused a lot of churches to panic, and as a result Christians are desperately trying to re-identify with the world. Often this entails swallowing a toxic chunk of the prevailing culture to get a microscopic grain of Biblical truth. Dissonance between worldly patterns of thinking and God's ways is largely ignored. Because it is natural for people to seek the approval of their peers, believers are tempted to give spiritual poison an entrance to their souls.

Take, for example, the recently published book titled Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters. Written by Dick Staub, director of the Center for Faith and Culture in Seattle, Washington, this book follows in a long tradition of preaching the Gospel by appealing to worldliness. Some modern Christians fear cultural irrelevance so greatly, they bend over backwards to accommodate the latest trends. Such books are intended as a bridge to non-believers. However, Christians end up championing them, and non-believers simply ignore them as banal.

"Star Wars" is not a gateway to the Christian faith. Those who are already Christians may identify with the central themes of the series, and such identification can be positive. Christian allegory in art can have an enriching influence on society if that society values, at the very least, some kind of absolute truth. Works like Dante's Divine Comedy and Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities may win Christians to classic literature, but they won't win literate non-believers to Christ. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change the hearts of men.

Christianity is not the enemy of art and entertainment. But for believers, art functions best as a tool of resistance to the encroaching shadows of a sin-darkened world. When art functions as the lamp stand, it gradually becomes an idol that gives man a false assurance in his inherent goodness. Lucas's space saga doesn't resist the world because, philosophically, "Star Wars" embraces it. The central theme of good versus evil isn't an effective evangelizing tool when most of the world's religions also share this dualistic worldview. In an interview some years ago, George Lucas admitted his own universalist inclinations:
The conclusion I've come to is that all of the religions are true, they all just see a different part of the elephant. Religion is basically a container for faith. Faith is the glue that holds our society together; faith in our...culture, in our world...whatever it is that we're trying to hang onto. Faith is a very important part of our attempt to remain stable...to remain balanced.
Postmodern relativism has played an important role in the shaping of the "Star Wars" mythos. Lawrence Kasdan, the talented screenwriter of Lucas's second "Star Wars" movie "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), analyzed the Force, the film series' theological leitmotif:
One of the longest conversations that George [Lucas] and I had in our first story conference was on the philosophical background of the "Empire" story and on the meaning of the Force. Basically, George is for good and against evil, but everyone has his own interpretation of what that means. In my opinion, what emerges about the Force are its similarities to Zen and to basic Christian thought.
In her review of "Revenge of the Sith," Annabelle Robertson, the entertainment writer for the Christian website Crosswalk, challenged the film's underlying resistance to absolute truth:
Rather than any form of true faith, therefore, “Star Wars” instead embraces a radical, New Age style individualism – something that cannot help but lead to conflict and disharmony, the very thing it purports to seek.
Although Christian radio talk show host Paul McGuire praised "Sith" as cinema, he, too, found something wanting in Lucas's worldview:
Lucas is using Judeo-Christian imagery and themes, even though he disavows absolutes....As philosopher or theologian his world view is weak. He has not properly thought out his position like Tolkien did in the Lord of the Rings.
In "Revenge of the Sith" a character describes the antagonists by saying, "Only the Sith deal in absolutes." This line suggests that Lucas is now less than convinced by his own dualistic Wagnerian melodrama. Yet Christians, taking a page from postmodern criticism, have decided to mostly ignore the authorial intent of "Star Wars" for experiential interpretations. But it's clear that Lucas sees himself as an artist with a specific story to tell and a specific message to promote. To Lucas, Christians finding meaning in his films is evidence that the stories tap into broader universal truths. In other words, based on the theology he has espoused publicly, Christianity is only part of a larger truth, not the whole truth.

Allegorical art need not be utilitarian, literalist, or facile, and it can be very effective in revealing a part or parts of truth through detail and specificity. Great works have often been deemed great because they express the spirit of God's truth without explicitly calling attention to it. But this argument does not adequately defend "Star Wars." At its best, the series is ad hoc Christian allegory; at worst, it is a shallow and confused blend of "truths" purposefully designed to form some kind of metatruth. The message of "Star Wars" then is that man can find his own truth, and by extension, truth is protean and relative.

Yet, for all that, the real fault of "Star Wars" is extrinsic. Lucas is a filmmaker; he makes movies. He is not a theologian, nor does he need to be. And while "Star Wars" has had a long life as a pop culture phenomenon, it will be replaced by something else sooner rather than later. Much of contemporary society, however, has chosen to exchange the enduring truth of God's Word for ephemeral lies. The hypnotic hold which "Star Wars" possesses over its legions of fans is just more evidence that the things of today's world are the gods of the modern age. Can Christians lead the way by rejecting even the comfortable, PG-rated idols that the world offers, or will they continue to be lulled to sleep by pleasing half-truths? In 2 Corinthians 6:14, the apostle Paul asks, "What fellowship can light have with darkness?"

* Berit Kjos recently posted a valuable article on the theology behind "Revenge of the Sith" on her website. Albert Mohler also weighed in on the subject (from an article originally published in 1999).

Remember the Bereans

A Powerful Delusion


In his terrific May 7 and May 13, 2005, entries of the With Christ web log, Dan S. analyzed the conflict between Biblically-defined (or Godly) love and relativistically-defined (or postmodern) love. The incompatibility of these two concepts fuels the growing, impassioned prejudice toward conservative born-again Christians. Dan wrote:

For the past several decades, the meaning of love has been hijacked and largely redefined for use within the pervasive framework of moral relativism — even by Christians. This new love doesn't engage in any form of judgment and is characterized by a perverted form of tolerance. This so-called love is tolerant of all manner of evil and wickedness, and intolerant toward those who would seek to identify and scripturally restrain the same. Thus, when a Bible-based Christian sets forth Scriptural truth with any degree of certainty, they are viewed as being unloving, abusive and attempting to force their views on others.
On the grounds of the aforementioned conflict, some Christians today have joined the secular humanists in their efforts to suppress Bible-believing Christians. They have made a terrible mistake. Nominal Christians charge that their born-again brethren have failed to heed Jesus' commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:39) They do not, however, buttress their argument for relativist love with Jesus' preceding commandment: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38) Because these last two verses so definitively clash with emotion/ideology-based love, they are typically ignored. God is referred to here as Lord, demanding submission of the soul (emotion) and mind (ideology). Loving our neighbor is the subordinate commandment, so it follows that loving our neighbor is entirely defined by loving the Lord.

Secularists use an ill-defined concept of love to silence believers. It is an effective cover to oppose God's laws. As the apostle Paul warned, "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light." (2 Corinthians 11:14) Human beings are designed to love, and the devil uses this to his advantage. For who will stand against love, right? Conservative Christians are singled out in the postmodern culture because they make (Bible-based) distinctions between what is and what isn't love. This is deeply offensive not only in a godless society but in an ecumenical/pantheistic/universalist society, as well.

On his blog, Dan S. commented that "love and compassion are pervasive buzzwords in the culture war." Words like "tolerance" and "diversity" can also be added to that list. As part of a modern system of brainwashing, these terms are used to wipe the slate clean — the slate, in this case, being the typical Judeo-Christian, classically educated mind. In its place, secularists aim to create a societally mandated morality with a counterfeit love as its core principle.

Jesus said in John Chapter Eight:
31 If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.
32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
The Bible tells us that God's truth will free us from the bondage of this world — not love. Apart from God, man's "truths" are like a house of cards ready to fall. And God's truth defines love within the context of submission to the Lord. In 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul writes: "The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons." Christians who persist in denying the sufficiency of Biblical truth dangerously open themselves up to further spiritual deception.

The culture at large brands Bible-believing Christians as narrow-minded zealots who are not only out of touch with the modern world, but who are also enemies of love, knowledge, and humanity in general. Today, secularists claim that conservative believers in the U.S. are attempting to hijack the government to enforce some kind of theocratic rule. These accusations reveal a decided lack of understanding of mankind — that, in reality, the inertia of the world is sin, and that natural man resists God and His Laws with his entire being. For any totalitarian regime to succeed, first it must either deny the existence of a Supreme Being (atheism) or assert such a being in absentia (agnosticism), then it must appeal to man's natural passions. It is no wonder that atheists such as Sartre and Voltaire are ready-made apologists for totalitarianism.

Man, in his sin nature, is predisposed to replace God's laws with counterfeits. Yet counterfeits are ultimately worthless. Secularists may tout the principles of tolerance, diversity, love, and compassion, but their real-life applications seem to always be in opposition to God's Word. When society progresses in this direction, people won't be able to tell the real from the fake.

The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians Chapter 10:
10 They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie
12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.