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


Anonymous said... on 5/25/2005 9:41 AM  

A couple things. Do you think Christians might muddle the two verses cited (re: heaven leavening and dark ~not~ lightening), causing some of the mixed worldview? How might one interpret the 2 Cor 6:14 verse, in conjunction with others such as "nothing corrupts good character like bad company"? Conversely, how does one reckon the heaven leavening with other verses which instruct Christians to be the salt of the earth and bring light where there is darkness? Also, it's my understanding that Lucas was personal friends with Joseph Campbell, author of "The Power of Myth, who I believe might be a universalist, and thus might explain some such messages in the films. Lastly, are there any praises/positives to report about Christian life? Anything you feel that we've done distinctly well? (This blog is a bit doomy gloomy) :)

Anonymous said... on 5/26/2005 10:21 PM  

For Christians, especially in the Western industrialized nations, achieving a balance between living in the world and being not of the world is very difficult, no question. The theology of "Star Wars" is a minor issue; not so minor is how patterns of worldly thinking have made major inroads on modern Christian living. The great positive and distinction of Christian life is, of course, a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray He gives us faith and guidance in these complex times. Thank you for your comments.

Anonymous said... on 5/31/2005 4:32 PM  

In the end was the paraphrase and the paraphrase became flesh and dwelt amoung us and it was the aspostate church as well!