Star Wars and its Spiritual Ancestors

starwarsBy Joe LaGuardia

There is a tidal wave of excitement over the seventh installment of the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to be released in a few weeks.  Tickets for opening day are nearly sold out, people will camp out to get first dibs on good seats, and costumed movie-goers will drag entire families to watch what some are calling the event of the century.

This is no exaggeration.  For many, Star Wars is the ultimate science fiction movie that shaped childhoods, established cultural icons for generations, and set an example for cinematic heroes and plots since 1977.

The franchise’s momentous history was not always as prominent and positive.  Few people remember, for instance, that some faith leaders refused to see the movie because of the eastern philosophies and world religions that influenced the plot.

I remember vividly my father’s warning that the film was too “New Age” to take seriously and that the “Force,” an energy that defines and holds the entire Star Wars universe together, is none other than a pantheistic idol in disguise.  He might as well have quoted Han Solo in referring to the Force: “It’s a whole lot of simple tricks and nonsense!”

The truth is that the franchise’s religious and spiritual undercurrents are what inspires its staying power.  The subplots of call, conflict, redemption, death and rebirth, baptism, rites of passage, and victory through sacrifice or self-denial communicates a message that transcended time and place unlike any movie before or after its release.

The evangelicals were actually on to something.  The father of the franchise, George Lucas, admitted that eastern and New Age spiritual mythology set the stage for the narrative arc.  This was not to exclude western worldviews, but to connect people with the larger themes all of us–and every religion–have in common.  It is parabolic in its power to express the human struggle through images and metaphors.

Lucas also relied on comparative religious studies that his good friend, Joseph Campbell, perpetuated in the book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, which outlined common threads that messiahs, villains, and saviors from every religion and mythology share.

Star Wars is popular not only because of its award-winning affects, marketing, and music score, but because the basic story appropriated Campbell’s findings for a new, contemporary audience that sat squarely in an age that valued spirituality and postmodern storytelling.

Of course, the first three Star Wars movies were not the only ones controversial.  The three prequels, released years later, were controversial too, but for different reasons.

Fans and movie critics lambasted the prequels for an over-reliance on computer-generated special affects, a thin plot and flimsy script, and actors that did not seem to replicate the movie magic of the original films.

Even today, when one thinks of Star Wars, images of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo come to mind rather than Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker or Samuel Jackson’s Mace Windu.  Some people would pay good money to lobotomize memories of Jar Jar Binks from their brains once and for all.

But I think the prequels flopped because of something more primeval:  Lucas failed to engage audiences on a cerebral, spiritual level so aptly achieved by the first three Star Wars installments.  Somewhere along the way, he neglected Campbell’s work for the sake of action, adventure, and campy lunchboxes.

That Lucas is not directing the forthcoming movie is a relief for many.  The new director, J. J. Abrams, has a formidable resume, and anticipation remains high.

Can Abrams muster a film as significant as the first three?  If it taps into the spiritual longings of a people who still yearn for a savior, then it just might do.  If it only seeks to tickle the senses of audiences by having big explosions and fight scenes, then it may as well fall into the same forgettable category as the prequels.  Only time will tell.

Understanding world religions encourages dialogue, peace

interfaith tree

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week I wrote about violence against Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.  It wasn’t the only time I wrote about conflict on the global stage, nor will it be my last.

I feel that, as an author on the religion page, it is one of my jobs to educate you, dear reader, in what is going on beyond our community to remind all of us of the work of God and the cause of peace that remains before us, even if it is not at our doorstep.

I am not ignorant to the fact that conflict has always been an issue for us humans; and I fear that it will be around far longer than I will walk this earth.  Yet, I also believe that we assess conflict in our world differently than we have in years past, sometimes to our detriment.

Yesteryear, people learned about conflicts by reading newspapers and watching a couple of broadcasts.  When the Vietnam war was underway, people got news from a media that largely agreed on the facts that made for headline news.

These days, our news comes to us in snippets through a variety of sources ranging from traditional media to the internet.  This does make us a more-informed people, but it can also be confusing.

Our large planet grows ever smaller with 24-hour news cycles and real-time reporting.

In order to make sense of this fragmented source data, however, cable news networks now provide “commentary” on the news.  But it is commentary that is biased, often to the extreme poles of our unique ideologies.

This makes for exciting news, but not for news that promotes peace and reconciliation in local and international communities.  Often, this kind of news-reporting does the opposite: It creates “sides” in debates and adds fuel to (in)tense conflicts that can sometimes get blown out of proportion.

One “victim” of this type of sensational media is our understanding of the world’s largest religions.  I bet if you were to poll a bunch of people, you would get various opinions about, say, Christianity — opinions formed not by the truths that exist in the belief system itself but based on caricatures of Christians from the news.

In fact, some of these surveys already exist.  Surveys of people ages 18-34, for instance, consistently show that a majority of people in this age group have a negative perception of Christianity.  This negativity stems not from the reality of what Christians believe, but on what those who are surveyed perceive to be true about Christians based on what they’ve heard in the news or the movies.

Same can be said of Islam.  Although a majority of people have a favorable view towards American Muslims, only 44% of evangelicals have a positive view of Muslims, according to a report in the Christian Post.  A majority of people who are religious also fear living near a Muslim mosque.

One of the ways to combat the misunderstanding of any religion is to be educated on what religions are really about.  Although every religion has a radical minority longing to convert others by means of violence, intimidation, or coercion, a majority of the world’s religions are positive, peaceful contributors to society.

Yet, if our only information of the world’s religions come by way of a sensational media or neighbors who believe in stereotypes rather than the reality of what religions are all about, then our misinformation can foster greater conflict rather than dialogue and healthy community formation.

A well-rounded education is essential, and understanding provides a path to greater conversations grounded in reality.

And with a world torn asunder by conflict, religious or otherwise, it becomes ever more important to learn about the religions of people who are our neighbors, allied nations, and–perhaps someday–our very friends.  May the Prince of Peace guide our path.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia serves as Interfaith Congregational Liaison for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  

He is also pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which is hosting a 10-week seminar “Tour of World Religions” free and open to the public beginning Wednesday, January 7th, at 6:45 PM.