A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
SPECIAL REPORT: STAR WARS
|THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Reactions to The Theology of Star Wars
LOS ANGELES, 21 MAY 1999 - Yes, the movie has arrived and everyone is talking about it as if there were no tomorrow. It seems to have been reviewed from every angle, vantage-point and perspective possible. But after all the hoopla about new planets, underwater worlds and podracers dies down, some are asking themselves if there is any real message behind the whole 2 hour, 12 minute saga. Are the dialogues no more than transitions between saber battles and galactic attacks, and is there really any intellectual content behind all the computer-generated special effects?
From the reaction of some reviewers, it would seem there is. True, most movie critics agree that the drama, in the words of L.A. Times film critic, Kenneth Turan, is "ponderous and plodding" compared to the original trilogy, while others, let's call them 'Christian critics,' have focused on some of the more specifically spiritual elements that to them are cause for concern for Christian viewers.
Although the original Star Wars series was complete with religious-sounding karmas like "The force be with you!" and the Franciscan-looking warrior monk Obi-Wan Kenobi, some seem to think that, in this latest of the series, creator-writer-director and resident mythologist, George Lucas, is pushing the envelope a little too far with new elements of the Star Wars myth that comes conspicuously close to mocking Christian scriptures and beliefs.
In an internet movie review, complete with stills from the main scenes of the new release, David Bruce and John Vitti remark that "there are lots of parallels to the Bible. Anakin has no father, 'virgin born' like Christ. He is a slave (living in a desert) hoping some day to set his people free, like Moses. Jedi Knight Qii-Gon Jinn believes that Anakin is the Promised One (Christ) of prophecy who will bring harmony to the universe and proclaims his belief as John the Baptist did of Christ. Anakin has a unique connection to the Force, as Jesus did to the Holy Spirit."
In one scene, Anakin stands before the Jedi council, "as Jesus did before the temple priests" and hears words -- they maintain -- that are very similar to the Gospel passage of Matthew 11:3, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" (http://hollywoodjesus.com/phantom_menace.htm)
Even Queen Amidala, the young matriarch of the besieged universe, in her elaborate costumes and headdresses, often seems to come complete with an artificial, or should we say, computer-generated, halo.
Of course, Lucas has been quick to play down the religious- mythological aspects of the plot to emphasize that it's really just an action movie made for 13 year-olds. At a New York news conference last week, Lucas told reporters: "It's only a movie." And referring to those who try to read too much into his script, he added, "People should get a life."
In the May 22 edition of World Magazine, R. Albert Mohler points out that, thanks in part to Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy, "in the years since 1977, Americans have become primary consumers of Eastern philosophies and ancient mythologies -- dumbed down for popular consumption and dressed up for a media age."
"The mythology of Star Wars," Mohler continues, "is perfectly adapted to the spiritual confusion of postmodern America. 'Go with the Force' is about all many citizens can muster as spirituality. When Christianity ceases to be the dominant worldview of a culture, paganism is quick to fill the void."
Whatever the spiritual or mythical undertones of the new "Star Wars, Episode I - The Phantom Menace," it's sure to be a box-office buster that will set new cultural standards, as high or low as that may be, at least until the next sequel to the prequel is released. So brace yourself for the barrage of Pepsi promotions and new double-bladed laser toys that are about to invade the everyday lives of our children today and their fantasies tomorrow. And ... May the force be with you! Whatever that means. ZE99052121
NEW YORK, 21 MAY 1999 (ZENIT) - To those "non-initiated" fans of the Star Wars saga, who are more mesmerized by Queen Amidala's couture and hairstyles or the size of the rocket engines on 9 year-old Anakin's podracer than the content of the dialogues, read no further. This article is not for you.
But if you've ever asked yourself what goes on inside the mind of the man who made the movie, where does he get his inspiration and, as Alice in Wonderland asked the Cheshire cat: "what does it all really mean?" then read on. You might be surprised at what you find.
The Myth Behind the Movie While George Lucas is respected and revered in Hollywood for his record-breaking, oscar-winning special effects of computer generated images and cutting edge digital sound systems, it would be a serious oversight to dismiss his own intellectual prowess and ability to tell stories and create modern myths.
During his recent interview with Bill Moyers published in Time's April 26 edition, Lucas admits: "With Star Wars I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs." And adds, "I'm telling an old myth in a new way. ... I guess I'm localizing it for the end of the millennium more than I am for any particular place."
In a 1997 L.A. Times Magazine article, Patrick Goldstein remarked that "Lucas is as well read as any filmmaker of his generation -- one of his impromptu monologues on the psychological imprint of mythology in primitive cultures could easily pass muster at any graduate seminar lecture."
Andrew Gordon, an English professor at the University of Florida, commented that Lucas, "with the more overt treatment of archetypes," is also "playing to the academics who have touted his saga from the beginning as serious modern-day mythology. "
But what about the actual content of the Star Wars trilogy, and now, the new Phantom Menace release: is it "just a movie" as Lucas retorted in a New York press conference last week, or is there an intentional effort to propose "something else?"
Michael Medved, author of the bestseller "Hollywood Versus America" and the follow-up video "Hollywood Versus Religion," points out that it's naive to accept movie director's assertions that hidden religious messages are often "unintentional" and that viewers are just "reading more into the script" than what's really there.
How can you possibly admit that these things have been "overlooked" in major studio productions, he affirms, when directors and producers spend thousands of dollars investigating the most minute aspects of every scene, from the period costumes to background lighting to the best camera angles for the greatest impact on viewers? Religious objects, images and especially dialogue, he maintains, are carefully combed and reworked until the effect is "just right."
In Lucas' case, much of the mythological content of his own work has come under the direct influence of the late American mythologist and philosopher of religion, Joseph Campbell.
According to Donal Leonard, professor of philosophy of religion at the Pontifical Atheneum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, who did his doctoral thesis on Joseph Campbell, "in Lucas Campbell maintained that he saw the man who understands what metaphor is and managed to translate aspects of his work into modern problems, such as the relation between man and the machine."
"George Lucas," he adds, "has on many occasions explicitly referred to this influence. Lucas changed the script after readings of Campbell's 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' and 'The Masks of God.' Up until 1994, Lucas was a member of the Board of Advisors of the Joseph Campbell Foundation."
In fact, in a tribute to Campbell in 1985, film-maker Lucas affectionately referred to him as "my Yoda" and explained that he was indebted to Campbell for many of the main ideas present in the cosmology of the original trilogy. Campbell, in turn, said he was "proud that something I did helped [George] define his own truth."
The Man Behind the Myth Joseph Campbell was born in New York in 1904. Son of Charles Campbell and Josephine Lynch, both of his grandfathers had been immigrant workers from Ireland.
He was raised a Catholic in New Rochelle, N.Y. and devoured children's books on American Indian folklore, as well as amassing a large personal collection of Indian artifacts. He began having serious doubts of faith in his undergraduate years at Dartmouth College and, after receiving his M.A. in literature from Columbia, he spent two years studying in Europe, first at the University of Paris, then in Munich, where he discovered the works of Freud and Carl Jung.
Belden Lane, professor of theology and American studies at Saint Louis University, writes that Campbell was "continually drawn to the image world of medieval Christianity as symbolized in the cathedral of Chartres" and that he "recognized the force of Christian myth."
Nevertheless, Lane continues, "he also harshly criticized Western theology and carefully distanced himself from the church. Christian theology, in his view, needs the intensive and universalizing influences of mythology. Campbell frequently would contrast the priest, who serves as a custodian of facts, with the shaman, who functions as a sharer of experience. He cited Jung's warning that religion can easily become a defense against the experience of God."
While an academic in his own right and an accomplished writer, Joseph Campbell broke into mainstream America during a six-part television interview with Bill Moyers, which quickly became the highest rated broadcast in the history of PBS.
The 1988 interview was filmed "on location" at the sprawling 2,500-acre Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, owned by none other than George Lucas. During the encounter, which later was adapted into the best-selling book, "The Power of Myth," Campbell expounds his vision of myth, religion, belief, symbols and everything having to do with the "religious experience."
Some claim that it was this interview, together with the original Lucas Star Wars trilogy which unleashed the landslide of interest in all things religious which overtook the U.S. in the past two decades.
"Channeling cosmic forces," "searching for your 'inner-self,' " "seeking to balance the light side with the dark side," among others, all began to trickle down into the ordinary lives of soccer moms and yuppie executive dads and emerged into what was eventually vaguely labeled as "New Age" philosophy, complete with its own music, artwork, retreat centers and gurus.
Several sociologists hold that the popularizing "force" for this mystical movement initially came from the underlying spiritual motif of the Star War series which allowed viewers to forget their post-Vietnam fears and escape from reality into the reassuring mythology of a distant land "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."
So it's not surprising that reporters have described some of the "warrers" camped out for nights in front of theaters for tickets to the first release of the new trilogy as "pilgrims" at the end of the millennium looking for a new religious experience of the force.
As the promotional material of the 'Phantom Menace' proclaims: "Every saga has a beginning" but some, whether tired of so much modern mythology or just overwhelmed by the phenomenon of the social event and Toys-R-Us tie ins, are already beginning to ask "when will it ever end?" ZE99052122
(EWTN: Please note the imaginary character of this dialogue)
VATICAN CITY/SKYWALKER RANCH, 21 MAY 1999 (ZENIT).- At midnight Wednesday, May 19, thousands attended the long awaited release of the Star Wars Prequel: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace, which has already broken records and continues to bring in what some estimate will be the largest box office income in history, not to mention profits from licensing everything from laser toys to hamburger promotions.
By now the main elements of the original trilogy have become household words and are also found in the new movie. The "Force" is obviously with little Anakin Skywalker throughout the plot as he seeks to balance the cosmic forces in order to save humanity. Myth and faith, belief and self-control are mixed and mingled and often interchanged in what some critics have called a "pseudo-religious" drama and "Zen Lite."
Halfway across the globe, on the very same day, tens of thousands gathered under the early morning Roman sun for another global event. Here there was no one donning laser swords or Darth Vader outfits. In fact, there was not even the slightest mention of the "world premiere," actually limited only to the U.S., among those gathered for the occasion. For these people it was a non-event.
They had come to the weekly general audience of John Paul II to listen to the leader of over 1 billion Catholics exhort them to live their faith, mature in their beliefs and to deepen their prayer life in the tradition of centuries of mystics and saints. Nothing lite or pseudo-religious here. And yet, several of the themes and topics discussed had more than a few things in common with the underlying contents of the new movie just released on the other side of the world.
Call it destiny or cosmic coincidence, but the fact is that the parallels are uncanny and impossible to ignore. The Vatican of course issued no public statement or press release on the Pope's opinion of the new addition to the Star Wars series, and there was no featured movie review in the L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.
That doesn't rule out that the Pope will eventually watch the sci-fi thriller, as he has the first three, or even add a copy to his already immense videoteca which includes originals of recent works such as "Schindler's List," "The Prince of Egypt" and "Life is Beautiful," as well as two of his own plays written before he was elected Pope that have been made into full-length movies.
So, given the fact that a face-to-face encounter is something that seems hard to imagine in the near future, we have decided to take a page from the same world of virtual reality that made the movie possible and, using the digital method of "cut & paste," we'd like to present an imaginary dialogue between George Lucas and Karol Woytila about religion, faith and belief.
No, we are not making this up. While the encounter never actually occurred, all the words are very real indeed. Lucas' words have been selected from an interview with Bill Moyers published in the April 26 edition of Time Magazine on the "Theology of Star Wars" and the words of the Pope have been translated directly from the original text of the general audience on May 19 mentioned above.
While this dialogue may not get morphed into any upcoming edition of the remaining two movies of the Star Wars trilogy, at least it might serve as food for thought for the rest of us, too often "spiritual aliens."
MOYERS: Is one religion as good as another?
LUCAS: I would say so. Religion is basically a container for faith. And faith in our culture, our world and on a larger issue, the mystical level -- which is God, what one might describe as a supernatural, or the things that we can't explain -- is a very important part of what allows us to remain stable, remain balanced. (...) 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. I remember when I was 10 years old, I asked my mother, "If there's only one God, why are there so many religions?" I've been pondering that question ever since, and the conclusion I've come to is that all the religions are true. (...) I think there is a God. No question. What that God is or what we know about that God, I'm not sure.
JOHN PAUL II: The Acts of the Apostles offers us Paul's discourse to the Athenians which is very appropriate for the religious pluralism of our time. In order to present the God of Jesus Christ, Paul takes advantage of the religiousness of his listeners with words of appreciation: "Athenian citizens, I see that you are very religious. In fact, as I walked among your sacred monuments, I came upon an altar with the inscription: 'To the unknown God.' What you adore without knowing, I have come to announce to you." (Acts 17:22-23)
At the foundation of the Church's encounter with world religions is the discernment of their specific character, or the way in which they approach the mystery of a Saving God, the definitive Reality of human life. Every religion presents itself as a search for salvation which proposes itineraries in order to reach that goal (CCC.843). One of the suppositions of this dialogue is the certainty that man, created in God's image, is also the privileged "place" of his salvific presence.
MOYERS: Some people have traced the notion of the 'Force' to Eastern views of God -- particularly Buddhist -- as a vast reservoir of energy that is the ground of all of our being. Was that conscious?
LUCAS: I guess it's more specific in Buddhism, but it is a notion that's been around before that. When I wrote the first Star Wars, I had to come up with a whole cosmology: What do people believe in? I had to do something that was relevant, something that imitated a belief system that has been around for thousands of years, and that most people on the planet, one way or another, have some kind of connection to. I didn't want to invent a religion. I wanted to try to explain in a different way the religions that have already existed. I wanted to express it all. (...) 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.
JOHN PAUL II: Certain practices originating from the great oriental religions are especially attractive to contemporary man. To these, Christians should apply a spiritual discernment so as never to lose from sight the concept of prayer as it is illustrated in the Bible throughout the whole history of salvation. This necessary discernment does not impede religious dialogue.
Then there is theological dialogue in which experts try to deepen their understanding of each others' religious heritage and to appreciate their spiritual values. Nevertheless, encounters among specialists of different religions shouldn't limit themselves to look simply for a minimum common denominator. They have the final goal of lending a courageous service to truth, highlighting both points of mutual agreement as well as fundamental differences, in a sincere effort to overcome prejudice and misunderstandings."
MOYERS: One scholar has called Star Wars "mysticism for the masses." You've been accused of trivializing religion, promoting religion with no strings attached.
LUCAS: That's why I would hesitate to call the Force God. It's designed primarily to make young people think about the mystery. Not to say, "Here's the answer." It's to say, "Think about this for a second. Is there a God? What does God look like? What does God sound like? What does God feel like? How do we relate to God?" Just getting young people to think at that level is what I've been trying to do in the films. What eventual manifestation that takes place in terms of how they describe their God, what form their faith takes, is not the point of the movie. (...) When the film came out, almost every single religion took Star Wars and used it as an example of their religion; they were able to relate it to stories in the Bible, in the Koran and in the Torah.
JOHN PAUL II: Prayer, as an adoring acknowledgement of God, gratitude for his gifts, imploring his help, is a special means of encounter, above all in those religions which, even though they have not yet discovered the fatherhood of God, nevertheless "have, in a certain sense, their hands outstretched to heaven" (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 53). Nevertheless, it is more difficult to establish dialogue with certain contemporary religiousness, in which prayer is reduced to the increase of a vital force, which substitutes salvation.
MOYERS: In authentic religion, doesn't it take Kierkegaard's leap of faith?
LUCAS: Yes, yes. Definitely. You'll notice Luke uses that quite a bit through the film -- not to rely on pure logic, not to rely on the computers, but to rely on faith. That is what that "Use the Force" is, a leap of faith. There are mysteries and powers larger than we are, and you have to trust your feelings in order to access them.
JOHN PAUL II: Dialogue about religious experience is also becoming ever more important. The exercise of contemplation responds to a growing thirst for interiority which is indicative of persons with spiritual desire and helps believers to deepen their understanding of the mystery of God.
Nevertheless, mysticism can never be invoked in favor of religious relativism, in the name of an experience which diminishes the value of God's revelation in history.
MOYERS: You're creating a new myth?
LUCAS: With Star Wars I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs. I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today. The more research I did, the more I realized that the issues are the same ones that existed 3,000 years ago. That we haven't come very far emotionally. (...) Myths tell us these old stories in a way that doesn't threaten us. They're in an imaginary land where you can be safe. But they deal with real truths that need to be told. Sometimes the truths are so painful that stories are the only way you can get through to them psychologically. (...) I'm telling an old myth in a new way. (...) I guess I'm localizing it for the end of the millennium more than I am for any particular place.
JOHN PAUL II: ...Christian truth allows the spiritual, moral and social-cultural values found in [other religions] to advance. (...) As disciples of Christ we feel the urgency and the joy to witness that precisely in him God has manifested himself, as the Gospel of St. John tells us: "No one has ever seen God: it is the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has revealed him" (Jn. 1:18).
This witness should be given without any fear, but also with the conviction that the action of Christ and of his Spirit is already mysteriously present in all those who live their own religious experience sincerely. The Church, together with all truly religious people, continues its pilgrimage through history towards the eternal contemplation of God in the splendor of his glory. ZE99052123
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