A long time ago; in a galaxy far, far away; a child in a movie multiplex looked up to a parent and whispered: “Is the Force the same thing as God?” That is the conversation George Lucas wanted to create. Lucas recently talked about religion in an interview with Charlie Rose (by the way, he hates the new Star Wars now that Disney owns the franchise.) When he was 8, he asked his mom, “If there’s only one God, why are there so many religions?” (Lucas is what we would call a “questioning believer!”) The church is poorer when we don’t allow questions. Recently at Wheaton College, the Evangelical college near Chicago which houses the Billy Graham Center, a professor said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She was fired, despite tenure.
Do we all worship the same one God? Is “The Force” God? Yes and No. I’m not sure all Christians are worshiping the same God. The idea of the force isn’t so new. Spinoza believed that nature is God, and Obi-Won Kenobi modernizes this to Luke, describing the Force as “the energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Is that what God is? The Apostle Paul said, “In God we live and move and have our being.” I think there is a deeper mystery to God than an energy field, but I think The Force brings us closer to God than a white haired, bearded guy in the sky.
Lucas grew up Methodist, which he left because he thought there was too much self-serving piety, but he retains many Christian references in Star Wars. “May the Force be with you” is a straight borrowing of the benediction “May the Lord be with you.” There are themes of self-sacrifice and death and resurrection, as Obi-Wan allows himself to be struck down, Christ-like, by Darth Vader, and then arises again from death to be a voice, much like the Holy Spirit, who speaks to Luke Skywalker in his hour of need. Lucas does not make us chose one religion but throws together elements of Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism. Its like the religious version of the mall, where his movies are shown, and you can shop for clothes at both Old Navy and Fredrick’s of Hollywood.
Last Sunday, when I had a day off, Jeanne and I worshiped the way many Americans do, we went to brunch and a movie, seeing “The Force Awakens.” Lucas created a masterful morality tale about good and evil, and making choices. It is the modern version of the great morality tale that has been told for centuries. The plot is straight out of Joseph Campbell in “A Hero’s Journey” and “The Hero of a Thousand Faces.” The story of Jesus’s life also follows the ancient hero stories, even in our brief passage today in Luke’s Gospel. First, there is a central conflict. Evil threatens to take total control. The faces may change from Darth Vader to Kylo Ren, but it is really anger, fear, hatred, arrogance, the desire for power, that leads to evil and threatens goodness. Throughout the Bible we also see the interchangeable faces of evil, from the serpent in the garden, to Herod, to the Roman Emperors, even to unjust Hebrew kings, evil lurks where anger, envy, revenge and hatred bubble in the human soul. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones understood this, in the song “Sympathy for the Devil” the lyrics say, “I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain….I rode a tank; held a general’s rank; when the blitzkrieg raged; and the bodies stank; pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.” The faces change but the Dark Side is the same, from George Wallace to Donald Trump. When we fear “the other” someone will always put the mask on and promise that they are “protecting” us.
Star Wars reminds us of the subtleties of evil. It is a force that can take up residence in anyone. All the good characters must struggle with the dangers of pride, arrogance and anger that can lead to the Dark Side. The evil characters were once good, Darth Vader, and spoiler alert, Kylo Ren is also related to the good side (I won’t give it away). Good and evil are never simply divided into white hats and black hats, in Star Wars and in reality, the struggle happens even in our own families. This is biblical. King David is seen as the good king, the slayer of Goliath, the hero of Israel, but when he sends a soldier to his death to take his wife, he goes over to the Dark Side and has to struggle his way back into the light. Jesus, after his baptism, goes into the wilderness to be tested three times by the devil. Luke Skywalker goes into a cave to face his fear, and realizes that he too could become Vader.
The temptation is to only see evil in the other side. I noticed this in trailers we saw before the movie. Independence Day Resurgence, and some Bengazi movie, even the animated Kung Fu Panda, were all movies that divide good and evil into us and them. The aliens and terrorists are the faceless bad people, and when we kill all of them, things will go back to normal and we will be happy. This is the false narrative that violence is redemptive, and we can shoot our way out of problems. It should not surprise us that Ted Cruz said we should carpet bomb ISIS back into the Stone Age. He was merely quoting Curtis LeMay, the Air Force general who administered the bombing of Japan, who first used the phrase in a 1968 memoir, and he wanted to bomb Vietnam and Cuba (which might have killed Ted Cruz’s Cuban father.) The impulse of peace through Victory and bigger bombs culminates in creating a Death Star, large enough to blow up everyone who disagrees with us.
Evil isn’t simply out there, it is a challenge for everyone when we face fear, anger, envy and hostility. Certain people and situations bring out our worst and we have to make a choice, good or evil. Likewise, sometimes those in the grip of evil change their mind. George Wallace later repented. Darth Vader changed at the very end. In The Force Awakens, a Storm Trooper named Finn escapes, refusing to do evil, and becomes a reluctant helper to the rebel cause. In the Gospel narrative, likewise, signal change when soldiers of the Roman Empire come to John the Baptist and Jesus with respect, like Cornelius the Centurion who wants his daughter healed. The Apostle Paul once terrorized Christians, but comes into the forces of good. Jesus never allows the strict separation of good and evil. He preaches about the “good” Samaritan, and tells the angry mob, “Let those without sin caste the first stone.” The challenge of being good is to resist evil without becoming it, to still having compassion for those in evil’s grip, for we too could stray and stumble.
This is where the hero’s journey begins. We try, we fail, and then a baby is born and hidden away. Unto us a child is born, who shall raise the lowly and bring down the unjust. Emmanuel, God with us. Note that Moses was hidden from Pharaoh, Jesus from Herod, and Luke and Leia both hidden from the Darth Vader. Even Batman and Superman have to start out undercover. They are protected until they grow stronger, until they can hear the call to take the journey themselves. At first the hero is afraid of the quest, evil seems too overwhelming, but at some point they have to make a decision to take it on, the search for the holy grail, cross the Rubicon, leave aside “Akuna Mattata,” or be baptized and join in the mission to heal the world and resist evil. The text tells us that John baptized Jesus and then Herod imprisons him and beheads him, and Jesus must carry on the work, just as Luke must continue on after Obi-Won is killed by Darth Vader.
Here is what I love in “The Force Awakens.” The power to take on the hero’s journey comes from compassion. It must be a love story. Han Solo and Princess Leia, and Mary and Joseph, and Rey and Finn; they have courage because they love. If evil threatens what they love, they must resist. Jesus embodies the love of God for all of humanity, the force of this love awakens in him, and gives him the power to transform other lives. This is the greatest power against evil. We get all distracted by the light sabers, by walking on water, water into wine, and other Jedi mind tricks. The real power of the hero is that they embody good to the extent that others trust and believe in its power, and have the courage to resist evil and transform as well. The Force Awakens, only in a willing person, and the story continues.
I don’t know if this story ever ends and resolves. It repeats as new hero’s faces emerge and as the next person puts on the mask of evil when pride, fear and hatred gets the best of them. And this is what J.J. Abrams has done from us, taking the vision of George Lucas, and calling us to awaken. As a church, where The Great Awakening happened about 275 years ago with Jonathan Edwards, we should understand all this. The faces change, as Harriet Beecher Stowe takes on slavery, and Martin Luther King opposed segregation and the Vietnam War, and here we are now. You who are baptized, you who are beloved by God, you in whom God is well pleased, you who follow Jesus and desire a force for good to be awakened, why not in you? Trust the force, and may the Lord be with you.