Journal of Religion and Film
Reader Discussion


1. Studying Religion and Film

  • Maria C. Maisto

  • Bonnie Long

2. Interpreting The Rapture: From Horrific to Heroic

3. Lyden/Marsh Discussion (Religion, Film and Postmodernity)

John Lyden: Continuing the Conversation: A Response to Clive Marsh

4. Reassessing the Matrix

Kaz

5. Wake up! Gnosticism and Buddhism in The Matrix

Bill Lyon

6. Star Wars

Andy Derksen

6. God and "the Force" - Star Wars

Andy Derksen

Dear Dr. Blizek,

[1] Hello. I saw you quoted by USA Today  writer Scott Bowles in "Lucas' world comes full circle" (21 March 2005): "One reason for the sensational success of the Star Wars series is that it touches something deeply spiritual in all of us. The idea of the Force, for example, tells us that there is something out there, bigger than ourselves - maybe God. But the ambiguity of the Force allows each of us to describe it in our own way, thereby transcending any particular religion."

[2] Wow, a person could write a full paper on a statement like that, and such writing is "write" up my alley, seeing as I'm a seminary student, a film buff, and a speculative-fiction enthusiast. I think you're bang-on in suggesting that Lucas struck a spiritual nerve in many people. While on a certain level the Star Wars movies are just plain fun (though not nearly so much with the last two), there is definitely a spiritual dimension present. I believe those films, and others that function similarly (e.g., The Matrix), draw out a latent "otherworldly drive" in many viewers, even if they could not articulate it - or perhaps *because* they cannot articulate it. (Can anyone "articulate" the otherworldly?)

[3] I have to question, however, whether Lucas's "Force" concept really does "transcend any particular religion." I suppose it might depend on how one is using the term "transcend." This word might be applicable in the sense that the Force does not *precisely correspond* to any one religion, and thus combines various strands from various worldviews. Perhaps that was what you meant.

[4] On the other hand, it seems to me that the term "transcend" is normally used to refer more specifically to something that is in some way _superior_ to similar things in the same category. But rather than vaulting the limitations of any given belief system or of belief systems generally, the Force strikes me as a simplistic synthesis between pantheism and Wicca. From pantheism: characters in the movies (and books) identify the Force as subsisting in or emanating from all individual objects or creatures throughout the universe, while at the same time, ala Wiccan "magick": characters seek to manipulate this Force for their own ends.

[5] Interestingly, I have seen even Christian writers (e.g., Kathy Tyers) tackle the concept of the Force from within a theistic worldview - treating the Force as an alternate *natural* resource rather than mystical; a morally neutral energy to be manipulated in a manner analogous to our world's technological harnessing of nature. Treated that way, the Force is not really akin to God, but is a mysterious part of what God *created*.

[6] Lucas tripped up that notion, however, with The Phantom Menace. In that film we heard Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn refer to "the will of the Force" and to Anakin's being "the chosen one." This is the language of theism - but also, for Lucas, the language of Babel. It's theistic because only a personal being can have a will and make choices - much less demand obedience, as seems to be implied in Menace.

[7] However, this renders the language of the entire Star Wars  saga confusing because Qui-Gon Jinn's statements raise the question: If the Force has a will and the Jedi must do "its" bidding, then why are they at the same time set on *manipulating* the Force in order to accomplish their amazing feats? How can we follow a person's will and manipulate that person at the same time?

[8] Yet most people who noticed such contradictions in Menace probably considered that installment an anomaly, and in Attack of the Clones there was no more God-talk about the Force. Still, it seems to indicate an inner conflict on Lucas's part as to whether he envisions a higher power that can be manipulated - or One that must be obeyed. In turn, this appears to reflect the human psyche as its manifested itself ever since the Fall.

[9] Another religious/philosophical question that must be asked is: What do the terms "dark" and "light" mean in the context of Star Wars  characters' discussions about the Force? From where do they get their moral framework so as to distinguish between good and evil uses of the Force? Moreover, unless the Force is a person, it cannot have a "good" side and an "evil" side; an impersonal object has no morality.

[10] Therefore we seem to arrive at several logical possibilities: (a) The Force is a personal being with a psychosis, one day allowing itself to be manipulated by all these Jedi and Sith, the next day demanding that its "will" be obeyed. (b) The Force is an inanimate object or energy source, part of the fabric of nature, without a morality of its own, and it has been misperceived by some of its users - thus allowing for the possibility that some future SW story could resolve the religio-philosophical questions. Or (c) there is actually no internal logic to this component of Star Wars , meaning that it merely reflects Lucas's own religious confusion.

[11] I suspect the latter. Personally I cannot perceive any indications that Lucas actually came up with a coherent religious concept that "transcends" existing religions. Rather, he wrote a fantasy epic that has reflected his religious meandering over these decades, instead of first defining his own belief system and then incorporating that into a story.

[12] I have no qualms about someone writing a story or making a film that reflects different religio-philosophical viewpoints without attempting to resolve them. What I do have qualms with is when the characters in such a story are portrayed as if they actually understand what they're talking about and actually do have a coherent belief system - when it is abundantly clear they don't. The storytelling of Star Wars  would have been much superior if its characters had debated amongst themselves the very questions I've raised in this email - and given viewers much more to digest along the way.

Best regards,

Andy Derksen

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