Star Wars, Contemplation, and Evangelical Culture

As a little boy I was concerned for George Lucas’s eternal soul. In Sunday school a seven year old told me George Lucas actually believed in the force and that we should pray for him. So we did.

Star Wars

He needed to understand the Christ died for his sins and that he should repent and accept Jesus, so he could go to heaven like us.

I was six.

Sure, we watched the movies every chance we got, played with the action figures, and divided up roles on the playground, but we knew if you bought into it, this force mumbo jumbo could be extremely dangerous and put your soul at hazard.

As Christians we liked the portrayal of clear and absolute good and evil and the sense of a transcendent spirituality in the movies. As Americans we liked the kind characters with our American accents rebelling against the evil people with British accents. As boys we liked Princess Leia. As kids we liked the idea of space travel and futuristic technology. We played with the toys and bought the lunch boxes, but ultimately, we were also a degree removed from these stories.

Evangelical Eyes

To grow up in the evangelical subculture is to live with a thin veil dividing you from the world. You can see and smell and touch the world around you, but you shouldn’t be too much touched by it. Any made-up story runs a distant second to biblical truth.

Since it’s not explicitly Christian, to watch a movie like Star Wars is to eavesdrop on a cultural transaction between the lost and the lost, between Hollywood and the culture. It’s the world speaking to the world. The thing we’re supposed to be in but not of.

When push came to shove, you had to understand that this was a pagan story, however compelling, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The force might make for fun afternoon viewing, but in the end was too California, too foofy, too New Age. Pretend your bike is an X-Wing, sure, but don’t get too seduced by the whole force thing.

The Eastern Influence

George Lucas came of age in a time during a growing interest in Eastern traditions, like Taoism, Indian yogis, and Zen Buddhism, on which his concepts of the force and his enlightened Jedi hermits were modeled, with precepts like letting go of feelings that cloud the mind, staying present in the moment, and inner balance. Phonetically and conceptually, the term Jedi and yogi aren’t too far removed (the Yoda/yogi similarity is even more striking). A Jedi is one with the force, a yogi is one with the all, and can manipulate prana, or the life force, if necessary.

Western Myths

But Lucas blends Western myth and cultural norms with this Eastern mysticism. Instead of having the mysticism help transcend some of our everyday illusions, the Western myths and Eastern mysticism have an uneasy coexistence in the stories. Is it better to let go of feelings or to love passionately? In the West we still want to believe in the myth of romantic love, friendship, and family as a salvation narrative, so those components have to be included as well for mass appeal.

For us, romantic interest is a powerful plot line. It raises the stakes and adds story possibilities and tension and pathos. Take it away and there’s less to work with. It also flies in the face of an Eastern monastic rule of strict non-attachment.

Another element that stands front and center in the Greek myths Lucas draws upon is family conflict. There’s a direct line from Aeschylus’s Orestes to Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Luke Skywalker, and from Sophocles’ Oedipus to Kylo Ren. We are engaged on a visceral level because negotiating these primordial family relationships is a core part of our common experience. We define ourselves in relationship to family. It’s here that our joys, fears, and conflicts play out. It’s where the False Self and its addictions are born.

But in spite of conservative emphasis on the family, overidentifying with it is something Christ spoke out against on several occasions.

The Eastern traditions, like Jesus, suggest that getting in touch with Ultimate Reality strips us of the ego’s illusions.

It was in response to growing interest in Eastern traditions that contemplatives like Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington began to teach Christian contemplative traditions to laypeople and take the practice beyond the walls of the monasteries in the 1960s.

Interestingly, this “dangerous” element of the Star Wars films is closer to Christ than the Western elements, according to which romantic love is true happiness, problems are solved through conflict, and the world can be divided dualistically into moral categories of good and evil. In some Chinese translations of the Bible, the word Tao is used in place of the Logos of John 1: “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.”

This is where Star Wars’ mysticism falls short of reality. The contemplative path, whether Eastern or Western, begins to dissolve our illusory emotional attachments, allows us to see our ego projects for what they are, loosens the grip of cultural conditioning, sheds the illusions of romantic and family fulfillment that can keep us in emotional bondage. The contemplative can enjoy relationship, but isn’t overly attached to it, isn’t defined by it. Nor is death a tragedy for the contemplative, and life not a melodrama. Life is a grace, a gift, a means of the transformational awareness of the co-inherence of all things.

In its lack of self-awareness, the church focused on the wrong dangers in the Star Wars films, missing the limiting values we already held unconsciously: the most attractive people are the most significant people; they should be on stage or in the worship band, defining ourselves through family relationships, conflict as solution, and the triumphalist gospel of romantic love. Christ speaks out against each of these values we hold, largely unconsciously.

In one of his lectures, Jack Kornfield, a teacher of Eastern traditions, reads the following letter found in the pocket of a dead child at Ravensbruck concentration camp written during the holocaust, which serves as a symbolic backdrop of Star Wars’ proto-Nazi Empire. In the face of unconscionable hatred, exploitation and suffering, an inmate writes:

“O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us: Instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering—our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”

This is true awareness, celebrated by a teacher of the very Eastern traditions that informed Lucas’s notion of the force. This is non-dualistic kingdom awareness. This is Christlikeness. Try as we might to contain it within our exclusive group, it keeps getting loose, showing up in strange places. And if we have eyes to see, maybe, just maybe there is something that binds us, penetrates us, and holds the galaxy together. And maybe there’s more than one word for that.

Question: Is there a film that has helped you delve more deeply into the study or practice of meditation? Please share! Share your answer on Facebook or Twitter

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