George Lucas stunned the world when he sold his Lucasfilm media empire to Disney in October 2012. Headlining the deal was the transfer of the beloved and lucrative Star Wars franchise, and within hours Disney announced plans to release new films in the series beginning in 2015. Since then, impassioned reactions to the news have inundated social media and fan blogs, coming from longtime fans, as well as new generations.
Tucked amid this media frenzy is a unique opportunity for gospel preaching. Star Wars raises profound spiritual questions with remarkable popularity; the universal resonance of these spiritual issues fuels the franchise’s unabated commercial success. However, Star Wars—with its elusive Force—cannot satisfy the very concerns it raises. Instead, it poses questions that only the gospel can answer. Escalating attention on Star Wars in anticipation of new films opens a conversation sure to attract the spiritually sensitive but biblically blind. This conversation offers a unique invitation to preach timeless truth into a timely cultural moment.
The Dual Horizons of Star Wars and Preaching
Star Wars actually provides something of a model for a method of preaching if not for its content. Its subtle spirituality operates on two horizons. Its content is an eclectic sampling of timeless mythology—knights, wizards, damsels and pirates. It refashions these staples of Western culture within a framework of Eastern dualism, locking the galaxy in a perpetual struggle between Light and Dark that plays out across space and within the characters’ souls.
The real genius of George Lucas, though, is his incorporation of a second horizon. He presents these perennial archetypes within the language and symbols of contemporary culture. Of course, Star Wars superficially claims to be a saga from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but it’s strikingly current. Luke Skywalker is the quintessential American adolescent. Han Solo is the familiar cowboy of Western serials. Princess Leia transcends the traditional damsel archetype into an assertive political activist, reflecting the changing role of women during the 1970s. The evil Empire fuses raw Nazi memories with Cold War terrors. R2-D2 and C-3PO are projections of the computer revolution then coming into its own, and the entire stellar setting reflects the aspirations of the Space Race. In sum, Star Wars translates universal themes into familiar particular expressions. It incarnates archetypes, making them accessible and recognizable.1
At its best, preaching does the same. It has its own mythology that shares many common elements with Star Wars. The difference is the Christian story is what C.S. Lewis called the “true myth.” Lewis credited his own conversion to Christianity to his recognition in the story of Jesus the recurring motif of a dying and rising god, “but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”2 The familiarity of the narrative drew Lewis to consider it, while its inescapable historical veracity compelled him to respond in a way that no other myth demanded.
All Christian preaching communicates this first horizon of the true myth, but the best preaching, like Star Wars, attends to the second horizon, as well. Theologians from Karl Barth to Rowan Williams have exhorted pastors to work with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This maxim speaks to the need to bring Scripture and culture into dialogue with one another, reinterpreting the changeless message of the text into vernacular form. Without this challenging work of translation, preaching accomplishes little that could not be done as well or better through a plain reading of the text.
Star Wars as Contemporary Mythology
The unique opportunity of this particular moment is that Star Wars now provides not only the model but also the means for such dual-horizon preaching. Its scenes and images provide a cultural koine, a reservoir of familiar associations that preachers may mine to illuminate almost any biblical text. The purpose, as with any illustration, is to invite listeners deeper into the text rather than to distract them from it. Star Wars should by no means become the substance of a sermon, but it can provide a cultural touchstone to help modern listeners connect with Scripture.
Two examples will suffice to illustrate such an approach. The first will consider the causes and implications of human limitation as embodied creatures. The second will examine the contrasting solutions to this limitation that Star Wars and Scripture present.
Example 1: The ‘Crude Matter’ of Integrated Biblical Anthropology
Humans encounter their limitations as finite creatures most decisively in death. Premonitions of his wife dying during childbirth haunt young Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith and drive him to seek counsel from Jedi Master Yoda. Rather than offering reassurance, Yoda claims, “Death is a natural part of life…Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not.” Yoda’s proposal rings hollow because it attempts to come to terms with death apart from the Christian gospel. Yoda misunderstands death because he has no concept of creation or the fall. The cruel irony is that without an understanding of sin and the resulting doom, the Jedi are deprived of intimacy in this life, and their hope for the life to come is anemic at best.
Yoda’s misunderstanding of death springs from his misunderstanding of humanity’s unique nature as an integration of body and spirit. Decades later, he defends his Jedi power despite his diminutive stature to Anakin’s son Luke. “Judge me by my size do you?” he asks, “And well you should not!” So far, so good. An alert Christian viewer can hear in Yoda’s words echoes of the Lord scolding Samuel for his similar prejudice, saying, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (
With this lesson, Yoda drives a sharp wedge between the material, which he dismisses as crude matter, and the less tangible elements of personhood, including the intellect and spirit. This dichotomy echoes and perpetuates a similar belief among Western culture generally, but this division is foreign to biblical anthropology. Instead, the Bible consistently presents human beings as the union of body and spirit. Scripture refers to this holistic creation as a soul. Unfortunately, as language has developed, the meaning of soul has grown constricted to merely the spiritual aspect, although some expressions preserve the fuller original meaning. Occasionally someone will say, “I didn’t see a soul there,” and of course we realize they are referring to people, not disembodied ghosts.
The Bible celebrates the physical body. God created man and woman in His image and pronounced them very good. Jesus affirmed the dignity of human flesh by assuming it Himself in His incarnation, a word literally meaning “in flesh.” He did not shed this corporeality even after His resurrection; His body certainly underwent transformation and exhibited supernatural abilities in His post-resurrection appearances, but He also ate with His disciples and assured them, “A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (
Example 2: Redemption by Jedi v. Redemption by Jesus
Given their contrasting understandings of finitude, Star Wars and Scripture naturally offer divergent solutions. Although Star Wars offers no hope of resurrection, it does portray restoration through redemption in the final installment to date. Return of the Jedi concludes the chronicle of Anakin Skywalker’s fall from good to evil and back again. Since the end of Episode III, Anakin has existed only as Darth Vader, the epitome of evil, a black-armored horror more machine than man. Only in Vader’s final moments does he return to the Light side of the Force, recalling his Jedi ways and repudiating hate.
This redemption and reconciliation becomes possible only through mutual self-sacrifice. Since learning that Vader is his father in the previous episode, Luke has maintained hope that goodness remains in him. Against the protests of his closest friends—and his sister, Leia—Luke insists, “There is good in him…I can save him.” He therefore abandons the Rebel mission and surrenders himself to Vader and the emperor. Luke’s appeals seem to fall on deaf ears, however, until the emperor attempts to execute him for his defiance. At the climactic moment, Vader intervenes, sacrificing his own life on his son’s behalf. Just enough strength remains for him to look upon his son and say, “You were right about me. Tell your sister…you were right.”
Anakin’s redemption is striking in what it includes and what it distorts. Christian viewers can’t miss the biblical theme of redemption through self-sacrifice. Almost as clear is the relational dynamic between father and son central to the redemptive moment. The divergence from the biblical story is the notion that redemption originates through awakening the hidden goodness within.
First, no redemption occurs without self-sacrifice, whether in Star Wars or in Scripture. In the latter, Jesus willingly went to the cross on behalf of humanity. Lest He be misunderstood as a victim of the Sanhedrin or the Roman occupiers, Jesus explained His mission to His disciples in
Rather than this unilateral self-sacrifice, Star Wars depicts a mutual self-sacrifice. Luke surrenders himself to Vader in order to redeem his father, knowing his own life is at stake; Vader in turn sacrifices his life for Luke when it becomes apparent that his son will die otherwise. Father and son essentially exchange their lives for one another in a mutual ransom. The gospels also present Father and Son as active in redemption, but the two collaborate in the single redemptive sacrifice rather than giving themselves for one another. Jesus willingly endures the cross in accordance with His Father’s will, as He conducted the entirety of His earthly ministry. Just before His arrest, Jesus prayed to his Father, “Not My will, but Yours be done” (
Lest this conformity to the Father’s will be misunderstood as cosmic child abuse, as some have mislabeled it, remember Father and Son acted in perfect harmony with One another. Despite voicing His experience of forsakenness on the cross, Jesus concluded His redemptive act with the cry, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit!” (
Finally, Star Wars ultimately lacks any concept of atonement in Vader’s redemption. Luke’s sacrifice prompts the redemption, but Anakin’s latent goodness within ultimately accomplishes it. Awakened by compassion for his son, resurgent goodness overcomes decades of evil and drives him to intervene. Although it makes for good cinema, this kind of redemption would ring hollow in our own world. What about all the wickedness Anakin, as Vader, has done? Although viewers celebrate Anakin’s restoration, real victims would protest letting him off the hook based on one moment of mercy, especially one toward his own son, no less.
The Bible, on the other hand, addresses this obstacle to redemption. Evil must be punished. No one can atone for his or her own sin. This need for another sacrifice made the cross necessary. Only through a perfect sacrifice on our behalf could God remain “just and the justifier” (
Seeing Again, for the Very First Time
The foregoing examples are but two of countless ones that preachers might draw from the Star Wars saga to shed light on biblical texts and themes. Both examples acknowledge where the films hint at truth, while also critiquing their shortcomings in order to point toward the gospel. The aim is not to disparage the Jedi or debunk the Force; trust congregations to discern fact from fantasy. Neither wholesale embrace nor blanket condemnation can supplant critical engagement with a purpose. To put it plainly, that purpose is to attract listeners to Christ.
According to a Gallup survey, 95 percent of Americans claimed to believe in God while only 43 percent attended religious services when Star Wars premiered.3 The cultural disconnect has grown in the decades since with the well-documented rise of the “spiritual, but not religious” demographic, particularly among younger generations. These people have an interest and hunger for spiritual sustenance, but lack basic familiarity with Scripture. Preachers no longer can afford to assume so much as a minimal level of biblical literacy as they could a generation ago. For better or worse, Star Wars is more familiar to our cultural than Scripture.
Rather than lamenting this fact (lamentable, though, it is), the time is ripe to acknowledge its reality and act decisively to take advantage of the opportunity that fresh films afford. Star Wars illustrations will pique the interest of young people attending due to family obligation, drawing them into truth they might tune out otherwise. Sermon series around Star Wars themes and promoted in the community might well attract curious visitors who would not consider attending.
The tagline for the special edition re-releases of the original trilogy in the late 1990s appealed to viewers, “See it again…for the very first time.” Judicious use of Star Wars in preaching may accomplish this same goal for the message of Scripture, opening the Word afresh to a generation that “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear” (
1 Mary Henderson, Star Wars: The Magic of Myth (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1997).
2 C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 1:977.
3 Henderson, 197.