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Monday, February 19, 2018

"The Gospel According to Star Wars" (John C. McDowell)

TITLE: The Gospel according to Star Wars, Second Edition
AUTHOR: John C. McDowell
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, (224 pages).

The latest Star Wars installment is in theaters everywhere. It has solidified its reputation as a top-selling movie franchise. With its popularity, many are renewing their love for characters such as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, as well as the newer characters like Rey and Kylo Ren, and many more. It is amazing how the 70s franchise had lasted till now, where each of the episodes had sold-out crowds on their opening days. Beyond the entertainment aspect, is there a hidden message in the Star Wars saga? Is it more than simply a movie written for kids? How did such a movie franchise grow to be so popular? If there is a secret message, how do we make sense of it without misrepresenting the original storyteller's intentions? For those who say no, they would probably not even bother to pick up this book. For those who say yes, they have to sieve through the many complex interpretations, symbolism, religious undertones, and cultural understanding. For those who are unsure, perhaps, this book would offer not just an alternative look at the SW stories but invites them to consider the religious and spiritual messages hidden within the movies.

John McDowell has been a long-time fan of the Star Wars movies, not only as an interpreter of the messages but a movie-goer like the rest of us. He is also keen to understand the movie from a Christian perspective. He combines his interest in the movies as well as the interpretation of the messages in this very fascinating look at the films released so far.
  • Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (TPM)
  • Episode 2: Attack of the Clones (AOTC)
  • Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith (ROTS)
  • Episode 4: A New Hope (ANH)
  • Episode 5: The Empire Strikes back (ESB)
  • Episode 6: Return of the Jedi (ROTJ)
  • Episode 7: The Force Awakens (TFA)
  • Episode 8: The Last Jedi (TLJ) (latest released but not included in this book)
The structure of the book mirrors the chronological order of movie release instead of the episode numbers, that is; Episode 4,5,6, 1, 2, 3, and 7. The author begins chapter 1 that offers the film-makers the benefit of the doubt. He recognizes that it is easy to read too much into Lucas's stories and to say things that were not the film maker's intentions. Rather than trying to presume Lucas's understanding, McDowell focuses on spiritual messages from the perspectives of different cultures and religious outlooks, with frequent reference to Christian theologies. He spends a substantial amount of time to interpret the Force, about the two sides of the divide. Trying to see the Force as something divine proves tricky because it is seem more like an impersonal energy source rather than a personal being. Plus, there is a risk of dualism and gnosticism if we are not careful. Is the Force deemed good, while the "dark side" is evil? Semantics could muddle the whole matter. So McDowell notes how each reference to evil is rendered as "the dark-side of the Force." In fact, viewed under the lens of good vs evil, the Force could easily be utilized by all religions for their own purposes. Truth is, Lucas wanted to instill some openness to the presence of spirituality in an increasingly secular world. There are things far more profound than what modern science and technology could offer. In fact, Lucas's brilliance is in telling a story with wide-ranging applications and interpretations, especially from a pluralistic worldview. He looks at the treatment of evil in the movie by navigating carefully the philosophies of dualism; Manicheanism; anti-semitism; the cultures of blame and self-serving motives.  He concludes by seeing evil as a breakdown of relations and dehumanization. This is highlighted in the Skywalker family. From Anakin to Luke, SW is a powerful platform to show the depravity of humans and the extent in which evil could devastate life, both physical and non-physical forms. Lest we think all jedis are good, it is important to remember that the worst enemies are former jedis. Even the Jedi council have shown signs of arrogance and ignorance. It reminds us that we are all susceptible to such arrogance and pride, which are the seeds of downfall. Sin has made us flawed people. It makes us reject the people we love. McDowell spends more than four chapters just outlining and describing the expressions of evil inside and outside of the stories and characters. He does this so as to drive home the need for hope in the midst of intense evil, which should bring those of us astute readers of the Bible to Revelation.Other themes include the continuing battle between good and evil; the need for salvation and hope; and how powers and principalities could be used and abused by all sides.

Three Thoughts
First, movies are excellent platforms for discussion about real life. In our secular and atheistic world, where religious topics are often avoided, SW could be an entry point for fruitful conversations about spirituality, life, the after-life, and various aspects of human relationships that the SW movies represent. We could discuss about the role of sacrifice, like how Rogue One's heroes gave up their lives for the sake of the greater good. We could analyze the temptations of the world which could turn us into people entering the dark side. We could ask about our decisions that dictate our future. At the same time, if we are not theologically certain about our own beliefs, entering into theological interpretations could be a problem. Any cultural or religious interpretations presume we already have our theological foundations laid. Otherwise, we would become wrapped up in controversies and uncertainties which might even pull us deeper into the dark side of doubt and despair. Christians, read your Bibles and ask your spiritual mentors if you are unsure about the basic tenets of your faith.

Second, SW showcases the depravity of human beings, something Calvinists would be most happy to talk about. It is a classic display of Augustine's definition of original sin, that we cannot save ourselves. We need something bigger than us. We need God. We need the gospel. So depraved is the human heart that even the most well-intentioned heart could turn wayward. Look at how Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side, and how Luke was nearly tempted into submission. While movies often require a plot that has a villain where viewers loved to hate, it subconsciously highlights our inner conflicts. While sin is tempting, with its offer of power and invincibility, it seduces us into falling for deceptions and lies, just like how Anakin was deceived into thinking his journey into the dark side could save his beloved wife. There is only one hero who is pure and blameless, and that is Jesus. All of us are subject to sin and error. We need help and only God can help us. If we let Him.

Third, we all need hope. While SW presents a general need for hope, that good will eventually triumph, there is a strong representation of the deepest hunger of the human heart for hope of a better tomorrow.  McDowell is spot on when he says Lucas's movies are eclectic and reflect the pluralistic cultures of our age. The title of the book is about the "gospel" which essentially means hope. It means good news. Read this book with the good news in mind, not just any good news but the Bible's message of hope, which is much deeper and more complete than anything the world has to offer. Christ died for all that all may live. If we reject Christ, we reject the Giver of all hope.

This is one of the best spiritual analyses of the SW saga, presenting some possible theological themes of each of the movies. Perhaps, after reading this book, watch all the movies again and interpret with new lens of understanding. You may find more nuggets of truth as you reflect and ponder about the messages both explicit and implicit.

John C. McDowell is Professor of Theology and Director of Research at the University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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