Friday, July 4, 2014

I find George Lucas’s lack of faith disturbing: a theological review of the Star Wars movies

Jewish date:  6 Tammuz 5774 (Parashath Balaq).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of St. Elizabeth Montgomery (Church of the SubGenius), Founder’s Day (some form of Neopaganism).

I find George Lucas’s lack of faith disturbing:  a theological review of the Star Wars movies
by Aaron Solomon Adelman


NOTE:  This review only covers the prequel and original trilogies (Episodes I-VI).  There is a lot more Star Wars material, but 1) none of it has the same level of canonicity, 2) that which your humble blogger has copies of does not substantially change the conclusions of this review, 3) a sequel trilogy (Episodes VII-IX) is in the works, and preexisting materials set after the original trilogy have been relegated to an alternate, non-canon timeline, and 4) the Star Wars Extended Universe is not sufficiently significant to be of great importance to the Divine Misconceptions project, and 5) obtaining and reading everything in the Star Wars Extended Universe would put off this review by several years.

One could have easily foreseen a theological review of the Star Wars Universe coming, even without the prescient powers of Palpatine/Darth Sidious; Star Wars is too big a cultural phenomenon and too fun for me to ignore.  (And, yes, there is a Star Trek review, or maybe a set of reviews, in the works, too.)  Before I start nitpicking on specifically religious issues, I think it fair to say that the original trilogy of Star Wars movies (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) got so much right in terms of plot, characters, dialog, acting, excitement, and effects (even before computer-generated images) to make them a real pleasure to watch and to make it easy to forgive anything done wrong in them.  (There are good reasons why there are dedicated Star Wars fans.)  The prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), on the other hand, while having largely good effects, suffers from obviously bad writing and acting (e.g., Jar Jar Binks, practically everything said in the romance of Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, and how Anakin turned to the Dark Side).  All of this is well-known to any Star Wars fan.

Religion—the general topic of this blog—is not a major concern in the Star Wars saga.  Most of the characters, major and minor, are not religious in thought, beliefs, or behavior.  With few exceptions—the biggest one being a rather strange exception at that—they do not reference religion directly at all.  This is extremely surprising.  Consider these facts:

1) The population of the galaxy is about 1017 beings (according to Wookieepedia).  Even if we disregard this source, real galaxies have on the order of 1011 stars, so even if the average population of a star system is very small (say, 1), that still makes for a huge number of people.

2) Humans make up a large proportion of the population (also according to Wookieepedia, but, yes, a whole lot of the characters in all six films are humans).  So expect even with a very low estimate of the population of the galaxy (1011), there should still be a huge number of specifically human people.

3) Humans being overwhelmingly secular in science-fiction is a cliché.  Humans in real life tend to pay at least lip service to a religion.  According to Wikipedia—yes, I am being lazy on my research here—2.01% of real-life humans are “atheists” and 16% more are “non-religious”.  To the credit of the people who wrote the relevant article, it discusses the difficulties of counting atheists, e.g., being an “atheist” is not the same thing as dissociating oneself from a religious group or abstaining from all religious activity.  But even assuming every single “atheist” and “non-religious” person is completely non-religious, that would leave almost 82% of humanity as more or less religious.

One would reasonably expect with all these humans populating the galaxy, there should be a huge amount of religious activity.  Yet there is very little to show of all this.  Maybe there is something about the sorts of characters which get screen time which tends to make them not religious.  Bounty hunters, gangsters, gamblers, smugglers, and anyone living in Mos Eisley (the “wretched hive of scum and villainy”) might not be good candidates for religiousness, but what would be implausible about people joining the Rebellion out of religious feelings of the need to fight oppression and injustice?  Of all the central characters, only C3PO—a character who is more comic relief than anything else—shows any religious sentiment:  he exclaims “Thank the Maker!” in A New Hope, but that is the full extent of his religiosity.  The only overtly religious characters are the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, and then not for long.  When they first see C3PO, they mistake him for a god.  They bow and chant to him, and they wish to sacrifice Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca to him.  Luke then uses his Jedi powers to fake a miracle to convince the Ewoks that such a sacrifice is offensive to their new deity, so they release their captives.  After this, any visible religious activity by the Ewoks ceases.  That the Ewoks practice a religion at all may be due to the cliché that low-technology cultures are more religious and superstitious that high-technology cultures.  George Lucas largely follows the common science-fiction cliché that people in high-technology cultures have no need for religion.

The only thing actually identified as a “religion” in the movies is the belief system/philosophy/praxis of the Jedi.  The Jedi do have some of the trappings of a religion:  a temple, mental discipline, and a code of behavior.  What passes for Jedi theology, on the other hand, will strike those who subscribe to an Abrahamic religion as strange.  No god—or even karma—is ever mentioned, but instead the Jedi believe in the Force, an “energy field” generated by life which permeates the Universe.  The Force behaves rather like modern magic:  by properly directing one’s feelings and beliefs, one can use it to accomplish superhuman feats.  The most visually obvious of these—besides being able to fight with lightsabers—is telekinesis (moving objects at a distance).  Also featured are the ability to control the minds of others (as in “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”), clairvoyance (seeing things at a distance), prescience (seeing the future), and telepathy.  Note that while prescience in the Star Wars saga is often labeled “prophecy”, no mention is ever made of Divine communication (which is characteristic of prophecy in Abrahamic religions).  The Jedi can survive death in the form of a ghost, but this is not a Divine or karmic reward for living a good life; it is the result of a long-term project of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi.

Membership in the Jedi Order is not open to everyone.  All life in the galaxy has obligate symbiotic microbes known as “midi-chlorians”.  The more midi-chlorians one has in one’s body, the more one is able to use the Force.  As using the Force is what the Jedi are all about, only those with high midi-chlorian levels are eligible to become Jedi—and even then, maybe not.  Objection is made to training Anakin Skywalker and later his son Luke for them being too old.  Clearly the Jedi want to recruit only those who will be able to complete the training and perform their duties.  Issues such as belief or having the right lineage are never mentioned and seem to be irrelevant.

The Force has two “sides”, the Light Side and the Dark Side.  These two sides do not differ merely in qualities, unlike yin and yang or the ancient Greek elements.  It is the morality of the two sides of the Force which is constantly emphasized.  Thus morality in the Star Wars universe is presented in dualistic terms:  there are two—and only two—sides.  The Light Side of the Force is good, and the Dark Side is evil.  Likewise, those who ally themselves with the Light Side, such as the Jedi and later the Rebels, are good, while those who ally themselves with the Dark Side are evil.  For the sake of this moral symmetry, the Jedi have a dark equivalent, the Sith.  The Sith have all the same powers as the Jedi, the difference in their technique being that the Jedi try to maintain emotional self-control, while the Sith channel their negative emotions into Force effects.  For no apparent reason, the Sith are limited to two at any time, a master (in this case Palpatine/Darth Sidious) and a pupil (successively Darth Maul, Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus, and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader); the Jedi, on the other hand, can exist in any number.

The upshot of this built-in morality is that characters who are somehow morally “gray” are forced to choose a side (as do Han Solo and Lando Calrissian), be minor characters, or die.  There is, in fact, only one important character who manages to maintain any substantial degree of moral grayness:  Anakin Skywalker, later known as Darth Vader.  He merits such an exception, because he is the central character of the series and thus needs to undergo character development.  Anakin undergoes a two-part moral transformation:

1) In the prequel trilogy, Anakin starts off as an innocent slave child thrust into the world of the Jedi.  Once he is freed, he lives under an increasingly large amount of stress.  He is traumatized by war, terrified by prescient and clairvoyant visions of tragedy, and trying to keep his forbidden marriage a secret.  To make it worse, he is too emotionally immature and unstable to properly deal with all this, so he eventually breaks and embraces the Dark Side under the influence of Palpatine/Darth Sidious.  This is handled with all the grace and beauty of a novice swimmer doing a bellyflop (like so much in the prequel trilogy).  The sane and psychologically realistic way of handling this transition would have been to have Anakin gradually rationalize increasingly worse behaviors as he fights in the Clone Wars, only formally embracing the Dark Side after doing something abominable for the sake of the Republic.  What he actually does is irrationally panic over a vision that his wife Padmé will die in childbirth and stupidly turn to Palpatine/Darth Sidious on the unsubstantiated claim that he has the power to save her—which he fails to do.  There are people who convert irrationally or quickly in real life, but few who do it as irrationally and quickly as Anakin.

2) In the original trilogy, the conversion of Darth Vader is handled much more credibly.  I call him “Darth Vader” at this point, because at the start of the original trilogy he has given himself completely to the Dark Side and no longer identifies himself as Anakin Skywalker.  Indeed, Obi Wan Kenobi even tells Luke that Vader murdered Anakin, later insisting this to be true “from a certain point of view.”  Vader is a paragon of principled evil, efficient and merciless to anyone who stands between him and completion of his goals.  This includes a number of minions he kills for failure by using the Force to choke them.  He even blows up the inhabited planet of Alderaan as part of his efforts to crush the Rebellion.  And yet this monster is not irredeemably evil.  He has a weakness:  his son Luke Skywalker, who is studying to become a Jedi.  Palpatine’s reaction to discovering that Vader has a son is to wish the son dead.  Vader, on the other hand, is pleased to learn of Luke’s existence and rationalizes that he wishes to turn him to the Dark Side.  Vader makes this intention clear to Luke, even when fighting him; he even wishes that they rule the galaxy together.  Even though that encounter is a failure (which is to be expected, since Vader cuts off Luke’s hand), Vader tries again at their next encounter, not putting in the effort needed to strike Luke down, instead losing a hand in the fight and being prepared to let Luke strike him down and take his place as the Sith apprentice.  When Luke remains steadfast with the Light Side, Palpatine tries killing Luke by zapping him with electricity.  Unable to bear the sight of Luke screaming in pain, Vader kills Palpatine, thus saving Luke, even though he mortally wounds himself in the process.  Vader dies redeemed and reconciled to his son.  This is the way real-life conversion frequently works:  small stirrings which could initially be overlooked build until the conversion manifests itself openly.  Kudos to George Lucas for getting this right.

Many religions have a concept that there is a war between the forces of good and evil, and the war may be to some degree predestined.  This naturally leads to the possibility of foreseeing some aspect of the battles that lie ahead.  In the prequel trilogy, this takes the form of the prediction that Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one who will bring “balance” to the Force.  None of the Jedi foresee what really happens, but Palpatine/Darth Sidious might.  Somewhat more useful foresight occurs in the original trilogy.  Darth Vader may foresee a showdown coming in The Empire Strikes Back, but the second half of Return of the Jedi is filled with foresight of the final showdown between Luke, Vader, and Palpatine.  Not only all three of them know it is coming, but so do Yoda and Obi Wan.  Vader sets things up so the meeting can occur, and Luke, Jesus-like, walks willingly into the trap, believing that there is still good in Vader and hoping that he will come to embrace it.  The only thing no one really seems to know reliably is what the outcome will be.  Palpatine is genuinely shocked that Vader betrays him.

Less common in religions (if it exists at all) is the idea that good and evil exist in balance.  The way things normally work is that the forces of good are ultimately more powerful that the powers of evil—the opposite of balance.  A true balance between good and evil would require them to be equally powerful—an idea which is downright heretical in any mainstream Abrahamic religion, but a situation akin to the moral theory of The Dark Crystal, where good + evil = perfection.  Obi Wan in Revenge of the Sith bemoans to Anakin that he was supposed to bring balance to the Force by eliminating the Sith, only for Anakin to instead become a Sith.  But arguably Anakin actually fulfilled his destiny in the prequel trilogy.  At the start of The Phantom Menace, there were a large number of Jedi, but only two Sith (Sidious and Maul).  The balance was tilted severely towards the Light Side.  By the end of Revenge of the Sith, the two remaining Sith, Sidious and Vader, had destroyed all of the Jedi except two:  Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi.  With equal numbers of Jedis and Sith, the balance in the Force was restored.

This makes for an inconvenient implication for the original trilogy.  Near the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader kills Palpatine and turns to the Light Side, dying soon afterwards himself.  This leaves one Jedi and zero Sith left alive.  This situation is as lop-sided as possible.  The prequel trilogy made evil a necessity, completely on-par with good.  Lop-sidedness is intolerable, so Vader is guilty of abandoning his duty.  And George Lucas is guilty of not properly figuring out the “balance” issue before he made the prequel trilogy.


By this point, everyone knows that Disney, which bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, is working on continuing the movie series with Episodes VII-IX.  This brings us a new hope (however small) for a fuller picture of religion in the galaxy, especially after the fall of the Empire.

At the very least, I hope that the problem of the “balance” of the Force will be addressed.  The easiest way would be to reveal that the original prediction was simply wrong or even fake.  Perhaps it was all part of Palpatine’s machinations, based on his own prescience, to make sure that the unstable Anakin Skywalker would be in place to turn to the Dark Side.  Palpatine was evil and skilled enough to create a civil war to manipulate the entire galaxy and seize control; faking a prophecy would not be beyond him.

A deeper alternative, however, would be to explore what the “Light Side” and “Dark Side” really are.  Are they really good and evil, respectively?  Or do they perhaps represent qualities which often, but do not necessarily, lead to good and evil?  Could there be evil Jedi who despite emotional serenity nevertheless deliberately commit acts of evil?  Could there be good Sith who take all their anger and rage and use it to fight injustice?  If so, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader as a ghost may return to fulfill his destiny in a way that no one foresaw, to bring balance to the Force, not by balancing good against evil, but by training a new generation of Sith who use their powers for good, thus balancing out the new generation of Jedi which everyone Luke Skywalker to train.  Besides taking the Star Wars Universe in an interesting direction, this would have the advantage of allowing Anakin to continue appearing as the central character and continue his moral development.

Overall classification:  Light science-fiction/fantasy/adventure movies.

Theological rating:  D, as the religious situation as depicted is difficult to believe and clichéd, plus Jediism does not reflect real-life religions well.  However, this series of movies is scheduled for expansion.  Disney is advised to fix the “balance” problem and fill in the holes left by Lucas.  It is entirely feasible to redeem the series theologically.

Note:  Credit goes to Darth Vader for inspiring the title of this review.