At the 2015 annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion, I was part of an exciting panel on theorizing religion. The discussion revolved around how to approach the concept in such a way that it helps us make sense of the human.
Things got a bit heated during our audience Q&A. I’ll own up to the fact that I stirred the pot by likening scholarship to fiction—an intentional move to suggest that scholars have invested much (perhaps too much) in understanding religion.
I mean, I’d hazard to say that there are more than a few similarities between the parties depicted above and below:
My rhetoric had consequences. By likening professional investment in the study of religion to fiction, some (mis)took me as slighting the seriousness of their investment. My intent—if it matters—was quite the opposite. I wanted to show the investment as quite visceral and to inquire what impact that may have on the tenor of the conversation.
It was also suggested that my inquiry belongs somewhere other than religious studies. Fair enough. But my students, employer, and guild obligations would like me to continue doing my thing, so I think I’ll stick around for the time being.
But I will meet my critics halfway and turn my attention toward things I actually know about… like Star Wars.
Recently I was asked whether Star Wars is a religion. And I suppose my answer is “from a certain point of view.”
Yes, many one-to-one comparisons can be made. The Jedi Order have the trappings of monks. What the Emperor calls “the great mystery” (Ep III) might merit Rudolf Otto’s description of the mysterium tremendum in The Idea of the Holy. And of course, there is the question of belief in the unseen as a means of sensing one’s place in the surrounding world. This is to say nothing of the people who have devoted themselves to the teachings presented in the films.
But having studied the George Lucas-directed episodes of Star Wars more times than I care to admit, the series raises a different question for me:
What does Star Wars show us about religion?
In a 1999 interview with Bill Moyers on the eve of Episode I, Lucas reveals interest in a similar intellectual enterprise.
“I don’t see Star Wars as profoundly religious. I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct—that there is a greater mystery out there.”
The mystery in question is less a matter of theology as much as anthropology or social construction. Put simply, we human beings are the conundrum. He continues:
“Religion is basically a container for faith. And faith in our culture, our world and on a larger issue, the mystical level—which is God, what one might describe as a supernatural, or the things that we can’t explain—is a very important part for what allows us to remain stable, remain balanced.”
In my reading, Lucas sees “religion” as a vehicle used to speed through the world around us with useful persons, cargo, and teachings in tow. Star Wars, in all of its operatic glory, is the human condition exaggerated to the point that we begin to recognize the meaning-making we take for granted. Its themes have illustrated, frustrated, incited the turns of our everyday plotting.
To borrow from literary critic Hayden White, Lucas hasn’t created a religion but a “historical narrative” of religion in which:
a mixture of adequately and inadequately explained events, a congeries of established and inferred facts, at once a representation that is an interpretation and an interpretation that passes for an explanation of the whole process mirrored in the narrative. (“Interpretation in History,” 281–h/t to K. Merinda Simmons)
In the words of Qui-Gon Jinn (Ep I), Star Wars provides a menagerie wherein “[our] focus determines [our] reality,” giving way for us to watch ourselves make the observations that we see meaningful.
Say what you will about the story, but Episodes I-VI is an intriguing scholarly fiction about the study of religion. I find the saga’s explanations of the Force—and fans varied appreciations of them— a great allegory for the big tent question of the scholarly study of religion (e.g. AAR, SBL, NAASR). Here are a few one- to-one comparisons for your consideration.
Cognitive Science of Religion
Hermeneutic of Suspicion
Little imagination is needed to imagine the program units arming themselves with lightsabers as they battle out which approach to religion is better and why.
I myself would be rocking this bad boy:
But how many scholarly advancements started out as a “new hope” only later to become a “phantom menace?” For me, scholarship is about writing better scholarly fictions.
Part of that entails recognition that there’s a story behind why each of us chooses to examine the Force religion the way we do. And if we are really trying to understand the human, then we need close readings of our own scholarly fictions— interrogating the developments and denouement that we would otherwise fail to see.
White reminds us that even our best attempts at “’proper history’ presuppose a “metahistory” which is nothing but the web of commitments which the historian makes in the course of his interpretation on the aesthetic, cognitive, and ethical level….” (309)
“We must be cautious.”
So if you’ve read this blog post to determine whether Star Wars is a religion, I’m sorry but this is not the blog post you’re looking for. I do hope that when you attend your next scholarly meeting on the study of religion or you see Episode VII, you might remember to take fiction more seriously. After all, it is all we have, and it may be our only hope.
Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.