Following on the heels of our first post on Star Wars and religion, Nicholaus Pumphrey looks at the history of interpretation of the Star Wars films and gives some predictions about themes that may be reflected in Episode VII.
As a student of religion and popular culture, I understand that people love to pick apart films to show what religion is represented. Star Wars itself is one such series that has been picked over in a way that every possible religion has been pulled out of it. It also can be read as a religion or a mythology: fulfilling some sort of cross cultural mono-myth complete with adherents willing to don sacred garb, go to church/cons, and argue canon.
However, I am not so much interested in what religions exist in Star Wars but why they may be there and why we read the “texts” the way we do. Although space is a vacuum, Star Wars was not constructed there. Instead it was constructed in a context that influenced Lucas and the rest of the moviemakers. And although I do not necessarily want to focus on the readings of the text, it is required to get to my point.
What We See: Common Narratives
One of the most popular theories is that Lucas used the films to teach Hinduism and Buddhism to Christians.
We see monks believing in an interconnectedness of life. And through intense training, they are able to harness this invisible “force.” Knights seemingly are bodhisattvas trying to bring balance and peace to a world clouded in suffering. In Episode I, Yoda echoes the Four Noble Truths by stating, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” And what is balance but co-mingling between light and dark, Yin and Yang.
And of course there are the messianic readings of a “chosen one” destined to come and bring balance to the world… or even Jewish mystical readings of Tikkun Olam.
All these readings tend to be based on a historical argument of Lucas being influenced by New Age traditions floating around Hollywood or based on his own religion. That is the beauty of a story that has ascended to mythological or scriptural status. People are allowed to read the text based on their lived reality.
In Ben Saunders’ Do the Gods Wear Capes, he shows that it is pointless to try to exegete what Superman’s original religion is supposed to be but instead to look at Superman’s history and context to show the virtue of the time– to see what the readers want to see when they look at a hero.
When watching episode IV-VI it is easy for me to see the Buddhist archetype as merely appropriating the “Oriental Monk” trope that was rampant during the 70s with shows like Kung-Fu, a white savior trained by a mysterious/foreign old man in ancient ways.
Star Wars was also motivated by the deep entrenchment of the Cold War and the post-Vietnam era. This era produced the complicated hero and anti-hero evident in the Punisher, Wolverine, Dirty Harry, and Darth Vader. Science fiction escapist literature was prominent as were the horror/slasher films. Combined with the fear of “the bomb,” we created films such as Alien, a horror sci-fi movie with unimaginable beings. And played out the Cold War in Star Wars with blue and red dueling lightsabers between the Rebels and the Empire (even Reagan borrowed the terminology).
With episodes I-III premiering in the midst of the 9/11 aftermath (1999-2005), religion became a loaded term and our diverse world suddenly became very small. Lucas’s attempts to integrate science to explain the religious with his midi-chlorians. (In his post, Richard Newton sees parallels here to the inquiry known as the Cognitive Science of Religion).
This wasn’t the only attempt to demystify classic narratives. Suddenly film makers assumed that fans could not believe without elaborate scientific explanations that were just as mystical. In the Hulk, Banner couldn’t just be hit with gamma radiation. He now needs to have a genetic mash-up of several creatures spliced into his DNA that would then be activated by the gamma rays. The Buddhism and Christianity could still be read into the text but belief had to be backed with science. However in the end, the fight between Light and Dark seemed to be competing theologies/religions fighting, all being said while a war was being fought against the “Axis of Evil.”
Predictions not Spoilers:
One tagline in the trailers is that “every generation has a story.” What is it in our context that will inform this movie? First, and really a hope, is that Lucas/Abrams actually gets diversity right. In the past, the attempts at diversity have fallen to make aliens with racial stereotypes the diverse characters (Examples from episodes I-III: the Gungans, the Trade Federation, the Genosians and their language, and especially Watto the Toydarian). Let’s just say they failed.
Second, religion will be more overt. Avengers: Age of Ultron showed a Vision/Jesus fight against Ultron/Satan by quoting Bible verses at each other. Clash of the Titans retconned Greek myth into the Book of Job, where Zeus/YHWH and Hades/Satan fought for power by proving whether humans still believed in them. Many pop culture and religion scholars assume that 9/11 has somehow brought religion (not just Islam) into the forefront of media. Living in this post-9/11 world that saw the end of at least one war and the rise of Daesh, I can only imagine that a movie about the end of a war will have the rise of another antagonist, one that seems to have a cult following around the Dark Side and Darth Vader.
All the while, the messianic and Buddhist message of the Force will still be there, needing to be “awakened” in the main characters.
With something as large and long lasting as Star Wars, we are all simultaneously readers and authors with context driving our hermeneutics. And evident from the sound that the blasters make, Star Wars was not made in a vacuum and each person will be free to read the text however they wish.
Nicholaus Pumphrey is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and curator of the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. He has presented and published works on religion, comics, and film.