For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Gospel According to Star Wars

Posted on: June 16, 2014

The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope and the Force by John C. McDowell, Westminster John Knox, 2007, 204 pp.

Gospel Star WarsMay 4th fell on a Sunday this year, and I could not resist the idea of a Star Wars Sunday. I was a child of the Star Wars era, and spent many of my young days waving a stick with the “whooom, whooom” sound of a light saber, building worlds in the yard for my action figures and acting out great scenes from the films. There is a lot of Jedi wisdom that informs my view on the world, and the mythology of the Force had a shaping influence on my development. I know I am not alone, and Star Wars Sunday was an attempt to reach out to those who are enthusiastic about George Lucas but skeptical of Jesus Christ. I ordered this book as an aid to that preparation.

McDowell’s fandom is clear from the beginning. The Gospel According to Star Wars is more of a theo-literary analysis of the Star Wars oeuvre than anything else. McDowell references not just the six films, but the corresponding novels, television series, and multiple deleted scenes. This is not for the novice. I’m an accomplished Star Wars afficiando, and much of this was beyond me–not theologically, but understanding the allusions to the Star Wars galaxy.

Still, I learned some things that were helpful. McDowell’s general approach to bringing together these two mythological worlds paralleled my own. It’s not about arguing that Star Wars is secretly Christian (it’s definitely not), or about finding micro-moments in Star Wars that illustrate Christian principles. The point is to put the two worlds side by side and see what they can teach each other. Christianity might be illumined by the ideas of the Force. One’s understanding of sin and grace might gain new understanding by brushing against the Dark Side.

The first chapter was the most helpful. In it, McDowell traces the body of work on Star Wars and mythology, including Lucas’ own thinking about his mythical world and its morality. Lucas was a deep reader of Joseph Campbell’s work on the mythic hero and his or her quest. In creating the Star Wars universe, he intentionally incorporated ingredients Campbell emphasized as important for meaningful mythology. There is a reason this story sticks with its followers–it deliberately engages in these deep questions about human life and desire for meaning.

McDowell’s chapter on “The Force of the Divine” was also among the most helpful for my purposes, because again he discloses the intentional nature of Lucas’ mythic work. Citing Lucas’ work “On Myth & Men,” McDowell writes:

He (Lucas) claims that he “put the Force in the movie to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.” Therefore, he intends to encourage a generation of youth that has too little “interest in the mysteries of life” to begin asking questions about their existence. (17)

This affirmed the work I was doing with Star Wars Sunday, validating the experience that Star Wars evoked a spirituality that was not Christian, nor was it mature—and consequently opens the door to deeper conversation between the Force and God.

Star Wars SundayLater in the same chapter, McDowell points toward the morality of the Force and the Jedi way.

Obedience to the will of the Force is not blind acquiescence to a powerful but morally ambiguous god, and certainly is not a giving absolute significance to one’s own desires. On the contrary, it is the journey into becoming responsible for the well-being of the galaxy, or more personally, one’s galactic neighbor. This means the virtues of coresponsibility, compassion and so on, are ultimately the truth of life. (25)

That’ll preach. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The next three chapters grapple with the ways evil operates in the Star Wars universe. This is where the details of the various Star Wars stories became a bit overwhelming to me. Still, I appreciated McDowell’s analysis of the Manichean aspects of the Force versus the Dark Side, of Anakin as a tragic hero whose intentions are often good even when his actions are evil, and of the politics of empire. The final three chapters analyze the turn away from evil: in rebellion (which includes violence), in living a virtuous life as one who follows the will of the force, and in an eschatological hope for the future.

This is not a fun and easy read for theologians or Star Wars fans, but it is a helpful tool to generate ideas and analysis of the Star Wars world in concert with Christian theology. Its academic content is broad and deep enough to be helpful, but it’s not dense or riddled with jargon. Its Star Wars content, however, is deep into geek fan territory. I recommend beefing up on your Star Wars knowledge before diving in.

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1 Response to "Book Review: The Gospel According to Star Wars"

[…] He (Lucas) claims that he “put the Force in the movie to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.” Therefore, he intends to encourage a generation of youth that has too little “interest in the mysteries of life” to begin asking questions about their existence. (17) Book Review: The Gospel According to Star Wars […]

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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