The Irresistible Force of Star Wars

Since the saga’s launch in 1977, the irresistible force of the Star Wars phenomenon has impacted young and old alike. It’s nearly impossible to get through a day without being brushed, bumped, or bombarded by a Star Wars image, allusion, or advertisement. Next week, the seventh installment, The Force Awakens, will hit theatres, and no less than Steven Spielberg predicts it will be “the biggest movie ever.”

So why do so many people across generations, cultures, and religions find Star Wars so captivating?
Is it the compelling characters?
The spectacular score?
The breathtaking special effects?

Sure, these contribute to the magic of Star Wars. But I don’t believe any of them can explain the mystery that has sparked wonder in millions for almost forty years. To grasp the irresistible force of Star Wars, I believe we need to look behind the fictional veil and catch a glimpse of the transcendent themes that give the epic its emotive power.

Universal Themes of Another Universe

The Star Wars saga trades in universal themes of Fall and Depravity, Struggle and Conflict, Sacrifice and Redemption, Heroism and Hope. In this way, it sings truth to our souls. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, drank deeply from the wells of human experience and incorporated themes that have repeatedly appeared in epic poems, plays, legends, myths, and religious beliefs of various cultures through the millennia.1

For Star Wars, Lucas hacked into a “formula” storytellers often call “the hero’s journey.”

In fact, for Star Wars Lucas hacked into a “formula” storytellers often call “the hero’s journey.”2 With this narrative pattern, many storytellers, screenwriters, and authors grasp and hold their audiences by tapping into universal human experiences:

  • a frustration with the present world and our own lives;
  • a sense of greater purpose and meaning—somewhere “out there”;  
  • a feeling of personal conflict between good and evil;
  • the conviction that this world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be;
  • the hope that things will one day be better than they are;
  • the urge to forsake all and get involved in the struggle.

Though everything in the Star Wars universe is fiction, these motifs touch on something real. In the same way a fable or parable might be used to illustrate moral principles, stories like Star Wars paint pictures of profound existential and spiritual truths that all humans feel but few can put into words.

Approaches 1 & 2: Chance Prophecy or Chancy Propaganda?

Two books lie on display on a tiny table in my office. The first book, The Force of Star Wars (1977), allegorizes the original Star Wars film and suggests that it mirrors specific events of biblical end-times prophecies. The author calls readers to faith in Christ and promotes a clear Christian redemption narrative.

The second book, Religion of the Force (1983), exposes the allegedly heavy-handed New Age religious propaganda of the Star Wars universe. It suggests that Star Wars promotes a false religion, that the “Force” is pantheism, and that Christians should flee from all things Star Wars before they damage their souls.

Is Star Wars an allegory conveying the Gospel of Jesus? Or a drama promoting doctrines of demons?

So, which is it? Was George Lucas a reluctant prophet of God’s Story, who spoke better than he knew? Or was he a sinister antichrist who continues to lure dupes into the pits of hell? Is Star Wars an allegory conveying the Gospel of Jesus? Or a drama promoting doctrines of demons?

Clearly, the two books represent two completely opposite approaches of Christians engaging popular culture. And in my view, both veer off too far in their perspectives. Let me suggest a middle-of-the-road approach—one that appreciates the underlying “truths” of the narrative of Star Wars without confusing metaphorical fiction with spiritual fact.

Approach 3: The Myth and the Metanarrative

In the mythical Star Wars universe, the “light side of the Force” serves as a metaphor for the invisible, powerful source of goodness, truth, and life. According to Star Wars lore, somehow an imbalance occurred in the universe with the intrusion of the dark side—a metaphor for evil, falsehood, and death.

Star Wars uses these metaphors of light versus dark to frame the epic struggle to restore “balance” to the Force. Characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader play out their personal struggles with Temptation, Fall, Conflict, and Redemption in the context of this primal battle between good and evil—Empire versus Rebels, Jedi versus Sith. And in the Star Wars universe, balance isn’t achieved by equalizing the dark side and the light, but by vanquishing the dark side entirely. The onslaught of evil brought chaos; the victory of the light brings true order.

The images of darkness and light also characterize the Christian saga of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. In this metanarrative, God first dispelled darkness with light (Gen. 1:1–3). He then crowned His newly ordered creation with human beings—His personal agents of glory and goodness. Though humans were meant to mediate God’s order in the world, evil plunged the universe into devastation and chaos.

At just the right time, however, God sent His light into the world to drive out the darkness (John 1:4, 9). God’s Son—the prophesied chosen one (Isa. 42:1)—battled the forces of darkness (John 1:5), surrendered His life to save the world (John 3:16), and rose from the dead in victory over death (Acts 2:24). Until the King’s return, His loyal subjects—the children of light (1 Thess. 5:5)—are to serve as a force of light and truth against the agents of darkness and deception (Eph. 6:12). This brings a new hope to fallen humanity, drawing our gaze from the suffering of this present darkness to the glorious restoration, when death itself will be swallowed up by life eternal (1 Cor. 15:54–56).

Beyond the Galaxy Far, Far Away . . .

Of course, it could be merely a coincidence that the fictional narrative of Star Wars shares some similarities with the factual metanarrative of the Bible. But there’s another explanation.

Imagine Truth as pure light shining from the divine Source of all Truth. The light shines through every aspect of God’s created universe, but it is also refracted through human image-bearers whose imaginations project a spectrum of stories onto the stage of human culture.

The Writers of Star Wars like George Lucas and J. J. Abrams tell the ultimate Story imprecisely, imperfectly, and often impurely, but almost always the big picture themes remain: Fall, Struggle, Sacrifice, Hope, Forgiveness, Redemption, Reconciliation, and Triumph. In the end, through a cataclysmic conflict between good and evil, the dark side is vanquished and the light side is victorious. All these themes become illustrations of God’s Story of redemption. All of them serve as potential points of contact between the tellers of God’s Story and a world entranced by the magic of the fictional world of Star Wars.

As a theologian, I don’t embrace Star Wars as a kind of “fifth gospel.” But neither do I condemn it as devilish propaganda.

As a theologian, I don’t embrace Star Wars as a kind of “fifth gospel.” But neither do I condemn it as devilish propaganda. Instead, I perceive the Story behind the story, the metanarrative behind the myth, and the fact behind the fiction. I see the contours of God’s drama of redemption even in the frames of Star Wars. And I’m reminded of the reality revealed through God’s creation and articulated in the Bible’s creation-redemption narrative—the Story centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ in His first and second coming.

Image Credit: StarWars.com

1 See Steven A. Galipeau, The Journey of Luke Skywalker: An Analysis of Modern Myth and Symbol (Peru, IL: Carus, 2001); Mary Henderson, Star Wars: The Magic of Myth (New York: Spectra, 1997). Cf. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3d ed. (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007).

2 For a classic discussion of ancient hero myths, see Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3d rev. ed., ed. Joseph Campbell Foundation (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008).