By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published February 22, 2021
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . . “
I have your attention now, don’t I?
Is there anyone who doesn’t respond immediately to that iconic invocation?
For me, unfortunately, the galaxy in question doesn’t seem that far away, though I suppose it is. Has it really been 44 years since George Lucas’ Star Wars premiered and changed—for better or worse—American cinema forever?
In a galaxy far, far away we went to school. We went to work. We went to Mass. The only ones who wore masks were, well, Imperial Storm Troopers, Sand People, and Darth Vader. The world seemed simpler in 1977 for a 10-year-old boy like me.
Throughout the pandemic, my family—like most American families in quarantine—have either found, or re-discovered—old interests to pass the time.
And so it happens that my 10-year-old son Nicholas has at last discovered the Star Wars universe. He is the same age that I was when the first film appeared, and like me, way back then, he has become completely enraptured.
I confess that I haven’t done anything to discourage him.
The Star Wars phenomenon of 1977 was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I remember that before the film even appeared, the teaser television ads squarely aimed at schoolchildren home in the afternoon essentially guaranteed an audience. What is that? Who are those people? Where is this world? All of us under 18, in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate energy crisis, wondered those questions.
When at last we all saw it, we were aghast. There’s never been anything like it! Movies are fun again! Will they make more?
And then there is the reaction of my father. I am one who rarely forgets the circumstances surrounding the seeing of a movie, the first listen of a record, the initial reading of a book. My memory of my father’s response to the film is vivid.
Coming out of the little twin cinema on Canton Road in Northeast Cobb County, after seeing Star Wars with my family, my father raised his arms toward the sunlight and exclaimed in his loudest, proudest Southern Baptist drawl: “It’s the Gospel!”
In suburban Atlanta during the 1970s, outbursts such as that were not uncommon, but my father was quite serious. On the ride home, he clearly outlined for us what he felt were overtly Christian aspects of the film, and he used the movie as a teaching moment to make clear the passion and resurrection of Christ. I think that my father’s reaction to the film was correct, and though I often downplayed his interpretation in favor of the sheer joy the movie brought to audiences of all ages, I never forgot his enthusiastic response, and I now know that it was rooted not only in faith but also in an appreciation for the universal aspects of myth.
Yet therein lies the problem for a Catholic who professes a clearly stated faith that is traditional, liturgical, and sacramental. The Star Wars mythos and its preoccupation with “The Force”—the spiritual bond that unites all the universe—can too easily become a mish-mash of an individualized spirituality of relevance and relativity.
On one hand, we can choose to ignore the religious aspects of the film and focus instead on its prophetic aspects. They actually Zoom in Star Wars; we just didn’t know what to call it then. They use clean energy. They use Tupperware.
More importantly, Star Wars foregrounds universal themes such as the struggle between good and evil, empire and autonomy, objectivity and relativism, and democracy and autocracy—all of which remain profoundly relevant now. Further, the film affirms the Green movement and it champions diversity. Star Wars reminds us of our responsibility to be good stewards of our planet, and it presents a society in which age, race, gender, and ethnicity don’t even matter. In nearly every scene in the film, aside from battles that are clearly justified, characters from every conceivable background interact almost always peacefully and respectfully. This is in keeping with the film’s great theme, the dignity of life. The Death Star is literally a destroyer of worlds, yet in the end, through collective and cooperative efforts, this dominion of death is itself destroyed.
A special moment in a special time
Keep in mind that when I say Star Wars, I am referring to an individual film released in 1977. Though I saw the two sequels that followed soon after, I have not seen the many other movies in the series; they don’t mean anything to me. For me, Star Wars was a special moment in the context of a special time, and yet now that my Catholic son has discovered it, I feel compelled to use it to a greater end.
I want my son to see in the film the truth of Christ’s heroic sacrifice and the redemption we all share in. Obi Wan Kenobi is right: “If you cut me down, I will only become stronger.”
I hope that he understands the power of prayer and how we unite our own “feelings” to a larger will.
I hope that in these anxious times, he sees that good will conquer evil, and that even evil has a chance for redemption. Remember, Darth Vader eventually reconciles with his former enemy and crushes his wicked master.
I want him to see that traditional values of heroism and individualism are noble, but that acting in the interest of the common good is far greater than serving one’s own interests. Han Solo cannot, for example, ever really be “solo.” Son, I want to tell him, if you put yourself and your own interests above the common good, you will never allow anyone to succeed.
I want to explain to him that the Communion of Saints is a real and lasting comfort in a world so preoccupied with death and sickness. Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda and Luke Skywalker—the living and the dead—are all in spiritual communion with one another.
Yesterday I showed Nicholas my Star Wars trading cards and comic books, worn and wrinkled decades ago by a boy whose imagination had been completely seized by the film. Forty-four years flashed back like hyperspace travel. I remembered my friend Karen, who in the days of “held-over” film exhibition saw the movie every Saturday for a year; she died years ago, and yet she came back to me as young and innocent as she was in the 70s. I recalled a cultural event that transfixed society, especially among the young, and it was such a nice memory of the collective consciousness focused on something positive and happy.
Star Wars the Gospel? No, of course not. Yet the film certainly channels a message of love, sacrifice, and redemption that mirror the essence of Christianity.
And those Jawa in that unforgettable first film—don’t they really look just like Trappist Monks?
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.