Rev Dr Simon Perry
11th October 2015
A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away, everybody spoke English. And not only English, but one in which the heroic rebels speak with American accents, and the nasty evil leaders of the Empire speak with English accents. The original Star Wars movies of the 70s and 80s were part of a once strong tradition in which movies – consciously or otherwise – re-narrated the American story in which rebels are good Americans and baddies are English imperialists.
And that story goes something like this: Empires are evil – made up of big, nasty, ancient powers bent on exploitation, oppression, and greed. The birth of the United States itself, of course, was a radical act of defiance against the British Empire. So the story goes. And if there is one thing the USA is not, then it is first and foremost, most definitely NOT an empire. Empires are evil and violent, and what happens if one morning, the British monarch decides to send musket-carrying red coats across the Atlantic to inflict further evil and violence upon the rebellious colonials? Right up to today, U.S. citizens retain the right to bear arms – to buy automatic weapons over the counter, in order to prevent any further exposure to evil and violence. You never know when the Queen might choose to re-invade.
Star Wars is the story of empire and rebels (who are definitely the goodies) or terrorists (we would call them today.) The Star Wars movies are clearly the most influential science fiction franchise in the history of our galaxy. There have been three trilogies: beginning with episodes 4, 5 and 6 in the 1970s, followed by episodes 1, 2 and 3 in 1999, and episode 7 appearing at the end of this term. This evening, I have in mind only the original three, largely because the second trilogy sounds like a scaffolder’s medical description of digestive complaints: The Phantom Menace; Attack of the Clones; Revenge of the Sith! So much for the prequels. They were successful movies but did not have the iconic appeal of the originals, because of the lack of narrative. This evening the focus will remain on Luke Skywalker from the original movies.
The basic story goes like this – Luke Skywalker’s family is killed, he leaves home, learns the ways of the ‘force’, uses a little fighter to blow up a moon-sized space station. His mentor, Sir Alec Guiness tries to teach him to be a Jedi knight – but due to family problems, he never graduates from Jedi school. His nemesis Darth Vader also happens to be his dad, his love interest also turns out to be his sister, Luke refuses to join the dark side – and the empire is destroyed. The end.
The success of the Star Wars franchise, however, is not simply a crude anti-imperialist metaphor. The narrative substructure is based upon the research by the celebrated guru of cultural mythologies, Joseph Campbell. Campbell wrote a brilliantly simplistic masterpiece, entitled, The Hero with a thousand faces, in which he studied the mythologies of cultures throughout world history – and identified a basic framework that underlies every hero-story in every single human religious culture. From Moses to Mills and Boon, from Hare Krisna to Harry Potter, from Eastern and Western and Aboriginal cultures – Campell distilled a basic storyline common to all humanity.
Naturally, Joseph Campbell’s work was snubbed by most academics, because although he had some great insights, Campbell seemed to have reduced the individuality of all the diverse and varied cultural and religious stories of the world into a single, simplistic, predictable plot. The hero faces adversity, finds a mentor, summons up the courage to face his demons (yes, his demons), engages in a struggle, overcomes, and of course returns home – just in time for tea and medals. But whatever we want to say about the Star Wars story line, it does seem fair that at the very least, Campbell had noted a common strand running through the story lines of multiple cultures: the pagan myth that sees good overcome evil.
So it’s hardly surprising that many Christian fans of Star Wars have found it bursting with biblical metaphor – and regarded Luke Skywalker as a kind of Christ figure. Are they right? That’s a tough question, so like any conscientious preacher, I consulted Google, where the answer was a resounding yes! And here is the proof: Luke Skywalker’s surname translates into ‘heavenly light traveller;’ Luke’s first name – well, the Gospel of Luke; Luke’s battle against the fallen Jedi, Darth Vader is a metaphor for Jesus’s battle with the fallen angel Lucifer; In prayer, ‘the Lord speaketh unto thee with a voice likened to Sir Alec Guiness, the devil tempteth thee through the vocal chords of James Earl Jones.’ and if that wasn’t turgid enough, it all goes down hill from there.
The question I want to ask quite simply is whether the biblical portrait of a Christ fits into the framework identified in Star Wars. Since this is a movie which both endorses and promotes the overriding cultural virtue of being a rebel, being anti-imperial, finding your courage and facing impossible odds in your quest to see good prevail over evil. Is that consistent with the Christ of the Gospels? On the surface, that may appear to be the case.
Skywalker is indeed a biblical figure. Everyone expected liberty from the Roman Empire – and a Messiah (or perhaps, a Jedi) is precisely the person who was expected to deliver that. A Messiah would be expected to March on Jerusalem with rebel forces, (just as the rebel forces attacked the Death Star). With the backing of Yahweh, rebels would defeat Pontius Pilate (just as the rebel forces would defeat Darth Vader). Such a display of power and might, would ensure that the whole world would marvel at the glory of Israel. If you doubt this – those of you in the choir who sing the Magnificat every week – look at it again, it is an appeal to Yahweh for a powerful messiah figure to overthrow of an unjust imperial regime. And everyone expected Jesus to fulfil that role. That, after all, is what a Messsiah is supposed to do – to bring liberty from oppressors.
So what happens when the Messiah marches into Jerusalem? People lined the streets shouting Hosannah – the cry for liberation. They wave palm branches, just as the citizens of Baghdad waved palm branches when the Americans arrived in 2003. The people of Jerusalem want liberation from the empire. So when he enters the city, does Jesus storm the Roman Garrison and overthrow the pagans? No he storms into the temple and overthrows the tables. Does he support the rebel cause? No – he says, ‘My father’s house will be a house of prayer for all nations… but you have turned it into a den of robbers? No – the word he uses for robbers actually refers more truly to – rebels, or bandits, or resistance fighters, to terrorists even. The contemporary historian Josephus tells us that the Jewish resistance movement stored its armoury in the temple because it was the only place the Romans were not allowed to set foot. Jesus says, that this house of prayer for all nations has been turned into a hotbed of rebellion, soiled by hopes of a violent, nationalist resistance.
Jesus’s actions in the temple had sealed his fate. Everyone, it seems, wants Joseph Campbell’s narrative, they want the Star Wars ending. And the story of the Gospel offers a sharp alternative. Jesus was not the Messiah people expected. He was not the Luke Skywalker figure. And the people turned against him, in favour of someone who HAD tried to instigate a rebellion, an uprising: Barabbas was not an evil thief: again, he was a rebel, a freedom fighter, a terrorist, a bandit. That is the kind of leader the people wanted – one who would give up his life to fight against the empire. And that is why they called for his release. Not because they were evil people – telling Pontius Pilate that you want a rebel released from his custody was a dangerous and courageous move. The crowds calling for the release of Barabbas were living the Star Wars narrative.
And Jesus was crucified in his place. It is a spanner in the works of the grand narratives of the world. It creates confusion in the pagan dream for a happy ending. It does not follow the plot line of these stories with universal appeal. This is a story that ends in defeat, and confusion. And though the resurrection might look like a happy twist, added to provide the need for a happy ending – in reality, resurrection is a traumatic, painful, disorienting experience.
The refusal of Jesus to resist the empire, does not make him complicit in imperial power. The whole point of the Gospels, properly read – and of the resurrection, properly understood, is that those seeking violent solutions, to violent problems can never escape the cycle of violence. An alternative dynamic animates the Gospel story – one in which power is not coercive, where evil enemies are not destroyed with swords, or guns, or even an elegant weapon from a more civilised age.
The liberation sought and found in the New Testament is not simply spiritualised away from politics, or postponed until the afterlife, or made to conform with the pagan mythologies of the world at large. The liberation effected by the Christ of the gospels, is one that has real effects on real people in the real world – and cannot be reduced to tidy storylines, or soundbites, or even creeds. In fact, there was no literary genre, no narrative, no plot that could accommodate what witnesses had seen in Jesus of Nazareth – which is why first year theology undergraduates here face a constant struggle to describe to examiners precisely what a Gospel is.
Whatever the answer – it defies the universal mythology identified by Joseph Campbell, and it subverts the myth of redemptive violence affirmed by the Star Wars franchise. Yes - that Gospel does contain a hero, an exemplar, a Luke Skywalker figure – and his name is Barabbas.