Wandering in the Galaxy for Forty Years

And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was consumed.

(Numbers, Chapter 32, Verse 13)

HAN: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
LUKE: You don’t believe in the Force, do you?
HAN: Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.

(Star Wars, Episode IV, 1977)

In The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior wrote, “It isn’t necessary to document how much our music, architecture, poetry, art from Picasso, Stravinsky, and the Bauhaus to the popular stuff like Star Wars, are idolatries of force.” While it is interesting to see Star Wars ranked with the likes of Picasso and Stravinsky, it is even more interesting to think of Star Wars as part of a pantheon of a forced idolatry that has become the destiny of a generation of lost souls. Dr. Senior suggests that boundary-breaking, avant-garde trends in art, from Picasso to Star Wars, reflect that the world is wandering in a wilderness and forced to worship the golden idols of distraction—an idolatry that was given a new force with the advent of Star Wars.

Forty years ago this summer—what seems to many a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—Star Wars was released, and America was sold into the slavery of pop-culture merchandising. With this era-changing movie, the American cinematic focus shifted away from sophisticated dramas—such as The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Taxi Driver—back to a pre-60’s golden-age trope where exhibitionism and carnival capers made motion pictures make money. Some say that George Lucas effected a return to what the movies were meant to be, while others argue that his swashbuckling “space opera” was a backslide that cinema has never recovered from. In either case, Star Wars was the flagship film to sell itself as a franchise, driven and dominated by mass marketing, special effects, action sequences, and cornball dialogue. Gaining the rank of highest-grossing film of all time, Star Wars solidified the summer blockbuster, conceiving movies as commercial events that serve copiously to the lowest common denominator in the public. The effects of Star Wars run deep in the entertainment industry and have made explosive, eye-candy spectacle an idol of forceful distraction for many whose lives are so meaningless that distraction is a crucial drug.

Popcorn flicks like Star Wars are central, even integral, to American leisure—which is arresting if Josef Pieper’s notion about the basis of culture is correct. Where would society be without their screens, their celebrities, and their space sagas? It is rare to walk into a home that does not have a television dominating, or even enshrining, its living room. It is almost a matter of principle akin to a religious obligation in the civilian temples of Americanism. The parallels between the television and the tabernacle show how deft the forces of darkness are at leading man from the truth by imitating it. Leaving aside the comparisons that exist between the local church and the local theater, entertainment has become something like a new religion, a ritual for people to fill the voids in their lives—only entertainment is fast becoming nothing more than an addiction to nothingness, a placebo against the emptiness of the times. In these ways, modern entertainment is not simply distorting the elements of religion, but actually commandeering the role of religion in human society. A new idol has risen for the idle neo-pagans, and it is the idolatry of distraction.

Idolatry is not limited to worshipping false gods. The word and the practice also applies to the veneration, or pseudo-veneration, of anything that distances or obstructs man from God. Idolatry is the act of divinizing things other than the Divine (CCC 2113), which can occur through rendering the reverence due to God elsewhere, an error that has entrenched itself through the widespread embrace of personal tech-products and mass-marketing entertainment. As in any form of idolatry, there is a misplaced faith and fervor toward something unworthy of that fidelity and feeling that postures as a fitting recipient—a fitting end. The only result is that such things drag man away from his true end—his ultimate End. It is often said that modern entertainment is addictive, and addiction is a reverse image of devotion—and that perversion of devotion can be interpreted as a species of idolatry.

There is a devious irony in the parallels between religion and popular entertainment and personal technologies. The movies and the Internet fulfill a primal human desire for another “reality” and another “life.” Social media and cellphones provide “communion.” Updates, upgrades, and data-deletion bestow a “clean slate.” Wi-fi and on-demand features brings a permeating, invisible source of “power” and “security.” The cloud lays up “treasures” where neither rust nor moth consumes. Search engines are the man-made “mind of God.” Is it going too far to intimate that religion has, in some ways, been forcibly replaced as the guiding force of human destiny? To be fair, no one worships the Internet or prays to their favorite film characters, but there is a dependency on such distractions that mirrors a standard of dedication owed to God. To say that these trends, this popular stuff, appears idolatrous is not to say that they are a new religion. No one looked to George Lucas to fill a God-sized hole in their soul, but Star Wars and its ilk have presented a new way of acting religiously without revelation, dogma, or reality. Modernity’s enchantment with everything that Star Wars represents is rooted in a religious hunger for transcendence—but God has been left out of the modern menu (CCC 2114).

It is a Marxist principle that man is determined by his technologies, his means of production, and the technological trappings and cultural impact of Star Wars are emblematic of what man’s attentions have been seduced by. Again from Dr. Senior, “I have found a large plurality of students who find, say, Treasure Island what they call ‘hard reading,’ which means too difficult to enjoy with anything approaching their delight in Star Wars.” Therefore, the studios ceaselessly spend millions upon millions of dollars to produce high-voltage trash to distract the masses. The box offices collect millions upon millions of dollars to provide a prison of escapism. People who hunger for fact gorge on fantasy; and they come away confirmed only in their confusion and reinforced in the roots of their malady. This is a central problem of movies and moviegoers today—a problem perpetuated by Star Wars culture. There is a constant search for distraction from a gnawing sense of un-fulfillment, of being lost, of groping for affirmation in a culture that has lost touch with those realities that are intrinsically meaningful.

Though not on the same cultural level as Picasso or Stravinsky, Star Wars holds an unmistakable edge with the masses and is yet a force to reckon with forty years later. Star Wars is strange stuff, indeed, but it is popular stuff, an icon of the modern idol, distraction, for distraction has become the stuff of religion for a generation wandering in the wilderness. It is an idolatry of force, as Dr. Senior put it, and that force, whether we believe in it or not, is with us.

image: af8images / Shutterstock.com

Sean Fitzpatrick

By

Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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  • ElizD

    Having formerly been involved in Star Wars fan culture and now a devout Catholic, I believe this article is saying something that needs to be said.

  • Julie A

    And in another popular movie franchise (that began as a novel): “Two academics are exploring whether Harry Potter could be a religion in a new weekly podcast called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” Vanessa Zoltan and Caspar ter Kuile, both graduates of the Harvard Divinity School, launched the 25-minute podcast in May [2016] to answer the question, “What if we read the books we love as if they were sacred texts? The Potter faithful have followed: The podcast has soared to the top of the religion and spirituality charts on iTunes, drawing in about 55,000 to 60,000 listeners each week.” What does this mean? I think it means we Christians have done a miserable job of sharing our holy faith. It’s all well and good to blame society and filmmakers for lack of religious faith, but ultimately it is our responsibility as Christians to be true witnesses to Jesus Christ, not just in Church or at Christmas and Easter, but everywhere, all the time, no matter the cost. We will all have to answer for our failure in this regard.

  • Jeffrey Remillard

    I think that it is a good sign that people are attracted to movies like Star Wars , Spider Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy. These stories have themes that are very consonant with the theme of the ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’. For example, in Star Wars, Han Solo repents of his selfish pursuit of wealth and returns to help the rebels defeat the Empire by helping Luke to destroy the Death Star. Whose heart did not soar with joy seeing the shot of the Millenium Falcon flying out of the cover of the sun to save Luke from being destroyed by Vader?
    In ‘The Return of the Jedi’, who did not shed tears when Vader offered his life to prevent the Emperor from killing his son? Who did not shed tears when Vader told Luke before dying that Luke had indeed saved him, if not from death, then from the death his soul had been suffering since his turn to the Dark Side many years ago? In Guardians of the Galaxy, an improbable group of misfits banded together to save the galaxy from the evil intentions of Ronan. Who did not cry when Groot surrounded the Guardians literally with himself in order to save their lives? In Spider Man, Peter Parker’s heart is forever changed when he realizes his selfishness has led to the death of his beloved uncle Ben. Who did not cry watching the scene where he admitted this to his Aunt May? Who can forget the line spoken to Peter by his Uncle Ben, perhaps the most famous line from any Marvel character, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’? The fact that people are attracted to these stories indicates that in their hearts, people are pre-disposed to hear the Gospel, which J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘The True Myth’. These stories should be used by homilists and catechists to point people to Jesus, who is the paradigmatic model of someone who gives their lives for the good of others. It is certainly possible for people to turn these movies into idols, but I would rather see more of these movies being made than movies like ’50 Shades of Grey’

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