Examining the Christian Imagery of Star Wars

With the Star Wars epic adventure, George Lucas has taken the world on a journey that (so far) has lasted four decades. It began in 1977 with a film that was ahead of its time and yet nostalgic. It was the height of the Cold War, which by definition is something so ambiguous that the ambiguity of it all only heightens the fear. We worried about so many indefinable things, including nuclear holocaust and World War III, but Lucas gave us “A New Hope” by telling us a story about Nazis in space.

In the midst of the Cold War, Star Wars reminded the Western world of the last time that it was easy to tell good from evil. For many people, it also solidified their suspicion that communism (in whatever form it may take) was no less a threat to freedom than fascism.

And so we have the Galactic Empire, a fascist regime in which a ruling tyrant enslaves an ever-widening sphere of victims through violence and fear. We have the Rebel Alliance, reminiscent of the French resistance, engaging in almost hopeless guerrilla warfare against the evil empire for the sake of freedom. And to add a flavor of holy crusade, we have the Jedi Knights, warrior saints reminiscent of the Templars or other medieval militant holy men. They even use swords, of the laser variety. The Death Star, a moon-sized station with the power of complete destruction. is a metaphor for the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation, but it is also a symbol of the absolute power of an invincible government that exists only for the benefit of those in power and considers the vast majority of people expendable.

The Force

Within the universe of Star Wars is its version of an unholy trinity. There, Darth Vader is the film’s antichrist, and the emperor is the “beast,” true unredeemable evil. But rather than the devil, evil is energized by the dark side of “the Force.”

 

What is the Force? According to Obi-Wan Kenobi, “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” We are told that the Force controls your actions, but it also obeys your commands (if you’re a Jedi, that is).

Examining the Christian Imagery of <i>Star Wars</i>

This article is from a chapter in “From Star Wars to Superman.” Click image to preview or order.

“May the Force be with you,” is a blessing, but the truth is that the Force is not always good. It could be said that the Force is neu­tral, and that it is the way a person uses it that makes it good or bad, but there is a dark side to the Force that goes beyond simple misuse of it. The dark side tempts people. It seduces people — as it did to Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader. Before we ever know about Anakin, we are told that Darth Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force. Perhaps this simply means that he was tempted to use the Force for evil — that the temptation of personal power was too much for him to resist. But it seems to mean more than that. It seems to imply that there is a dark side of the Force that exists as an entity, whether anyone misuses it or not. This brings up the question of whether evil is a thing that exists, or whether it is only the rejection of good.

It’s clear that the Force is some kind of divinity. But with the inherent dualism of the light and dark sides, it is more like the deity of Zoroastrianism than the Judeo-Christian concept of God. In fact, it was Zoroastrian priests who followed the star to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus — so, in a way, the Jedi are Magi. They follow (and use) the good, or light, side of the Force, which is never really defined but seems to have something to do with defending the freedom of those who are potential slaves of the empire. Their mortal enemies, the Sith, follow (and use) the dark side of the Force, which is described in terms of anger, fear, and aggression. For anyone who gives in to these, the dark side will dominate their destiny. Nevertheless, both the Jedi and the Sith are believers. The rebels believe in the Force, and so does Darth Vader. It is the military and mercenaries such as Han Solo (at first) who are the unbelievers.

Christology

Although Luke Skywalker is the primary hero of the original three films, it is really a team effort. All of the main characters go through the hero’s journey:

  • Han Solo is the unbeliever who is converted, and he has his own death and resurrection when he is frozen in carbonite.
  • Luke goes through a death and resurrection when he’s pulled under the sludge in the garbage compactor.
  • Leia is enslaved by Jabba the Hut, but she’s the one who kills him (she is not rescued by anyone else who would be a savior to her).

All the heroes go through their ordeals, and they are all on a path toward salvation, but Obi-Wan is the primary Christ figure because his death is voluntary.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, aka “Old Ben” Kenobi, is described as a hermit, a wizard, and a crazy old man. When we first see him, he’s dressed like Jesus in all those old gospel movies, and he “raises” Luke, who had been knocked out by the Tusken Raiders. He is the master, the teacher of the Force.

As his confrontation with his former student and archen­emy Darth Vader approaches, Obi-Wan says to Luke, “You can’t win — but there are alternatives to fighting.” The alternative he chooses at the decisive moment is to sacrifice himself. After he turns off the tractor beam, restoring freedom to the heroes, he basically gives up and lets Vader kill him. But first he warns Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” He fights Vader just long enough so that when he is killed, Luke will witness his death. He has confronted evil, but in a way that does not embrace aggression (for that is part of the dark side). And in confronting evil, he has victory over it through his voluntary sacrifice. Of course, that victory is more of a spiritual victory than an actual defeat of the enemy, but it does distract the enemy long enough to allow Luke, Leia, and Han to escape. But more important, Obi-Wan’s death allows him to be present with Luke at crucial moments later in the story, guiding him in ways that he never could in bodily form.

After Obi-Wan gives up the fight, and Darth Vader swings his light saber for the death blow, Obi-Wan’s body disappears, leaving only his monastic robes lying on the floor. There is no body left to bury. But Luke can hear Obi-Wan’s voice, and Obi-Wan will come back to him in visions. In Episode V, he comes to Luke and tells him to go to Yoda to complete his training, passing the apprentice on to a new master. This is a resurrection of sorts, though not a bodily one. Therefore, it is somewhat gnostic in its view of the afterlife. The same thing happens when Yoda dies. There is no body left, but Yoda will appear in visions.

Interestingly, in one of these visions, Obi-Wan tells Luke that he will need to kill Darth Vader to become a true Jedi. This seems to contradict Obi-Wan’s advice about finding alternatives to fighting. Maybe Obi-Wan’s earlier point was to find an alternative to fighting in those situations in which you can’t win. Now, however, he believes that Luke can, and must, kill his own father. But Luke has learned Obi-Wan’s lessons even better than Obi-Wan has, because Luke refuses to kill Vader. Instead, he will risk his life for the good that he believes is still within his father. In a way, Luke has surpassed his mentor and become a second savior, following the example of the original. His sacrifice is less voluntary, it seems, because as he goes into the ordeal, he believes that he will be able to convince his father to turn away from the dark side. Nevertheless, just as Obi-Wan defeated Vader by confronting him without aggression, now Luke confronts Vader — and the emperor — without aggression. Of course, there is a moment of anger when Luke feels he must protect Leia, but in the end, Luke sacrifices himself, and we see that Darth Vader can be saved after all. This happens, however, only because Vader himself finally switches sides and turns on the emperor, sacrificing himself to save Luke.

Soteriology of Star Wars

Before we look at salvation, let’s take a look at damnation. In Star Wars, the fate worse than death is to become a machine. Technology is a tool of the dark side, and the Death Star is the ultimate technological manifestation of evil. The real threats to life and freedom in Star Wars are fascist and military atheism and technology in the wrong hands. So, for a person to become a machine is damnation. It is to lose one’s humanity (one’s mind and free will). When Obi-Wan Kenobi is describing Darth Vader to Luke, he says, “He’s more machine now than man.” This means that Obi-Wan believes Vader is beyond redemption. But Luke saw the man in the machine. He said, “I can save him. I can turn him back to the good side. I have to try.” Luke cuts off Vader’s mechanical hand, which is a reversal of the ominous moment when Vader cut off his human hand, and it is the moment when Vader begins to become less of a machine and more of a man.

Still, Luke’s plan backfired. It was only when the emperor tried to kill Luke that Vader turned away from the dark side, turned against the emperor, and intervened to save Luke. It was said that if Vader was going to be saved, he would have to “let go of his hate.” But he never hated Luke; he only wanted him to join the family business. It wasn’t letting go of hate that changed him; it was accepting Luke’s love. Luke’s cries of “Father, please!” stirred up compassion in Vader, and he became human again when he chose family over power.

Vader’s unmasking was his rejection of the very technology that was keeping him alive and his return to humanity: he knew he would die, but he also knew he was saved. So, although the dark side had dominated his destiny for all of his adult life, Vader avoided the fate of damnation by turning toward the light. Another word for this kind of turning is repentance. And we know that he was saved because at the end of Episode VI, Anakin Skywalker appears in a vision with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, and we can tell by their smiles that in the spiritual realm, all is forgiven. Apparently, he was not beyond redemption after all.

Thus, on one level, salvation in Star Wars is repentance. It is turning away from the dark side (anger, fear, and aggression) and toward the good. It is a choice. Although there is unself­ish sacrifice on the part of the characters, it is not the kind of vicarious sacrifice we mean when we say that Jesus died for us. Rather, it is a sacrifice that elicits a response in others, and it is that response that saves them (or not). Obi-Wan did not save Luke. In fact, he was wrong about Luke having to kill his father. What saved Luke was his response to Obi-Wan’s sacrifice. Luke followed what Obi-Wan did, not what Obi-Wan said. Then Luke became a kind of savior by following Obi-Wan’s example. But it was not Luke’s sacrifice that saved Vader. What saved Vader was his own repentance after seeing that Luke was willing to sacrifice himself. This kind of salvation by example is one of the hallmarks of Arianism. In Arianism, it is not the death of the savior that saves you; it is your response to the savior’s death and your willingness to follow in the savior’s footsteps.

Therefore, salvation in Star Wars is not by divine interven­tion (if, indeed, the Force could be said to intervene in any­thing); rather one saves himself by following the example of the previous savior. In a way, one then becomes one’s own savior, setting the example for others. It sounds like a good thing, but ultimately it rejects the idea of the atonement: that God came into history in the Incarnation to rescue us.

Star Wars is as much an antichrist story as it is a Christ story (an antagonist is the hero of his own story, after all). And the message here is that even an antichrist can be saved. But more than that, even an antichrist can become a savior. The only problem is that, in order to do that, the antichrist in question (or anyone for that matter) would really have to save himself by following the example of some previous savior, and enact his own passion in which he is willing to sacrifice himself to reject evil.

Looking Deeper 

Arianism is a Christology of ascent (the person becomes a savior). As an Arian savior, Obi-Wan Kenobi is not the divine Son of God, and with the addition of a gnostic cosmology, the “divinity” in Star Wars (the Force) is too impersonal to be thought of as “Father” anyway.

Obi-Wan is, of course, human. As far as being unique among humanity, he is a Jedi, and that’s rare. There is always the risk of spiritual elitism here. He sacrifices himself voluntarily, so he gets points for that. And although he doesn’t have a bodily resurrection, he reappears a lot so he has to get partial points for resurrection.

In our next article, we’ll look deeper at the script, scripture and humanity of Star Wars

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Filmswhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

James L. Papandrea

By

James Papandrea is a teacher, author, speaker, and musician. He is the Associate Professor of Church History at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary (on the campus of Northwestern University) in Evanston, IL.

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