Star Wars' worldview a mixed bag for Christians, prof says

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Christian Examiner) – When "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens on Thursday night, seminary professor Timothy Paul Jones will be watching with child-like anticipation, much like he did 38 years ago as a five-year-old boy with his parents.

Jones, though, assures us he won't be wearing a Stormtrooper costume.

"To this day, I vividly recall the awe I felt when I saw that Star Destroyer and Rebel Blockade Runner roll across the screen in the opening scene," he told the Christian Examiner, referencing the first movie in 1977.

He is now a professor of Christian family ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., but is known among some science fiction fans as the author of "Finding God in a Galaxy Far, Far Away: A Spiritual Exploration of the Star Wars Saga" (2005).

Jones remains a big fan of the "Star Wars" films (this will be No. 7) and his office attests to it, with movie posters adorning a wall. But while Jones can trade "Star Wars" facts with the most knowledgeable Jedi wannabes, he is more concerned with viewing the films through a biblical lens.

The Christian Examiner recently discussed the "Star Wars" universe with Jones in an email interview, asking him how Christians should respond to the phenomenon:

CE: Why is our society so enamored with Star Wars?

Jones: Incessant merchandising, of course, has been part of it from the very beginning. But there are a couple of additional factors that have sustained the saga as well: 1) Particularly among fans who are in their 40s now, there's a longing to be swept up anew in the childlike wonder of those original films and to share that wonder with a new generation. 2) It's the story of how a powerful warrior falls into darkness because of his lust for more power; because of his son's willingness to sacrifice his own life, the fallen father -- Darth Vader -- is reconciled and redeemed. Even with all the kitsch and clumsiness, it's a powerful story arc, and it taps into our longings for forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.

CE: What are similarities and differences between the worldview of "Star Wars" and a biblical worldview? How can Christians use Star Wars to discuss spiritual matters?

Jones: Eastern religious ideas are woven throughout "Star Wars" -- there's the pantheistic idea of an impersonal "Force" that binds the universe together, the presence of a dark side and a light side in the spiritual realm, the emphasis on finding truth through mindfulness and concentration. That provides us with a good opportunity to help our children to see the contrast between the personal God of Scripture and the false gods of pantheism and do-it-yourself spirituality. At the same time, some of the most powerful aspects of the Star Wars storyline are more Judeo-Christian than Eastern: good triumphs through Luke Skywalker's willingness to sacrifice his own life to redeem his father, and Darth Vader turns from darkness and experiences reconciliation. It's interesting to me that the Force is portrayed inconsistently throughout the Star Wars trilogies. The Force is supposedly impersonal, but the Jedi seek to follow "the will of the Force," which sounds more like the Force is a personal entity.

CE: What questions should we ask of any movie we watch?

Jones: I encourage people to try to watch every movie through the lens of God's storyline -- creation, fall, redemption and new creation. When we do this, we see that the best stories tend to stumble across some truth in spite of themselves. J. R. R. Tolkien, author of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, stated this truth in this way: "We have come from God ... [so] inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor."

Nearly every movie that's worth watching includes a sense of some lost past that was beautiful, wonderful, and good -- in "Star Wars," it's the Old Republic where the Jedi were protectors instead of warriors; in "Inside Out," it's the life that Riley enjoyed in Minnesota; in "Toy Story 3,"it's Andy's childhood. Something intrudes into that goodness and distorts it or takes it away. In "Star Wars," a phantom menace emerges and brings imbalance to the Force; in "Big Hero 6,"Tadashi dies in a fire; in "Inside Out,"Riley and her family move to San Francisco. The heroes can't return to the way things were, so they seek some way to triumph over the tragedy that has turned their world upside down. In the best movies, the heroes endure suffering and sacrifice to triumph over evil and bring about a new and better possibility.

This basic storyline characterizes the best movies because this storyline was God's storyline long before it was ours. God created a good world, this world was distorted through the fall of Adam and Eve, God purchased redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and this glorious resurrection inaugurated a new creation that God will bring to fruition and fulfillment at the end of time. This calls us to interrogate every movie with questions like:

-- What in this movie reflects God's good and beautiful design?

-- What in this movie is inappropriate and unworthy of imitation?

-- What false narrative is this movie trying to tell us?

-- What truth about God's world does this movie tell us in spite of itself?

-- What does this movie present as the answer to our brokenness and the brokenness of our world?

-- What is this movie's vision for the way life ought to be?

At the heart of George Lucas' space opera is a world that is full of wonders. An invisible Force binds the universe together, and an impetuous farm boy is able to tap into its power. An undersized green alien with backwards syntax and bushy ears is the wisest warrior of them all. Deep within the villain's sinister armor is a grown-up child who aches for his mother and whose dying wish is to see his son with his own eyes. In a world that is glutted with glitz, gorged with superficial pleasures, and yet starving for authentic awe, sagas of this sort stimulate the imagination anew. These stories seize the space in every human soul that still longs to see exceptional beauty and power even in the most improbable places.