The worldwide popularity of the Star Wars saga is undeniable, as evidenced by the fact that the premiere of The Force Awakens is expected to break records for breaking records. Back in October early ticket sales passed $6.5 million in the U.S., compared to The Dark Knight Rises, Avengers, and Hunger Games: Catching Fire, all of which fell in the $1 million presale range. What’s more, the movie trailer increased Monday Night Football’s ratings when shown at halftime.
Star Wars occurs in a galaxy far, far away and offers plenty of action and sci-fi, but its always been built on its characters with perhaps the biggest one never having been seen. From the moment Obi Wan Kenobi first introduced the concept of the Force to young Luke Skywalker in Episode IV: A New Hope, this presence that “surrounds us … and binds the galaxy together” has been the franchise’s constant (along with C-3PO and R2-D2, and assuming Obi Wan doesn’t make an appearance in The Force Awakens).
The connections aren’t hard to spot. Obi Wan’s ghostly disembodied parting to Luke at the close of Episode IV – “Remember, the Force will be with you always.” – is an almost word-for-word repackaging of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 28. Anakin Skywalker’s giving over of himself to The Dark Side (Satan) reconstructs his sense of right and wrong into another being (Darth Vader), yet he’s never beyond redemption, as evidenced at the end of Return of the Jedi.
And speaking of redemption, perhaps no character exemplifies this better than Han Solo. First dismissing the Force as “hokey religion” and “a lot of simple tricks and nonsense” he has apparently become a believer in The Force Awakens. When Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, asks him about “stories” he responds, “It’s true. All of it.” On YouTube, one fan even stitched together scenes from previous episodes with Solo’s words dubbed underneath.
Other biblical comparisons can be made to Han Solo, as being frozen in carbonite (The Empire Strikes Back) relating to baptism and even the blindness he experiences afterward tying in to the Apostle Paul’s following his Damascus Road conversion in Acts 9.
West and East
Spiritual metaphors are an integral part of the Star Wars universe and have been used in Bible study literature before. However, the just-as-apparent ties to eastern religions – something George Lucas has never shied away from – have caused Christians to be cautious. In that same discussion with Luke aboard the Millennium Falcon, Obi Wan also gives The Force the pantheistic quality of “an energy field created by all living things.”
The last time Star Wars was getting so much attention was May 2005, when Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was released. Said faith-based movie critic Phil Boatwright at that time, “I have been told that George Lucas is a student of Eastern religions and that he includes many Zen Buddhist and Taoist ideas in his Star Wars movies, especially with his presentation of the Force as an example of light and dark dualism. Still, I don’t think Star Wars is going to lead people into Eastern religions. I maintain that these movies are simply parables.”
Billy Lane, minister of music, students, and recreation at Glennville First Baptist Church in southeast Georgia, has made a habit of taking topics from pop culture such as movies and building a Bible study around them. Before the current three-week lesson on the Force and Scripture, Lane had led a similar study with his students based off The Hunger Games movies.
“For the most recent lesson I talked about the Force and the Holy Spirit. There are things that correlate, but obviously some that don’t,” he related. “The reality is that most of my teenagers haven’t seen the Star Wars movies, and I wanted to pre-empt them seeing The Force Awakens and lay some groundwork.
“I can remember as a child seeing Star Wars and this idea of the Force and how appealing it was.”
The current connection, then and now
The timing of the release of Star Wars in 1977 contributed to interest in the Force, as the Jesus Movement was trending downward at that point but still strong enough to provide a spiritual connection. That, and Lucas’ aforementioned interest in Eastern religion, made the concept attractive to general audiences.
Also, America’s ever-increasing race with the Soviet Union for military supremacy certainly helped with moviegoers imagining F-14 Tomcats replaced by X-wing fighters and blasters issued to every GI. President Reagan’s proposed missile program was officially titled the Strategic Defense Initiative, but with it being built around space- and earth-based laser battle stations and technology yet to be invented, the SDI soon became known as “Star Wars.”
And in case you were wondering, yes, there is a religion named Jediism. However, it appears to be made up predominantly by adherents as a joke and and to make a larger anti-religion statement.
The arc of the Force’s reception in the movies reflects that of religious studies citing a growing concern among evangelicals over the increase of those claiming no religion and a declining influence of churches. In Han Solo’s brief exchange seen in The Force Awakens trailer, we have a former unbeliever giving a first-person account of something he now sees as the truth. In Christian circles that’s called a testimony.
What’s interesting is that while studies show the rise of those unaffiliated with religion, that same group is still open to various denominations. A Google search will reveal a plethora of Star Wars-based Bible Studies – In fact, LifeWay offers one called The Real Force: a 40-Day Devotional.
Those factors can lead to evangelistic opportunities, but biblical perspective is important no matter the context, says one SBC instructor. Southern Seminary’s Timothy Paul Jones, professor of Christian family ministry, is also a certifiable Star Wars fan as evidenced by the movie posters on an office wall. In an interview with The Examiner, he stressed that moviegoers should “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.”