Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Outside the galactic Empire’s new battle station, a cosmic battle rages between good and evil. Inside this station, Jedi knight Luke Skywalker fights an equally epic personal battle. His own lost father, the evil Darth Vader, prowls in the dark, seeking to devour his son.
“Give yourself to the dark side,” Vader urges. “It is the only way you can save your friends.”
Already, Luke has struggled to resist the dark side of the Force—the magic-like natural law of Star Wars that can be used for good or evil. Luke has been warned against corruption, even as he hopes to redeem his father who fell to the dark side a long time ago. Yes, Luke has fought many other foes out of duty. But he won’t fight his father out of anger and hate.We’re consuming these hero stories like never before, spending multi-millions on these films and franchises. But are we taking seriously these heroes’ warnings not to embrace the power of the dark side?
Then Vader uses the Force to detect Luke’s thoughts. “So, you have a twin sister,” the dark lord taunts. “Your feelings have now betrayed her, too. Obi-Wan was wise to hide her from me. Now his failure is complete. If you will not turn to the dark side, then perhaps she will.”
At that, Luke flies into a Force-powered wrath: “Neverrr!”—and Mark Hamill’s performance marks one of the greatest moments in all of the Star Wars saga. Finally the two enemies’ sneaking and saberplay is over. Instead, Luke advances and screams and slashes at his father, over and over and over. At last Vader is down. Luke doesn’t let up. His lightsaber severs Vader’s cybernetic hand. Luke advances victorious, ready to end his personal enemy.
Seeing this, the galactic Emperor approaches and cackles at Luke. “Good! Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place at my side.”
But Luke is stilled. Without flashback or monologue, he merely gazes at his own right hand.
Viewers of the previous Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, know exactly what this gaze means. When Luke first fought Vader and learned of their connection, Vader saber-sliced his own son’s hand. Luke now realizes what the film’s official script confirms:
Luke looks at his father’s mechanical hand, then to his own mechanical, black-gloved hand, and realizes how much he is becoming like his father.
Luke refuses to embrace the power of the dark side. He throws away his Jedi weapon.
“Never!” Luke repeats. “I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
Star Wars fans and even casual viewers know what follows: the Emperor attacks Luke, and Vader, seeing his son’s purity in suffering, repents and kills the Emperor.
Culturally, we have the story of Luke and Vader to help us consider the allure and power of hate. In theory, we know to avoid the “dark side,” especially when we want to fight very real villains, or punish very real authoritarian abusers, or protect our family, or resolve a battle of good versus evil.
“A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force,” Yoda teaches Luke. “But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. … If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will.”
Beyond the Star Wars saga, popular culture’s most famous stories—including several recent movies—echo the same warning against the dark side:
To be a hero, don’t turn yourself into your own enemy. Don’t become the evil you despise.
Harry Potter casts a word-wounding spell, sectrumsempra, against his enemy Draco, then repents and later refuses to use dark magic against Lord Voldemort. More recently in this summer’s Wonder Woman, demigod warrior Diana is tempted to return evil for the evil of man’s world, but chooses to embrace heroism as defined by self-sacrifice for a world that doesn’t deserve her goodness. Last year’s Batman v Superman divided some fans, but meant to explore Batman’s journey into from vengeful vigilantism—and then back to his heroic redemption, inspired by Superman’s plea for the dark knight to save his mother. And in Captain America: Civil War, also in 2016, T’Challa (the Black Panther) watches hero turn against hero, blinded by vengeance and provoked by the plotting of villain Zemo, until finally T’Challa himself refuses to keep following the same anti-heroic path to the dark side.
These are only a few recent examples. Usually a fantastical hero’s embrace-the-dark-side moment happens before the final victory in the monomyth, or hero’s journey. At the point of greatest loss, the hero is challenged, by either the villain or a secondary character, to embrace the dark side as a means of achieving victory. He can reverse death itself. He can save his friends. He can put away these foolish hero notions and go back to his old life.
Sometimes the villain will give the “We Are Not So Different” villain speech, in which the furious defeated foe urges the hero to go ahead and kill him. But in a good story, the hero will always refuse, following the the “If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him” principle, in which a mentor character explicitly warns the hero against acting in hate or vengeance.
These aren’t perfect heroes. None of them are Christ-figures. It’s better to consider them Christ-figure-figures: two removals from Christ, one removal from ourselves. They are like us, flawed human beings. They remind us we ought to act like heroes, and therefore need to heed our own images of heroes, including their warnings to avoid becoming villains.
We are consuming these hero stories like never before, spending multi-millions on these films and franchises. But are we taking seriously these heroes’ warnings not to embrace the power of the dark side?
Deep down, some of us risk accepting a “better” hero story. We may secretly believe the dark side makes us stronger. We may secretly believe the only way to defeat very, very bad people is to adopt the same darkness they have adopted. Only then can we save the world.
In June, one kind of Islamic terrorist uses his car to kill people in London; weeks later, another kind of terrorist turns to the dark side and commits the same attack against Muslims. In the same month, James T. Hodgkinson shoots U.S. Rep Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana). According to the New York Times, he may have used his political beliefs as a language to express other angers. But in response to this violence, one state Democrat leader said he was glad Scalise had been hurt and nearly killed, because supposedly Scalise wants to hurt and kill people.
And, on a less-prominent scale, Christian apologist Dr. James White joins a two-part dialogue with Muslim scholar Dr. Yashir Qadhi. Together these men explore (neither debating nor ignoring) differences and similarities between Christians and Muslims. Months later, a host of professing Christian radio hosts and watchbloggers stumble across the dialogue. In their fear of real villains (terrorists), they turn to the dark side—slandering White as a promoter of “Chrislam” and a “useful idiot” duped by deceptive terrorists.
These headlines will age within weeks. But by then, we’ll have new accounts to remind us that most people won’t listen to our own heroes’ warnings against embracing the dark side.
In each case, the self-styled “hero” identifies a real and dangerous villain. Social progressivist leaders are right to condemn the fear of Muslims. Conservative Christians are also right to condemn militant Islamic terrorism. But in these cases, the “hero” decides his villain is so powerful, and so dangerous, that he must stop them by any possible means. And if he must embrace murder to stop murderers, or deception to stop deceivers, so be it.
Batman doesn’t have Batman stories to warn him against the dark side. But we do. And rather than seriously listen to their warnings, we risk becoming flippant. We assume that, unlike the heroes of our stories, we can control the dark side.
What are we to do about evil then? Is it really as simple as “don’t embrace the power of the dark side”? Avoid any semblance of deceit, vengeance, or hatred against enemies? Really and truly be holy, as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16), and “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21)?
Yes. That’s it exactly. There is no nuance, no disclaimer, no creative twist beyond that. Only a new repetition of an old and godly truth.
Of all people, biblical Christians have no excuse to embrace the dark side of “heroic” evil. The apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, warned against any sin that dishonors God, no matter how effective the sin seems against human evildoers. Paul explicitly condemns vengeance against our very real enemies, not because vengeance is evil, but because it’s God’s job:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17–21)
In the biblical world-imagination, this instruction is clear. Jesus wants His people, whom He saves from death to life, to follow Him. His new life is proactive, not reactive. And our chief end, the reason we live at all, is to glorify God. We don’t live to battle or defeat evil villains. Instead, Jesus promises an eternity where every sword has been beaten into a plowshare. Even Satan, God’s enemy, ends up an afterthought in the Bible’s narrative, barely granted an origin story.
At this, our sensibilities may revolt. It all seems too simple. And the stories of our heroes resisting the dark side have a tinge of sentimentality. Luke, Harry Potter, Diana, and Batman can afford the luxury of a happy ending. We know Darth Vader will repent and destroy the real enemy, and Lord Voldemort’s killing curse will rebound on himself, and Ares will be defeated by belief in love, and that Superman is actually good and would never really turn into an alien tyrant. Meanwhile, we live in reality. And if we don’t embrace the dark side to defeat our terrible president, or the terrible terrorists, or agenda-driven media, the magic “scriptwriter” won’t do that for us!
Except Christians believe our Scriptwriter will do that for us. Again, we have no excuse for acting as though the battle depends on us, as if the story’s Author will not intervene to resolve the story. In Romans, Paul does not specify that vengeance is intrinsically evil but that it is not our job. God states, “I will repay.” Christians believe that Jesus will literally return to avenge all evil. And when this ultimate Hero defeats His enemies, no one can accuse Him of “being exactly like them.” Instead, every tongue will be silenced before His perfect justice. This time, we’ll know for sure that the story’s Author is intervening to finally stop the evil.
Man’s stories agree. No good story argues that Luke, Harry, Diana, or Batman were doing wrong in trying to stop their villains. After all, the stories’ creators themselves intervene, as scriptwriters, to arrange the villain’s ultimate defeat through some other means. But these stories do argue that the hero’s motives matter. If we fight evil like our good heroes, motivated by honor, duty, love, and compassion as they are, we are closer to being heroes. But if we fight in vengeful anger—if we become like our enemies and embrace the dark side for the sake of “goodness”—what doth it profit a hero if we save the whole world but lose our souls?
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