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.
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The first time I watched Star Wars—that is, Episode IV: A New Hope—I got in big trouble.
Actually, I only saw half the film with my brother. He got in half the trouble. After all, he was first to confess that we had found the VHS copy of A New Hope in the closet and watched it without permission. It was one of the Mystery Videos inherited from a late grandparent—not official releases but TDK tapes recorded from network TV. We watched it only from Death Star infiltration to the end credits, and it bugged my brother’s conscience first.
I don’t even recall our ages then. I do recall that was a long and difficult two solid weeks with “no electronics,” that is, TV or Computer Time.
But I also recall that feeling of seeing not just something forbidden, but something new and amazing. I had never seen a motion picture like it. (Perhaps you haven’t either. After all, this version was years before the first Special Edition of Star Wars.) Action! Grown-ups, stylized realism, comical robots, bantering humans, chases, effects, spaceships! And Darth Vader, right there onscreen, after all we had heard about him. Wow!When I see Star Wars or any other film, really, this is my primary goal. I don’t want first to engage culture, join a fandom, or receive education or moral education. Instead, I want to delight.
Naturally the “cover-up” made me spend the next several years curious about Star Wars, prequels and all. But I did not actually see the complete film or the full original trilogy until 2008. My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) insisted on my education.
Why hadn’t I seen the films sooner? Perhaps I did not sense the need. After all, thanks to DVDs playing in stores, friends’ discussions, spoofs, and quotes floating in the air of popular culture, I knew all about the Rebels, “Help me, Obi-Wan,” power converters, Han Solo, the Death Star, and letting go and using The Force. Few surprises were left.
Of course seeing all the Star Wars films put everything together and filled in some gaps. I did enjoy my introduction, but felt something missing. I had not grown up with this story, so I felt little personal thrill about it. It wasn’t my fandom, not like The Chronicles of Narnia or even The Lord of the Rings, which I had read later in life (just in time for the films). For me, I had long since missed the chance to become a hardcore Star Wars fan.
Fortunately, I’m usually able to indoctrinate myself into liking things, even franchises that most people generally agree are full of flaws. (Such as The Hobbit film trilogy.) Thus, when my wife and I re-viewed the original Star Wars trilogy on Blu-ray in 2013, I enjoyed the stories even more. Then we viewed the films again as part of a story group in our local church. Most of these folks had grown up with Star Wars and their combined enthusiasm was contagious. Finally—oh, joy!—I could lose myself. The stories’ magic had sneaked up and enchanted me. I finally became not just a Star Wars “appreciator” but a fandom convert. This time, I can even join the rest of the fandom getting hyped for Episode VII.
At the same time, I retain an outsider’s perspective on Star Wars. I can’t help but see and analyze the film differently than fans who have seen the story more than three times.
First, Star Wars is deceptively simple. It’s accessible to the casual fan like myself.
I have seen the prequel films (once) and care little about them; but I have not seen any cartoons, played games, or read any Star Wars Expanded Universe (now Star Wars Legends) novels except The Truce at Bakura by Kathy Tyers. Perhaps I want to clear out all that extra cargo. To me, the first film remains a simple, efficient, well-made space-opera adventure with likeable heroes. (Yes, those include even Luke Skywalker.) In fact, I wish “real” Star Wars fans would quit whining about Luke being whiny. Perhaps we would like to pretend that in this story-world we would be more like Han Solo or Leia Organa, but Luke allows the audience to enter this new world and discover everything from a natural perspective. Han may be the person we wish we were. But Luke is more like who we are.
Second, Star Wars doesn’t take itself at all seriously. Oh, its story-craft is very serious, and especially in retrospect one can see the seeds being planted for growth in later films. But I feel a little jealous of first-generation fans who could enjoy the series’ natural evolution from fun adventure story to full-fledged fantasy mythos. That first generation enjoyed a Star Wars apart from the gravitational pull of franchise history—a Star Wars apart from prequel expectations, the Disney corporate buyout, and spinoffs netting billions in revenue.
To first-generation fans, Star Wars was only one movie, and then a few more, and the first movie behaves just like a fun one-off movie should. The story includes silly action-hero quotes, ta-da moments, and even modern, galaxy-very-close-to-home-sounding dialogue such as “that wizard is just a crazy old man” and a couple of non-religious uses of “damn.”
Third, Star Wars is explicitly religious. I first learned of the “Star Wars is pagan” rumors in a quirky little book called Turmoil in the Toy Box, which I had read as a child (apart from my parents’ involvement) in a sincere effort to become a more discerning ’80s parent. When I saw the Star Wars films, I found those rumors were mostly true. (Mark Hamill once described The Force as “religion’s greatest hits.”) Of course, the first film grants The Force or Jedi-ism little exposition time beyond Obi-Wan’s quick description:
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
But that’s enough to get the “greatest hits” album started and Luke converted, and to establish the kind of story-world we’re in—a story-world influenced by a vaguely Eastern concept, or what evangelicals used to call “New Age” before all that got old and boring.
I’m not surprised that The Force as part of the Star Wars mythos has proved so timeless. For Star Wars, the Eastern notion gets an appropriated makeover for the West. Here we like our “gods” small and invisible, requiring (at first) little personal sacrifice except listening to our feelings and being there when we need them, but otherwise not messing with us. As one Christian author remarked about The Force after seeing Star Wars:
“When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?”
Actually that was written by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity in 1940s. Here, my own “home” fandom wins out—in a contest between a “tame God” (but one that feels a bit wilder in the Episode VII trailers), like The Force, vs. a not-tame Lion, like Lewis’s Aslan, the latter wins.
And yet the later films confirm that The Force, like other non-Western ideas, is ultimately made to serve the Christ-reflecting concept of the monomyth—the “hero’s journey” as described by Joseph Campbell, about a hero who wants something, fights for it, experiences a death, then ultimately leads the victory of good over evil. In Eastern religions, “light” and “dark” sides of the universe exist forever in balance, and the Star Wars prequels also feign to talk about “balance.” However, the story of Star Wars and its sequels implicitly rejects all of that. The “light side” of the Force is better and must defeat the “dark side” of The Force.
Even in the first film, Darth Vader is a human being. He is not just an symbol or the dark half of the yin/yang. Later we learn he is a fallen person who gave in to evil desires. Luke is also a human being, not a symbol or light half of the yin/yang, and Luke also has the capacity to fall into “the dark side”—which is bad, not merely balance. The Force may be a blind force. But the writers of this story are not. And thus the writers could not help but make this pagan notion serve the truth of Christlike heroism and victory.
Furthermore, as the fan folderol over the “midi-chlorians” materialistic explanation for The Force reveals, even The Force-style pagan magic is an improvement over Western-style veneration of scientism. Paganism won’t save souls, but it is closer to Christianity than atheism, for at least paganism recognizes supernatural realities.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that a generation later, the marketing for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, from the title on down, emphasizes the wonder and magic of The Force. “There has been an awakening,” Andy Serkis’s voice growls in the darkness. “Have you felt it?” Oh yes, we do, and these aren’t the “midi-chlorian” notions we aren’t looking for. We want to be awakened to unexplained thrills about stories of magic, legends, true yet flawed human heroes, epic battles between good versus evil, and simple childlike nostalgia.
Today, I can think and write about this in the first person. We’re at the very edge of Episode VII’s release, and I can feel that thrill, waiting for “awakening” along with true fans. At last I’m on their side, the side of not knowing what comes next in this fantasy-world-of-worlds.
I am also glad to see that Episode VII director J. J. Abrams has clearly stated he wants to keep this film simple, and above all to make a story that delights—just like first-generation fans felt about the first movie. Speaking of himself and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams told Wired, “The movie needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets us excited.”
When I see Star Wars or any other film, really, this is my primary goal. I don’t want first to engage culture, join a fandom, or receive education or moral education. Instead, I want to delight. In so doing I want to join other fans in a practice very much like worship. And with other followers of Christ, this becomes a practice identical to worship, because we can honor our creative God who gave these storytellers their creative gifts. Sure, I’ll analyze the film’s religious moments. I will find “touchpoints.” Maybe I will even nitpick, as much as a newbie fan can do. But I count it a privilege to mature as a fan, get past old fears and restrictions, and enjoy exploring stories like Star Wars that reflect God’s creativity and humanity’s story.
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