This article, written by Roberto Rivera for a Christian audience apparently before the premiere of The Phantom Menace, explains that the Church needs to understand that secular world needs the big stories told by Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings.
“I heard about people who were really worried they might die, they were taking precautions so they wouldn’t get run over by a truck before Episode I came out. It’s this huge motivating factor to stay alive.” —Star Wars fan Eric Cline, quoted in New Times Los Angeles.
We live in a secular world, and people take their reason for living where they can find it. That’s why Star Wars is more than a film, and why people lined up weeks early for the May 19, 1999 premier of The Phantom Menace. Despite George Lucas’s best intentions — he said, “I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience” — Star Wars inspires religious devotion. It gives Cline and others like him a reason to go on when their lives don’t otherwise seem worth living.
If this seems odd to you, there are emotional, cultural, and spiritual reasons that lie behind the reason why people are dodging trucks and refusing to handle sharp objects before seeing The Phantom Menace. But before you can understand people like Cline, you’ve got to understand our hunger for big, sweeping stories like Star Wars. Simply put, Star Wars is the closest thing many young Americans have to a myth.
Myths are stories that help us make sense of our lives and the world around us. The ancient Greeks derived their understanding of virtue and vice from the characters in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Whether Achilles or Odysseus ever existed was secondary. What mattered was what they did and whether the readers’ actions conformed to their standards.
The great biblical faiths, Judaism and Christianity, also employed stories, albeit with the added twist that their stories were grounded in history. What Jews and Christians know about God—His love, His justice, His compassion—comes primarily from narratives contained in the Bible.
These narratives do more than tell us about God—they tell us about ourselves and how we should live. In his book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, the late Hans Frei, once a professor of theology at Yale, wrote that the world described in those stories was the real one, and that “it was [the reader’s] duty to fit himself in that world . . . He was to see his disposition, his actions and passions, the shape of his own life as well as that of his era’s events as figures of that storied world . . .” In other words, our lives made sense only in the context of these stories.
This use of narrative as the primary vehicle for transmitting values and beliefs lasted until a few hundred years ago. Then came the rise of modern science. Scientists taught us that the only way you could “know” anything was through direct observation. Narrative and stories were pushed aside in favor of a more “scientific” way of explaining the world around us. Even the Church went along with this change. More and more, belief was a matter of subscribing to certain propositions about God, rather than seeing our lives in the context of the great, unfolding drama of salvation history.
But that didn’t change the fact that people need stories. So, every once in a while, you’d see a story capture the imagination of millions in a way no one had foreseen. In the 1960s, it was The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. You couldn’t go anywhere near an American college campus in the 1960s without seeing bumper stickers proclaiming “Frodo Lives!” or “Visit Middle Earth.”
A decade later, it was Star Wars‘ turn. And the story it told was a big one, filled with the themes that keep popping up throughout history: good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, the eternal struggle between fathers and sons, and, ultimately, the story of one man’s redemption. Lucas, like Tolkien, created his own myth. And like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars was a complete world. It had its own history, values, and belief system: Tolkien had the prophecies about the nine rings; Lucas had “The Force.” Both were stories people could immerse themselves in—to the point of wanting the story to go on after the last page had been turned.
This leads me to the lesson I hope churches take from the Star Wars mania. If you want to engage people where they really live, you’ve got to reach for more than their heads—or their hearts. You’ve got to engage their imaginations. If you want to teach moral lessons, there’s no substitute for a good story. Daniel Taylor, who wrote The Healing Power of Stories, understands this truth. “When I am tempted, as I always am, to put my personal advantage ahead of the common good—in my home or in society — I am little moved by abstract ethical injunctions, and actively encouraged to ‘me-firstism’ by psychological-sounding appeals to my needs and rights. But I can sometimes be nudged toward something resembling concern for others by remembering a story from long ago about wizards and hobbits.”
Now, if this is true of The Lord of the Rings, imagine how much more true it is of the greatest cosmic adventure of all—God’s dealing with humanity, which led to the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ. This story built a civilization and inspired countless people to rise above petty selfishness. Yet churches have neglected the telling of this story for arid propositions that leave us cold and bored.
Yet it is more than the Church’s fault. Our culture has deemed the Christian story irrelevant. But, just as people need stories, they need something to believe in. And, once you’ve decided that “something” isn’t to be found in organized religion, specifically Christianity, then you’ll take your experience where you can get it; and for many people, that’s at the movies. The problem is that, after you’ve lined up, seen the film, and memorized the dialog, what have you got to show for it? And, heaven forbid, what if The Phantom Menace disappoints? What’s your fallback position? After all, it’s only a movie.
It remains to be seen whether Star Wars will ever inspire the kind of testimonial Taylor gave Lord of the Rings — much less the kind of endorsement countless people can give to the power of the Christian story. Still, you won’t hear me calling Cline or any of the folks who lined up for the May 19 premier names. I’m in no position to begrudge anyone the narratives we all need. In fact, come to think of it, it’s time for me to join them in line.