The Star Wars Hexology is viewed by many as a simple story about Good v.s. Evil where the notions of ‘Dark’ and ‘Light’ are considered to overlap completely with ‘Light = Good’ and ‘Dark = Evil’. However as we have seen already in our discussion of what the Star Wars narrative is in class #2 things are much more subtle than that. Surprisingly, just 24 hours before this class Religion and Star Wars were entangled in yet another way in the UK News.
Star Wars & Religion today
Just as I was preparing this class a discussion arose in the UK regarding the attempt of the Church of England (CoE) to place an advertisement for prayer in cinemas showing The Force Awakens. That attempt was declined by various cinema chains which led to a variety of opinions as to why this add was ‘banned‘ though only few wondered why it had been intended to be placed in front of The Force Awakens. The ‘Bible Society’ asserted that
“The Star Wars film, which the adverts precede, asks whether technology is the greatest power in the Universe controlling human destiny or the ‘force’ – a spiritual gift harnessed by the Jedi.”
So was the spiritual dimension of Star Wars a key reason for this placement? Or was it the expectation of a massive crowd-pleaser as a church statement seemed to suggest
“The prospect of a multi-generational cultural event offered by the release of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ on 18th December – a week before Christmas Day – was too good an opportunity to miss and we are bewildered by the decision of the cinemas.”
No doubt however the CoE also noticed the spirituality embedded in the Star Wars movie and plenty of the commentaries about this happily mingled Star Wars terminology regarding The Force with the Christian terminology of the Lord’s Prayer.
In our current-day world the Star Wars stories are unique in their celebration of a spiritual and religious element. Not just as a sidelined story element or something that functions in the background of the story. Star Wars is much more overtly spiritual and religious than, for example, The Lord of The Rings. Just re-watch the trailer from this point of view
The trailer for The Force Awakens clearly appeals to a spiritual interpretation of the dialogue presented. It is about identity, but at the same time it is not just about identity! It is also about ‘letting in’ the Force.
This spiritual or religious dimension is not just a key element of the attraction that Star Wars has on people, it was also a key element in the mind of the originator of these stories. Lucas was fairly open about that on various occasions.
Star Wars as a Religious/Spiritual narrative
Of course there are other stories and films in which religion and spirituality play a role. Take for example Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, or Angels & Demons. But here, and in many similar kinds of stories the religious element provides a backdrop against which the motives of one side, or the other, for their actions become interpretable. Films which actively try to provide an interpretation of religion or religious ‘truths’ are much rarer. Films like Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ come to mind or Mel Gibson’s torture-fest ‘The Passion of the Christ’ come to mind or even Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’. Frequently such depictions arouse starkly contrasting responses from spiritual and religious people as well as from organised religions. The depiction of characters from religious and spiritual narratives is not without its problems and quite regularly even outright taboo.
Fantasy films have the option of avoiding the clash with the organised religions existing in our world, however hardly any fantasy films go through the trouble of actually really developing it as a genuine aspect that gets screen time. Both in the text as well as in the Peter Jackson films based upon Lord of the Rings is the religious and spiritual connection kept barely visible. For those who know what to look for, Aragorn’s development into Elessar as True King has many Christological aspects, including his capacity to raise Eowin from the dead with the words
“Éowyn Éomund’s daughter, awake! For your enemy has passed away!”
However neither in Aragorn’s narrative nor in Frodo’s is their interaction with the Divine ever brought to the forefront other than their struggle against the omnipresence of Sauron.
This is different in Star Wars. Very much from the chronological start of the Hexalogy with Episode IV are almost all characters, and definitely all character classes, tempted to make their relation to the Divine explicit. Whether it are the Imperial Officers whose ‘disturbing lack of faith’ is noted by Darth Vader, or the sceptic Han Solo, or the ‘believers’ like Darth Vader or Obi Wan almost everyone at some point must clarify their stance with respect to The Force. It is also interesting that both Han as well as the Officers are not convinced by the demonstration of Force powers, by the ‘miracle’ performed by the present Force-user. Even scenes in Star Wars that seem mere exposition to push the plot forward still contain elements of spiritual narrative.
Many religious texts do not so much aim at communication dogmatic truths about the world, rather they aim at depicting how people in the world live and view their lives in a framework that contains such a divine element. In these stories religion & spirituality are not simply backdrop elements that serve to explain the behaviour of certain characters. No it is pretty much the other way around: the actions and emotions of the characters are narrated in order to express something about the invisible divine that is there even though it never shows itself. This is the exact opposite of the ‘Deus ex Machina’ that visibly comes down from ‘heaven’ to right the wrongs in a story.
George Lucas indeed wanted to tell a spiritual/religious narrative! In fact as little as a few days ago he said that his only worry regarding the fact that Star Wars is now in different hands is that he hopes
“The Force doesn’t get muddled into a bunch of gobbledygook”
In our very first class we talked about the reception of Star Wars by fans as well as by the media. One thing we spotted was the frequent emotional response of fans. Well … here you have part of the explanation not just for the positive emotional reception of these films but also for the vitriolic rejection of parts of the Hexalogy by others, as well as for the outright dismissal of any deeper layers in a ‘popcorn movie’ like Star Wars by many of the critics. Star Wars is at it’s core a story about an invisible divine that reveals itself in how the people that populate the Galaxy interact with it and with each other. To my limited knowledge Star Wars is the only modern day mythology that directly addresses this dimension.
What does Star Wars tell us about The Force?
Now let us look at Star Wars as if indeed it is a religious/spiritual narrative! What does it say about the key divine element in the story, The Force, and about the people that adhere to it? It is always good to start with the people-element!
Jedi: A Life worth Living
What are we to do in life? Should we follow our desires, should we heed the directions others want to steer us in? Or should we dedicate ourselves to some higher purpose? And how do we recognise which is what? Is it a higher purpose what some of these websites are telling you about that you should sacrifice your life for? Or is that just a vain desire for glory, even when it lasts just seconds? Questions upon questions! But all questions that we all ask ourselves at some point in our lives. These are questions to which the answers always seem tentative and provisional.
Spirituality often tries to inform the spiritual person’s choices of answers while organised religion often not only tries to provide the same answers for all but also seeks to provide rituals and other behavioural tools that make the answers all the more ‘practical’. Almost all promise some kind of a reward for following the ‘right path’, be it salvation/redemption from previous mistakes, eternal life, or an after-life. Yet possibly even more important for most people engaged in religious or spiritual practices: it provides them with a notion of ‘a life worth living’. Following the Force as a path to being truly alive! That is very much what the different elements of the Star Wars Saga are trying to transfer to the viewer.
A crucial moment in many Star Wars stories is whether or not a character can be trained to become a Jedi. Many will view this as a moment where a choice is made regarding whether or not someone can be suitable to be admitted to a particular club, or Order. But actually this signifies something larger: the question whether someone is ready to be taught how t live a life worth living, whether someone is ready to receive that knowledge. The idea is not that this knowledge should be kept away from people, but the story wants to emphasize the character will be going through a transition, a liminal phase, that will make clear what it means to live a life worth living.
When this moment comes for Luke, in Episode V, Yoda makes a crucial point as to what could signal Luke’s unfitness for this: his inability to focus on ‘where he is’ and ‘what he is doing’. His lack of focus on the ‘present’.
In this way Yoda identifies the focus on the here and now, and on what you are doing, as a crucial ingredient of a life worth living. Interacting with the Force is not about staring at the horizon, or the future, it is about breaking through the paralysis induced by the fixation on the distance at the expense of the here.
A key question Yoda asks is ‘why should you become a Jedi’ and Luke reveals little intrinsic motivation and more of an external drive … something about his father … something about which he knows nothing true. Ezra is facing a similar question in the first season of Star Wars Rebels. And Ezra comes up with a similarly botched up reply. Ezra’s paralysis is not so much being chained to the future and the distance, but with the pre-occupation with individual survival that restricts his access to truly feeling alive.
What I particularly like about this sequence is that it coincides with Ezra receiving his Kyber crystal. This highly individual element of a Jedi’s lightsabre is awarded to him at the moment where he defines for himself what it means to truly feel alive. In a way Ezra’s answer is the crystal that opens up the path for him to becoming a Jedi, to experiencing that life. Yoda emphasizes that it is Ezra’s personal choice, not his Master’s. Ezra needs to formulate the way forward, then there will be a way forward. This answer also has the immediacy of place and time. You start where you are now, doing what you are doing now.
Finally when Yoda speaks to Kanan in the same episode of Rebels these same elements return. As Kanan is puzzled about Yoda’s presence, Yoda simply explains that by saying ‘I am here, because you are here’.
Luke, Ezra & Kanan are taught that ultimately the definition of what it means to be truly alive must come from them individually. So the problem they face is finding a way to decide how to value the different elements that you could include in such a life.
Who says so?
In identifying a ‘life worth living’ it becomes a question ‘who’ or ‘what’ is entitled to make that valuation. Is it up to you, me or anyone of us? Or is it something outside of us as individuals like wider society, a selected group of people, a ‘principle’ or a deity or entity beyond us?
Now economists are very accustomed to questions regarding valuation. But with the valuation of life there is a problem, especially when we talk about humans. When we are asked to make choices regarding what we do with our lives we could surely (possibly not wisely) set up an argumentation along the lines of ‘opportunity cost’ and ‘utility’. However the question ‘whose utility’ we seek is then just as much a matter of debate as without this terminology. Equally important is the fact that in the matter of our birth and death, they are not so much subject to our choice in the first place.
Monotheistic religions tend to place the authority to judge a life squarely on the deity and the responsibility to live a life worth living squarely on the individual. ‘Atheistic’ denominations tend to invoke ‘a principle’ (do to others what you would like others to do to you) or something resembling a ‘law of nature’ (‘you are reborn until you finally get it’) or, for example, make you your own judge (sometimes without realizing that this recreates exactly the dilemma some try to evade). Star Wars introduces in its Galaxy far far away the notion of ‘The Force’.
In Episode V we get our first actual ‘lesson’ on what the force is. Where in Episode IV Obi Wan mumbles something about an energy field, Yoda is much more direct in Episode V indicating that the Force even acts between ‘the land and the ship’. Yoda’s famous ‘do, or do not’ is another instance where he highlights the immediacy of where you are and what you are doing. Luke has no control over whether he will succeed to lift the X-wing from the swamp, all he really controls is whether he will do what needs to be done. But Luke is pre-occupied with the result of his actions and this pre-occupations paralysis his ability to act.
The success or failure of ones actions lie in the future, not in the now. The actions themselves however are part of the now. Luke’s failure up to this point is that he cherishes the outcomes in the future over the actions in the now. His uncertainty over what he cannot control (the future) lead to his failure in the present (not doing what needs to be done). This is a red thread through Yoda’s Episode V teaching of Luke.
This notion of fear for the future and failure to react to the present returns in Qui Gon’s teaching of Anakin in Episode I. The scene opening conversation with Obi Wan illustrates how the Jedi Council itself fails to understand this. The Council cannot decide what to do with Skywalker because they are afraid of the outcome they do not control. They sense danger while Qui Gon focusses on the here and now by stating ‘the boy’s future is uncertain’. After that he immediately turn to Anakin and summarizes that point in a beautiful oneliner: your focus determines your reality.
What follows is probably the most contested and vilified dialogue in the Prequel Trilogy. Qui Gon’s exposition of the Midichlorians about which I wrote elsewhere. But in the context here there is something we need to highlight, because it is crucial to the way Qui Gon understands the Force. When Yoda says, in Episode V, ‘Life creates it’ then due to Yoda’s distinctive garbling of syntax by tossing around subject and object the sentence becomes highly ambiguous. It could mean that Life is created by the Force, but also that The Force is an expression of Life. Qui Gon’s Midichlorian story further cements this close affiliation of the Force with the basic building stones of life. Not because Midichlorians are the essence of the Force, but because the Force operates even on that very fundamental level. Our access to the Force happens via the most primitive, yet most crucial building blocks of life: the mitochondria … erhm sorry … the Midichlorians.
The dualities of the Force
The Force is an ‘impersonal’ entity to which the story nevertheless ascribes ‘ a will’. The Star Wars saga does not tell a great deal more about what The Force is, but it does narrate the stories of how people interact with it. In that way it closely follows the traditions in many mythological and religious texts.
Star Wars likes assigning meaningful names to characters, so it is not coincidental that the first Jedi in the film series to ever mention ‘the living Force’ was called Qui Gon Jinn. With the word ‘Jinn’ taken from the Arab word for ‘Spirit’ and ‘Qui Gon’ from the Chinese for ‘Life force’ it is not hard to see this is a signalling name for the ‘spirit of the living force’. Similarly the name for Yoda has roots in several languages with meanings ranging from ‘One who knows’ (in Hebrew) to ‘soldier’ (in Pali) or a reference to the ‘smallest’ letter of the greek alphabet.
The concept of ‘The Force’ as consisting of actually two concepts of The Force, the Living Force and the Cosmic Force was explored further mainly in the The Clone Wars series. The concept of ‘The Force’ as consisting of actually two concepts of The Force, the Living Force and the Cosmic Force was explored further mainly in the The Clone Wars series. But there are further relevant dualities in the discussion of The Force in Star Wars. There is the Dark-Light duality and, as we have just seen, the duality between the ‘now and here’ and the future, between the ‘what you can do’ and ‘what you hope to achieve’. Much of the explorations in Star Wars of these dualities focus on two deeply connected aspects: (1) The fate of the Jedi and (2) the meaning of Balance.
What is Balance?
Balance is an important spiritual theme is Star Wars and fans have been argueing over the way in which ‘Anakin brings balance’ ever since the prophecy regarding Anakin was first mentioned in Episode I. Where After the OT’s finale in Episode VI one could ignore and notion of ‘balance’ and view all of the Original Trilogy as simply telling the tale of the ‘redemption of Darth vader’ the Prequel Trilogy changed this as it connected the redemptive story to the much farther reaching notion of bringing balance to the Force.
Nowhere in the Star Wars films is it stated that this is a balance between Dark & Light. Unfortunately some fans have interpreted it literally that way, even down to the silly point that the fact that after Episode III we only have 2 Sith and 2 Jedi left … hence Anakin has brought balance. This is unfortunate because of its appealing simplicity that, in terms of its symbolic meaning, directly conflicts with how the notion of balance is used throughout the trilogies.
There are many scenes in which the point is made that the ‘balance’ between dark & light is just as much an internal struggle as an external one. In Yoda’s training of Luke the cave scene represents such a moment where the Force reveals to Luke that his struggle for balance is an internal one. Yoda and Obi Wan remain focussed on the external one that involves Luke facing Vader, but the cave tells a different story. Of course thanks to The Clone Wars series we know that Yoda himself has faced exactly such an internal struggle.
‘And yet you spend your days in the decadence of war!’ is a sentence which must have hit Yoda like a hammer blow. It is one of the absolute gems of the series. What it reveals however with surgical yet painful precision is the degree to which Yoda himself has lost all sense of balance. Yoda’s acceptance of that is only the beginning of the transformation that will change this ‘little soldier who knows’ who is a great warrior in the Prequels into the character who in Episode V will say ‘Wars do not make one great!’. Yoda is seen as almost infallible within the Order up until that moment. Yet as Yoda commences his struggle with his own dark side it is smacked in his face that he is seriously flawed and has no other choice but to accept that.
Bringing balance is not a single act of heroism or sacrifice, it is a painful process, it is also a deeply internal struggle. This is very much how in our real world terminology like ‘crusade’ or ‘jihad’ are applied to both internal as well as external struggle. This duality between the internal fight for balance and the external one goes far beyond Anakin’s individual struggle. The whole Jedi Order is involved with itself in this fight.
A very metaphorical description of ‘balance’ that emphasized that there is an ‘internal v.s. external’ issue was given in the The Clone Wars season 3, in the ‘Mortis Arc’, here is a clip.
There is a very subtle play going on here with Anakin not doing what is asked of him, him displaying the precise weaknesses that will lead to his downfall in Episode III but also to his redemption in Episode VI. He is asked to let go of his guilt in choosing to save one over the other of two people he cares about. He refuses to let go, of the two people but also of the guilt. Obi Wan suggests him to save the Padawan, the light side impulse securing the Order’s future. The Padawan tells him not to trust the situation, the Darkside impuls to rely on ones emotions. The only way for Anakin to avoid the choice that would make him guilty is by exerting raw power and forcing the Light and the Dark into submission. This is not an easy answer to the question: What is balance. This is a depiction of the struggle it is because there is no easy answer. A depiction of that the concern is not regarding the outcome in some undetermined future, but regarding what you can do now and here.
At the end of the fifth season of the Clone Wars it tells a chilling story where Jedi turn upon Jedi. The distinction between Dark & Light is not merely a distinction between Jedi or Sith. The imbalance in the world of the Galaxy far far away is illustrated in scenes in the films and the animation series where ‘liars tell the truth’, ‘traitors reveal reality’ and those who want to end death, end up as murderers.
A Creed or a Code: Jedi & Sith
Many religions and spiritual movements have some form of ‘teaching’ of principles, ideas and dogma’s that are often condensed into a particularly short from useful in praying, meditating or in teaching. In many traditions such a ‘creed’ or ‘credo’ is something the faithful should be able to recite at least once in order to be counted among the believers. In some traditions the credo takes the form of a behavioural code that should be adhered to. Different traditions put different emphasis on creeds that may differ from one other or codes that may similarly vary among communities. In history such differences have often been put forward as grounds for severe and oftentimes vicious conflict. In the Star Wars galaxy it is no different.
The Jedi & Sith Codes are never actually recited as such in any of the Star Wars movies. They are part of the wider Star Wars lore but they do quite succinctly summarise the key differences between the two key religious Orders in the Star Wars galaxy: The Jedi and the Sith. These orders do not differ in their appreciation of the nature of the Divine, they only differ in the side of the Divine that they emphasize.
Termed the ‘dark side’ are the strong emotions of hate, love and vengeance. The Dark Side is very attached to this world and seeks control over it. But the goal of control is not control, i.e. power is not a goal in itself. Ultimately power is the means to achieve Freedom. Notice how here to you can make a distinction between externally applying this Code and internally. Most of the time when Sith in the Star Wars movie talk about ‘using the darkside’ is in situations where the passions make them internally stronger. The ‘power’ they refer to is hardly ever ‘martial’ power but most of the time the power that results from self-control and the ability to manipulate others by things you do and say. Even the notion of victory can be given that ‘internal’ meaning as well as why it leads to freedom. This is not so much the freedom to be ‘able to do whatever you like’ but the freedom to ‘have whichever effect on your environment you like’. You might say the difference between ‘taking what you want’ and ‘making others want to give you what you want’. In his ascension to power Palpatine never actually ‘seizes power’ rather he manipulates people into giving him more power. Only at the end does he use Order 66 to grab power. To make the Jedi destroy themselves remained out of his reach. Ironically, what remained of the Jedi was directly at his side in Darth Vader. Something even Tarkin admitted as early as Episode IV.
Termed the ‘light side’ are the notions of refraining from attachment, negating expectations and acceptance of what destiny throws at you. It is about confidence and trust as much as it is about creating serenity and maintaining peace. So the lightside of the spectrum also battles with that same internal v.s. external dilemma. Whereas the light side strives, in a way, for becoming one with the Force, the dark side strives to, in a sense, be acted through by the Force. Both sides break chains, be it the chains of ‘slavery & oppression and restriction’ (dark side) or the chains of attachments & passions (light side). Both sides agree that when your life is in resonance with The Force, you live a life worth living.
The Jedi are not the light side of the Force and neither are the Sith the dark side. The Force has this duality, just as it has a ‘living force v.s. cosmic force’ duality. The Sith and the Jedi approach the Force from different points of view, one emphasizing the Light side more, the other emphasizing the Dark side. When you think of what the notion of Balance is supposed to mean in the Star Wars galaxy I think you should think in terms of these fundamental dualities, which includes the duality between ‘internal and outside’ struggle. If you wonder in which way Anakin Skywalker brings ‘balance’ then I suggest this is the direction to look in.
The religions and spiritual movements we see in the world around us all, in my view. Struggle with exactly these same dualities in the way humans celebrate and undergo their spiritual and religious emotions. It is not uncommon, like with the Jedi and the Sith, to see how sides on both sides of an argument lose the notion of balance. How sometimes ‘balance’ is even sold as something that is anything but balance. In the real world there is no easy answer … ‘thank the Maker’ that neither is there in the Star Wars galaxy.
2 thoughts on “UCL’s Star Wars Class #7: Religion, Dark & Light, Jedi & Sith”
I sincerely hope that George Lucas is aware of the conversations generated by Clone Corridor. Here he will find the lessons were learned. I think he will find reasons to rejoice. After all.