Summary: Star Wars is an epic space-opera media-franchise, which launched in 1977 with a feature film. It quickly became a worldwide pop-culture phenomenon, enmeshing millions of fans in its all-encompassing fictional universe.
Why this is The BEST: It is difficult to say with a straight face that Star Wars is “the BEST that has been thought and said,” at least not in Matthew Arnold’s terms. But, precisely because it does not aspire to Arnold’s criteria, it reveals much about modern society. Those who seek the BEST may benefit from reflecting on this fictional universe and what it says about our real one.
For at least two generations, the Star Wars saga has served as a kind of secularized American religion. Throughout the series, the Force is a stand-in for a divine power that draws on a number of mystical traditions, representing the balance of good and evil, the promise of an ultimate unity, and the notion that those learned in its ways can tap into the infinite.
Classical religious themes pervade the Star Wars universe, which features an intergenerational narrative of temptation, sin, and redemption that recalls several biblical story lines. The prequel trilogy tells the story of Anakin Skywalker’s virgin birth, the prophecy of the “chosen one,” Anakin’s fall to the dark side, and his eventual resurrection (though it is as evil incarnate in the form of Darth Vader).
Star Wars also weighs in on more contemporary religious questions, especially the tension between the material and scientific world and the spiritual domain. In an early scene in A New Hope, Darth Vader dismisses the Death Star as “insignificant next to the power of the Force.” When mocked by one of the generals who notes how Vader’s “ancient religion” has failed to locate the rebel base, Vader deems his “lack of faith disturbing” and underscores the point by using the Force to choke the doubting officer into submission. At another point in the movie, Han Solo tells Luke that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side.” But the rest of the series affirms the message that the significant battles are the mystical, intimate fights between the Sith and the Jedi who engage each other with medieval-ish weaponry, not the Empire’s planet-sized technological marvels. In Star Wars, those who control the Force are always more powerful than those who command the guns.
Still, the question of how one accesses the Force shifts over the franchises’ forty-year arc. The original trilogy emphasizes the role of the Jedi masters who saw themselves as inheritors of ancient traditions and were conscious of their own continuity. Training is a process of patient tutelage. The ways of the Force are shrouded by mystery and secrecy to be quietly transmitted from master to student in remote locales. The prequel trilogy, by contrast, presents a far more institutionalized paradigm. Jedi are reared in schools that sit amidst elaborate temples. Membership entails committing to a monastic life amongst a community of practitioners overseen by a high counsel.
The nature of the Jedi religion is at the center of the latest trilogy. The eighth film of the series is largely dedicated to the breakdown of the master/student relationship and the failures of institutionalized religion. Study and apprenticeship are no longer needed, as the Force can be accessed as a free-flowing spirituality. Perhaps the most dramatic act of sacrilege, is when the Jedi high priests burn the last physical remnants of their ancient lore. Notably, this irreverence generated considerable public outcry. The ninth and final film, reversed course offering redemption not only to wayward students, but for the Jedi order itself. The ultimate showdown emphasizes how generations of Jedi (good) and Sith (evil) practitioners live through the singular characters on screen, while the final scene closes with an honorable burial of Jedi relics.
The gyrations of the Star Wars theology show that even a fictional secular religion will likely reflect the spiritual anxieties of its age. For the religious viewer and thinker, Star Wars becomes a lens through which to appreciate the eternal human need for religion, even—or especially—as it is transformed into a commodified and secularized American ritual.
Chaim Saiman is a professor of Law and Chair in Jewish Law at Villanova University.
Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.
[Published on November 19, 2020]