Updated: Feb 24, 2020
I often make references to both serious literature and popular culture in my sermons, mostly to novels, poetry, music and films, more rarely to television, and I do this in order to show that the truth of the Gospel, the message of God’s covenantal love to Israel and incarnate presence in Christ, illuminates the world in which we live, the stories we read or watch, and the music we listen to. But also, in such human artistic and cultural artefacts, even in popular ones, we can see fragments and reflections, sometimes faded and distorted, of divine truth, as well as harmful messages that need correction. In other words, the Christian message and human culture are not set against each other in positions of conflict, good versus evil, light versus darkness, but are rather in continuous conversation and dialogue, and each have something to contribute to a full understanding of the truth.
In some recent sermons I’ve thus talked about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, based on superhero comic books, but at breakfast a couple of weeks ago I discovered for the first time that Sister Elizabeth is in fact a Star Wars fan. I don’t know how I missed that crucial information up until now, but the discovery was a happy one given that the ninth and final episode in the epic movie series that began way back in 1977 has finally been released: The Rise of Skywalker. And I myself finally went to see it down in Chattanooga last week. Since I was seven years old when the first Star Wars film came out, and since I remember it vividly, this story and cultural phenomenon emerging from the fertile imagination of George Lucas has been with me for 42 years.
Now, I am not going to get into any of the plot or character details of any of these many films or their various spin-offs, but I assume that most people in the world know that central to all of the Star Wars stories is something called “the Force.” Descriptions of the Force vary, but in the original Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope, we are told that it is “an energy field created by all living things, it surrounds us and penetrates us, [and] binds the galaxy together.” The Force is therefore not a personal being like God, nor is it the intentional creator of existence and life, even if it holds all things together, but is rather created by life itself. Crucially, however, also unlike God, the Force is both good and evil: it famously has “a light side” and “a dark side”. In the films, the Jedi Knights serve the light side and the Sith Lords serve the dark side, and they continuously argue amongst themselves as to which side of the Force is stronger. And the answer seems to be neither side is stronger, they are both equally strong, neither can be totally eradicated, and so the cosmic ideal is balance or equilibrium. In this sense, the underlying metaphysics of the Star Wars films is a type of dualism or Manicheism, in which good and evil, light and dark, yin and yang, are equal and opposite forces. Such metaphysical dualism is eternal: it can never be resolved, and so instead it must be accepted and lived with.
However, while the cosmic ideal seems to be eternal dualistic balance and harmony, in these stories individual characters must still choose one or the other. That is, individuals such as Anakin Skywalker, Ben Solo, or Rey must decide whether they will serve the light side of the Force or the dark side. And yet, even those who do decisively choose light or dark discover that the opposite side is still at work within them, tempting and pulling them to the other side. And so, in the final film, The Rise of Skywalker, there’s a crucial scene when the main character, Rey, is asked what she is afraid of. And in a universe full of all kinds of aliens and monsters and dark lords and evil empires and weapons of unimaginable destructive power she replies: “Myself.” What are you afraid of? Myself. Why? Because she feels the real potential for evil within herself and giving into that interior evil is her greatest fear. In the familiar parlance of the Star Wars films, she doesn’t want to “give in to the dark side of the Force,” but she also does not trust her own strength in resisting such insidious and constant temptation.
In our reading from Isaiah, and also in the Gospel from Matthew, we hear these prophetic words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” As already indicated, the metaphysics of Judaism and Christianity are different than the metaphysics of Star Wars in three ways: first, the God of the Bible is a personal being with whom we can be in relationship, not an impersonal force-field like gravity or magnetism; second, God is the creator of all things, not dependent on anything else for God’s existence; and third, in the famous words of First John, Chapter 1, verse 5, “God is light and in [God] there is no darkness at all.” That is, unlike the eternal dualism of Star Wars in which the Force has a dark side and a light side, there is no dark side to God. So it seems that the metaphysics of the Bible and the metaphysics of Star Wars are pretty incompatible. That’s why we say “The Lord be with you” rather than “The Force be with you.”
However, what Star Wars lacks in metaphysics I think it makes up for in psychology. When the character Rey says that the thing she fears most is herself, that is a profound moment. There is something compelling and real about the fierce internal struggles that Rey and Ben and Anakin play out for us in these films, despite the science-fiction setting. Because even if there is no eternal cosmic metaphysical dualism in our universe, there is indeed a perennial internal personal dualism in all of us. Even if there isn’t a light side and a dark side to God, each of us do indeed have a light side and a dark side within ourselves, and our lives are a constant struggle in the choice of which side we will serve. And, like Rey, we therefore indeed can be (and perhaps even should be) frightened of ourselves, of the pull of the dark side, of the potential for evil within.
But that is why we can take comfort in our Psalm, which begins: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?” The clear implication of the psalm is that God’s light and salvation and strength is sufficient to overcome every fear, everything of which we are afraid—even if that thing is ourselves! This is the other element of the Biblical understanding of reality that differs from Star Wars: precisely because God is personal, and eternal, and good, God can also save. God is not just a creator, but a savior. God can thus save us from whatever we need saving from, even, if necessary, the darkness within. Larry Norman, a well-known Christian musician whose career began in the late 1960s, therefore ends his song “A Love Like Yours” with the perhaps-surprising refrain:
You have saved me, you have saved me, you have saved me from myself.
You have saved me, you have saved me, you have saved me from myself.
And ultimately, that’s what we need saving from. This is indeed good news. So let us pray:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.