In the book Boiling Point: Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century, the evangelical pollster George Barna and writer Mark Hatch make the following observation about the awesome power of mass media:
The world of entertainment and mass communications -- through television, radio, contemporary music, movies, magazines, art, video games and pop literature -- is indisputably the most extensive and influential theological training system in the world. From commercials to sitcoms, from biographies to hit songs, from computer simulation games to talk shows, God's principles are challenged every moment of every day, in very entertaining, palatable and discreet ways. Few Christians currently have the intellectual and spiritual tools to identify and reject the garbage.
The second half of that statement leans hard toward the cultural right, but the basic premise is one that anyone who can read poll data ought to affirm. This is the same basic point that political liberals would make if they were talking about, oh, the impact of materialistic American media in fragile Third World cultures.
The bottom line: Ordinary Americans are much more likely to be exposed to new theological ideas at the mall than at a mainstream church. Oprah has more power than Billy Graham, when it comes to preaching outside the usual pews.
And George Lucas? We are, of course, only a few weeks away from the latest outbreak of Jedi evangelism and the usual attempts to probe the theological implications of The Force and yada yada. Hey, it's hard not to yield to the PR side and go with the flow.
Plus, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith marks -- we think -- the end of the official Star Wars holy canon. The faithful are supposed to get answers to all kinds of Big Questions and see how the pieces fit, as Anakin Skywalker takes the plunge (a baptism of fire clearly looms ahead) and becomes Darth Vader.
Over at USA Today, reporter Mike Snider has written a very interesting opening salvo on some of these issues, in a piece titled "Star Wars' universe revolves around Vader." And that's the point. These movies really do revolve around the fall and redemption (Lucas says that) of a character who is a symbol of absolute evil. This implies that there must be some kind of absolute good. Or does it?
Snider touches many bases to note the obvious influences:
Lucas drew on mythology, religion, psychology and cultural images, popular and past. Just as Lucas relied on Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces as the mythical underpinning for his saga, his villain had multiple purposes, too. . . .
Vader seeps into the subconscious because he embodies psychologist Carl Jung's "shadow archetype," a representation of the dark half of one's personality. Mythologist Campbell pointed out that Star Wars, like classic myths before it, makes use of Jung's archetypes -- others include wise old man (Obi-Wan) and hero (Luke Skywalker) -- as building blocks. . . .
In addition to the Zen-like Force that "surrounds us and penetrates us . . . (and) binds the galaxy together," as Obi-Wan tells Luke, another Eastern religious element can be found in Vader's resemblance to demons that, in the Buddhist tradition, were at one time human and, through the actions of Buddha or his followers, are freed from their demonic state.
So what does the word "redemption" mean in this context? If Vader is some kind of fallen angel, this implies some concept of sin and even, in biblical terms, "The Fall." Does that work in the pseudo Yin-Yang world of Lucas and The Force?
I hope journalists seek out all kinds of voices on this, not just the usual folks who think the whole Lucas cycle is evil or those who think Star Wars theology is the perfect blend of Buddhism and postmodernity. One of my favorite writers on this topic is Roberto "friend of this blog" Rivera y Carlo. Click here for his classic "Elves, Wookies and Fanboys: Star Wars And Our Need For Stories" and here for his "Love, Sacrifice & Free Will in Star Wars."
May the sources be with you.