Here we go: Darth Vader and "The Fall"

anakin_darth_vader.jpgIn 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Glynn Young

    I don’t know where Goerge Barna has been, but the world of mass communication has begun to teeter toward collpase, and the world of mass entertainment is likely not far behind. Viewership of television and cable news is in free fall. Readership of daily newspapers in is free fall. Even the New York Times is trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

  • Glynn Young

    I don’t know where Goerge Barna has been, but the world of mass communication has begun to teeter toward collpase, and the world of mass entertainment is likely not far behind. Viewership of television and cable news is in free fall. Readership of daily newspapers in is free fall. Even the New York Times is trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. Events like the latest Star Wars movie or even the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies only underscore what’s ahppening with mass entertainment — they’re the exceptions, not the rule.

  • Tom Breen

    I never bought the Joseph Campbell stuff. When the first movie came out, Lucas was talking about old Westerns and classic sci-fi fiction as his inspirations, not Campbell. It was only later, when Campbell surprised people by paying serious attention to the movies, that the whole “classic mythology” angle got written into the Star Wars movies.

    Now, if you really want to talk about a movie with meaty theological implications, let’s talk about Hellboy…

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The Hero Journey material in Star Wars is easy to spot. There is no denying that. It’s a classic used of that structure and its symbolism. So, did Lucas just LUCK OUT?

  • Stephen A.

    I suspect that Lucas did luck out. He used the Westerns and Serials as inspiration, not realizing that the writers of those old movies were perhaps themselves unknowingly tapping into the Hero archetypes of Western civilization, or even other civilizations.

    Less likely is the idea that he sat down and consciously incorporated Eastern philosohpies into the films, at least the early films.

    His latest movies – the prequels – have been more about old fashioned romance and political drama than eastern mysticism anyway, and they’ve consciously (I think) drawn on old films and centuries-old formulas that even Shakespeare would recognize.

    Of course, there’s the myth of the Metachlorians (sp?), and from where this idea came from, I don’t know.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    Actually, Lucas was familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work (I don’t know as from when, but it has been well-known for a while), and in fact Campbell paid a visit to Skywalker Ranch after “Return of the Jedi” came out. Campbell was impressed by the way that Vader’s face, rather than being hideous, is in fact rather featureless. Vader represents dehumanised, bureaucratic evil, in contrast with the bodily grossness of Jabba the Hutt and the pure evil for its own sake of the Emperor.

    But of course, we all prefer “The Empire Strikes Back”, with that Freudian motif at the end. And the march music.

    Not sure where “Howard the Duck” fits in, though.

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    I had totally forgotten that Lucas did “Howard the Duck”! Ick!

    Where did you find that picture??


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