Star Culture Wars (with links)

I have had some readers email me asking if I would post my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which can be found here.

I hesitate to do so, because that would be an obvious form of self-promotion. And if I was into obvious forms of self-promotion, I would mention the mid-November — just in time for Christmas shopping — release of my Pop Goes Religion: Faith and Culture in America, a book of new essays and clusters of columns on popular culture.

That’s what I would do if I were into that sort of thing. I might even mention that young Master Jeremy Lott is working on a book.

Meanwhile, this week’s column is about, what else, Revenge of the Sith. I think I will try to add some URLs to make this interactive. I wish I could do that with all of my columns.

So here goes:

While tweaking the original Star Wars movie for re-release, director George Lucas decided that he needed to clarify the status of pilot Han Solo’s soul.

In the old version, Solo shot first in his cantina showdown with a bounty hunter. But in the new one, Lucas addressed this moral dilemma with a slick edit that showed Greedo firing first. Thus, Solo was not a murderer, but a mere scoundrel on the way to redemption.

“Lucas wanted to make sure that people knew that Han didn’t shoot someone in cold blood,” said broadcaster Dick Staub. “That would raise serious questions about his character, because we all know that murder if absolutely wrong.”

The Star Wars films do, at times, have a strong sense of good and evil.

Yet in the climactic scene of the new “Revenge of the Sith,” the evil Darth Vader warns his former master: “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Say what? If that is true, how did Lucas decide it was wrong for Solo to gun down a bounty hunter? Isn’t that a moral absolute? If so, why are absolutes absolutely wrong in the saga’s latest film? Good questions, according to Staub.

While we’re at it, the Jedi knights keep saying they must resist the “dark side” of the mysterious, deistic Force. But they also yearn for a “chosen one” who will “bring balance” to the Force, a balance between good and evil.

“There is this amazing internal inconsistency in Lucas that shows how much conflict there is between the Eastern religious beliefs that he wants to embrace and all those Judeo-Christian beliefs that he grew up with,” said Staub, author of a book for young people entitled “Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters.”

“I mean, you’re supposed balance the light and the dark? How does that work?”

The key is that Lucas — who calls himself a “Buddhist Methodist” — believes all kinds of things, even when the beliefs clash. This approach allows the digital visionary to take chunks of the world’s major religions and swirl them in the blender of his imagination. Thus, the Force contains elements of Judaism, Christianity, Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and even Islam.

None of this is surprising. Lucas merely echoes the beliefs of many artists in his generation and those who have followed. But the czar of Star Wars also has helped shape the imaginations of millions of spiritual consumers. His fun, non-judgmental faith was a big hit at the mall.

It is impossible, said Staub, to calculate the cultural impact of this franchise since the 1977 release of the first film — episode IV, “A New Hope.” The films have influenced almost all moviegoers, but especially Americans 40 and under.

“I don’t think there is anything coherent that you could call the Gospel According to Star Wars,” stressed Staub. “But I do think there are things we can learn from Star Wars. . . . I think what we have here is a teachable moment, a point at which millions of people are talking about what it means to choose the dark side or the light side.

“Who wants to dark side to win? Most Americans want to see good triumph over evil, but they have no solid reasons for why they do. They have no idea what any of this has to do with their lives.”

Staub is especially concerned about young Star Wars fans. He believes that many yearn for some kind of mystical religious experience, taught by masters who hand down ancient traditions and parables that lead to truths that have stood the test of time, age after age. These young people “want to find their Yoda, but they don’t think real Yodas exist anymore,” especially not in the world of organized religion, he said.

In the end, it’s easier to go to the movies.

Meanwhile, many traditional religious leaders bemoan the fact that they cannot reach the young. So they try to modernize the faith instead of digging back to ancient mysteries and disciplines, said Staub.

“So many churches are choosing to go shallow, when many young people want to go deep,” he said. “There are people who just want to be entertained. But there are others who want to be Jedis, for real.”

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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.

  • Tom R

    > “Lucas wanted to make sure that people knew that Han didn’t shoot someone in cold blood,” said broadcaster Dick Staub. “That would raise serious questions about his character, because we all know that murder if absolutely wrong.”

    Oh, for heaven’s sake….!!!

    Greedo has accosted Solo, pulled a gun on him, announced that he will be collecting the bounty Jabba the Hutt has put on Han’s head, and when Han says defiantly “Over my dead body”, Greedo replies “That’s the idea. I’ve been looking forward to killing you for a long time.”

    Is there any doubt whatsoever as to what would’ve happened if Han hadn’t killed Greedo then and there?

    Clear case of innocent killing in self-defence. Case closed.

    Lucas’ whining about “Han fired first, no, Greedo fired first” reminds me of Philip Pullman’s moaning in “His Dark Materials” that his hero Will Parry is a “murderer”. Will is a 12-year-old boy who, finding strange men ransacking his house, knocks one of them over a stair railing, where the man falls and doesn’t get up. Accident, or self-defence, or both. Pullman, who loves to attack Judaeo-Christianity for guilt-mongering, seems happy to define murder far more strictly than Moses ever did (Deuteronomy 19:4-6, Numbers 35:11-12).

  • Stephen A.

    “why are absolutes absolutely wrong?”

    That’s the crux of it and you’ve highlighted the main inconsistency.

    Of course, again, the tired line about “only a Sith” thinking in absolutes forgets the very words of Jesus on which that line is based. Those on the Religious Left tend to glide over that and of course leftist reviewers tend to ignore (or are ignorant of) the line’s origins when crowing over Lucas’ too-clever mockery of Bush in Episode III by using that line.

    For Lucas, the only legitimate spirituality/religion seems to be one in which there are no absolutes…and he means this absolutely, of course, except when it comes to the “Dark Side”. That must be absolutely avoided.

    Got it? Me, neither.

  • Joe Perez

    tmatt: Nice piece here, but I think you inject your own beliefs into the statement that Lucas — the “Buddhist Methodist” “believes all kinds of things, even when the beliefs clash.” Do the beliefs really clash? Which beliefs? On what level of interpretation are beliefs said to clash, and on what level are they said to have an underlying harmony or disharmony? I’m not saying Lucas has satisfactory answers to these questions. In fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think too hard about such subtlties. But I wouldn’t suggest that he’s irrational, as you do.

  • tmatt


    Of course I inject my own beliefs. It is a column.

    But if you can avoid a clash in the avoid the dark side-balance the dark side equation, then you have a much more flexible mind than me and many other people.

    And most of us belief things that clash. It is a natural thing to do. That is one very good reason why the ancient Church teaches that Confession is a Sacrament. Confused and paradoxical beings are we.

  • Mark D.

    So tmatt, why DIDN’T you address the Jesus angle (it’s Matt. 12:30: “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters”, and in Luke and Mark as well)?

    I think you would have done a real service by citing that verse, addressing Lucas’ moral muddle more directly and saving your Straub material for a separate article.

    Now I am going out to see the movie myself – at a 10:10 am showing on the Champs-Elysees!

  • Tom R

    The “Only Sith think in absolutes” line was absurd, for two reasons.

    Firstly, it follows some splendid scenes of the main villain, Palpatine, explaining to Anakin that good and evil are just points of view. Is Palpatine an “absolutist”? Only in the “Stuart monarchs” sense, perhaps (since he later crowns himself Emperor and dissolves the Senate), but that’s not linked to the “moral values” sense, except through a play on words.

    Secondly, because the main vice of the Sith is not “thinking in absolutes”, but their desire to seize power and their willingness to use any form of violence or deceit to gain or keep power. That, I submit — not fear of one’s loved ones dying — is the real path to the Dark Side.

    If Obi-Wan had shouted back “Only Sith mistake their real friends for their enemies, and their enemies for their friends”, he would have been right on the money.

  • Erik Nelson

    Well, not all of you qualify for true Star Wars geekdom. In the DVD release of the classic trilogy, the Han Solo scene was edited once again, making Solo and Greedo fire basically at the same time.

    As for the Obi-Wan line about “only the Sith dealing in absolutes” it was made doubly ridiculous by Obi-Wan himself. First, the line is philosophically self refuting (it is, after all, itself an absolute statement) but also by the line said by Obi-Wan just a few minutes later, “Anakin, the Sith are EVIL!” Absolutely evil, Obi-Wan?

    What struck me as another culture wars element (which I haven’t seen comment on) is Palpatine’s rhetoric about the Force with Anakin. He tells Anakin that he needs to take a “broader view” of the Force and explore both sides of it if he want to know the truth. Palpatine claims that the Jedi view is “narrow”. Ahem. How many times have we heard this kind of argument in the culture wars? And isn’t it strange that Lucas gives these lines to the evil character?

  • Will Linden

    Of course, we can wonder how this jibes with the line Episode IV left on the cutting-room floor — but left in other media versions — where Kenobi denounces Vader/Anakin for comprehending “only half of the Force”.

    Has anyone read STAR WARS AND PHILOSOPHY? Comments?

  • C. Wingate

    Actually, I think the problem is a lot simpler– no philosophy required.

    Long long ago in the year 1977, there wasn’t originally any talk of Joseph Campbell or indeed any much pretense to instruction in the original film. It was simply a fun, old style movie with a hint of a sequel; why else would Darth Vader survive?

    It also obeyed the fundamental modern storytelling rule of “show it, don’t tell it.” Darth gets some posturing about The Force, and Obi-wan gets to talk about it, but all in all there’s really little said. By the time we get to young Anakin, the words are pouring out. It’s particularly noticeable in the scenes with the jedi council in Episode I, where there are a lot of words and absolutely no indications that any of them have any basis.

    It’s also happened that a basic “triumph of good over evil” story has gotten conflated with the larger– and later– story of the fall and redemption of Anakin/Vader. I think Staub puts his finger on the right word: “inconsistency”. Or maybe I would prefer “incoherence”. The desire to make both of these stories work together seems to have led Lucas into not following basic movie-making rules, and the posturing begins.

    Finally, there’s problem that Lucas creates a bunch of archetypal figures in the first movie, and then gets snookered into inflating them into mythical figures by the third. I’m sorry, but it’s clear that he isn’t up to the task.

  • Molly

    I heard somewhere (how’s that for reliable?) that Lucas had much less invested story-telling-wise in episodes I and II than he has in III. Those movies were sort of place holders. He’s phoning it in while waiting for III to finish the tale. I would buy this argument; how else to explain Jar-Jar and the insufferableness of C-3PO? (My new least favorite character, unplug him!)

    I would also argue that Lucas had no idea back in ’77 that his little movie would become SO BIG. I think this is why in large part the first 3 movies “work” better than the last three. When you don’t have the weight of expectations resting on your shoulders, either your own or others’, you have more fun and so does the audience.

    I haven’t seen VI yet, so I can’t really say whether it is up to the task or not. Looking forward to it, though!

  • Brian lewis

    What the discussion here seems to be missing is that the force is a tool of Satan.
    And not only that, but R-2 D-2, ooops, I mean R-2 Demon 2 is just evil.
    I could not make this up.

    Check out this web site:

  • Stephen A.

    Speaking of absolutelys, but I’m sorry, the site Brian Lewis pointed to is ABSOLUTELY hilarious!

    I don’t know which is funnier: The T-shirt I can buy showing Jesus wearing a Disco dancing outfit (with a New Age rainbow over his shoulder to boot), the portrayal of Jesus presiding over the Death Star with the caption “Jesus is the Real Force” or the graphic showing the choice between Jesus and Luke Skywalker as our Lord and savior. (Is anyone seriously saying “Hmm. Luke or Jesus? Hmmm. I can’t decide.”)

    I’d say “Are they for REAL” but unfortunately, they are. I wish all Christians were as capable to discuss this film series rationally and theologically as we’ve been doing on this blog, but one visit to that site, and you know they AREN’T.

    It’s truly sad to see such a ludicrous display, which is a waste of the artistic talent, brain power and time God granted them.

  • Stephen A.

    First line should have been:
    “Speaking of absolutes, that site..”

    Too quick to type I was.
    More careful in future will I be.

    (yeah, that’s my “Inner Yoda” talking, and maybe my “Inner Sith” typing)

  • Tim F.

    I think I recall that Palpatine actually used the word dogma or dogmatism in referring to the Jedi’s narrow point of view. Thus more evidence of Lucas’s inconsistency.

  • Norm Dunham

    First of all, the guys at are not real Christians, further examination of there site shows that they admit to posing as christians, sad thing is too many folks believe that they are really christians…that junk sure makes it alot harder to evangelize… that being said after reading this article, I have just a couple opinions to share…
    First, as to the change in the scene with Han and Greedo. I never saw the first movie in theaters..too young, but I saw it on video years later(about 100 times), and then the remade version, and I was able to pick out each place when George had made his “improvements” (not all fans agree that the were all good changes) except right here. I never noticed the change, then when told about it, I couldn’t remember if there was a shot from Greedo in the original or not. I had to go back and look for myself. Then I realized that whether Greedo shot or not Han was defending himself, because as the dialog plays out a blast from Greedo was coming, Han just beat him to the punch, it was shoot or be shot. not cold-blooded at all in my mind, and never was. But If George suddenly had a case of conscience, who am I to critcize..It’s Georges movie not mine…
    second. Absolutes. I think we read in to much where it doesn’t need to be read in. Anakins statement..which I don’t believe was influenced but Bush in the least, is not an uncommon sentiment of any dictator in any fantasy novel or movie. and as for Obi-wan’s rebuttal. “only Sith deal in absolutes” I didn’t find that to be a statement about moral absolutes, or any absolutes sans the immediate statement by Skywalker. lets apply this to the realm of good and evil, or religion and I’ll try to elaborate my point…
    Most religions say they are the only way. Islam, Mormonism, Westboro Baptist Church, and we all know that Jesus is the only way to God, but where as a Muslim would say that if you are not Muslim you are and enemy of Islam, or as muslims would say and infidel (very similar to the absolute used by Anakin) Jesus would say that we have only one enemy, who is Satan, and every human being…whether muslim, jewish, mormon, wiccan, or new age, is a potential ally, and should be loved as a neighbor, and not as an enemy. I would like to think that is the angle that Obi-wan is coming from, that the only enemy is the dark side, and all who may cross back and forth across that line are not completely lost and have potential to come to know good.

    just my humble opinion

    Thanks for your time

  • Peter Terp

    1) On Han Shoots First:
    Part of the problem here is that at some point everyone forgot that these were fictional characters and not real people. Fictional characters are interesting because they can choose to do things we won’t or can’t choose to do. George Lucas doesn’t redeem Han’s character by making him shoot Greedo in a fairer draw, he just flattens out his character and makes him less interesting. Han is the most likable of all the Star Wars characters precisely because he has the most dramatic conflict–he could turn good or bad in any given situation.

    Also, we were having a lively debate on a similar topic regarding Mace Windu’s attempted assassination of the Emperor over at Catholicae Testudines. Is Mace justified in murdering the Emperor because the Emperor is evil, or does Mace corrupt himself by crossing a moral line.

    2) Now, as to religion/philosophy in Star Wars:

    I agree that both the Sith and the Jedi seem to argue that they are more open-minded while the other is monomaniacal.

    This could have created an even more complicated and sophisticated story if it wasn’t for the fact that the Sith always wear black, have horns, and wear black. The Sith exude evil because the look evil and cackle and carry red lightsabers. I read an inerview with Ian McDiarmid where he says playing Palpatine was a challenge because he is a character with no redeeming qualities. His evil is so obvious.

    It isn’t just whether Jedi or Sith deal in absolutes…it’s that the script deals in absolutes.

    3) Finally, on believing things that “clash”:
    Most religions have some knd of core paradoxes that we believe in, e.g. Dying to eternal life. But there are other generalized differences that often emerge between Western and Eastern religion, e.g. Western notions of revelation as something that happens to you regardless of your worthiness and Eastern notions of Enlightenment as something that can only be achieved through your spiritual exercise; Western notions of objective truth versus Eastern notions that all is illusion; eternal being with God versus Nirvana’s oblivion; the Western embrace of suffering as efficacious to our souls and the Buddhist attempt to avoid dukkha. I believe in Orthodoxy, Chesterton has also written on what he sees as a significant difference in the outward and the inward. Christian saints are always painted with eyes wide open–they look out into the world, while Eastern buddhas have their eyes closed, looking inward to themselves. He also describes the finite, linear history of the cross versus the infinite recursion of the circle.

    Irwin Kirschner also has a quote about Yoda’s philosophy, and how it pains him to hear young people quote him as if he’s actually saying something whereas he’s really just mumbling a mish-mash of world philosophies.

  • Stephen A.

    Norm, I’ believe Lucas is on record as saying he was making political references in this film, and that the “absolutes” comment was one of those comments.

  • molly

    I’ve finally seen the movie and I can say – absolutely :) – that George Bush is no Darth Vader; he isn’t even an Anakin Skywalker. I am thinking more jar jar….

    Now, if we were to take the entirety of Anakin’s character and his weaknesses that led to his seduction to the dark side, we could apply it to a collective of current politicians – the “Darth Borg” – and follow their career with great interest.

  • francis

    Yes, there is a clash between Obiwan accusing the Sith of “dealing in absolutes” and his later “the sith are evil”.

    On the other hand, the Sith have their share of relativism too, with Palpatine’s comments (narrow, dogmatic) and Anakin’s “From my point of view, the jedi are evil”.

    However, Obiwan has been a relativist even in “Return of the jedi”, when he excused his lying to Luke by saying: “I have been telling truth, from a certain stand point.”

    Maybe, it’s all a kind of relativism-but-still-fight-your-evil-enemy approach, that can in the real world can be found both in “jingoism” (which some would accuse GWB of) and “intolerant relativism”.

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