Forty years ago yesterday, the first Star Wars movie was released. I wouldn’t be born for another six and a half years, too late to catch even Return of the Jedi in theaters. But my middle childhood was shaped by Star Wars. I must have been in third grade when I first saw the movies on video. I loved them, but they didn’t take hold of my life until a year later, in the fateful winter of ’94 when I caught a bad cough that kept me up at nights, and looking for something to read I picked up Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Those books sucked me in, and for the next four years, I lived and breathed the Star Wars universe. I watched and re-watched the movies, read every book, joined the Star Wars fan club and read every issue of Star Wars Insider cover to cover.
For a brief period I even became convinced that I could use the force. I must have been ten or eleven years old. It’s not that I thought I could move things around with my mind. But I thought I almost could. And I would focus intently to control things in my own mind, or calm myself down, or communicate with animals. I was swept up in the grand idea of the light side and the dark side, an unseen universal force in the universe. In some sense it almost became my de facto religion.
That level of intense obsession eventually waned. But there were things that stuck with me and that helped form the foundation for a more real faith as I got older:
1.) There is a force outside of ourselves that gives us power
It turns out I couldn’t actually use the force to nudge the physical world, and I couldn’t communicate telepathically with animals (surprising, I know). But I think there was something real in my experience when I thought of an outside force giving me power. It allowed me to get some separation from my immediate thoughts and emotions, and it laid the foundation for an adult ability to reflect on myself and act against my immediate impulses.
I still believe that there are forces at work in the mind – goodness constantly flowing in from heaven and ultimately from God, and evil constantly flowing in from hell. In fact, I believe that every thought and feeling has a source outside of me, and that my freedom comes from my ability to choose which I embrace. My Star-Wars-inspired view of life as a constant choice between embracing the light side or the dark side helped create the mental framework to support that worldview.
2.) The universe is charged with life and meaning
In the Star Wars universe, the Force is more than telekinesis or mental energy – it exists outside of the mind as well as inside it. As Obi-Wan Kenobi explains to Luke, “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” All young kids, I think, have a sense that everything in the universe is alive and charged with meaning. Living in the Star Wars universe helped me hold onto that sense longer than I would have otherwise.
That sense helps strengthen my adult attempts to see everything in the physical universe really as a manifestation of spiritual reality. Everything here really does have something deeper behind it, even if the physical objects themselves aren’t alive. A tree or a rock or even a car is a manifestation of spiritual reality and has intrinsic meaning. As Charles Taylor chronicles in A Secular Age, that perspective – which used to be held by all people, including all Christians – has largely disappeared in the West, and we have to consciously choose to embrace it. Star Wars helped me do that.
3.) Faith grows from discomfort
The most profound impact of my Star Wars obsession on my faith come from the ways in which I rejected parts of it. Of course there was the gradual acceptance of the fact that the Star Wars universe was entirely fictional. Before that, there were a few moments of conflict that eventually spurred me to look for something more real.
I remember the crushing disappointment of the first time I convinced my parents to watch Return of the Jedi with me. The crucial moment came, as the emperor was sending lightning bolts through Luke’s body – and Darth Vader found the spark of goodness that was still inside himself, and hurled the emperor to his doom. He had been redeemed.
My mom’s reaction? “That’s wrong. He still hasn’t changed.”
She explained:“Evil people can love their kids. It happens all the time – evil people do everything they can to promote their own children at the expense of anyone else. Protecting your own kids doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly become good.”
I spluttered and couldn’t come up with a good answer. It was cold water on one of my favorite moments in any movie. But she was right – saving Luke’s life does not necessarily mean that Vader had turned to the light side. And, she was also wrong – saving Luke could have been the manifestation of a return to the light side. But grappling with that uncomfortable question forced me to grow. Obviously it’s had an impact, since I remember it more than 20 years later. It taught me something crucial – uncomfortable, challenging ideas can be a catalyst for deeper thought and faith.
I remember clearly another experience, when I was a bit older probably, but still immersed in the Star Wars universe. I’d started thinking that the Force was a pretty good way of describing God. And then I read a quote from True Christian Religion that someone (probably my dad) had put up on our family pin board:
Conjunction with an invisible God is like a conjunction of the eye’s vision with the expanse of the universe, the limits of which are invisible; it is also like vision in mid-ocean, which reaches out into the air and upon the sea, and is lost. Conjunction with a visible God, on the other hand, is like beholding a man in the air or on the sea spreading forth his hands and inviting to his arms. For all conjunction of God with man must be also a reciprocal conjunction of man with God; and no such reciprocation is possible except with a visible God.
I talked to my parents. It turns out they thought it was important to know God as more than just a vague force for good. To know God, to really know Him, is to know Him as a person. I struggled to understand why that mattered. That struggle started me on a search for God that led me to know Him as Jesus. The “invisible force” aspect of God is true, but I’ve come to believe it’s not the whole picture – that He is someone, not just something. The challenge to my comfortable ideas led to something much more real than what was there before.
George Lucas has said that he didn’t intend to create a new religion with Star Wars, but instead to spark an interest in deeper questions – “to make young people think about the mystery.” The films and the novels did that in spades for me. My kids are still too young, but I’m looking forward to the time when I can introduce them to that myth of a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…