Harpur’s Heaven and Hell
This book from 1983 is a series of essays written by Tom Harpur and published in The Toronto Star newspaper. I’ve had a copy of it since about 2007. It’s still one of my great reference books.
Here’s one chapter:
Star Wars (1977) is one of the most religious films ever to be shown in a secular movie theatre. In fact, George Lucas’s space fantasy is filled with more specifically Christian motifs than most sermons are. The description may well come as a surprise to most of the hundreds of thousands who have seen the film to date—perhaps even to Lucas himself, writer and director of what Time called ‘the best movie of the year’. Obviously, as he has pointed out, his aim was simply to make an imaginative entertainment that would sweep audiences out of the theatre into the high adventure and romance of a struggle in an unknown galaxy many thousands of light years from earth. He wanted to combine his love for Flash Gordon and other such heroes, past and present, with all the wizardry of space-age technology, to create a new epic, a myth for the future.
Nearly all the elements of the classic fairy tale are present in the film: good against evil; the heroic few who triumph over seemingly all-powerful hordes; the lovely princess to be rescued; the magic sword; the aged, all-knowing counsellor and friend. But Star Wars is more than a rehash of the themes of childhood fantasy decked out with some of the most breath-taking, and at times hilarious, technical effects and creations ever screened.
Like painters and poets, film-makers too may create works whose meaning or impact is different from what they had conceived, and perhaps deeper. Looking at Star Wars from the religious angle—a perspective largely neglected by critics so far—throws fresh light on the secret of its deep appeal and its enthusiastic acceptance by young and old alike. Consciously or unconsciously, Lucas has touched a nerve at the centre of our being. Wittingly or unwittingly, he raises the key religious questions of our time in his space fable. While at one level it is possible just to sit back, suspend thought, and ‘watch the good guys win’, at another level there is a basic message. Although the message focuses on issues central to all religion and mysticism, often the reference point seems specifically Christian. This is not to say that Star Wars is a ‘Christian movie’—whatever that might be. But much of the symbolism clearly does derive from Christian sources.
The story itself can be summed up as follows. In another galaxy, in another time, a republic flourished, ruled by wise senators and protected by Jedi Knights. But it fell prey to inner rot, and power-hungry men soon forged the sinister, totalitarian Galactic Empire. The Jedi Knights were exterminated and a reign of terror began that penetrated to even the remotest systems in the galaxy. Here and there, nevertheless, existed pockets of resistance, rebels pledged to overthrow the emperor and restore freedom. Luke Skywalker, a young man who is bored with farming life on an obscure planet and longs to see wider worlds beyond, is suddenly thrown into the vortex of this climatic strife. Together with a mysterious old man named Ben Kenobi (the last remaining Jedi), two comical robots, a cynical starship pilot, and his huge anthropoid companion, Luke embarks on an intergalactic mission. The purpose is to wipe out the key to the empire’s power, the terrible planet-destroying Death Star, and to rescue the princess Leia who alone has discovered the one small chink in the enemy’s armour.
This unlikely group battles the Grand Moff Tarkin, evil governor of the Imperial Outland Region, and Lord Darth Vader, his malevolent henchman who was once himself a Jedi Knight but has betrayed his former master, the Force. Aided by the Force, which the aged Kenobi describes as a kind of ‘field of energy all around us and within us’, Luke’s star-fighter at last destroys the Death Star, and peace and justice are once again assured.
Kenobi’s role is highly significant. His constant phrase, ‘May the Force be with you’, resounds like a benediction. He teaches Luke to rely on the Force rather than on his own wisdom or space technology for ultimate victory. It is by obeying this instruction at the height of the horrific final battle that Luke is able to prevail. Kenobi’s obvious power—almost sorcery—over others, his extrasensory awareness of cosmic events, his assurance of ultimate victory, suggest a more-than-human source. Finally, when he is slain in combat with the traitor Vader, his body vanishes into thin air, leaving only his robe and the echoing assurance: ‘The Force will be with you always.’
Kenobi is clearly a kind of Christ figure or symbol. He assures the others he will be more powerful in death than in life. For example, he continues to guide Luke through the final battle. As in the story of the empty tomb in the Gospels, only his robe remains after death. Vader, Kenobi’s arch-enemy, is described as once having been a disciple of the Force and of Kenobi. Now the symbol of all that is sinister and evil, he was once a ‘prince of light’, like Lucifer who fell from being the brightest of the angelic host to become Satan, the prince of evil. We are reminded also of Judas, the disciple who held a privileged place at the Last Supper, close to Christ.
To the basic religious questions—Is man alone in the universe? Is he but the plaything of fate? Will the crushing weight of evil necessarily triumph? Is death the end?—Star Wars answers with an unequivocal no. Again and again the movie sounds the note of freedom of choice, the challenge to become involved against the forces of evil, the call to be the ‘salt of the world’, the creative, saving minority. The spontaneous applause so often heard at the film’s conclusion suggests more than simple relief that the baddies have been defeated or delight in the exquisite cinematic hardware. There is a sense of the righteous of these deeper affirmations.
As all recent surveys in Canada and elsewhere have shown, modern man is profoundly religious in his searching, however turned-off he may be to organized religion. Most traditional or professional theologians will probably scoff at the notion that Christ can be seen in the rather weird figure in a science fiction plot; some Christians may even take offence. But as Bishop John (Honest to God) Robinson has said in a recent book, for many people today traditional language about God and Christ has broken down. He argues that some of the most profound religious statement are likely to be found hidden ‘in fiction or art, in psychology or drama’. Star Wars does not fall into the ‘most profound’ category. But it does talk about religious ideas in terms the average person can identify with. Religious leaders would do well to see it, discuss it with their congregations, and use it as a starting point in seeking to bridge the obvious communication gap between the pulpit and the pew.