October 25, 2005

Discerning Worldviews in MoviesTheology, Philosophy and Psychology in Star Wars

There are various ways to evaluate movies, such as tracing the growth of the main character, evaluating the theme(s), critiquing the cinematography, or judging the quality of the acting. However, when it comes to understanding and engaging the culture, the best approach is to discern the key worldview issue being addressed. In other words, we attempt to uncover the worldview message of the movie. This is done by asking a series of three questions:

  1. What is the key worldview question being addressed?
  2. How is this question answered?
  3. How does this answer compare with a biblical worldview?

What Is God; How Do I Know?

By way of illustration, take George Lucas's classic film series, Star Wars. In the 1977 original episode, A New Hope, there is a scene where Obi-wan Kenobi brings up the topic of "The Force" as he is talking with Luke Skywalker. When Luke looks puzzled, Obi-wan explains, "The Force is what gives the Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together." As it turns out, in this first episode there are four specific scenes where Obi-wan teaches Luke (and the viewers!) about various aspects of the Force. More than mere entertainment, the viewer is given a classic Cosmic Humanist answer to the question, "What is God like?"

Not only does George Lucas teach theology in his films, but he also provides an answer to the philosophical question, How do I know what is true? This is portrayed in a later scene where Obi-wan trains Luke in the tactics of using a light saber. After a few futile attempts at deflecting the laser beams from a rotating sphere, Obi-wan instructs Luke to try again, but with a shield over his eyes. "This time," says the Jedi Master, "let go of your conscious self and act on instinct . . . Your eyes can deceive you, don't trust them . . . Stretch out with your feelings." Luke slowly catches on to the idea of using the Force instead of his sight, as Obi-wan responds, "You see, you can do it . . . You've taken your first step into a larger world." This "larger world" is the idea that knowledge is gained through one's feelings instead of conscious thoughts, another mainstay of the Cosmic Humanist worldview.

Luke eventually learns his lesson of epistemology (the study of knowledge). As we watch the film's climactic battle scene, Luke guides his X-wing fighter to its target and destroys the Death Star after hearing Obi-wan's voice urging him to "Use the Force, Luke. Let go, Luke. Luke, trust me . . . Remember, the Force will be with you, always." Obi-wan's last sentence is noteworthy in that his comment echoes Jesus' final words to his disciples as found in Matthew 28:20. George Lucas draws from Christianity as well as Buddhist philosophy in order to create his cosmic myth for this generation.

Who Is God; Who Am I?

Worldview themes permeate all six of the Star Wars episodes. To cite just one more example, during a scene in Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi master Yoda finds an opportune time to further instruct Luke in the ways of the Force. Luke had crashed his X-wing fighter into a swamp where he meets Yoda, another Jedi Master. After some initial training on levitating small rocks, Yoda urges Luke to try his hand at raising the ship out of the muck. Luke tries, but fails. Sitting down exhausted and defeated, Luke experiences a "teachable moment," and, by extension, the audience enters into the same teachable moment, since by this point in the film the viewer is identifying with Luke's character. In true Eastern guru fashion, Yoda enlightens his young apprentice with these words, "For my ally is the Force," Yoda intones, "and a powerful ally it is. Life breeds it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the force around you, here between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes, even between land and ship." Then, to prove his point, Yoda turns toward the ship and uses the Force to levitate the X-wing out of the swamp.

In this scene two key questions are answered. First, we learn about God (theology). God is simply the energy that permeates everything, including man, the earth, and machines. And second, based on the nature of God, we are instructed about ourselves (psychology). Yoda explains that Luke is a luminous being. What is luminosity? Light. What is light? Energy! The implication is that if Luke and his ship are bound by the same energy-Force, then he can use his energy to connect with the ship's energy, and, voila, levitate it at will. Quite simple . . . once you understand that everything is part of the god-Force.

Talking about God; On Purpose!

Of course, all of this New Age god-talk was inserted into the movie on purpose. The director of Star Wars Episode 5 (The Empire Strikes Back), Irvin Kershner, admitted, "I wanna introduce some Zen here because I don't want the kids to walk away just feeling that everything is shoot-em-up, but that there's also a little something to think about here in terms of yourself and your surroundings."[1] And in an interview with Bill Moyers, Lucas divulges his real purpose in writing the science fiction epic. He says,

[Star Wars is] designed primarily to make young people think about the mystery. Not to say, "Here's the answer." It's to say, "Think about this for a second. Is there a God? What does God look like? What does God sound like? What does God feel like? How do we relate to God?"[2]

What is interesting about Lucas's declaration that he is not offering "the answer" is the fact that throughout all six movies he is demonstrating exactly the opposite! He is offering an answer to the question of what God is like and how we relate to the Force within. As we have seen, we are told in numerous ways by various characters that God is an impersonal energy (Force) that pervades the universe and even has a "dark side." Irvin Kershner and George Lucas have a worldview and that view is being presented in full Technicolor and Dolby Surround Sound.

Compare Worldviews

Once we have discovered the worldview issue(s) presented in a movie, we then compare that with a biblical view. An analysis of what Lucas teaches us about God, knowledge, and man, turns out to be in stark contrast with biblical concepts. The Bible explains that God is a personal being who is wholly righteous and without any darkness. Knowledge is gained by engaging our minds in understanding God's truth by reading the Bible and studying nature (see Psalm 119:30 and Romans 1:20), not letting go and trusting our feelings. And, finally, we are created in God's imageóas personal beingsówith physical bodies, not just bundles of impersonal energy.

It's important to take the worldview analysis of any film full circle. The reason is that if we don't go through this process to the point of analyzing and contrasting a biblical worldview, we'll walk away from films without challenging the message, leaving it to fester in the back of our minds. Now I'm not suggesting that everyone who walks out of a theater after watching Star Wars is going to say, "I now believe God is impersonal energy with a dark side." It's not that blatant. It's more subtle.

It works like this. If you take in a message without analyzing it, it gets tucked away until a later time when you hear another similar message. Each time this message is reinforced, it becomes a little stronger, and we become more open to it. Then, if we are confronted with a persuasive presentation of that view, we are susceptible to accepting it as the truth.

This is what happened to a friend of mine while taking an abnormal psychology course in college where the professor assigned three New Age texts as reading for the class. My friend had never been taught to discern the difference between a biblical worldview and New Age ideas. As a result, he was swayed by the mystical rhetoric of his reading assignments along with the professor's persuasive reinforcement, and as a result jettisoned his Christian faith.

Surveys confirm that many in our society are believing the subtle (and not so subtle) messages of New Age ideas presented throughout popular culture. According to researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), in a nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 U.S. teenagers, many teens said they were open to believing in psychics, astrology, and communicating with the dead. Overall, 40 percent of teens maybe or definitely believe in astrology, 39 percent maybe or definitely believe in communicating with the dead, and 27 percent maybe or definitely believe in psychics and fortune tellers.[3]

The Apostle Paul warns us to not be captured by deceptive philosophies (Colossians 2:8). Becoming discerning viewers of popular worldview expressions as depicted in most popular movies puts us in a better position to "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Resources for Further Study

  1. Rolling Stone (July 24, 1980), p. 37.
  2. "Of Myth and Men: A Conversation between Bill Moyers and George Lucas on the meaning of the Force and the true theology of Star Wars," Time (April 26, 1999), p. 93.
  3. http://www.youthandreligion.org/news/2004-1013.html, (accessed 9/25/2005)

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