Category Archives: Evil

Encounters with the Force

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2002

Back in 1977 in Dublin I took my daughter aged seven and my eldest son, five, to see the first of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, now entitled A New Hope. When we got home the five-year-old solemnly related the entire plot, scene by scene, to his grandfather. The latter was so impressed that he just had to watch the Christmas TV premiere a few years later, aged about 70 – totally enthralled. Our attic still holds boxes of the spin-off merchandising that boomed in the wake of the series and made Lucas one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in cinema.

All of these films centre on the struggle of the Jedi knights – assisted by the light side of ‘The Force’ – against the disciples of the dark side, especially the towering Darth Vader. Half man, half glistening ebony machine – head and face hidden by a black mask like the coal-scuttle helmet worn by the Wehrmacht in World War II – the cloaked Vader strode onto the deck of a captured starship in the very first sequence of A New Hope, and became every child’s icon of dread. In the latest film, Attack of the Clones, the second ‘prequel’ to the first-produced series, we are to learn how it was that Vader, who had himself been a Jedi apprentice, began his journey to the dark side.

(Lucas originally conceived an epic series of nine films – three series of three. He made the middle series first, and is now two-thirds of the way through the first series. He presently insists he won’t actually complete the last three – but somebody probably will.)

The whole story, we are told, took place in a distant galaxy ‘long, long ago and far away’, where a multi-world republic is subverted by a sinister imperial tendency linked with the dark side. This device allows Lucas to blend elements of medieval knight-errantry with inter-stellar technology, ancient myth and mysticism – to tell the kind of riveting yarn that earlier generations would have experienced in the Arthurian knights of the round table.

The preferred weapon of the Jedi is not a ‘blaster’ – a projectile weapon – but a light sabre, a sword whose blade is a shaft of luminous energy. This weapon not only allows Lucas to recreate the fencing duels of Robin Hood and the samurai in a different cosmos, but to explore the idea of ‘the Force’ itself. Letting the Force flow through him, the Jedi can learn to anticipate and use his light sabre to deflect a plasma bolt fired at himself. (Jedis typically try diplomacy before resorting to defensive violence.)

What is the Force? The script limitations of an action film don’t allow Lucas much scope for theology, and on the whole this is probably just as well. Luke Skywalker, the hero of the first-produced films, is schooled by the old Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, as follows:

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Observing this lesson, the contraband smuggler Han Solo laconically observes:  “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

Solo’s hard-bitten pursuit of profit serves as counterpoint to Luke’s search for a cause. However, Solo is also smitten by Princess Leia, leader of the republican remnant. She can handle a blaster as well as anyone – and this earned her points with seventies children, despite her very impractical coiffure of two enormous side buns which must have given her a headache.

Meanwhile Darth Vader, on the enormous pursuing battle cruiser, is demonstrating the power of the dark side to a sceptical imperial officer by raising him by the throat from his seat with an invisible hand.

Pushing the special effects of the 1970s beyond their previous limits Lucas achieved in A New Hope an unprecedented persuasiveness for the science fiction genre. Using profits from the spin-off merchandising he stayed at the leading edge in this field, designing state-of the-art cinema technology in both sound and vision. The latest film was shot with specially designed digital movie cameras – heralding the end of the ‘spool’ era, and the distribution of all movies by digital means. (Though it will take time for all cinemas to make use of this.)

Lucas, raised as a Methodist and later influenced by the cult mythology guru Joseph Campbell, tells us that he introduced the idea of the Force to get children to think about spirituality. “Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film, I realised there was another relevance that is even more important – dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps. A whole generation was growing up without fairytales.”

Elsewhere, expanding on this he says: “I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’–that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer, then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith.”

Interviewed about his latest film and asked if he knows yet what turns Anakin Skywalker, the nine-year-old hero of the last film, into Darth Vader in the next, Lucas answered:

“Yes, I know what that is. The groundwork has been laid in this episode. The film is ultimately about the dark side and the light side, and those sides are designed around compassion and greed. The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things, is the opposite of compassion – of not thinking of yourself all the time. These are the two sides – the good force and the bad force. They’re the simplest parts of a complex cosmic construction.”

So, the light side of the Force demands that its disciples, the Jedi, master themselves in order to use the Force, which gives them powers of mind control, anticipation and telekinesis (a limited ability to move objects with the power of thought). Interestingly also they are supposed to remain celibate – another of the things that the nineteen year old Anakin Skywalker has problems with in the latest film!

It’s no secret now that Anakin, who will transmute into Vader in the next and last ‘prequel’, is Luke’s own father. We learned this in The Empire Strikes Back – when Luke was learning to control his own impulsiveness. Obi-Wan Kenobi, played majestically in the first series by Alec Guinness, had been Anakin’s mentor before he became Luke’s. In A New Hope Obi-Wan fought a final duel with Vader, dematerialising as Vader’s light sabre swept through him. Then he became a wraith who returned to mentor Luke at the climax of the film, the breathtaking battle with the Death Star, a space battle station the size of a small planet. Luke’s mentoring was continued by the diminutive Yoda, drawn by computer in this latest film.

Luke learns from Yoda in Empire that he himself is his own most dangerous opponent, and loses his arm in a duel with Vader. His sidekick Han Solo is immured in a block of ice at the climax, but resurrected in part three – Return of the Jedi. In that film Luke manages to control his anger, resisting torture to give his father, Anakin/Vader, a chance of redemption. Does Vader take it? Go watch the film, which will certainly be reprised soon in the wake of the prequel. (Digital TV will probably run all of the previous four films in plot sequence.)

Although it’s at first sight odd that Lucas would tell the story of the son before that of the earlier life of the father, it’s also oddly right – as evil for the 1970s generation is the more important problem to understand just now, especially for an America fascinated by military technology and sure of its own virtue. Anakin was a nine-year-old slave in
Phantom Menace, recruited to the Jedi because of his uncommon empathy with the Force. His journey to the dark side is for me almost as compelling as that of the youthful Michael Corleone in the Godfather series – that other transposition of a medieval family honour code into a twentieth-century republican setting. It’s also right that new generations of children will have immediate access on video and digital TV to Vader’s chance of redemption by his own son – something that couldn’t happen to Michael’s father, the brooding Vito, played by Marlon Brando.

Although Lucas has been criticised for ‘mindless hokum’ it is remarkable that anyone in mass entertainment should set out to deal seriously with the themes of good and evil, self-control, self-sacrifice, corruption, redemption – and even life-after-death – in a medium seemingly designed for popcorn and short attention spans. His meticulous eye for detail in the design of everything from starship interiors to planetary topography, clothing, strange animals and robots create a visual feast for children of the space age.

My fascination with these films began as soon as I saw my own children hooked. They tell us that most children are still thrilled by ancient themes of heroism and self-sacrifice – and in need of a spirituality, a sense of a deeper reality lying behind the one-dimensional digital world that we now live in. As this planet’s own beauty is increasingly tortured by technology, an escape into the awesome mysteries of the unexplored extra-terrestrial cosmos becomes increasingly necessary for rising generations, and Lucas has done as much as Gene Roddenberry (the creator of
Star Trek) to liberate the child’s cosmic imagination.

The films also show us what Cervantes dealt with in Don Quixote – the power of male nostalgia for a role in which knightly virtues of discipline, military skill and valour still make sense. We long for a world in which good and evil appear in such stark contrast that choices become easy again, and our own role becomes clear. In the wake of what US citizens now call 9/11 we also need a mass cultural experience that will allow angry Christians to reflect on how this very anger, encased in awesome military hardware, can easily shift the West again to the dark side of another civilisation’s experience. (There’s absolutely no sign that Christian fundamentalism is making any effort to develop that understanding.)

And although the technologies on view in that distant galaxy are awesome, Lucas is at pains to underline the dangers and limits of technology itself. Vader’s lack of compassion is connected with the fact that he is mostly prosthesis.  A New Hope conveys the message that technology can be a hindrance to spirituality. At the climax of the battle with the Death Star, Luke prepares to use a complicated computerised bomb sight to lob a small nuclear device down a narrow shaft in the battle station to detonate at its heart. At Obi Wan’s whispered command he pulls this technology aside and trusts to the Force instead. The subsequent detonation was cheered wildly in all cinemas in the US in 1977. Youthful courage, spiritually empowered, had transcended even the computer age.

That there is indeed a cosmic spiritual ‘force’ or power for good is an essential part of the Christian message, and that courage and self-sacrifice express this power most nobly is part of that message also. Do we need to worry that Lucas does not introduce explicit Christian concepts such as the Trinity and grace, and above all the truths of the personhood of God and the incarnation? Just a little – but these lacunae give all teachers their own role and relevance – and after all we don’t know yet how redemption is achieved in other galaxies! (Although we can be sure that fundamentalism won’t cut it.)

And the fact that the hero of the present series transmutes into the villain of the second gives scope for raising with older children the sophisticated issue of the ambiguity of all military heroism – the fact that great evil can flow from the age-old association of heroism with violence. This, after all, was the tragedy of Christendom – its beautiful origin in a rejection of violence and its disgrace in the wake of the military adventurer Constantine’s confusion of cross with sword. (The stories of the search for the Holy Grail by Arthur’s knights were a mediaeval attempt to reconcile those contradictions.)

That five-year-old who encountered the Force for the first time in 1977 is now a thirty-year-old computer programmer. He doesn’t think that children as children really ‘get’ the Christian echoes of these films explicitly, but sees them now himself. ‘Star Wars’ remains a vivid memory for all three generations still, and exercises a mysterious fascination as a shared experience that annihilates the almost sixty years between us. And all three will again get to see Attack of the Clones  this year, God willing.

We worry greatly these times about the growing gap between adolescents and the mean age of clergy. How does one go about teaching Christianity to the children of cool? Nothing is more certain than that we all need to experience at least some of what’s cool, and start from there. Lucas gives us reference points, characters and visuals that everyone in Christian education, and every parent, can know and make use of.

So this summer all you uninitiated Jedi should ‘get out more’, switch off your theological bomb sights, let the Force flow through you, and then go figure out how to explain why prayer, grace and the Holy Spirit are so much cooler. And make sure it’s all in a film script that will have children of all ages cheering their heads off.

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Rehabilitating Satan

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001

Since the 18th century Enlightenment, western modernity has ridiculed the notion of an intelligent power of evil separable from us yet bent upon our destruction, and has optimistically trusted in the power of reason to deliver Utopia. Post modernism has lost confidence in reason and banished all optimism, but remains closed to any spiritual dimension. Both God and Satan remain banished from the media discourse of most of those who seriously debate human affairs – including the question of where the world may be going. Even Christian theologians, although defensive of God, seem often slightly embarrassed by the question of Satan – as though he were a kind of demented and distant relation with obscure and unmentionable, and maybe even absurd, criminal tendencies who is best forgotten.

The fact that Hollywood has enthusiastically adopted this embarrassing relative doesn’t help matters. As lascivious progenitor of a human Antichrist bent upon world domination he becomes merely ridiculous – even more so than Dracula, Dr No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Yet the pervasiveness of evil in our time – never more horrifically demonstrated than on September 11th, 2001 – defies our expertise, and whatever optimism we can still muster. The West’s technological sophistication – quite capable of ending global deprivation – was turned against it with terrifying effect. America, ‘land of the free’, was attacked as though it was a global tyranny to be fought by the most merciless of means.

‘Diabolical’ we may say – at a loss for words of sufficient force – even while knowing that it is the demonisation of America by militant Islam that explains that day. That is, when we humans decide that any physical entity is ‘the root of all evil’, we will justify any means to destroy it – and that attempt becomes itself an archetype of evil. Nazism justified the Shoa in precisely the same way – ‘international Jewry’ had supposedly conspired against and humiliated Germany during and after World War 1, so its destruction was a holy duty. Yet this systematic attempt to destroy an entire people became itself the archetypal example of ‘diabolical’ evil in modern times.

Accusation is the essence of the demonisation process – the loading of blame onto a specific human target. If we identify the specifically demonic act as one of accusation we can make use of the insights of René Girard (succinctly presented in a recent post-retirement work *) both to interpret what is happening, and to predict what lies down the road. Girard the anthropologist needs to do no more than minutely describe a repetitive process of mimetic rivalry, accusation, violence and concealment to justify his theories. Christian faith can go beyond this to accuse the spirit of evil, Satan, which lies behind this process, tempting us to accuse one another.

The USA’s finger was within hours of the US catastrophe pointed at Osama bin Laden, catapulting him to world notoriety and, apparently, global Islamic fame. Within a month western high explosive – often with ‘NYPD’ painted on the casing – was ‘rearranging the rubble’ in Afghanistan, and causing much ‘collateral damage’. Soon Osama bin Laden was in turn accusing the USA of being the source of all that is wrong in the Islamic world, and urging Jihad.

What I propose here is simply that mutual demonisation is an inevitable consequence of the banishment of Satan, understood as ‘the accuser’ – the spirit of accusation – from human discourse. That is, if we fail to see the resort to mutual accusation as the imitative demonic process common to protagonists on the brink of conflict, and to stand apart from it, we, almost consciously, join the dance of death. Our common enemy is this spirit of accusation, busy on both sides. Unrecognised it operates freely through us – raising our arm to point in accusation, and to hurry us to arms. And once we use them we will, knowingly now, validate one another’s accusations. Thus Satan the accuser becomes also Satan the destroyer.

“How can Satan drive out Satan?” Jesus asked. Unless the accused is totally alone and powerless, the result of accusation is invariably counter-accusation. We have seen this law survive thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, perfectly intact. It is the veritable source of human historical inertia, the repetitive resort to violence. It would be catastrophic if this same dynamic were now to polarise the West and Islam.

Of course accusation to be plausible will usually seek, and find, justification for itself. Bin Laden’s direct part in the September 11th atrocity may be hard to prove conclusively in court, but it fits perfectly his openly espoused programme of killing Americans wherever they can be found, and he explicitly approved and exulted in the attack afterwards. Moreover his wealth and energy will inevitably place him somewhere in the paths of some of the perpetrators, and in the weave of events, leading to the disaster.

But the purpose of accusation is more than to apportion blame. It also deflects attention from the accuser – often in a crisis likely to reflect badly upon that accuser. Bin Laden did precisely the same in forecasting US atrocities in Afghanistan as a means of winning support in Pakistan, and of deflecting attention from the appalling scale and manner of death in Washington and New York.

To date I have not heard any US politician ask why the appalling weaknesses in US internal air security, spotted by the plotters probably as early as 1996, were not eliminated by those charged with this responsibility by the Washington administrations of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. Could the reason be that both of the great American political parties have been catastrophically remiss – for purely wealth-driven reasons? And when the plight of the Palestinians is raised as a cause of Islamic fundamentalist wrath, the hawkish response is to allege that some kind of moral equivalence is being argued. To placate American opinion – severely shocked by this unprecedented blow to its heart – the military hardware they finance through taxation must be put in motion eastwards, even if this does cause further havoc among the desperately poor of Afghanistan. As I write, Americans wait for some kind of dénouement there in the arrest of Bin Laden – so the deflective power of accusation is still doing its job.

The best of all lessons on the proper Christian approach to accusation is the story of the woman accused of adultery in the Temple, in Jesus’ presence. He did not address the accusation, but the accusers. Accusation deflects attention and focuses anger elsewhere by implying a moral imbalance between accuser and accused. Not only is the accused guilty, the accuser is also innocent. The scapegoating violence that normally followed such a charge was intended to envelop Jesus also – either in complicity or opposition. His direct appeal to the self-knowledge of the accusers – and to their knowledge of one another – prevented the throwing of the initial and always fatal stone.

To allude to Satan then in this context is to point to the power of the spirit of accusation in unifying one community against another. Evils exist both in a seriously sick western culture that threatens an unmodernised Islam, and in an Islamic fundamentalism that naively scapegoats America – and these must both be addressed.

When addressing the problems of the west – especially an unbounded and glorified consumerism that unbalances the world and threatens its environment – we may be temped to resort to the accusatory word ‘greed’, especially in relation to America. Yet the Bible does not make this accusation. Again it places the blame for all our weaknesses upon a spiritual entity that tempts us, without being an essential part of us. ‘You shall be as Gods!’ – this is the original temptation: to forsake the obscurity and dependence of the creature for the glory and power of the creator. To say ‘yes’ to this temptation is to admit the spirit of material dissatisfaction and ambition – the very core of Western economic dynamism and military power.

When the artist known as Madonna can assert that she will continue her career until she is ‘better known than God’, she unwittingly validates completely this biblical diagnosis of what is wrong with all of us. Our self-regard depends more and more upon the degree to which we suppose we are regarded by others – and this is the root source of our acquisitiveness. Possessions are the social symbols of success, of ‘worth’, and money the means by which these symbols are to be acquired. Celebrity is the final seal: ‘I am known by millions, therefore I exist’.

The Enlightenment was therefore entirely wrong in supposing that the concepts of sin and Satan are an indictment of humankind. Instead they are a means by which the perennial evils we visit upon one another are explained in terms that deny us the right to accuse one another, and also offer us the means of a full reconciliation, in mutual respect.

Thus when President Bush tells an American audience ‘we are the greatest nation on earth’ we need not say ‘There you are – American arrogance and imperialism!’  We can say instead that in a moment when American self-respect has been seriously damaged the temptation to hyperbole has proved irresistible. And when bin Laden identifies America as the root of all evil we can ask ‘What role, then, does Satan, the tempter, play in your theology?’

And when right and left fall into separate bitter camps over the relative evil of ‘terrorist’ and state violence we can point out that the debate needs to move on – to identify the spirit of self-exculpation and accusation in both camps as the root of the problem. Islamic societies seem to be as easily deflected from the horrors of September 11th as Americans are from the sufferings of Palestinians and other Muslims due to Western failure.

There is no doubt that otherwise we must all seek a violent righteousness – a position of moral unassailability from which we can indict everyone else. We will continue forever demonising one another until we can recognise that the temptation to do so – a temptation that is resistible – affects us all, afflicts us all, but is nevertheless separable from our better selves. And this tempter has the same name in both the Bible and the Quran.

  * I See Satan Fall like Lightning : René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)

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