Tag Archives: George Lucas

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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Harry Potter and the disappearing student

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2001

English public schools always breaks up for Christmas – and Hogwarts is no exception. Strange, really, since Hogwarts is an academy for wizards and witches, and therefore (according to Christian fundamentalists and even some toy store chains), a global focus of neo-pagan demonic power and a corruptor of childhood innocence.

Hogwarts is, of course as fictional as its most renowned pupil, Harry Potter. Each of the seven years that Harry spends there is to be recorded in a novel for children – boys especially – by J.K. Rowling. Four have already been written.

At Hogwarts one finds the familiar cast of the typical English boarding school yarn – the wise and indulgent Head whose gift for moral discernment has nodded strangely in the appointment of a sinister teacher or two; the sadistic, sneering student bully and his henchmen; their victims – and the heroic Harry and his mates who stand in the way. But instead of Latin, Maths and French, Harry and his coevals take Sorcery, Magical Animals and Divinisation classes. And where Harry’s predecessors had to deal with German or Russian spies or drug runners, Harry has to match wands at the denouement with the sinister Lord Voldemort, an arch wizard bent upon global thraldom. It is essentially youthful joie de vivre against the controlling mind of the overbearing adult, white magic against black, good against evil – and guess who wins in the end.

The young (and the wannabe young) tend to love these stories partly because the school is indeed, after the family, the power structure within which their own life drama begins – a challenging microcosm of the adult world within which some kind of glory is sought and all kinds of humiliation skirted. They love them also for the rich Halloween detail and humour which make lessons riotous – apart from the inevitable one or two in which the teacher burbles on endlessly on, say, astrological charts, as her predecessors would have done on Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Rowling takes her other world scholarship on everything from dragons and unicorns to leprechauns and giants with almost Tolkien-like gravity – but also improvises joyously.

Should we worry about all of this? Yes indeed. Rowling’s imagination does seem strangely bare of biblical reference, and Harry’s Christmas is a matter of mere digestive excess, in the tradition of Enid Blyton. If the rich historical significance of Christmas and Easter in the defeat of the powers of darkness can find not even an allegorical echo in the most popular child fiction of the moment, there is indeed something wrong. Christianity, one gathers from the minimal reference in these books – and from the po-faced fundamentalist campaign against them – is a portentous and tedious feature of the Muggle world – something to escape from in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, who headed down river in spiritual revolt against soap and psalms as well as fear of an abusive parent.

Muggles, for the uninitiated, are those who can never get to Hogwarts, because they are simply unendowed with magical powers. Following the murder of his parents by Voldemort, Harry was raised by his Muggle Aunt and Uncle, suburban tyrants who gave him the cupboard under the stairs to sleep in. They spoil their only son, Dudley, who bullies Harry until he finds himself transmuted into a variety of animal forms, and humiliated in various other ways.

Oddly enough, it is in the humiliation of Dudley that Rowling comes a little unstuck. Magic is after all an extension of human power and when it is used to humiliate, laughter cannot be entirely unalloyed. Dudley’s obesity is precisely the kind of vulnerability that bullies exploit in the Muggle world – so his likely destiny as the archetypal spoiled suburban child is eventually itself oddly affecting. Perhaps Rowling will find some way of redeeming this particular Muggle in the end.

The straightened circumstances of the Weasleys – the wizarding family that provides Harry with an occasional holiday refuge from his Muggle cousin’s – is also a little difficult to fathom, as the ability to transmute anything into anything else should surely be commercially exploitable without breaching wizarding rules. However, Ron Weasley’s penurious decency is a necessary foil to Harry’s exceptional talent and destiny, preventing him from getting above himself.

The Weasleys are derided for their penury by the school cad, Draco Malfoy – scion of a wealthy and ambitious family inclined towards Voldemort – so Harry’s friendship with Ron makes him a defender of the weak and the poor against the power-hungry. This is in the best traditions of children’s fiction, entirely compatible with Christian principles, and one marvels again at the obtuseness of those who condemn these books as a threat to these. They sometimes wonder why the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis have no current equivalent in children’s fiction – without realising that their own lack of humour goes a long way towards explaining why.

Lewis’s medievalism led him to allow his child characters to play in a rather priggish way at Kings and Queens in Narnia, learning chivalry from Aslan the wise lion. Aslan’s self-sacrificial death to save the most selfish of the child characters was Lewis’s rather awkward attempt at explaining Christian redemption to children. Lewis could never see that the idea of kingship – the ultimate elevation of the individual in the ancient and medieval worlds – has always itself been associated with the problem of victimisation – as the Bible itself reveals, for example in the story of David. In this sense Rowling’s imaginative world marks an advance on that of Lewis – for Rowling identifies ambition and the desire for power as in themselves morally dubious.

The suggestion that these stories may draw children towards the occult seems fatuous: children playing at magic will quickly find (as I did) that the books don’t provide enough straight wizarding instruction to conjure up a packet of liquorice allsorts. Although demons do turn up rather frequently, Hogwarts is no den of iniquity: it springs straight from the magical underworld of King Arthur’s mentor, Merlin, and its sense of humour is very similar to that of T.H. White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’, a joyous retelling of the boyhood of Arthur.

The success of Harry Potter reveals clearly once again what Mark Twain so beautifully demonstrated in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: that children have an entirely healthy desire to turn the world upside down. Christian educators should wonder why it is that this same desire cannot yet be identified in children’s fiction with the purpose of the Gospels. When Harry rejects the option of power and success on his induction into Hogwarts, and at important crises thereafter, why can none of the fundies find an echo here of Jesus’ option to join the sinners in the Jordan (the occasion of his first recognition by the Father in John’s gospel), followed immediately by his rejection of both political and religious power in the desert, and his rejection of the option of force (i.e. worldly power) at Gethsemane. Jesus himself said that his kingdom was not of this world – but that children would be at home in it. As children feel entirely at home in Hogwarts it is reasonable to suppose that Christian educators would carefully study that world before banning it from their own library shelves.

Every child wants not only to turn the world upside down, but to save it – and that is why children identify with Harry, with Merlin, with Arthur, with Robin Hood, with Huck Finn in his saving of the slave, Jim, and with George Lucas’s creation, Luke Skywalker.

Luke’s recognition as destroyer of the awesome spherical Battle Station in the final scene of the first of the ‘Star Wars’ films gives us insight into every boy’s desire for recognition as hero and saviour. Somehow, for Christian education to touch the boy at the deepest level our practical theology must place Jesus in that heroic context, offering a meaningful, non-soppy heroism to children today, connected to the cosmic context in which their minds now operate. The feminising and over-spiritualising of Jesus we have inherited from an Italianate piety that essentially invites Catholic boys to be Mammy’s boys has not yet been properly eradicated from our Catholic culture – and the over-theologising of Jesus that grips the academic theologian’s imagination is equally misconceived as a means of capturing the hearts and imaginations of young men.

The Lucas stories, the Narnia books, the Potter stories and the Tolkien books all demonstrate the desire of children to live in a world that they can master and mould, escaping from the one they patently can’t. That so many now seem to want to escape from Christianity also is a problem that deserves the most careful thought.

I am convinced that the problem is precisely that theistic Christianity has largely remained the intellectual property of those governed by fear of the future, by fear of freedom, and by nostalgia for a buttoned-up past. Far from seeming subversive to the young, it is seen as supportive of an adult controlling instinct nostalgic for Victorian order – if not something even fustier. It is an Anne Widdicombe preserve (she would make a marvellous Muggle Tory school inspector double-taking the absence of maths and economics from the Hogwarts curriculum), and therefore something to avoid at all costs.

We are faced with the problem of explaining redemption in imagery that can grip children as the best children’s art does – and neither a retreat to Lewis’s medievalism nor censorship will answer. The truth is that we adults are lacking the kind of grasp of the gospels that would allow us to do this persuasively in our children’s imaginative world – and this is a fundamental reason for the current evangelical shortfall of Christian education. For most of the children who leave our schools our ‘good news’ is a complicated, incoherent and meaningless adult tale that takes place in a world entirely remote from their own, for the support of an institution to be ruled forever by an oligarchy of old men dressed in skirts. So it is very stale news best forgotten, rather than a possible vital centre of their own life’s journey.

This is our fault (I speak as a parent and former teacher) – not theirs or J.K. Rowling’s.

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