It has become a cliche. The screen holds 10 simple words: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Then the screen erupts with the familiar logo for “Star Wars.” The music swells and up scrolls the message of what has taken place before our entry into this universe.
In 1977, George Lucas brought to the screen his first chapter in the story of struggle between good and evil. With the introduction of the Force, Lucas sparked a cultural search for spirituality. Coming at the end of the ’70s, Lucas was able to tap into the human need for a connection to God.
In his follow up to “Star Wars” (which has since been renamed “A New Hope”), Lucas presented “The Empire Strikes Back.” This film gave flesh to the bones of the Force presented in the first installment. Lucas introduced us to Yoda, the pastor/teacher for the Force who instructed Luke Skywalker in its ways. Skywalker represented the rebirth of the Jedi Knights—the true believers in the power of the Force.
People began to seek out ways of incorporating spirituality into their lives because of their experiences with the “Star Wars” movies. Lucas was able to take movies, oftentimes easily dismissed, and start people searching for how they relate to God.
Twenty-seven years later, another movie is released that deals with spirituality: Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” His story, coming directly from the New Testament and Catholic tradition, tells of the last 12 hours in Jesus’ life. We see the Stations of the Cross, as well as every graphic detail of the scourging of Jesus. Gibson spares almost nothing from those hours of horror.
Many have said Gibson’s movie sparked a new wave of religious zeal. “The Passion of the Christ” currently ranks No. 7 in U.S. box office gross. Millions have seen this movie, with churches and church groups reserving whole theaters. Its power is so great that many are saying it has become a catalyst for their faith.
Looking at “Star Wars” and “The Passion,” I have concluded that the latter completes a cycle that began with the former in a galaxy far, far away. What “Star Wars” hinted at, “The Passion” makes clear. The idea of faith that “Star Wars” pointed to becomes the reality that “The Passion” embodies.
But this comes with a needed observation.
What “The Passion of the Christ” represents is the need for the literal in our religious and spiritual lives. There is no real metaphor in the movie, no real mystery. Everything is on screen. Holiness is presented in full-blown, living color.
The partial result is a backlash seen in the fact that “The Passion” has become a favorite movie for lovers of slasher and ultraviolent movies. Its lack of metaphor and its unabashed treatment of every detail of the crucifixion have left nothing to the imagination. That is a pity.
“Something deep within our existence creates a restlessness for God,” writes Don E. Saliers in The Weavings Reader, “yet we live and move and work in a culture of technology, efficiency, and the tyranny of the literal.”
“The Passion of the Christ” bypasses our need to find symbol and metaphor, which help us in our struggle for spirituality. Instead of meeting this need, “The Passion” delivers more of what Saliers calls the tyranny of the literal.
“Star Wars” may not be based on a Christian understanding of God, but it provides the viewer with a metaphor for understanding spirituality. And that’s just what many people are longing for.
Scripps-Howard columnist Terry Mattingly quoted a webmaster for one Star Wars fan site as follows:
“It was natural that my generation would latch on to these stories. They were much more attractive and appropriate than the ancient myths of Judeo-Christian theology. How could these draconian and antiquated stories possibly compete with the majesty and scope of the Star Wars universe?”
Though I do not agree with the idea of scriptural stories being myths or draconian and antiquated, it must be said that “Star Wars” is better than “The Passion of the Christ” in giving viewers a strong metaphor to hold on to.
The effect of that metaphor will prove more powerful with the test of time.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.