Cover Story

Battling the cultural menace

Can the return of Star Wars-high-tech and sci-fi in style,but medieval in substance-help lead the cultural fight against postmodernism?

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

In cities across the nation, young people have camped out in front of movie theaters, waiting in line up to a month before the movie's scheduled May 19 opening. They have had lawn chairs, sleeping bags, and ice chests, plus portable TVs and laptop computers, and many have dressed like aliens, princesses, and Jedi Knights. Passersby could only marvel-don't they have parents? School? A job? A life? But for the hardest-core Star Wars fans, the campout has been a small price to pay to get into the very first showing of Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace. The first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, 22 years ago, before many of the line campers were born. The trilogy of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi belonged to their parents' generation, but it became part of their childhood. Before the invention of the VCR, movies were gone, once they played in the local theater, seen again only if they were broadcast on TV or shown in college film courses. With video technology, which came into its own just after the time the Star Wars films were made, a movie could be like a book, kept on the shelf, available to be perused again and again. The fans who care enough to dress up grew up with Star Wars. Now, a new trilogy is beginning, a prequel to the saga of Luke Skywalker, showing how Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side, a Star Wars for their generation. The first Star Wars broke new ground in special effects and high-tech movie making, with utterly convincing space battles and exploding Death Stars. And that was before computer animation. Star Wars the next generation promises to break the envelope again in the fabrication of cinematic illusions. But special effects alone cannot explain the appeal of the Star Wars saga; Hollywood subsequently put out a slew of imitators that were strong on FX but weak at the box office. Somehow, the story struck a chord. In 1977, America was still under the cloud of Vietnam and Watergate. Cynicism ruled, and Hollywood was turning out angst-fests like All the President's Men, Network, and Annie Hall. Jimmy Carter had just been elected president. The first Star Wars movie came like a breath of fresh air. Its saga of clear-cut good vs. evil was refreshing to an age of moral ambiguity. Its imaginative fantasy was stimulating in an age grown used to bleak, depressing, realism. Star Wars brought back old-fashioned excitement and spectacle, reminding viewers of the time when movies were just fun. The next two episodes-The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983)-ushered in the new cultural optimism of the Reagan era. There were not even any bad words (their PG ratings came from possibly scary monsters). George Lucas-the writer, director, producer, and special-effects maestro who created the series-kept children in mind. A devoted single father who adopted more children after his wife left him, Mr. Lucas created the movies both for children and for their parents, for whom the series brings back old memories of the Saturday matinees. But Mr. Lucas had larger ambitions. The series also tapped into spiritual issues. The bad guys dismissed "the Force" as an ancient superstition, but the Jedi Knights were cassock-clad warrior monks who tapped into its supernatural power. Although reminiscent of God, the Force-unlike the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-is impersonal, with not only a good side but a Dark Side. "I put the Force into the movie," explained Mr. Lucas in an interview with Time, "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.'" He himself admitted in the interview, to Bill Moyers, that he is in that searching category, that he believes in a God but does not know who that God is. To his credit, he insists on the need for organized religion, whose place cannot be taken by movies. "I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience." Mr. Lucas drew on the late mythographer Joseph Campbell, whose Hero with a Thousand Faces purported to find unifying traits and psychological meaning in the old myths and legends. The figure of the hero typically has a humble beginning and must go through a series of trials, corresponding, Mr. Campbell said, to the psychological process of growing up. Thus, Luke Skywalker begins as a farmboy, learning to become a Jedi Knight so that he can save the universe, coming to terms with his absent father along the way. But for all of the mythological pretension, despite Mr. Lucas's own intentions, the Star Wars saga is not really a myth. There are no gods, no personifications of nature, no origin tales, or authoritative cultural narratives. Star Wars is more an update, for the contemporary imagination, of the medieval romance. A romance was a tale about knights and chivalry, depicting the rescue of princesses, battles with dragons and other monsters, epic wars, and imaginative fantasy. Star Wars is also about Knights in armor (though the armor goes by the name of spacesuit) who fight with swords (though made out of laser light, rather than steel). They rescue a princess named Leia. The social scene of this galaxy far, far away has nothing to do with that of contemporary western democracies; rather, it is a medieval hierarchy, with nobility, princes, and emperors. In that first Star Wars trilogy, farmboy-turned-knight Luke Skywalker is like Sir Gareth in the King Arthur sage. Obi-wan Kenobi and the other Jedi masters look and act like Merlin, even to the point of their grey beards and robes. The merry band of Ewoks is reminiscent of Robin Hood. The Death Stars may be in outer space, but they are still castles that must be stormed. Joseph Campbell did little more than study old stories like these, adding to them his New Age interpretations. But the stories themselves-the epic quests, symbolic adventures, and morality tales-emerged out of a different worldview. It was Christianity that inspired the medieval romances, stimulating the imagination toward great deeds and moral heroism. The old romances projected their settings into the distant past, or "once upon a time." They often sent their heroes into the terra incognita of the undiscovered globe, where they met exotic beings and battled strange monsters. Star Wars is futuristic, taking place "in a galaxy far, far away," but for all practical purposes, the two are exactly the same. In the year 1000, many people had a superstitious belief in magic. On the verge of the year 2000, many people have a superstitious belief in science and technology. Star Wars appeals to today's techno-driven imagination, but the substance of the stories and even the imagery-sword fights by men in armor-is straight from the Middle Ages. Those who believe that the past is irrelevant to the present-and that "old" religions like Christianity need to get rid of their ancient trappings-need only attend to the popularity of Star Wars. Only "modernists" talk like that, but 20th-century modernity is over. While many "postmodernists" succumb to relativism, others are rediscovering what was so valuable in the "pre-modern" and are bringing it into contemporary life. Today, over two decades after the first Star Wars, our culture is again stagnating and depressed. We have just finished another impeachment crisis, with a president whose flagrant immorality is embarrassing even to his supporters. Then, the nation was still recovering from young people dying in Vietnam. Today, young people are dying in schools. The climate of cynicism and cultural malaise is back. It may be, despite our surface prosperity, much worse. Might this new Star Wars trilogy-so eagerly anticipated, so yearned for-herald, as the first trilogy did, another new morning in America? We need not approve of Star Wars theology to recognize that the hunger for epics, heroism, and spiritual reality is culturally healthy. But the medieval romances, which retain their power even today, grew out of a Christian worldview. Apart from that foundation, even a cultural renaissance, much less a movie, will not amount to much. The first series posited an Evil Empire, which, like the Soviet Union under President Reagan's Star Wars defense system, was defeated. This next series is about the evil within, tracing how the young Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader. This is the evil that is most to the point, that is most intractable, and that America most needs to face. Technology cannot come to grips with evil like this. Neither can mythology. This is the kind that needs the grace, not of an impersonal Force, but of a personal God. It is not something that can be defeated by a hero with a light saber. The only hero who can defeat this evil is Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, who does so by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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