Columnists > Soul Food

Star Wars redux

Techno-pop Hinduism on the big screen

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

Although the media train left town a month ago, in all the hype and spin about The Phantom Menace, the most important point has been overlooked. Am I the only writer in the Western Hemisphere who thinks the Star Wars movies are not about the battle between good and evil? Years ago in Indonesia, I asked a young Balinese man why the idols of Garuda and the various other gods and demons wore trunks of black-and-white checkered cloth. "The black and white mean good and evil," he replied. "And why are they in a checkered pattern?" I returned. Confirming my hunch, he answered, "To show that good and evil must be balanced." "But why must they be balanced?" I pressed. "Wouldn't it be better-more good-for good to conquer evil?" This question baffled him, but I thought I knew what was going on. Christianity holds that God is good, that evil arises through sin, and that God's victory over evil will be complete. By contrast, Hinduism believes that God is an impersonal All that includes both good and evil. According to this dreadful way of thinking, good is not "better" than evil at all. To be sure, some people will pursue good, others evil, and they will be at cross-purposes. That is why it is possible for Hinduism to produce epic tales like the Mahabharata. But as its central episode, the Bhagavad-Gita, makes clear, the conflict between the good and evil characters is merely sound and fury. In the Hindu view, good needs evil for balance. Similar ideas crop up in other Eastern religions, like the Yin and Yang of China. They also appear in Western imports, like the suggestion of psychologist C.G. Jung that Christians should believe not in a Trinity but in a Quaternity. According to this fantasy, Satan belongs to the Godhead in just the same way as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And now the most successful import of all: the Force. Yes, that's right. Don't believe director George Lucas when he tells interviewers that he has no answer to the question of what God is. Star Wars is modeled not after medieval Christian romance but after ancient Hindu epic, its God a techno-pop version of the All. In the Force, good and evil are facets of a single divine reality. They can no more exist apart from each other than the facets of a gem. Yes, some characters identify with the Light Side, others identify with the Dark, and Lucas expects us to cheer the former. But attend to the language: good and evil, dark and light, are "sides" of the same power. Justice, truth, and joy-wickedness, lies, and pain-they are but the right and left faces of a single blind God. That is why in The Phantom Menace the characters gravely discuss the "prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force," wondering if the young Anakin Skywalker could be he. Their gravity is farcical, for they aren't thinking that good is balanced and evil unbalanced, but that the two of them balance each other. Good and evil are presented as wrestlers, not as boxers: even while struggling, locked in a mutual embrace. They are opposed, but only in the sense that "heads" and "tails" are opposed: inseparable, brothers, twins. I know what you're thinking: Come on, Budziszewski. What you say may all be true, but it goes right over the heads of those kids in the folding seats. A 10-year-old with his hands in a bucket of popcorn and his eyes on the flickering screen is thinking about Good Guys and Bad Guys, not the relativity of good and evil. Nobody learns theology in a movie theater. On the contrary, the movie theater is precisely where postmodern kids learn theology. Sure they're thinking about Good Guys and Bad Guys. But they're also thinking other things, like this: The Good Guys are cool, but the Bad Guys are also cool-just in a different, darker way. Jake Lloyd, who plays young Anakin, offers various views of his character's later transformation into the evil Darth Vader. They seem somewhat inconsistent-not surprising when the speaker is a 10-year-old boy. Even so, I am struck by this remark, reported by Paul Willistein: "Darth Vader's the best. I have to become Darth Vader. He's a good guy. In a way, he did bring balance to the Force." In a way, he did. That's just the problem.

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