The force is cool, but it's no Holy Spirit

by Emily Whitten
Posted 12/17/15, 09:30 am

The force awakens tomorrow morning at midnight with the release of the latest Star Wars sequel, almost 40 years after the first installment in the saga debuted. Joshua Hays, a researcher at Baylor University, says one of the things that makes Star Wars so appealing is its spiritual theme.

“It captures our imaginations because it transcends the materialism that we run up against so often,” Hays said. He wrote the book A True Hope: Jedi Perils and the Way of Jesus when he found discipling students was easier when he used Star Wars examples. But Hays also says the story contains some myths that are worth scrutinizing from a Christian perspective, especially the idea of “the force.”

In the first movie of the original trilogy, Star Wars: A New Hope, there are only 28 words to describe it, and yet the mystery of what the force is and how it works is critical to the plot. Without the force, Luke Skywalker could never have been a hero. It’s just under the surface, leading him, guiding him, giving him the ability to do what he could never normally do.

Star Wars creator George Lucas himself has said he meant for the force to represent God in some way—not a particular religion, but a spiritual reality or force underneath all religions. So while, on one hand, it’s just an imaginary thing in an imaginary world, it’s also something people in our world are confused about.

Hays noted the idea of the force is a little confusing to even the most dedicated Star Wars fan. 

“In that original movie, Obi-Wan describes it as being a mystical energy field created by all living things,” Hays said. “In the next movie, Yoda describes it in a really similar way.” 

But the first prequel, released in 1999, introduced another theory about microscopic organisms in the bloodstream called “midichlorians” that produced the force. 

“It sounded more like a parasitic infection than this mystical energy field, but either way … whether fans understand it as being more medical or mystical, it’s the power that energizes the Jedi and the Sith alike, and I think that’s what makes it so exciting to us as viewers,” Hays said.

Although it’s exciting to watch, the force is impersonal, unlike the Christian understanding of God.

“I think that is the fundamental breakdown where the force is just that: It’s a force, it’s an impersonal sort of energy out there somewhere and you can tap into it. … You can use the force, you can kind of co-opt the force for your own agenda,” Hays said.

Another myth in Star Wars is the intrinsic goodness of people. In the movies, that goodness only lasts as long as a person recognizes and responds to the goodness within. In Return of the Jedi, Yoda tells Luke Skywalker, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

Hays calls that a bold statement on humanity. 

I would contrast that with Scripture that gives us the explanation that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that being on that dark path is really where all of us find ourselves by the time that we’re old enough to have a sense of accountability and give it any thought at all, we’re on a different path than God intended for us,” Hays said. In the Christian faith, there’s always hope for salvation through Jesus—a return from the dark side, so to speak.

But there is some goodin the Star Wars movies, and Hays said he hoped the newest movie will keep the good elements from the older films. 

“They show a really clear battle between right and wrong. There’s good and there’s evil, and those moral choices that characters make have some real significance,” he said. “And I think we need to see that kind of thing portrayed in our entertainment.”

Listen to Emily Whitten’s report on the theology of Star Wars on The World and Everything in It.

Emily Whitten

Emily is a book critic and writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Mississippi graduate, previously worked at Peachtree Publishers, and developed a mother's heart for good stories over a decade of homeschooling. Emily resides with her family in Nashville, Tenn. Follow her on Twitter @emilyawhitten.

Read more from this writer