Paths to Glory Light and Dark: Star Wars Recovers Its Pelagian Heart

This post is brought to you by the one and only Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee […]

Mockingbird / 12.31.15

This post is brought to you by the one and only Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the Hatchet.


It might be because I’ve been reading Mark Noll’s America’s God but in the 21st century it can seem that the ideal deity for Americans might just be the Force. With the arrival of Episode VII, The Force Awakens, it appears that Star Wars has the magic back. Yeah, it’s basically the stuff we’ve seen before, but it’s what we’ve wanted to see that we didn’t see in the prequels. Gone are the inept attempts at Greco-Roman tragedy for Anakin Skywalker. Gone are talk of midichlorians and their nebulous relationship to the Force. We’re back to the Force being activated by the power of your belief in it and the stuff that unites the dark and light.

Anthony Lane playfully wrote that the new subtitle is apt, since it sure seems as if the Force was asleep at the wheel in cinemas for the last few decades. But perhaps we should say that the Force itself is not awakened in the new film so much as that the Force awakens. In a galaxy where no one who embraces the light side of the Force will stand up to the darkness, we get a story in which the Force, so to speak, forces the issue of who is willing to fight the good fight.

Fortunately, the deserting storm trooper Finn, the ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, and our pretty clearly presented new hero Rey respond to the call. Or do they? The Force was described in the old films as an energy field that exists between all living things. It has no personality with which to call on a person does it? Even if it does have a personality, the Force is perhaps the perfect American deity. It responds to your belief in it and your belief in it permits you to gain fantastic abilities. Those who don’t believe in the Force in this universe Lucas created may be lucky or unlucky like Han Solo, but, once you choose to believe in and make use of the Force, then you are bound for a path of glory, regardless of whether that path is into the light or into the darkness.

The Seattle area film critic Charles Mudede has mentioned in his review of the new Star Wars film that Abrams and company have brought back the Star Wars we have known and loved. One of the foremost things that has been brought back, as Mudede has mentioned, is the theology. You can’t really discuss Star Wars films without getting into religion. I agree, and what is so definitive about the Star Wars franchise, as an exercise in American pop theology, is its irreducibly Pelagian heart. The Force may well be America’s God, its real god, the ultimate nebulously impersonal personal force of moral therapeutic deism.

The Force in itself is just the energy field; the light or dark side of the Force isn’t defined except by what those who use it decide to do with it. If you seek to self-actualize in a way that helps other people self-actualize, or helps them in some fashion, then you’re on the side of angels. If you use the Force to intimidate and self-actualize yourself at the expense of others, that’s the dark side. It’s not necessarily about how a Jedi always uses the Force for defense, never for attack. If that’s what was really going on, then Yoda should have been a Sith lord in the prequels for the number of stormtroopers he killed. While Anakin’s path to the dark side was strewn with murders, it was his decision to murder the Emperor in order to save the life of his son, Luke, which led to his redemption and joining the Light. A curious paradox–whether a person is on the dark or light side of the Force hinges on whether or not you kill the right person at the right time for the right reasons. But there it is.

There’s no need for spoilers if you haven’t seen the film, and yet it’s no spoiler to say that, in this restored cinematic franchise, the Force doesn’t exactly make a lot of decisions or get speeches. The Force responds to people like Kylo Renn and Rey. Kylo Renn uses the Force to interrogate people and extract information from them to get what he wants; Rey uses the Force to impel brainwashed stormtroopers to help her escape capture. Kylo Renn is caught in the midst of emotional ambivalence between a quest for power and a residual desire for human connection on the one hand, while Rey is eager to reunite with a family long lost without realizing that so doing she is running from the surrogate family that has been taking shape around her. The Force does nothing to clarify things for either Kylo Renn or Rey, but once they choose, and believe the Force is real, the Force responds to their wishes.

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The magic is back. Star Wars is a franchise that has cast off the shoddy aspirations toward Greco-Roman tragedy looking at the life of an Anakin Skywalker who is waylaid by the overweening passions and anxieties of his mortal self. We’re given a new episode that returns the franchise to its Pelagian heart. Everything is up to you. You have a destiny, but your destiny is entirely in your control and defined by what you do. As we saw with Darth Vader’s redemption, even a lifetime of killing and terrorizing can be redeemed by one well-chosen and well-timed act of kindness. Then, just like that, you’re on the side of angels and redeemed.

Even people who would scoff at the genre trappings of Star Wars may still ardently believe in these sacred tenets. People can scoff at the plot formality in which one decision made by one person has consequences that change the fate of an entire galaxy. But don’t we have plenty of cinematic tales year after year, sans sci-fi or fantasy trappings, telling stories of individuals who brave the odds and face evil empires to save people? Concussion may not be so different from The Force Awakens in the core ideals it espouses. For the sake of these ideals, the idea that one person can make a decision or take a stand that “changes everything,” we can pretty easily overlook details of historical accuracy, just as we can ignore the question of whether or not Han Solo and crew could survive pulling the Millennium Falcon out of light speed flight only after entering the atmosphere of a weaponized planet.

But Star Wars is unique in distilling American pop mythology and theology in a way that seems to reflect our ideals and aspirations, even if we’re not always clear about what those mean. If Star Wars is a fairy tale or a mythology that expresses American ideals, what is that ideal? That the Force is just an energy field that responds to our commands, a nebulous it/thing that unites darkness and light. The only thing we can tell for sure from those who choose to believe in the Force and wield it is that, whether they choose a path toward the dark side or the light, they are choosing a path that inevitably leads to merited glory. Maybe the Force is America’s real god after all.