I post this belatedly - even if the only 'Star Wars' film I ever watched was the first one - not because of the disquisitions on the film series by two serious writers, Fr. De Souza and Aldo Maria Valli, but to demonstrate how Valli's reflections on the good-vs-evil conflict that underlies the entire galactic saga lead him to recall some of Benedict XVI's words about truth. Maybe because we get so little truth from Church leaders today who insist upon their own 'truth' over the Truth that Jesus Christ is. It seems that whatever topic he writes about now, Valli goes back to Benedict XVI as a literal touchstone - which I find a most refreshing attitude for one who was rather Bergoglian until just a year ago. Hence, his most unlikely title for the post:
'Star Wars', truth and Benedict XVI
August 6, 2017
I have never been a fan of 'Star Wars'. But my daughters are. And so I read with interest an article dedicated to the cinematic intergalactic saga in the UK Catholic Herald
by Fr. Raymond De Souza, SJ, who reflected on the religious content of the fantasy created by George Lucas 40 years ago.
Since Valli proceeds to paraphrase in Italian what Fr. de Souza wrote, I will simply post instead the original article:
Valli, however, goes on to supplement Fr. De Souza's exegesis of 'Star Wars'. I confess I find the plot and character descriptions tedious, and the pseudo-religious overtones pretentious, but then the whole series has a most confused genesis, with prequels and sequels seeking to supplement whatever had gone before, as producers sought to prolong the epic and cast around for writers to do whatever was needed to keep everything together with some consistency. It is really a huge contrived epic, not something that developed 'organically'.
Star Wars’ religious imagery is
more than just coincidence
The franchise is a tale of love, sacrifice and fatherhood
against hate, domination and tyranny
by Fr Raymond de Souza, SJ
Friday, 4 Aug 2017
In our look at prominent anniversaries in 2017, the 40th anniversary of 'Star Wars' bears noting as a significant cultural moment. The series is the most commercially successful movie franchise ever. Later this year, four decades after the first film was released in May 1977, the ninth major motion picture will be released. It’s called Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. In any case, it won’t be the last film, not by a long shot.
Why has it lasted so long, this series which for generations of children has provided the fantastical architecture of their imaginary play? Despite mediocre writing, it has hosted enduring stars – James Earl Jones, Sir Alec Guinness – and launched others, such as Harrison Ford.
From the beginning, many fans noted the religious imagery in 'Star Wars', far too abundant to be accidental. Sir Alec Guinness wore the garb of a monk in his turn as the elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi; Luke Skywalker, when he finally makes it as a Jedi, dresses like a young priest. Darth Vader’s helmet is a stylised mitre, all the better to evoke the corrupt bishop he has become. The wicked emperor carries a staff and is attended by a court that includes attendants decked head-to-toe in cardinalatial red. The Jedi “temple” is a mosque-and-minaret construction.
The Force itself is pantheism made palatable for a secular generation that likes to pretend that it is spiritual but not religious. Now, as the saga nears its (supposed) end, the physical setting is actually Skellig Michael, the redoubt of the Irish monks who saved civilisation.
'Star Wars' endures because it is an ancient story about the deepest human dramas – a tale of love, sacrifice and fatherhood on the one hand, and the tragedy of hate, domination and tyranny on the other. It tests which account is a more authentic description of the path to human flourishing.
The central character is Anakin Skywalker, a young boy of preternatural abilities who has no father. The mystery of fatherhood, natural and spiritual, therefore marks the entire saga. The Jedi present the boy with the ideals of honour and duty and sacrifice in which those who have been given much are required to serve the good of all.
As a young man, Anakin rejects his Jedi masters, and the evil Emperor Palpatine offers a different vision to Anakin: those who have been given much have the power to seize more – even the ultimate power to create life and cheat death. It is the way of domination, not sacrifice.
'Star Wars thus poses a Hegelian question: is the primordial reality the one of the master and the slave? Does man have to choose between being dominant or dominated, in which case the purpose of life and the engine of history is the struggle between those who would be masters and those who would be slaves?
That is the way of the Dark Side, in which the desire to avenge one’s own pain fuels the lust for power. Power is the only remedy for pain – to hurt others before they can hurt you. In Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the Emperor attempts to seduce Luke Skywalker, Anakin’s secret son, to the Dark Side.
Luke is invited to kill Darth Vader [his father's 'new name] and take his place at the side of the all-powerful Emperor. It is the Hegelian dynamic of master and slave again. The slave either remains a slave to be destroyed at the master’s command, or he kills the master and takes his place. It is the way of the gun or, if you will, the lightsaber.
“Show no mercy” is the first lesson the Emperor teaches Anakin-Vader in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. There is no room for mercy in the Hegelian master-slave telling of the human story. Kill or be killed it is: the new Lord Vader massacres the innocent “younglings” in a slaughter that echoes the biblical figures of the Pharaoh and King Herod. Eventually the Emperor makes the same offer to Luke: kill Vader and take his place or be killed. But Vader is Luke’s father, so the master-slave dynamic meets the father-son relationship.
It is striking that for a saga saturated with violence, Luke Skywalker survives into this third trilogy because of mercy and the witness of suffering. It is the suffering of the son that inspires the conversion of the father, and Vader turns against the Emperor and destroys him, at the cost of his own life. The “show no mercy” domination of the tyrant is finally defeated only by the medicine of mercy and the power of filial suffering to move the paternal heart.
St John Paul II observed in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that the only alternative in human relations to the Hegelian master-slave dynamic is the father-son relationship. Either the powerful oppress the weak, as tyrants oppress slaves, or the powerful one sacrifices himself for the weaker, as a father will give his life for his son. This clash of archetypes is at the heart of the 'Star Wars' mythology.
The revelation of the Trinity teaches us that the father-son relationship is more powerful for it lies at the heart of reality. Thus the “radiation of fatherhood” in St John Paul’s words touches all creation, even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Lord of the Rings had a far larger and more complicated cast of characters but it made no pretense of presenting some philosophy or theology – what Tolkien produced was fantasy that is the height of storytelling and far more epic than the Nibelungenlied, and although at bottom, it is also about good versus evil, and how good eventually tyriumphs over evil, you could read the fantasy as a child would, without thinking about anything deeper than the fascinating adventures being recounted.
Not being a 'Star Wars' aficionado, I accept what Fr. De Souza says about the costumes. For sure, the story of Anakin Skywalker is a story of conversion in reverse, from good to bad, because of Palpatine, a true and proper devil vowed to deception and manipulation in order to obtain power over everyone and everything.
If we then add the mystery of Luke Skywalker's paternity and his battle against the Black Death, not to mention the life and formation of Jedi, who have the characteristics of the members of a monastic order, then more elements of religious character enrich the framework.
The very concepts of the Force and its Dark Side have an obvious religious content [or it could simply be moral!].
In the world of 'Star Wars' [as in the world we live in],
there is a permanent conflict between good and evil. Man is free to choose to be on the side of the Force which urges him to cultivate the good by being altruistic, or on the Dark Side which titillates his egoism and urges him to seek self-advantage and the power to subject others to himself.
The Force is some sort of vital energy which sustains the universe and guarantees good relations. It is the kingdom of light, of goodness, and of reason. The Dark Side is dominated by shadows, evil, arbitrariness.The Force is a spiritual energy, which as the master Yoda says, links all persons and things and makes us understand that we are all in relationship with others like us and with nature. [Something like the environmentalism of Laudato si!]
In itself, therefore, the Force is oriented towards goodness, and the Jedi masters are able to perceive this better than others. But if it is used badly, then it can cause you to fall into the Dark Side where, Yoda says, everything is anger, fear, violence. All it takes is to yield once to the Dark Side to become its victim. "If even once you take the dark path, it will forever dominate your destiny!" [Wow, that is absolutely and irrevocably fatalistic, where Christianity offers a chance at redemption!]
Obviously, the Dark Side of the Force has a tremendous fascination for man because it promises power, domination of others and of matter beyond every natural law, and Darth Sidious (aka Palpatine] shows he knows this well when he says that passage to the Dark Side emancipates man and allows him to acquire abilities that are unjustly considered unnatural.
So, here's the eternal temptation: to change the rules, to subvert them according to individual desire for power, to ignore the objective distinction between good and bad. Not by chance, Sidious considers goodness as merely a subjective point of view.
To live on the Dark Side, in short, means to reject the distinction between good and bad in an objective sense – in which it is hard not to find an echo of Nietzsche who proposed life beyond good and evil, elevating subjective will to be the supreme instrument for moral valuation. [Somehow, I hear echoes of Amoris laetitia, Chapter 8, in all that!]
The Dark counterpart of the Jedi, who serve goodness, are the Sith who serve conflict, division and hatred. They serve the devil, we could say, since the word for devil comes from the Greek diaballo
, which means dividing by throwing something in between – the seed of discord, of cupidity, of the thirst for power.
But does the Sith philosophy lead to happiness? Of course not, says Yoda, pointing out that the Dark Side is falsehood and deception. And while a Sith would consider the very idea of personal sacrifice absurd, a Jedi would not hesitate to sacrifice himself for the good of others. [So, a Jedi is either a good Marine, or a Christlike figure.]
Many other factors could be examined, but ultimately, it comes down to a question of good and evil. It must be said that according to some acute observers, one cannot speak of a theology or even a philosophy for Star Wars, but not being an acute observer, I will limit myself to one observation: In the course of 40 years, practically everything has changed in the world, and yet cinemagoers' passion for this intergalactic saga has not lessened. Indeed, it seems as if the fathers and mothers of a generation ago have handed it down to their children. Why?
The most natural response is that the battle between good and evil is always fascinating. But if it is, then it means, it is part of us. If it is part of us, then it means that we are moral beings. And if we are moral beings, it means that we seek the truth and would be able to recognize it.
And that's the point. Nothwithstanding the massive dissemination of nihilistic ideas – according to which man canot experience truth because there is nothing truthful in which he can believe, then we find out that it seems that man's search for meaning, for the meaning of existence, remains alive.
I confess I have never discussed this with my daughters – being much too afraid that they would look at me as if I were mad. Nonetheless, seeing how fascinated they are by 'Star Wars', I cannot do less than think of Benedict XVI, whom I call the Pope of Truth, because he placed this decisive virtue at the center of his pontificate.
What is truth? On many occasions, Papa Ratzinger asked himself the same question Pilate had (Jn 18,38)
, and one of his answers which struck me most was in an address he gave in December 2012 to six new ambassadors to the Holy See.
In our day, speaking the truth has become suspect, wishing to live in truth seems outdated, and promoting it seems to be a useless effort. Yet, the future of humanity is also found in the relationship of children and young people with the truth: the truth about man, the truth about creation, the truth about institutions, etc.
As well as an education in rectitude of heart and mind, today more than ever, the young also need to be educated in the meaning of effort and perseverance in hardship. We must teach them that the human person's every action must be responsible and consistent with his yearning for the infinite. These actions must guide his development with a view to forming an ever more fraternal humanity, freed from individualistic and materialistic temptations.
They are words that parents must bear in mind.
Then I recall a reflection found in JESUS OF NAZARETH, Volume II, in which he says:
Let us say it plainly: The unredeemed state of the world consists precisely in the failure to understand the meaning of creation, in the failure to recognize truth; as a result, the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world…
What is truth? Pilate was not alone in dismissing this question as unanswerable and irrelevant for his purposes. Today too, in political argument and in discussion of the foundations of law, it is generally experienced as disturbing. Yet if man lives without truth, life passes him by; ultimately he surrenders the field to whoever is the stronger.
"Redemption" in the fullest sense can only consist in the truth becoming recognizable. And it becomes recognizable when God becomes recognizable. He becomes recognizable in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history.
Truth is outwardly powerless in the world, just as Christ is powerless by the world's standards: he has no legions; he is crucified. Yet in his very powerlessness, he is powerful: only thus, again and again, does truth become power.
In the book, Benedict XVI says that today, all of us, like Pilate, have 'shelved' the question of the truth. Out of fear, out of convenience, out of superficiality. Unfortunately it is so! But with his words about truth as power, I can say even to my daughters who are passionate about 'Star Wars' that not everything is lost.
[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 8/15/2017 12:44 AM]