19/05/2005. Contributed by Jessica Martin
Some fans of George Lucas' Star Wars movies consider it to be a religious experience - as evidenced by the hype surrounding the May 19 release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. So maybe it's not surprising that religion has had a role in its popularity, according to two professors who have studied the role of religion in science fiction.
Tom Martin - an associate professor or religion and philosophy at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., where he teaches "Science and Religion" - sees the Star Wars religious themes as clearly as black and white.
"The Star Wars series deals with the fundamental struggles of good against evil, which is a deeply religious theme that carries over to all parts of life," he said.
Dr. Jim Herrick, the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at Hope College in Holland, Mich., has been studying George Lucas and Star Wars during his research on the history of spirituality themes in science fiction, and his course "Science Fiction: Stories as Persuasive Messages." He's found "The Force" has indeed been with Lucas' series.
"George Lucas' wildly popular Star Wars movie series introduced American audiences to Yoda, a diminutive master of a powerful spiritual force known as, well, The Force. The Force is the source of Lucas's 'certain kind of spirituality,'" said Herrick, author of the book The Making of the New Spirituality (InterVarsity Press, 2003). "Protagonist Luke Skywalker studies under Yoda's direction until he is able to control The Force - source of spiritual energy emanating from a unified field that is in all things. The Force affords all manner of physical and spiritual power, including the power to communicate with deceased individuals."
Martin believes Lucas' version of "The Force" mirrors Chinese religion.
"The closest religious parallels to 'The Force' can be found in Taoism. In Chinese spirituality, Tao is the ultimate force, or driving power, in all nature. It flows through all of us and everything. You learn to move with this force rather than fight against it," he said. "Lucas takes that idea and fights against it in many ways. He develops it in fundamental concepts of everything, and it works."
According to Herrick, Lucas admitted his religious intent in a now famous 1999 interview.
"I put the Force in the movie to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people, more a belief in God than in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery [of our existence]." Lucas said. "I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct."
"The Force" has been powerful - enough that Herrick found the British Broadcasting Corporation report "more than 70,000 people in Australia declared that they are followers of the Jedi faith. A recent census found that one in 270 respondents - or 0.37% of the population - say they believe in 'the force' - an energy field that gives Jedi Knights like Luke Skywalker their power in the films." Herrick adds that most of the 70,509 people who wrote Jedi on their census forms were suspected to have done so in response to an e-mail encouraging all Star Wars fans to get it recognized as an official religion.
"Star Wars rests on a pantheistic worldview that is also closely linked to the idea of spiritual evolution," he said. "The movie series suggests that in learning the secrets of the Force, humans can take an important step toward their destined spiritual evolution - a theme in later installments in the series. Another suggestion of the movie series is that Luke Skywalkers' special pedigree - he is the descendent of the select group known as Jedi Knights - equips him to master the secrets of The Force. Perhaps an ordinary human might not have what it takes to control The Force. Its control belongs to those who have risen on the ladder of biological and spiritual evolution."
While Martin agrees with the religious themes, he believes the initial draw of the movie had more to do with the generation than its religion.
"I believe its initial success was more of a generational thing. I was 23 when the first one came out and we grew up with this whole fascination and culture of going to space. We also grew up at a time when there were really bad special effects (in movies). What I remember about when Star Wars first came out was this incredible, perfect science fiction movie - with space ships that looked so believable. I think the original success of the first trilogy had as much to do with the generation that saw it - those fascinated with space and travel," he said.
"What I see with students today is that many have not seen the original trilogy. I think some of the reasons that the second three have not been as popular as the first three is this generational shift of attraction to science fiction - and what we see as science fiction. I don't think it hits the same accord with the 20-somethings now as it did with my generation. This one may be a successful movie, but it may not have the kind impact of the first three."
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