May the Force Be with You!

by

William Sims Bainbridge

Pages 395-403, 422 in
The Sociology of Religious Movements
New York: Routledge, 1997

Pages 395-403:

The thesis of this concluding chapter is that religion will constantly renew itself through religious movements, indefinitely into the far-distant future. To this point in the book, every story that introduced a chapter has been true, but here our challenge is to imagine the future of religion, so history may be of little help. Therefore we begin with one of the most familiar science-fiction stories, the three-part Star Wars saga, treating these popular movies as if they were true.[1] Amazingly, this is a religious trilogy, postulating a religious movement totally independent from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and situated in a highly advanced technological society. Perhaps George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, will forgive us for finding our own meanings in these films, and we shall avoid dipping into all the ancillary novels and television productions, to concentrate just on the information in the three original movies. Those familiar with the saga will recognize that we leave out much of the adventure, concentrating instead on the religious significance. Those who are not especially fond of science fiction should ask themselves the penetrating question of what religion really will be like, four thousand years from now.

May the Force Be with You!

A long time ahead, across the galaxy, the evil officers who command the Death Star meet in consultation. Their immense battle station is finally operational. The size of a small moon, it has been artificially constructed as a single machine that combines the features of a weapon and a city. Their only concern is that rebel spies were able to steal a set of plans to this mighty machine, and if they could deliver this information to their hidden base they might be able to find a weak point that would permit them to defend against it. But those plans may nearly be back in the hands of their owners, because a small space ship has just been captured in the skies over the planet Tatooine, that was carrying Princess Leia Organa, most likely the espionage courier. She now suffers in the detention center, undergoing torture designed to make her reveal the location of the hidden rebel base. Now, finally, the Death Star officers have the power to crush the rebellion and deliver dominion over the entire universe to their master, the mysterious Emperor.

It is a time of disorder among the star systems. A former galactic republic has fallen, and the last vestige of its representative government, the Senate, is being dissolved by the Emperor. For a thousand generations the old republic was defended by a priesthood of Jedi Knights, but they were eradicated in the Clone Wars that ushered in the Dark Time. Presumably, the clones of the Clone Wars were biologically mass produced soldiers who overwhelmed the Jedi with their very numbers. The Jedi were warrior monks who followed a transcendental spiritual discipline. Thus, the clone victory represented the triumph of materialistic technology over spiritual religion.

The chief principle of Jedi philosophy was called the Force, an energy field that permeates all existence and binds the galaxy together. It has no personality of its own, although sensitive humans can communicate through it, and thus it is not a god. Indeed, outside the ranks of the Jedi, belief in the existence of the Force was sparse and possessed none of the organization and practices that would allow it to be called a religion. Even before the forces of the Emperor crushed the Jedi, therefore, the galaxy lacked wide-ranging religious denominations, much less an established ecclesia. Two factors seem likely to have created this situation. First, the galactic civilization was an amalgam of many highly diverse societies created by almost as many independently evolved intelligent species, so there may not have existed the common assumptions and institutions that could have been the basis of a universal religion. Second, the progress of science and technology, which had advanced furthest in areas that emphasized power and control, had driven traditional religions out of the thoroughly secularized interstellar society, to survive precariously only in isolated pockets of cultural rebellion in remote regions of backwater planets.

The victory of the clones over the Jedi was not merely a triumph of science over religion, however, because the Emperor had been aided by treachery within the ranks of the Jedi, themselves. A talented young Jedi named Darth Vader, student of two prominent Jedi Masters named Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, allowed himself to be seduced by the dark side of the Force. The Jedi believed that the Force was at their disposal to accomplish miracles, but this could be done safely only if they suspended their own desires and adopted a spiritual state of philosophical detachment. If a trained Jedi approached the Force with feelings such as fear, longing, or anger, the result could be catastrophic even if the Jedi's intentions were benevolent. For a highly adept Jedi to use the Force to satisfy his own personal lusts, the result would be disastrous in the extreme. At least this was the Jedi belief. All we initially know about the defeat of the Jedi, however, is that Darth Vader betrayed his fellow knights to the Emperor, and the only sign that the Force could be any more than a primitive superstition is some vestigial power, possibly only psychological, that Vader appears to possess.

Governor Grand Moff Tarkin presides over the war council in the Death Star conference room, as Darth Vader stands ominously to one side. Vader's grotesque respirator mask, part of the life-support system he has needed ever since some misadventure years before, gives him the appearance of a great sinister beetle. Admiral Motti boasts about his Death Star, "This station is now the ultimate power in the universe."

Vader disputes this, saying, "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force."

Motti scorns Vader's "sad devotion to that ancient religion," but suddenly he finds he cannot breathe, because Vader has slyly used his paranormal powers at a distance of several meters to choke the admiral's windpipe. After teaching Motti a lesson, Vader releases his spell.

Meanwhile many parsecs away, a motley assortment of adventurers is streaking toward the planet Alderaan on a smuggler's spaceship named the Millennium Falcon. The pilot is cocksure Han Solo, happy enough to get away from Tatooine where there is a price on his head. His co-pilot and partner is a tall, hairy Wookiee named Chewbacca, who speaks in grunts and roars. C-3PO is a gold-colored protocol android whose chief function is to interpret between all galactic languages. Perhaps because his communication function requires great tact and familiarity with many primitive cultures, he is the only character in the trilogy to refer to God, once at a moment of great relief exclaiming, "Thank the Maker!" R2-D2 is another robot, unlike C-3PO shaped more like a washtub than a human being, into whose memory banks Princess Leia Organa was able to place the Death Star plans before her capture. The real hero of the story, R2-D2 brought the other passengers together by fulfilling Leia's instructions to take the plans to General Obi-Wan Kenobi.

For many years, Kenobi had lived a solitary existence, withdrawn from the conflicts that raged across the galaxy. He had served honorably under the command of Leia's father in the Clone Wars, but about the time that Darth Vader betrayed the Jedi he entered anonymous exile in the Dune Sea of Tatooine. There R2-D2 found him. He has not lost all the powers of a Jedi knight and is still capable of clouding the minds of imperial stormtroopers, but he seems a very powerless old man. Han Solo calls Kenobi's spiritual discipline a "hokey religion," even as the elder seeks to train young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force.

Luke is a teenage orphan who had been enduring the difficult existence of a desert farmer with his uncle and aunt, until R2-D2 found him. Only when he met Kenobi did Luke discover that his father, whom he does not recall, had been a Jedi as well. On the trail of the robots, stormtroopers murdered Luke's uncle and aunt, destroyed the farm, and left him with no reason to stay on desolate Tatooine. Having been fascinated by a holographic motion picture of Princess Leia, projected by R2-D2, Luke has joined Kenobi and the robot on a wild mission to Alderaan, so the rebels on that prosperous planet can find means for defeating the Death Star.

Kenobi is training Luke to use his father's weapon, an elegant sword consisting of a beam of light, when he suddenly sits down, as if in a faint. "I felt a great disturbance in the Force," he says, "as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened." Recovering his balance, Kenobi tries to explain to Luke that "a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him" and use it to guide his aim in battle. A few moments later, the Millennium Falcon comes out of hyperspace at the location of Alderaan to find the planet gone, entirely blasted to meteoroids by a demonstration shot of the Death Star.

The Death Star seizes the Millennium Falcon in its tractor beam and pulls it into a hangar, so stormtroopers can capture the crew. But Han Solo has hidden himself and all the others in a smuggling compartment, and Kenobi's mental powers dull the suspicions of the guards. One of Obi-Wan's ancient enemies is sensitive to his presence, however. In the conference room, Darth Vader tells Governor Tarkin that he has sensed "a tremor in the Force" telling him Obi-Wan Kenobi has entered the Death Star. Tarkin is incredulous, convinced that Kenobi is long dead, but Vader insists he must not underestimate the power of the Force. Tarkin replies, "The Jedi are extinct, their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion."

At that very moment, Kenobi is disabling the tractor beam while Han and Luke rescue the princess. Stormtroopers surround the heroes in the hangar, but Kenobi is able to distract them by engaging Vader in a lightsaber duel. Vader boasts that now he is the master, while his former teacher's powers have weakened with age. Kenobi replies that in death he will become more powerful than Vader could possibly imagine. After a violent struggle, punctuated by the hiss and zap of lightsabers striking, Vader cuts Kenobi cleanly through. Instead of dying visibly, the old man simply vanishes, his worn, brown cloak dropping empty to the floor. He has left the world of the living to join the Force, and he has given the others time to escape.

Hotly pursued, the Millennium Falcon reaches the rebel base on a moon of the planet Yavin, where they quickly analyze the plans that Leia had concealed in R2-D2, finding that it might just be possible to destroy the Death Star by firing a proton torpedo through a small exhaust port to the main reactor. As the Death Star itself bears down on them, they hurriedly prepare a desperate attack using small fighter spacecraft that might be able to penetrate the battle station's unwieldy defense system. A terrible struggle ensues, and most of the small spacecraft are destroyed before one is able to fire the first torpedo toward the exhaust port. Despite advanced computer targeting, it misses. With little hope left, Luke Skywalker begins his own attack run, supported by two other rebel spacecraft, one piloted by Biggs, his boyhood pal from Tatooine. Flying low over the surface of the Death Star, in a vast trench that shields them from many of the battle stations' turbo-laser guns, Luke and his companions are almost ready to fire, when Darth Vader zooms toward them in his own fighter craft and blasts Biggs' ship to atoms. Torn by shock at his friend's death, Luke hears the voice of deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to trust the Force. Luke switches off his targeting computer, reaches his feelings out to the force, and at the moment his intuition tells him, presses the firing button. A few moments later, the Death Star disintegrates with the force of a supernova.

The Empire, of course, remains strong, and after a brief celebration, the rebels escape to Hoth, an ice planet where they hope the Emperor's forces cannot find them. But Darth Vader survived the destruction of the Death Star, and his scouts soon locate the rebel base. Battling their way out through an imperial blockade, the rebels escape and head in various directions to rendezvous later at a designated point outside the galaxy. Flying his small fighter craft, Luke heads for the Dagobah system, because in a vision he heard the apparition of Obi-Wan Kenobi tell him to go there to seek Yoda, a Jedi master.

Yoda proves to be a deceptively tiny creature who has the spiritual power to levitate Luke's spacecraft. In the weeks that follow, he gradually teaches Luke how to levitate objects, as well, and instills in him the first rudiments of Jedi philosophy. "For the Jedi it is time to eat as well." This means that, like Zen Buddhist masters, the Jedi must live in a natural manner, attending to the ordinary tasks of life like eating and sleeping as well as occasionally performing miracles. A Jedi must have deep commitment and a serious mind, never craving excitement and adventure, even though he will be surrounded by them. "A Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger ... fear ... aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." A Jedi should use the Force for knowledge and defense, not for attack, and should remain serene. Strong emotions lead to the dark side of the Force, so the Jedi must seek peace.

After preliminary instruction, Yoda brings Luke to a gloomy, damp cave, a place where the dark side of the Force is strong, where he must confront the evil that is within him. Deeper and deeper Luke presses into the darkness, his lightsaber drawn and ready. With a sudden hiss, Darth Vader leaps at him, and Luke desperately swings his sword, decapitating his nemesis. The severed head rolls until Luke can see the face, and he discovers that it is his own. Only when Vader fades away does Luke realize it was a vision, created by his own, tormented mind.

A passionate young man of action, Luke must unlearn everything he has learned, if he is to make the Force his ally. "And a powerful ally It is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you ... me ... the tree ... the rock ... everywhere!" Luke admits he cannot believe, and Yoda explains that this is the reason he falls many of the tests Yoda sets him. It is not so much that the Force requires faith as that any nagging emotion like doubt will be a distraction undermining the Jedi's needed serene concentration. In a state of perfect calm, the Jedi's mind can see the past or the future. From the past a Jedi can draw strength and wisdom, as both Yoda and Luke do from the departed spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi. It is difficult to control or even predict the future, because it is in constant motion, but during one training session Luke suddenly realizes that his friends are in grave danger. In a cloud city across the galaxy, Darth Vader has seized Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and the two robots. There he is torturing Han, knowing that the pain will travel through the Force until it reaches Luke. Yoda protests that Luke must complete his training before he confronts Vader, but Luke is consumed by the need to save his friends, despite the risk that this emotion may seduce him to the dark side of the Force.

Soon, Luke and Vader face each other in the cloud city's carbon-freezing chamber, their lightsabers drawn. Their duel sweeps back and forth, neither gaining a lasting advantage over the other, until Vader begins to bait Luke to rile up his emotions. "Obi-Wan has taught you well. You have controlled your fear ... now release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me." They battle into the reactor room, with ever increasing fury, then onto a reactor shaft overlooking a chasm descending hundreds of meters. Vader distracts Luke and severs his right hand with a vicious sweep of his lightsaber. Because he ignored the chief principle of the Jedi and allowed himself to be consumed by emotion, he has lost the battle and now faces the loss of his life.

Remarkably, Vader does not kill him, but offers to complete Luke's training so they can together defeat the Emperor and rule the galaxy in his place. Luke resists, but Vader reminds him that Kenobi never fully explained what happened to Luke's father. With his hand outstretched to aid him, Vader proclaims, "I am your father." In his heart, Luke realizes that this is true. He also realizes that Vader's offer would require him to accept the dark side of the Force. With an expression of grim resolution, Luke turns away from Vader and steps off the platform over the abyss to almost certain death.

The calmness that washed over Luke as he made that fateful step restored his connection with the Force, and by what otherwise would have been an impossible accident he was able to halt his fall where his escaped friends aboard the Millennium Falcon rescue him. Outside the galaxy, rebel surgeons gave him a prosthetic robot arm to replace the one severed by his father. After a series of dangers and difficulties, Luke returned to Dagobah to complete his training with Yoda. He arrives Just in time to be with the nine-hundred-year-old Jedi master as he dies. In his last words, Yoda tells Luke to beware the power of the Emperor.

Word reaches the rebels that a second Death Star is being assembled in orbit around the Moon of Endor and protected by a force shield on the ground below it. They have no choice but to attack before it is completed, and a volunteer squad must reach the surface of Endor to disable the force shield. Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Leia, and the two robots volunteer for this risky assignment. After wild escapades eluding imperial scouts, this company is captured by the Ewoks. These are short, hairy humanoid creatures who would seem cute if they were not so ready to kill Luke and his companions.

When the Ewoks see gold-plated C-3PO, they prostrate themselves on the ground in adoration. Apparently he resembles the image of God of their primitive religion. Under the direction of their witch doctor, the Ewoks prepare to sacrifice the humans as offerings to the deified C-3PO. Despite being trussed up like a roast ready for the barbecue, Luke draws upon the Force to levitate C-3PO, thus discrediting the witch doctor and causing the Ewoks to release their captives. Translating with difficulty into the unfamiliar Ewok language, C-3PO is now able to enlist these furry warriors into their attack on the force shield protecting the Death Star. Luke allows himself to be captured by imperial forces, manipulating them to be brought to Dark Vader in hopes of convincing his father to relinquish the dark side of the Force. But instead his father takes him into a vast throne room built into the Death Star to submit to the Emperor.

The Emperor is not an imposing figure, as he sits on a ordinary swivel chair gazing out into the blackness of space. He is a small, old man, bent and shriveled, hardly the image of power. Within a few moments, however, he reveals to Luke that he has anticipated every aspect of the rebel attack. The field generator on Endor, which protects the new Death Star, is itself defended by a legion of crack troops. The rebel fleet appears, but finds itself met by withering fire, because the apparently incomplete battle station is in fact fully armed and operational. Everything has been a ruse to draw the rebels into an ambush and to lure Luke into the Emperor's clutches.

With greedy anticipation, the Emperor says to Luke, "I'm looking forward to completing your training. In time you will call me Master." He taunts Luke, knowing that frustration, fear, and anger will turn the young Jedi toward the dark side of the Force. He offers Luke a lightsaber with which to strike. Luke seizes it, strikes, but meets Vader's ready blade of light. Luke and Vader duel furiously, as the team on Endor struggles with the unanticipated help of the Ewoks to overcome the defenders of the field generator and give the rebel fleet a chance to destroy the Death Star.

In this duel, unlike their earlier one, Luke senses that Vader is reluctant to kill him. After an especially violent exchange of blows, Luke succeeds in severing Vader's right arm, just as Vader had earlier done to him. Sensing the immense power of the Force concentrated in Luke, the Emperor urges him to kill Vader and serve him in his stead. Poised to end Vader's life, he halts, then casts his lightsaber aside. "Never! I'll never turn to the dark side. You've failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me."

Enraged, the Emperor reaches out his arms, and great bolts of lightening leap from his finger tips, slamming Luke like electric sledgehammers. "Young fool ... only now, at the end, do you understand." Vader stands supportively beside his Emperor. The truth has indeed now dawned. The Emperor, himself, is a Jedi, perhaps the greatest of them all. From the dark side of the Force he has drawn the power to destroy the earlier republic, to turn Darth Vader to the dark side when he was an idealistic young Jedi, and to assemble the legions of stormtroopers that created his empire.

Although the Force can affect physical objects, it is primarily spiritual in nature. It arises from all the limited life forces of the intelligent beings across the galaxy, and it allows a Jedi to influence the thoughts of weaker beings. In the hands of an evil genius like the Emperor, who has turned to the dark side, it becomes ultimate charisma. Without even knowing that they are led, millions of people go where the Emperor desires them to go, do what he wishes done, and submit utterly to his will. Just as the Force binds the galaxy together, transformed into charisma it binds the people of the galaxy together in slavery to their evil master.

Luke writhes in pain, but he forces his agonized body to speak to Darth Vader: "Father, please. Help me." Unexpectedly, Vader turns, seizes the Emperor in his good left hand, holds him high in the air, then as the Emperor's lightning bolts cascade down Vader's body, hurls him into a bottomless shaft where the sparks trigger a devastating explosion. Somehow, deep within the half robot shell of the dark monster, a spark of goodness remained. Whether from the honor of a Jedi, or the love of a father, Darth Vader could not see Luke die. And so, at the last moment before redemption became impossible, it was he who ended the Emperor's evil reign and sacrificed himself for freedom.

Vader is mortally wounded. Removing the respirator that has made his father appear like a demon for so many years, Luke finds a gentle, pathetically scarred human face. Dragging his father toward an escape rocket, he promises to save him. Darth Vader says, "You already have, Luke," a moment before succumbing to his wounds. And within the religion of the Jedi, this is true. Luke has accomplished the impossible, returning a Jedi from the dark side. This, indeed, is salvation.

Then the joyful triumph of the Ewoks demolishing the shield generator, and the destruction of the second Death Star by the rebel fleet, seem anticlimactic. A few hours later, as the first night of freedom falls on Endor, Luke stands beside the celebrating Ewoks smiling at his friends, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and the two robots. But he looks beyond them, into the Force. And there he sees his father, Yoda, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, smiling at him. He alone of the celebrants has the capacity to see them, but they truly exist, on a higher plane of being. The three Jedi are the only figures Luke perceives in this vision of the afterlife. He does not see his Uncle Owen or Aunt Beru, who were slaughtered by the stormtroopers back on Tatooine, nor does he see the many fellow rebels like Biggs who died in the battle on Hoth or the assaults on the two death stars. Like the Norse Valhalla, this is an elite heaven, where only the most transcendent heroes may go.

The Star Wars myth states a very clear conception of the religion of the far future. The Force is not a god, although it clearly is supernatural. The Ewoks worshipped a God, and mistook C-3PO for that golden deity, because they were primitives. Religion had expired in the civilized parts of the galaxy, persisting only among savages, and only a real miracle could bring it back. This is the most challenging claim of Star Wars, by far. In advanced technological societies, religion will die, unless its beliefs are literally true. Only actual intervention by the supernatural can save religion from science. At least this is the implication of the Star Wars stories.

[Pages 403-422 analyze the forces that will shape the religion of the future.]

Page 422:

More than four thousand years ago, men and women whose names have long since been forgotten built circles of great stones at sacred spots across France and England, that today bear names like Carnac, Avebury, and Stonehenge. We do not know a word of their language. We do not know what stories they told to explain the vast world around them, or the prayers they spoke to comfort the parents of a dying child. From their monuments we infer that their gods dwelled in the sky, perhaps in the sun, moon and stars. Able to climb no higher than the branches of a hilltop tree, their perspective on the universe must have been limited. And yet they dreamed cosmic dreams, and their desire-driven imagination postulated the existence of forces beyond their comprehension.

We, who have touched the face of the moon and sent robot probes beyond all planets of the solar system, understand that our entire world is but a tiny speck of dust lost in an immense vastness. Many of us believe that God, the master of the universe, loves us despite our sins and our physical insignificance. What will be the future of our faith, more than four thousand years ahead? The images of carolers singing Christmas songs under the hurtling moons of Mars, and of a priest hearing confession on an outer satellite of Saturn, are faintly ridiculous. And yet, if humanity does move outward toward the stars, it will take its familiar religions with it. The line from Stonehenge to here extends onward to infinity, and the religious movement that quarried those stones, then dragged them miles to the site, will be born again on other worlds. Religion is a prime component of the system of human life, that moves across all time and links the ancient past with the unimaginable future. Religion will undergo schism, innovation, and transformation, sending echoes throughout human society, unto the end of time.

In describing his own impending death, King Arthur gave us words to understand the constant renewal of faith through religious movements: "The old order changeth, yielding place to new; and God fulfills himself in many ways."

 

1. George Lucas, Star Wars -- Episode IV: A New Hope. (Lucasfilm Ltd./Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1977); Star Wars -- Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Lucasfilm Ltd./Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1980); Star Wars -- Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Lucasfilm Ltd./Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1983); Carol Titelman (ed.), The Art of Star Wars (New York: Ballantine, 1977); Deborah Call (ed.), The Art of the Empire Strikes Back (New York: Ballantine, 1980); Diana Attis and Lindsay Smith (eds.), The Empire Strikes Back Notebook (New York: Ballantine, 1980); Dale Pollock, Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, the Creator of Star Wars (New York, Ballantine, 1983).