Editor’s Note: David G. Allan is the Editorial Director for CNN’s Features sections. This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project, a series on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The way I feel about the Star Wars films is akin to religious fervor, speaking to something deeper in me than their cultural populism might suggest.
The canon is deeply spiritual when one examines its themes, or more narrowly, the monk-ninja Jedi way of life. It’s also Abrahamic in its Old Testament dichotomy of good versus evil, dark side versus light. The mystical Force alone is a transcendental concept rooted in ancient parallels such as the Hindu prana, Hebrew rauh, Hawaiian mana and the qi of Chinese medicine and martial arts.
I was born in 1973, which means I was four years old when “Star Wars” first came to the theaters – neither too young nor too old to begin the training. Like baby chicks bonding with their mothers for survival, it was perhaps the perfect age to imprint “Star Wars” on my psyche. My childhood was tumultuous in a way that was popular at the time: divorce, moving a lot, single-parent home, latch-key autonomy. And besides my mother, the only thing that was consistent, reliable and affirmative throughout my youth was “Star Wars” (including the sequels at ages 7 and 10). The influence of the canon and its scholarly sources led in no small part to my being a philosophy major, concentrating in comparative religion. My ally is “Star Wars,” and a powerful ally it is.
Yes, “Star Wars” is overly commercial. Yes, it has pointlessly cute and cloyingly goofy characters (Ewoks and Jar-Jar, respectively). Yes, it has been co-opted by everything and everybody to the ubiquitous edge of meaninglessness. But the same could be said of Christmas, with its many secular traditions, cute and goofy red-nosed animals and chubby elves, and a sleigh-full of merchandise tie-ins.
But underneath all that noise there is the true meaning of “Star Wars.” The purpose of this epic is that it serves as a great spiritual myth. Myths are the collective storytelling of humans, for humans, all about the unique human condition, stretching back to the beginning of humankind. Life creates myth, makes it grow. Myths surround us, teach us, bind us together as a species.
And there are great mythic themes to which mankind keeps returning. Breaking away from the safety of home to challenge ourselves in transformative ways. Finding wise old teachers to lead us and give us the tools we need. Confronting and conquering our deepest fears. Staying righteous in the face of temptation. The tension of faith versus reason. The redemptive power of love, loyalty and sacrifice.
These are the parables of Camelot, the Buddha, Native American folklore, the Bhagavad Gita, Goethe’s Faust, the Torah, Grimm’s fairy tales, Homer’s epics, Gilgamesh, Jesus. And they are the mythic lessons of “Star Wars.”
In the seminal “The Power of Myth,” the premier scholar on the subject, Joseph “Follow your bliss” Campbell, said of George Lucas that he “put the newest and most powerful spin” on the classic hero’s mythic journey. Lucas has acknowledged a deep debt to Campbell and his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” for the writing of the great space opera.
Campbell identified Lucas’ vital gift to his home planet: ancient stories repackaged in a powerful and contemporary way. The films are more than just exciting and enjoyable to watch (that’s how they get you), but soulfully satisfying. When fans say “May the Force be with you,” it has some real meaning behind it. And those of us raised Catholic may also hear an echoed call-and-response of “And also with you” in our heads. I’ve sat through a lot of masses in my youth, and watched a lot of “Star Wars,” but as an adult I only genuflect in the Jedi Temple.
My generation, X, lucky to be born into this optimal “Star Wars” window of revelation, also famously reinvented the notion of cynicism. So I can appreciate a good dose of iconoclastic rejection of whatever is popular, even just for contradiction sake.
But “Star Wars” is not a dim mainstream phenomenon worth rejecting. This isn’t the dreck you’re looking for. Choose something else from the long list of more worthy candidates of scorn. If you open yourself to the profound moments in the original film and its equally essential sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” it can be of great spiritual value.
So let the Force awaken. And, as they say, may it be with you. Always. Amen.