The newest George Lucas production, Red Tails, forces a Star Wars nerd to come to terms with a troubling philosophy
Of the 20 or so T-shirts I own, about half make some reference to Jedis, midi-chlorians, or lightsabers. In 1999, on the day Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, I bought tickets to three consecutive screenings and sat giddily through them all, Jar Jar be damned. When my dear friends had their beautiful baby boy late last year, I was thrilled to buy him a Boba Fett alarm clock desk lamp, the best gift I could imagine. I bought another one for myself.
If you’ve understood most of the references in the paragraph above, you, sadly, belong to the same wretched class of emotionally precarious quasi-adults in whose minds and hearts Star Wars occupies the realms others furnish with accomplishing life goals or forming meaningful relationships. Which is why the next line hurts: George Lucas has ruined our lives.
I don’t mean that in the obvious way, like the sorry stares my friends and I sometimes get from well-balanced, emotionally available adults when they overhear us discussing issues like the politics of Wookie society or why all spaceships seem to always have their engines on in full thrust yet none ever seem to accelerate. What I mean is that those of us reared on Star Wars too easily subscribe to its creator’s facile mythology that sees all religions as nothing more than particular facets of one grand universal myth and that has little use for cultural distinctions or theological depth. As his newly released production, the World War II film Red Tails, clearly shows, George Lucas’ world is a place where good forever battles evil on a landscape that is smooth and flat and unchanging. The same goes for his entire oeuvre.
Lucas, of course, made up little of what would become the organizing principles of his Star Wars universe. An eager student of mythologist and autodidact Joseph Campbell, he adapted the latter’s opus, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to the world of spacecrafts and laser guns.
“I came to the conclusion after American Graffiti that what’s valuable for me is to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is,” Lucas said in one of his several interviews about Campbell. “So, that’s when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe’s books. … It was very eerie because in reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs. … So, I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent.”
Or a lot more. The main idea Lucas borrowed from Campbell was that of the monomyth, or the universal structure Campbell argued explained every hero humanity has ever adored, from Jesus Christ to Luke Skywalker. They all followed the same pattern: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The specifics change—one went to see John on the banks of the Jordan before facing down Pilate, the other visited Yoda in Dagobah before doing battle with Vader—but they don’t matter much. What matters is the string that unites us all, the ur-story we share and that is our common human foundation.
Lucas was better than most at reimagining this human story. By setting his retelling in a galaxy far, far away, and by following Campbell’s guidelines religiously, he created an embodiment of the monomyth that was so powerful it instantly became mythological itself. We impressionable children of the 1980s found in Luke and Han and Leia the sort of universal thrust that most religions seemed to lack. In synagogue, they spoke of a personal God who gave us laws and expected us to keep them. At the multiplex, there was the Force, strange and mysterious and mystical. It was never a hard choice. We all became Talmudists of the Jedi.
Which—and I realize that by writing this I’m forfeiting any future claims to nerdhood—was a terrible thing, intellectually and morally speaking. Campbell certainly had his dazzling strengths as an erudite and engaging scholar of comparative cultures, but his lack of understanding of faith and its machinations is astounding. In an 1985 interview he gave to In Context, a humanist journal, he called the Bible “the most over-advertised book in the world,” dismissed its claim to moral authority, and argued that the violence the Israelites visited on the peoples of Canaan precludes their scriptures from shining an ethical light unto the nations. Any religion, Campbell argued, is nothing more than an invitation to sectarianism and hate.
It’s a popular theme nowadays, one that the nouveau atheists often flaunt. But its core failure, and Campbell’s, is that it fails to see the crucial nuances that set one faith apart from the other. It is true, as Campbell observed, that both Abraham and Kut-o-yis, a legendary hero of Montana’s Blackfeet, experienced hardships as boys and went on to suffer exile before emerging as leaders of their nations. That one went on to become the father of monotheism seems to matter little. Campbell has no patience for the specificity of Abraham’s—or any hero’s—teachings; all he’s interested in are the broad patterns of shared stories.
The same goes for Lucas. His good guys are so good that their unique brand of righteousness hardly matters. Take, for example, the issue of the Force, the power Jedi knights possess to manipulate the physical world with their minds. Here’s the best explanation of how it works (Lucas later concocted other, less-convincing ones), delivered by Obi Wan-Kenobi: “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together. … A Jedi can feel the force flowing through him.”
In order to understand her identity, an Irish Catholic student at the University of Virginia had to follow her passion: a major in Jewish Studies