May the Force be with you: Viewing ‘Star Wars’ through a Catholic lens

| May 4, 2017 | 1 Comment

Chewbacca, played by Peter Mayhew, and Harrison Ford star in a scene from the movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” released in 2015. CNS

Since 2011, May 4 has been known as Star Wars Day because the date, “May the fourth” sounds like the movie series’ line “may the Force be with you.”

“I like to joke, ‘And with your spirit,’ if someone says it to me,” said Dan Fisher, an engineer and former science teacher at Providence Academy in Plymouth.

While “may the Force be with you” resembles the opening of the Mass, “The Lord be with you,” Catholics see deeper parallels between “Star Wars” and the Catholic faith.

Matthew Mohs, headmaster of St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights and an avid “Star Wars” fan, says those themes emerge because Catholicism has had a strong influence in general in the development of the western world, which couldn’t help but shape the worldview of the movies’ director, George Lucas.

Father John Paul Erickson, pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul and longtime science fiction fan, also observed that in Lucas’ productions, which also include the Indiana Jones series. While Father Erickson doesn’t believe “Star Wars” is based on Catholicism, he has noticed Catholic themes in the movies.

Father Nels Gjengdahl, chaplain at St. Thomas Academy, also said it’s clear that Lucas has influences from both western and eastern religions in his films. Father Gjengdahl said he’s a “Stars Wars” fan, but admitted he’s more of a “Star Trek” Trekker.

Adam Driver, who plays villain Kylo Ren, stars in a scene from the movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” CNS

Good and evil

Ultimately, “Star Wars” is about a battle between good and evil. Mohs said the symbolic language of light and dark in regards to the Force, a non-material power that the “Star Wars” characters tap into, reflects Catholic ideas of light and darkness.

“I’ve always been able to see a certain connection in that,” he said.

A parishioner of Sacred Heart in Robbinsdale, Fisher noted that those themes of light and dark point to the battle between good and evil.

There are characters who seek good and ones who seek evil, Father Erickson added. “The dark side clearly has analogous features in Christianity with sin [and] a life of sin.”

A Catholic Force?

While it would take more than a galactic reach to equate the Force with God, several Catholics interviewed saw some similarities.

Mohs, reflecting on Pope Francis’ recent TED Talk, noted the pontiff spoke of the interconnectedness of all that is living. Father Erickson said the non-material nature of the Force, at least for most of the episodes, resembles the spiritual aspects of earthly life. He does think the little creatures, the midi-cholorians, beings behind the Force in the more recent movies, kind of spoils that, though.

Fisher acknowledged it “irks” him that there is “not a direct correspondence” for the Force with the immaterial. He agrees that adding the midi-cholorians to the story was a mistake.

Father Gjengdahl, who has seen all of the “Star Wars” movies, doesn’t like the midi-cholorians, either. He said it makes the Force seem less mysterious.

Father Gjengdahl added that the important thing to understand about the Force is that the characters control it. When it comes to God, we’re called into a relationship instead of a means for power, he said.

Diego Luna, Felicity Jones and Jiang Wen star in a scene from the movie “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” CNS

Jedi ‘monks’?

Mohs acknowledged the Jedi robes, particularly the garb of Obi-Won Kenobi, resemble those of monastic tradition. However, Mohs added that they also resemble that of the Samurai.

Father Erickson said the Jedi are “kind of priestly characters — kind of.” The Jedi fight for good and don’t marry. Becoming a Jedi knight also requires lots of training.

Father Gjengdahl concurred that the Jedi live sacrificial lives, a “very Christian theme,” he said. He said the Jedi monks are “set aside,” like Catholic religious brothers and sisters, for the good.

Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifice

Lucas tackles the theme of self-sacrifice when Obi-Wan Kenobi gives up his life in “Stars Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.” Father Gjengdahl said it was clearly a Christian theme of “laying down one’s life for one’s friend.”

“In that way, Obi-Wan recognizing that his own sacrifice would be good for his friends to give them everything they need, he ends up sacrificing himself,” he said.

Mohs considered it one of the more powerful moments in the “Stars Wars” movies, adding that it shows that an individual can “turn the course of events or make a difference in someone’s life,” even “when things seem to be lost” in challenging times.

Sin made Darth Vader

By contrast, the films also show what happens when a central character succumbs to evil. Mohs views Anakin Skywalker as someone who gave into his passions and desires, to the point of evolving into Darth Vader.

Father Erickson called “Stars Wars: Episode II” depiction of Anakin Skywalker’s falling to the dark side of the Force “refreshing,” as it shows the reality of how evil changes a person. He said that Anakin gave into his base instincts and held on too long. He became something other than what he was — so much so that he gets a new name and an appearance altered by his black armor, which serves as a kind of life support to hide physical deformities he received in battle.

Father Gjengdahl noted how Darth Vader’s attire reflects him becoming less of who he was as Anakin Skywalker.

Redemption of Darth Vader

Both Mohs and Father Gjengdahl see Darth Vader has having a change of heart in “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” as he protects his son, Luke Skywalker, from the Emperor before dying himself.

It’s “a story arc where you have essentially this personification of evil in Darth Vader who can be redeemed still at a moment where a choice is presented … to choose the right path or the wrong path,” Mohs said. “Even though he had chosen the wrong path for many years, he chose the right path and was converted through the love of his son and the faith of his son.”

Darth Vader, in a sense, resembles the “good thief” on the cross when he repents, Father Gjengdahl said.“That idea, hope of redemption for every single person, is probably the best Christian theme that’s found in all of ‘Stars Wars,’ I would say.”

Mixed expectations for ‘The Last Jedi’

The latest “Stars Wars” movie “The Last Jedi” will be in theaters in December.

Based on his impressions from the trailer, Mohs said it seems that there is a push in the story to balance the light and dark sides of the Force. He anticipates it might be a possible reconciliation, but it also resembles each person’s struggle between sin and virtue.

Fisher said the balance between light and dark will probably deviate from the earlier juxtaposition of good and evil. Similarly, Father Gjengdahl said a “balance” in the Force begins to resemble Taoism instead of a Catholic idea of good and evil.

Lightsabers, anyone? 

As for other “Star Wars” symbols that could relate Catholicism, lightsabers remain in question.

Mohs didn’t see any direct connection with the glowing high-tech swords to anything in the faith. Fisher, who said he had to field questions from middle school students about how light sabers work, doesn’t see a connection, either.

The priests took a stab at it, but admitted it was a stretch.

Father Erickson said maybe the Paschal Candle, which represents the light of Christ defeating sin and death. Father Gjengdahl said the bishop’s crosier does in a peaceful way, guiding and defending the flock.

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  • Christopher John Hagen

    As a Catholic Star Wars fan . . . thanks for publishing this article.