Star Wars, Meta-narratives and the gospel

Picture of Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: The Force AwakensRev Dr Mark Worthing, who has published books examining the intersection between Christian faith and pop culture, was approached for interview in relation to the ‘Religion and Fandom‘ article.

He responded to the questions asked with a reflection, presented here in an edited form, on Star Wars as a modern-day monomyth and an expression of religiosity as a human experience. Rev Dr Mark Worthing is the parish pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church North Adelaide. He is the author of Graeme Clark: The man who invented the bionic ear, and a historian of science.

As I prepare to take a group of youth from our congregation to see the midnight showing of Star Wars: Episode VII, it is clear that – like the Lord of the Rings and the Superman franchises, this is more than just a movie. The phenomenon of fandom that has developed surrounding such film franchises has taken on an almost religious dimension. Tens of thousands give ‘Jedi’ as their religion on each Australian census. While this is a mostly tongue-in-cheek bit of humour, there is also a serious point to it. Joseph Campbell, the great 20th century expert on mythology, would not be surprised.

With many in modern Western societies intentionally abandoning traditional religions for a variety of reasons, a void is being created. Suddenly we find ourselves within a world with great numbers of people with no defining story. Human beings have an inherent need for mythology, for heroes to cheer for, for a saviour figure, and for a world view which makes sense of our reality and shows us what values we ought to live by. If Christianity or Judaism are no longer filling these roles, people will naturally seek out a meta-narrative elsewhere. This is seldom a conscious decision, but more of a natural response to a need.

The modern fandom phenomenon develops out of this need. There are fan sites, discussion groups, toys and images that form a sort of iconography, as well as a whole range of rituals associated with the story.

If we look only at the example of the Star Wars series, which is one of the most successful of the emerging meta-narratives, we find a grand story with belief in a higher power (the Force) and a battle between good and evil. There are also heroes to barrack for, quests to follow, and important lessons about life to learn. We can buy t-shirts, bumper stickers, desk-top toys and any other number of items to show our support of the story. There are regular film marathons, books about sub-stories, books about the meaning of the movies, and web-based discussion communities. Fandom suddenly begins to look very religious.

If Joseph Campbell were asked he would not say that secular people today are choosing a new religion, but that they are simply filling the natural need for a meta-narrative in their lives. The religious-like following, images and rituals that develop around these stories are simply testimony to the power of the meta-narrative.

Sometimes we can learn more about our own Christian and biblical meta-narrative through these other stories. For those of us who are shaped by the story of God’s salvation of a lost humanity through Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, it is this story that remains the foundational meta-narrative or story that gives us meaning.

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