Elves, Wookies and Fanboys:
Star Wars And Our Need For Stories

by Roberto Rivera

"I heard about people who were really worried they might die, they were taking precautions so they wouldn't get run over by a truck before 'Episode I' came out. It's this huge motivating factor to stay alive."

-- Star Wars fan Eric Cline quoted in New Times Los Angeles. According to Salon Magazine, Cline's devotion to Star Wars has prompted him to write a screenplay, entitled "Fanboys," about a group of young guys from the Midwest who take their dying friend to Skywalker Ranch, so that he can see the movie in its perfect setting before he dies.

We live in a secular world, and people take their raison d'étre where they can find it. That's why Star Wars is more than a film, and why people are already lined up for the May 19 premier of The Phantom Menace. Despite George Lucas' best intentions -- he said, "I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience" -- Star Wars inspires ... go ahead, say it: religious devotion. While some of us have to settle for a God we've never seen and a heaven that is not of this earth, Cline and his "Fanboys" can point to a locale in Northern California that gives them a reason to go on when their lives don't otherwise seem worth living. If this seems odd to you, there are emotional, cultural and spiritual reasons that lie behind the phenomenon. First, let me admit that I can relate to Cline's anticipation. I saw the original trilogy at least 30 times when they hit the theaters in 1977, 1980 and 1983. Even more, I was there at every opening night. I own the trilogy on laserdisc and have watched it many times at home. To put it mildly, I'm pumped!

But, why are we so pumped? Part of it is wondering what Lucas can do with today's special effects technology. People who weren't around in 1977, or who don't have access to Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman's "Way-Back Machine," can't appreciate the technological leap Star Wars represented. Star Wars looked and sounded like no film anyone had ever seen. Besides inventing the special effects that we take for granted today, Star Wars also ushered in the surround sound that has made its way into many American homes. The Phantom Menace continues the tradition. The film marks the debut of the latest version of movie-theater sound and will also be the first film to employ the latest digital projection techniques.

But all of this propeller-head stuff isn't why people are dodging trucks and refusing to handle sharp objects between now and May 19. To paraphrase James Carville, "it's the story, stupid!" In his Time magazine interview with Lucas, Bill Moyers kept using words like "myth," "stories" and "narrative." Before you can understand people like Cline and his Fanboys, you've got to understand our hunger for big, sweeping stories like Star Wars. Simply put, Star Wars is the closest thing that many young Americans have to a myth. What's a "myth?" For most people, "myth" means something that isn't true. The stories in Homer's The Odyssey and The Iliad, are an example of this understanding of myth. But this is an impoverished definition -- one that helps explain why people are so anxious for The Phantom Menace to arrive.

Myths are stories that help us make sense of our lives and the world around us. Homer's tales fit this definition perfectly. The ancient Greeks derived their understanding of virtue and vice from the characters in these stories. Whether Achilles or Odysseus ever existed was secondary. What mattered was what they did and whether the readers' actions conformed to their standards. This use of stories to transmit a culture's values and beliefs wasn't limited to ancient Greece. The great biblical faiths, Judaism and Christianity, also employed them, albeit with the added twist that their stories were grounded in history. What Jews and Christians know about the God they worship -- His love, His justice, His compassion -- comes primarily from the narratives contained in the Bible.

These narratives did more than tell us about God -- they also told us about ourselves, and how we should live our lives. In his book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, the late Hans Frei, a professor of theology at Yale University, described how people understood the relationship between the biblical stories and their own lives. He wrote that the world described in those stories was the real one, and that "it was [the reader's] duty to fit himself in that world ... He was to see his disposition, his actions and passions, the shape of his own life as well as that of his era's events as figures of that storied world ..." In other words, our lives only made sense in the context of these stories.

This use of narrative as the primary vehicle for transmitting values and beliefs lasted until a few hundred years ago. Then came the rise of modern science. Scientists taught us that the only way you could "know" anything was through direct observation. Narrative and stories, which by definition can't be directly observed, were pushed aside in favor of a more "scientific" way of explaining the world around us: proposition and hypotheses. Even the Church went along with this change. More and more, belief was a matter of subscribing to certain propositions about God, rather than seeing our lives in the context of a great, unfolding drama -- what Germans call heilgeschichte, salvation history.

But, that didn't change the fact that people need stories. So, every once in a while, you would see a story capture the imagination of millions in a way no one could have foreseen. In the 1960s, it was Lord of The Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. On the surface, a story about elves, trolls and wizards seems like an unlikely cultural icon, but consider this: In 1965, a high school student left a message, written in the Elf language Tolkien invented for the Lord of the Rings on the subway walls near Columbia University. It announced that the Tolkien Club would meet in front of Columbia's alma mater statue in a week's time. Despite typically freezing February New York weather, six folks showed up in response to an announcement that wasn't even written in a real language. That, folks, is the power of a good story. This marked the beginning of a Lord of the Rings mania that seized the imagination of a generation. You couldn't go anywhere near an American college campus in the 1960s without seeing bumper stickers that proclaimed "Frodo Lives!" or "Visit Middle Earth."

A decade later, it was Star Wars' turn. Like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars was divided into three parts. And the story it told was a big one, filled with the themes that keep popping up throughout human history: good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, the eternal struggle between fathers and sons, and, ultimately, the story of one man's redemption. Lucas was, like Tolkien, creating his own myth. And like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars was a complete world. It had its own history, its own values, even its own belief system: Tolkien had the prophecies about the nine rings; Lucas had "The Force." Both were the kind of stories people could immerse themselves in -- to the point of wanting the story to go on after the last page had been turned. After the final chapter of the original trilogy, The Return Of The Jedi, there were literally dozens of novels written that take up were Jedi left off. Stories about the restoration of the republic; speculation about the lives of the main characters after the restoration -- even stuff about Hans' and Leia's family.

Now, before Tolkien aficionados string me up, I'm not comparing the literary merit of the two works--just their effect on generations starved for narratives. This leads me to the lesson that I hope Churches take from the Star Wars mania. If you want to engage people where they really live, you've got to reach for more than their heads or even their hearts. You've got to engage their imaginations. Once you've got that, chances are the rest will follow. In other words, if you want to teach moral lessons, there's no substitute for a good story. Daniel Taylor, who wrote "The Healing Power of Stories" understands this truth. "When I am tempted, as I always am, to put my personal advantage ahead of the common good -- in my home or in society -- I am little moved by abstract ethical injunctions, and actively encouraged to 'me-firstism' by psychological-sounding appeals to my needs and rights. But I can sometimes be nudged toward something resembling concern for others by remembering a story from long ago about wizards and hobbits."

Now, if this is true of "Lord Of The Rings," imagine how much more true it is the greatest cosmic adventure of all -- God's dealing with humanity, which culminated in the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ. This story built a civilization and inspired countless people to rise above petty selfishness. The problem is that churches have neglected the telling of this story for arid propositions that leave us cold and bored.

But it is more than the church's fault. Our culture has deemed the Christian story irrelevant. But, just as people need stories, they need something to believe in. And, once you've decided that "something" isn't to be found in organized religion, specifically Christianity, then you'll take your experience where you can get it and for many people, that's at the movies. Which brings me back to the Lucas quote I began with. You see, in Lucas' own words we see the cultural attitude that would lead to the Church of St. Anakin. He tells Moyers that he agrees with the idea that "one religion is as good as another," and describes religion as "a container for faith," which for Lucas, as for many Americans, is more of a psychological idea -- it's what "allows us to remain stable, remain balanced" -- than something we know to be true.

If that's the case, little wonder that people want to make pilgrimages to Marin County. If one religion is as good as another and all faith requires is a "container," then why not Star Wars? It's got a lot going for it: Like Christianity, it's got a great story, but unlike Christianity, you don't have to get up on Sunday mornings, the moral requirements aren't that strict and, as Cline tells us, its heaven can be found on a map. The problem is that, after you've lined up, memorized the dialog, and made the pilgrimage to Skywalker Ranch, what have you got to show for it? And, heaven forbid, what if the Phantom Menace disappoints? What's your fallback position? After all, it's still only a movie.

It remains to be seen whether Star Wars will ever inspire the kind of testimonial Taylor gave "Lord of The Rings" -- much less the kind of endorsement countless people can give to the power of the Christian story. Still, you won't hear me calling Cline, his Fanboys, or any of the folks lining up for the May 19 premier, names. I'm in no position to begrudge anyone the narratives we all need. In fact, come to think of it, it's time for me to join them in line.

Copyright 1999 (c) Roberto Rivera. Elves, Wookies and Fanboys first appeared in Boundless webzine, a weekly webzine for college students by Focus on the Family. The author, Roberto Rivera, writes entertainment and culture reviews for Boundless each month.