While tweaking the original Star Wars movie for re-release, director George Lucas decided that he needed to clarify the status of pilot Han Solo's soul.
Terry Mattingly writes the nationally syndicated On Religion column for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C., and is associate professor of media & religion at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
In the old version, Solo shot first in his cantina showdown with a bounty hunter. But in the new one, Lucas addressed this moral dilemma with a slick edit that showed Greedo firing first. Thus, Solo was not a murderer, but a mere scoundrel on the way to redemption.
"Lucas wanted to make sure that people knew that Han didn't shoot someone in cold blood," said broadcaster Dick Staub. "That would raise serious questions about his character, because we all know that murder is absolutely wrong."
The Star Wars films do, at times, have a strong sense of good and evil.
Yet in the climactic scene of the new "Revenge of the Sith," the evil Darth Vader warns his former master: "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes."
Say what? If that is true, how did Lucas decide it was wrong for Solo to gun down a bounty hunter? Isn't that a moral absolute? If so, why are absolutes absolutely wrong in the saga's latest film? Good questions, according to Staub.
While we're at it, the Jedi knights keep saying they must resist the "dark side" of the mysterious, deistic Force. But they also yearn for a "chosen one" who will "bring balance" to the Force, a balance between good and evil.
"There is this amazing internal inconsistency in Lucas that shows how much conflict there is between the Eastern religious beliefs that he wants to embrace and all those Judeo-Christian beliefs that he grew up with," said Staub, author of a book for young people entitled "Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters."
"I mean, you're supposed balance the light and the dark? How does that work?"
The key is that Lucas—who calls himself a "Buddhist Methodist"—believes all kinds of things, even when the beliefs clash. This approach allows the digital visionary to take chunks of the world's major religions and swirl them in the blender of his imagination. Thus, the Force contains elements of Judaism, Christianity, Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and even Islam.
None of this is surprising. Lucas merely echoes the beliefs of many artists in his generation and those who have followed. But the czar of Star Wars also has helped shape the imaginations of millions of spiritual consumers. His fun, non-judgmental faith was a big hit at the mall.
It is impossible, said Staub, to calculate the cultural impact of this franchise since the 1977 release of the first film—episode IV, "A New Hope." The films have influenced almost all moviegoers, but especially Americans 40 and under.
"I don't think there is anything coherent that you could call the Gospel According to Star Wars," stressed Staub. "But I do think there are things we can learn from Star Wars. ...I think what we have here is a teachable moment, a point at which millions of people are talking about what it means to choose the dark side or the light side.
"Who wants to dark side to win? Most Americans want to see good triumph over evil, but they have no solid reasons for why they do. They have no idea what any of this has to do with their lives."
Staub is especially concerned about young Star Wars fans. He believes that many yearn for some kind of mystical religious experience, taught by masters who hand down ancient traditions and parables that lead to truths that have stood the test of time, age after age. These young people "want to find their Yoda, but they don't think real Yodas exist anymore," especially not in the world of organized religion, he said.
In the end, it's easier to go to the movies.
Meanwhile, many traditional religious leaders bemoan the fact that they cannot reach the young. So they try to modernize the faith instead of digging back to ancient mysteries and disciplines, said Staub.
"So many churches are choosing to go shallow, when many young people want to go deep," he said. "There are people who just want to be entertained. But there are others who want to be Jedis, for real."
©2005, Terry Mattingly. Used by permission.