June 1998: Star Wars and the New Age

Ha! You all thought I was gone, didn't you! Well, I'm not, I've just got a new job, and man have I been busy. However, I've managed to take to some time to bring you a new installment of Force This! I hope you like it.

This begins a multi-part (not sure how many parts yet) miniseries on Star Wars and religion. We're starting off this month with New Age. In later installments we'll be looking at Buddhism (Zen in particular), Shinto, and Wicca. As always I welcome suggestions. If there are any Christians out there with well-informed thoughts on the subject, I might be interested in interviewing you on how the concepts put forth in Star Wars can be related to Christianity. Send e-mail to the address below if interested.

Now that all that's out of the way, on with this month's column!

The Celestine Prophecy is a bestseller. Yuppies wear crystals and hang dream-catchers in their windows. Enya and Loreena McKennitt perform to sold-out crowds; McKennitt's The Book of Secrets is one of this spring's most popular CDs. And it's amazing how many people were Cleopatra in a former life. Love it, hate it, or just plain bewildered by it, the New Age has hit the mainstream.

When someone says "New Age", most of us think of auras, palm readings, and Shirley Maclaine. But, odd or "fluffy" as these things might appear, there's no doubt that they answer a need. Star Wars, whose popularity continues unabated over twenty years after the first film's release (so that Randal, in the Clerks comic book, is inspired to call it "the only real institution this country has left"), has a mystical dimension that taps into that same need.

At its heart, New Age is about self-fulfillment, which is why you see otherwise perfectly reasonable people drop a few hundred bucks on a weekend seminar that involves running around in the woods hugging trees. Many people feel a lack of self-fulfillment in their lives, and to these people, New Age offers something that they don't find in their church, their jobs, or their social lives. Add to that the overwhelmingly American cult of the individual our heroes are pioneers, people set apart from the crowd for no other reason than who they are. In this sense, Luke Skywalker is an American-style hero, the boy who makes good by virtue of who he is: he rises from humble beginnings to save the galaxy.

That alone does not make Star Wars New Age. As Joseph Campbell would quickly point out, the tale of the hero is present in many cultures and many periods of history and even in pre-historical human society. Yet the concepts and practices that fall under the nebulous term "New Age" have also been with us for a very long time; some of its trappings are older than any organized form of religion, such as channeling spirits. Meditation, a practice growing in popularity (and helped along by all the recent films featuring Buddhism, such as Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun), has been around at least as long as Buddhism (which is to say, approximately 500 years longer than Christianity). Since philosophies and religions from eastern Asia have had a definite influence on New Age, the growth of New Age in the popular mindset and the growing popularity of practices such as meditation seem to be occurring in tandem.

New Age is an outgrowth of the spiritualism that became widely popular in the 19thcentury, culminating around the turn of the century in the New Thought movement. This was both a reaction to and influenced by scientific discoveries of the day; discovery of energies that cannot be seen would have actually suggested that there was something to all of those spiritualist practices. The term "New Age" was also first used around this time, but it didn't really enter popular thought to any great degree until . . . the 1970s.

The emphasis has also changed a great deal. The focus of spiritualism in the 19th century was communication with the dead. New Agers, though they practice some of the same things that their forebears did, have altered the purpose, which lately has been to find the meaning of life. In this modern world, science has undermined many of the certainties of traditional religion; the answers asserted by Judeo-Christian thought no longer seem as concrete as they once did. Small wonder that so many people are turning elsewhere; and, as the generation that caused a cultural revolution in the 1960s matured in the 1970s and 80s, the New Age grew with them. You can buy incense and crystals in convenience stores nowadays.

What does all of this have to do with Star Wars? Let's consider the historical context. Born in 1944, George Lucas is a member of the same generation that brought us Woodstock, the Age of Aquarius (which is what "New Age" seems to refer to these days; it's an astrological reference), and the growing popularity of New Age thought. He was living and working in California at a time that these ideas were coming to the forefront, and mixing with ideas from Zen Buddhism and related systems of thought that crossed the Pacific Ocean during the mid-20th century. The result is very New Age: Lucas came up with a concept he called the Force, which has no gender, personality, or other personification. It is not a creative force; Ben Kenobi emphasizes this in the first Star Wars film. "It's an energy field created by all living things," he says (emphasis mine). What it does do is hold everything together; as Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back, "Its energy surrounds us . . . and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."

Dale Pollock notes in his book Skywalking that Lucas wanted to create "not a religious god, but a universal deity" that "incorporates and consumes all living things". There is a theological term for this: panentheism. This is rather different from pantheism, which postulates that the universe itself is god; no more, no less. Panentheism, on the other hand, asserts that god is in all things, a subtly different approach. The Force is panentheistic; so are most New Agers, who seek the sort of direct experience with the divine that the Jedi Knights of Star Wars are capable of achieving.

In fact, New Age practice itself looks a lot like Luke's training with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. It focuses heavily on meditation and what's called energy play, something similar to the sort of telekinesis that allows Yoda to lift Luke's X-Wing from the swamp (though the results achieved from energy play, if any, aren't nearly so spectacular). Some New Agers work with gurus; for them, the value comes from having a personal guide who is with them every step of the way, as opposed to a priest who is responsible for an entire congregation. Both Jedi training and New Age thought focus on achieving a certain state of mind: a sense of calmness and peacefulness that makes it easier to deal with the world objectively, and, hopefully, also makes it easier to reach beyond the realms of the physical.

New Age, like Star Wars, focuses on the human element. In its most undiluted form, New Age emphasizes personal responsibility; while many New Agers won't do anything without some sort of spiritual guidance, for most this is because they realize that it truly is up to them. You won't hear a serious New Ager (contradictory as that phrase may appear, they do exist) saying, "The devil made me do it." Likewise, in Star Wars the failures are human. There's no fantastic psychic battle at the end of the trilogy, no war between the gods, no human against some inhuman monster. Compare the climax of Return of the Jedi to that of less successful fantasy films such as Conan the Destroyer and Masters of the Universe. One important reason why the Star Wars trilogy has been more successful is that it comes down, ultimately, to human choices and human frailties. Darth Vader is unmasked; but before that even happens, the decision we see him make is a choice between being human and remaining a monster. Most of us have to make many similar choices over the course of our lives, though for most of us the consequences aren't nearly so weighty.

Both the Force and New Age have their detractors, and with reason. Han Solo's words in Star Wars: A New Hope are as indicative of the attitude of many people toward New Age as they are of his attitude toward the Force: "I've never seen anything to make me believe that there's one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There's no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense."

Han actually raises an important point. Throughout the trilogy, Luke Skywalker is constantly informed that this or that is his destiny: it's his destiny to kill Darth Vader, or it's his destiny to join Darth Vader, depending on who you talk to. Yet ultimately, Luke chooses what he's going to do, and it's neither; though you could argue that he's responsible for Vader's death, it's Vader who makes the choice that leads to that death. Likewise, many New Agers, despite a preponderance of Tarot readings, astrology, and channeling, are very big on individual choice. It's no accident that most New Agers are in a social and economic position where they actually have choices; the vast majority of them in America are white and middle-class. These are not people who believe in fate, nor do they have to. For Luke Skywalker, it's a little different; he can't afford to believe in fate, because if he does, there's no hope left.

Above all, the success of Star Wars indicates how far New Age ideas, if not their trappings, have penetrated into mainstream thought. The trilogy is a rousing space adventure, to be sure, but there are plenty of those; Star Wars has something more. It offers concrete evidence of the spiritual world that so many of us would desperately like to believe in; it shows that the most ordinary person can, in fact, achieve anything. Like much of New Age thought, it is inspired by a mix of myth and religion, though its tenets don't really belong to either. Star Wars is a fairy tale for our times; New Age is a philosophy that attempts to cope with our times, with varying degrees of success.

Next month, we'll look at Star Wars and Wicca. Though neither really inspired the other, they do have many elements in common. We'll take a look at why in July. See you then!

Sources for this month's edition of Force This! include:
Aveni, Anthony. Behind the Crystal Ball: Magic, Science, and the Occult from Antiquity Through the New Age. 1996, Random House, New York.
Pollock, Dale. Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas. 1983, Harmony Books, New York.
Streiker, Lowell D. New Age Comes to Main Street: A Non-Hysterical Survey of the New Age Movement. 1990, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN.