Star Wars as Cultural Liturgy
“May the Force be with you.” — “ And also with you.”
As I walked out of the theater upon seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I felt exhilarated — but also vaguely disappointed. I had fallen in love with the characters, and the universe came alive on-screen and in my imagination — but aspects of the plotline kept bugging me… the use of the Starkiller base as a Death Star 3.0 particularly irked me. Oh come on, the Empire — excuse me, First Order — decided to make *another* giant planet-destroying base that could be completely obliterated by hitting a single weak spot?
At least, this is how I felt until I talked with my good friend Cameron. As an artist, former roommate, and my polar opposite, I often rely on him to offer perspectives I would have completely missed. He encouraged me to view the film through the lens of liturgy, and after several days of reflection I’ve realized this is far more important than a pair of 3D glasses for appreciating the newest entry to the Star Wars saga.
In fact, you cannot appropriately treasure The Force Awakens until you understand it through the lens of cultural liturgy.
What is liturgy?
Liturgy is the term for the church’s sacramental rites and texts used in public worship. — The Episcopal Church
For an impactful period of my childhood, my family attended an Episcopalian church where liturgy was an essential part of each service. Every week, the congregation would meet together to recite call-and-response passages based on Scripture. Often we would recite the same passages week after week after week after week. We dwelled on the same storyline again and again. As a kid, I was frustrated and bored with this repetition until my father explained the purpose it served in our spiritual formation.
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Each week as we approached these same texts, we would come with new mistakes, victories, perspectives, and questions. Each week we approached the same texts as slightly different people. Through contemplation on these familiar texts, we learned new things about ourselves, our faith, and our God. The repetition in liturgy enabled us to focus on the themes beyond the words being said and interact with the ideas on a higher level. In my experience, it was precisely the repetition that gave liturgy its power to shape and mold.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
In addition to the power of repetition, liturgy also has a potent generational effect that helps keep the church rooted in its tradition and history. As I spoke the words that generation after generation of previous Christians had spoken together, I felt connected with them in a way that I had never experienced before. And as my father watched the same words that had molded his life slowly change his son, that was undoubtedly a spiritual experience in and of itself.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
What does this have to do with Star Wars?
You don’t have to be religious in any capacity to see the parallels between the release of The Force Awakens and the liturgical experience offered by many ‘high churches’ like the Catholic and Episcopal Churches.
The storyline of Star Wars, along with the music, humor, and thematic approach has become a set of ‘rites and texts’ that we use in understanding our own cultural identity.
The use of familiarity in these story elements serves the same role as repetition in Christian liturgy. It’s a slighty different audience that comes to watch than first showed up in 1977 — they are older, have new mistakes, victories, perspectives, and questions. By watching The Force Awakens, they have not only been able to reconnect with one of the best experiences of their childhood, but they have new eyes to contemplate this story that has been engrained in our cultural narrative.
May the force be with you.
But this repetition also works to focus the audience on what really matters for the beginning of this new chapter: the characters. J.J. Abrams has mentioned in several interviews that the role of Episode VII is to serve as a bridge between the old characters and the new, to pass the baton (or light-saber) on to the next generation. By bringing the audience back to a familiar place, we dwell more on the interactions and chemistry between characters. The repetition in story elements enables us to focus on the themes beyond the space battles and interact with the characters and ideas on a higher level.
Rey and Finn have become beloved characters in such short time precisely because of the familiar and liturgical storyline.
I have a bad feeling about this…
And as I scrolled through my social media feeds, I saw the generational power of Star Wars on full display. I was inundated by story after story of parents watching in glee as their children connected with the same saga that animated their imaginations. And partaking in the recitation of the Star Wars storyline has helped anchor this new generation in our cultural memes and history.
The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power, too.
There are simply stories that need to be told at least once a generation. Character archetypes that everyone needs to fall in love with to understand our society. Star Wars is that story, and The Force Awakens is the newest iteration of our cultural liturgy.