‘May the Force be with you’

By the Rev. Zach Bay

Postmodernity has arrived in earnest. Best I can tell, it brings with it many appropriate correctives to the modern era that preceded it. As highly as modernity prized scientifically-verifiable, logical fact, postmodernity seems to value the significance of story.

Somewhere in the latter part of the 20th century, story seeped into mainstream theological scholarship under the label “narrative.” Books and courses with names like “Narrative Preaching” and “Narrative Theology” appeared, and they were a welcome advent.

Fred Craddock’s work, for instance, not only changed the course of mainline homiletic theory and praxis, it breathed new life into it. Craddock’s own lived story — his writing, his voice and his quipping about that box placed behind the pulpit that he might see the congregation — told a generation of preachers that to preach well, they needn’t be Billy Graham, but themselves. You might say Craddock broke the modern mold by recognizing the significance of story — his and ours. Story is not an illustration of the truth — it is the truth.

“As One Without Authority” (Abingdon Press, 1979) was published nearly 40 years ago. Since then, story has claimed its rightful place in public discourse and displaced the rigid allegiance to scientific fact that both empowered and hobbled modernity. Today, we abide in a new world, in which lived experience and narrative are supreme. I welcome this time for its striving toward humility and equality, and eye it suspiciously when it becomes a contest of narratives seeking power.

The great temptation of our time may be to exchange truth-seeking for power-seeking. Western literature and film are replete with antagonists whose falls stemmed from such.

“There is no good or evil,” Lord Voldemort infamously seethes at Harry Potter. “There is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

Voldemort becomes the antagonist in the story each time he allows his thirst for power and control to call the shots. The creation of the horcruxes is an attempt to gain power over death. Spoiler alert: From the sorcerer’s stone all the way to Harry Potter himself, these powerful enchantments against death bring only death. Voldemort exchanged truth for power, and, in so doing, nearly ripped Hogwarts and Britain apart.

In Star Wars, Master Yoda warns Luke Skywalker that fear — and the seeking of power that comes with it — is a path to the Dark Side. These words echo with Anakin Skywalker’s decision to trade all that he believed as a Jedi for a means to avert the possibility of Padmé’s death. The result: For a generation thereafter, death is all that Anakin deals in — first to the Jedi novices in the temple, then to Padmé and, finally, to himself. Darth Vader is born, and it takes yet another generation and great sacrifice to right Galactic civilization.

“You cannot wield it,” Aragorn warns Boromir. “None of us can.”

Boromir is the son of the Steward of Gondor and is righteously passionate about defending his people and all of Middle Earth from the growing threat in Mordor. Gondor shares a border with Mordor, and Boromir fears that a lack of courage, unity and ability will be lethal. He trades who he is and the values he holds dear — courage, honor, loyalty, justice and, broadly, truth — for a chance at great power that might defend Gondor. No longer grounded by his values, Boromir ultimately attacks his friend Frodo Baggins to get the One Ring, and dies.

When we trade truth for power, tragedy follows. Our news organizations lose credibility and chase whichever story plays best. Our college lecterns become called into question for failing to properly honor the free exchange of ideas. Our leaders begin to look like chronic opportunistic liars. Our pulpits shrink, as listeners begin to suspect some hidden allegiance to something other than Jesus Christ.

The postmodern premium on story — fictional and lived-in — is helping us greatly, as we work toward greater equality and justice for all persons. We should continue to lean into our stories. But we must take care and take heart as we do so. We cannot let fear determine our means. We must remain true to who we are, as we work for a better world. The very stories that warn us also hold a deep truth that encourages us.

It takes a while, but, finally, the Force brings good. It’s difficult, sacrificial work, but ultimately, the magic woven into the world resurrects Harry Potter. In Middle Earth, when good people work for good in good ways, even the trees come to their aid.

The Rev. Zach Bay is pastor of Middlesboro (Ky.) First Baptist Church.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.