- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

ATLANTA — When Great Britain took its census last year, the Office for National Statistics got a surprising lesson in the power of the Force: Under "religion," thousands of British "Star Wars" fans wrote in "Jedi Knight."

Perhaps if they had known what we learned in the latest movie, "Attack of the Clones" that the mystical peacekeeping Jedi were supposed to forswear all possessions and personal attachments (with an implication of, ulp, celibacy) they wouldn't have been so quick to claim membership.

But even such a practical joke indicates how strongly the religious underpinnings of "Star Wars" have taken root. While some fans focus only on the light-saber battles and special effects, others ponder and debate creator George Lucas' blend of ancient myths, Christianity and Eastern mysticism.

"There are people who say this movie has changed their lives in a spiritual way, and it's always in a positive way," says Acworth software developer Carl Cunningham, who runs the Web site www.starwarsfan.org.

The Rev. Beth Luton Cook, director of continuing education at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, noted that people in their 20s were preschoolers or not even born when the first movie was released 25 years ago.

"There's no doubt the 'Star Wars' movies have been very influential on college students today. They're getting a lot of their spiritual cues from it."

But those cues don't point in one direction.

Christian references abound in the five "Star Wars" movies, but rarely in a way that provides clear parallels. The Force itself has been compared to the Holy Spirit in Christianity, and the film's famous catchphrase, "May the Force be with you," obviously echoes "The Lord be with you." Robed and bearded heroes sacrifice themselves to save others, and the red-skinned, horned Darth Maul of the fourth movie was obviously an image of the devil.

The current trilogy told that Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, had something akin to a virgin birth. But he obviously is not a Christ figure, as his pride and ego in "Attack of the Clones," the second film in the series, lead him to revenge killings on his way to embracing the dark side.

The Rev. Roger Thomas, pastor of metro Atlanta's Northeast Baptist Church, prefers that people focus more on the point of Lucas' saga and less on the details. "In a lot of Lucas' basic philosophy, we can find Christian truths," he says. "Clones" is really about Anakin Skywalker's descent into evil.

"It's a gradual thing," he says. "It's not like you wake up one day and decide you're going to be evil. Temptation comes in small steps."

Everyone's favorite little green Jedi, Yoda, meanwhile, is "a little bit Buddhist," says Tom Snyder, editor of Movieguide, the magazine of the Christian Film and Television Commission. He is a cartoon version of a Zen master, speaking in inverted aphorisms that are part koan, part fortune cookie.

Some critics have seen a more amorphous spiritual sensibility, frequently shorthanded as "New Agey," at work in the saga. "Our culture is infected with this notion of New Age emotionalism don't let me think, I just want to feel my way," says Mr. Snyder, referring to the original trilogy's frequent admonition to "feel the Force."

"I see 'Star Wars' as taking all the issues that religions represent and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct," Mr. Lucas said in an interview with Bill Moyers in 1999.

"I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system," he added. Mr. Lucas has said he believes in God, but holds that "all the religions are true."

Many of those who are drawn to the values of "Star Wars," however, look more to Mr. Lucas' use of ancient mythic archetypes than for details corresponding to any particular religion. Joseph Campbell, the late scholar and author of "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," was a big fan and discussed "Star Wars" at length with Mr. Moyers in the famous PBS series "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth."

"That movie communicates," Mr. Campbell said. "It's in a language that speaks to young people, and that's what counts."

But not just young people have responded.

"I'm in my mid-50s and find it fascinating," says John Lynner Peterson, executive vice president of the Web site www.faithandvalues.com, an interfaith site.

"People are asking questions about ultimate meaning," he says. "They can find their own answers in 'Star Wars.'"

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