Star Wars, the Force and the Return of the Soul

By Lenny Esposito Published on April 29, 2017

The Star Wars movie franchise is a cultural touchstone. Ever since A New Hope debuted, these films have both shaped and reflected the current culture. As the franchise comes upon its 40th anniversary, it’s interesting to look back and see how cultural shifts have been reflected back into the Star Wars story lines.

If we wanted, we could focus on political themes changing over the years. The original three films focused on very traditional tales of a small rebellion of freedom fighters overcoming evil overlords. It combined the Rocky Balboa underdog theme with an American Revolution kind of outlook. By contrast, the prequel trilogy got bogged down in bureaucracies and trade sanctions, very much reflecting popular political ideas of the 1990s.

That’s interesting enough, but the real interest to me is how the concept of the Force itself changes between the two sets of films. The Force is central to all Star Wars movies. Without it the stories fall apart. And the Force has changed: from spiritual to biological and back to spiritual again. Some very important cultural shifts are reflected here as well.

Is the Force Spiritual or Biological?

In the original films, the Force was an essence known and experienced through a spiritual understanding of reality. Obi-Wan Kenobi famously defines it as “what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

This was a very spiritual concept at a spiritual time in our culture. The New Age movement was growing. Pyramid power and crystals were supposed to be “energy sources.” Like them, the Force was available to all the living — but only used by those who would seek it out.

In the two decades following The Return of the Jedi, though, culture shifted. Americans became less religious. A materialist view of science — assuming that the physical world is all there is — was being accepted more and more, as spiritual ways of viewing reality were being set aside. You weren’t a person with body and soul; you were simply the sum of your bodily processes. Even LGBT advocates were searching to prove that same-sex attraction was strictly a matter of biology.

We see this going on in The Phantom Menace. There the Force is explained as a part of a biological process. Anakin wasn’t simply open or closed to it. He had special cells called midichlorians to access the Force. It was physical as opposed to spiritual.

But now we have The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the spiritual is back! In both films, the emphasis has returned to the spiritual side of the Force. Director J.J. Abrams talks about his deliberate shift when asked about how he approached the Force in the film:

I’m not someone who quite understands the science of the Force. To me Star Wars was never about science fiction — it was a spiritual story. And it was more of a fairy tale in that regard. For me when I heard Obi-Wan say that the Force surrounds us and binds us all together, there was no judgement about who you were. This was something that we could all access. Being strong with the force didn’t mean something scientific, it meant something spiritual. It meant someone who could believe, someone who could reach down to the depths of your feelings and follow this primal energy that was flowing through all of us. I mean, that’s what was said in that first film!

Is Culture More Open to the Truth of the Spiritual?

Abrams’ comments are intriguing in view of recent changes in culture. Just look at how LGBT advocates now demand that real gender is determined by feelings, not by DNA. Biology once held the place of supreme rule; now it’s being dethroned again.

Meanwhile LGBT advocates are trying to sort out the tension between the born-this-way and it’s-my-choice positions. They haven’t yet figured out how to make the two work together without running afoul of one another. But the newly revived mental/spiritual approach requires people to talk about something other than just the physical aspect of who they are.

What It Means for Christianity

So we can expect to see people again trying to connect and unite their spiritual and biological aspects, and experiencing tension in the effort. This is  good news for Christianity, for the Christian worldview supports the idea of a person being body and soul, and it does so without running into the many problems raised by a secular view of reality.

Two Star Wars films now have reawakened to a more spiritual understanding of the Force. But let’s not jump the gun on what it might mean. It doesn’t mean that people are becoming more religious. But given how Star Wars both influences and reflects current culture, it is possible that we are seeing a nod toward the idea that people see the spiritual side of life as being more important again. They’re liking the idea  that people cannot be reduced to our bodies’ physical components. We’re not just physical bodies, we have souls; and this is being reflected in the films.

As for Christianity, we know there is something more to us than just matter undergoing chemical and electrical reactions. Christianity gives us an intelligent explanation for that reality. As Obi-Wan Kenobi would say, recognizing the spiritual aspect of who we are is taking a first step into a larger world.

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