Monday, November 07, 2005

More Apologia for Star Wars

I've mentioned several times that my religion growing up was Star Wars, and it's taking a hit or two at the moment for having a defective worldview. I think that it doesn't hurt at all to learn Christianity from mythic sources like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, but what happens when that source is more or less consciously something other than Christian, as Harry Potter, The Dark Tower, and Star Wars most evidently are? Along the lines that I've been pointing out recently, I would argue that this is the sort of pagan excellence, the worship of the "unknown god," that is taught in Scripture in Acts 17:16-34. These are pagan frameworks that ask the right questions, and while they are never given their full explanation except in the Incarnate Word of God, the seeking is a kind that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christianity.

To begin, that Star Wars represents something like a culmination of pagan wisdom should be relatively obvious from the strong influence of the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell on Lucas. The somewhat more inscrutable influence of the American West, mediated by its idiomatic Japanese expression in Kurosawa, surely also looms large, and I doubt that I could quickly survey what appears to be a connection between the concept of honor among gunslingers and the Southern gentility that probably carried over from older Roman origins. Similar ideas were definitely mulling in Tolkien and other sources from which Lucas drew, including the science-fiction tradition. For these reasons, one could hardly call it a reach to suppose that, if there is a wisdom in pagan mythology, Star Wars would capture it.

Likewise, as I mentioned in the blog entry linked above, it is entirely unsurprising that Protestantism would necessarily lash out at Star Wars, as the entire edifice of Protestantism was built on the negation of just this idea of pagan virtue. Indeed, I pointed out that the desperate compromise with tools of negation out of misguided attachment to temporal goods, the quite-literal opposite of pagan virtue, was Anakin's failing as well as Luther's, in effect making Protestantism's fall parallel to Anakin's. A good pagan and a good Stoic is seeking apatheia, freedom from the domination of passions and dependence on temporal goods, but only a Christian actually realizes them. Both Anakin and Luther are examples of the failure of apatheia and the misery that ensues from that failure; they cut off their own ability to perceive the good in creation. And this misunderstanding of human apatheia carries over inevitably into violations of the divine impassibility as well, so that they make God into a Really Big Human (a la Leibniz) with righteous passions, ironically undermining the very divine quality that makes God the stable ontological foundation that the pagans sought in a changing world.

So does Star Wars display a "lack of consistent moral vision?" On the contrary, the moral vision of Star Wars is the ONLY moral vision, the very same moral vision that has been at the center of human inquiry for years, the one that is answered by Christ. This is made evident by the very critiques that are leveled against it:

For Lucas, presumably, the heroes are the republicans and the Jedi knights. But what’s so great about the old republic, anyway? Lucas’ idea of representative government is modeled, not on the American experiment, but Athenian democracy, the Roman senate, and the House of Lords. These are aristocrats and royalty. Padmé dresses like an empress and lives in a palace that makes Versailles look like the slave quarters.

As I've noted in several previous installments, the real good of the American system was that it was balanced by a federalist vision, including the states as harbors of civic virtue and defenders of rightly-ordered self-governance. Athenian democracy and the Roman Senate aren't inherently bad, provided they are ordered to the Good with a healthy sense of noblesse oblige. It's this skepticism about all created authority that exemplifies the reductionist anti-Christian view passing itself off in the name of Christianity.

And despite Yoda’s Dalai Lama rhetoric, the Jedi are strikingly like the Samurai. It makes you wonder what, exactly, is Lucas’ political ideal. The Shogunate?

More like the American West, although perhaps rendered less artfully than Kurosawa's vision. At the same time, I think that Lucas's Western vision probably reflects the Christian influence more strongly, and thus presents the truth of the matter more accurately, than Kurosawa's. Japanese culture of justice, law, and honor had more in common with pagan Stoicism than Christian Stoicism (particularly on the question of suicide, a Stoic position St. Augustine condemned ferociously). Lucas's vision is about perception of the good in the imperfect, the inherent goodness in things when rightly ordered to their ends and the redemption of creation, which trust is ultimately vindicated by Luke's own father.

This makes for a great costume drama, complete with the tabloid lives of the rich and famous. But it certainly blurs the line between the bright side and the dark side of the force.

Note the reductionism and the voluntarist concept of good and evil, which pretty much speaks for itself.

Then you have the Buddhist solution to the problem of evil. Anakin seeks the advice of Yoda about premonitions of his wife dying in childbirth. And what is Yoda’s counsel? “Death is a natural part of life. Mourn then, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

Can you really blame Anakin for changing sides? Lucas, with his post-Christian vision, leaves the character with a choice between one inhuman philosophy and another inhuman philosophy.

Only someone who had never read St. Macrina could mistake this for Buddhist rhetoric! In point of fact, St. Augustine says exactly the same thing: the proper Christian feeling of grief is over the failure of the opportunity for virtue, the failure of goods being rightly ordered to their ends, not the loss of temporal goods. If anything, Anakin's option was all too "human" in that regard, putting the human concern (passion) at the center of the universe and negating the impassible God, in whom all hope must ultimately rest. Is it any wonder that it is impossible to form a proper theology in such a framework?

The massacre of the “younglings” is Anakin’s formal rite of initiation into the dark side. Yet it’s Obi-Wan who admonishes him that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Well, if that’s the case, then what’s so bad about the slaughter of the “younglings” or the betrayal of his Jedi brethren and mentors?

This is actually not a particularly difficult question to answer, when you give slight consideration to what kind of absolutes Obi-Wan means. And the answer to that questions should be relatively obvious: absolutes of will. The pagan virtue always counsels the real existence of moderation, means between extremes, so that the conflict of opposites does not devolve into sheer incoherence. That is nothing other than a conviction in the Good behind all creation, i.e., the notion that there is intelligibility in existence. Anakin has fallen into classic nihilistic voluntarism: there is no mean between desires; all is conflict between wills. He can't have what he wants except by negating another will (cf. the Protestant concept of authority as an imposition on the will); there is no principle bringing things together. "The center cannot hold," as one Catholic poet put it, when "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" and "the best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Being weak-willed (akratic) and lacking all convictions is surely a sin, but so is being full of passionate intensity, which is what marks the Sith (and Luther as well, in my view). The question is why the Sith deal in (voluntarist) absolutes, and the perverse answer is because they don't believe in THE Absolute; they have no faith in the Good. They have nothing to make their desires and the clash of opposites intelligible, so they must absolutize their desires by subjugation of other wills (and often, killing). What clearer example could there be of absolutizing the temporal than Palpatine's own mentor, Darth Plagueis, who was so powerful that the only thing he feared was losing his power!

Actually, slaughtering the offspring of one’s political rivals is customary in warrior cultures. Such atrocities were part of the honor-code. The problem with Lucas is that he retains the remnants of a Christian conscience. This is in direct tension with his chic, ersatz Buddhism.

On the contrary, Lucas (rightly) views the Christian solution as the only thing that can answer the questions that pagan philosophy asks, the only thing that can ratio-nalize (lit., give reason to) pagan concepts of the will and the self. The failure of the Stoic worldview was ultimately in ontological self-sufficiency, which did not allow for anything other than the will to be absolute, and thus (perversely) opened the door for the Nietzschean amoralism that they most wanted to stop. The slaughter of children was exactly the symptom of the failures of the philosophy, which are only corrected by the Christian concept of Incarnation and redemption. Lucas is probably more Christian than even he gives himself credit for being; his Incarnational and universal account of redemption is more von Balthasar than Buddha.

You can also see shades of the voluntarist critique in the account of "Shamgar."

Yoda's answer ["Miss them not. Mourn them not."] is supposed to be indicitive of the problem with the Jedi.

On the contrary, this is exactly where Yoda was right; it was in failing to heed his own principle that he and the rest of the Jedi failed themselves. The Jedi taught the people nothing; they did exactly what they oughtn't have in attempting to protect people from the vagaries of chance rather than enabling people to live with them. It is not selflessness to protect people from reality in this way; it is a betrayal.

Why did Palpatine win? The same reason that he won over Anakin: he exploited the fear of loss of temporal goods (see also FDR's statist notion of "freedom from fear," as if the government can assauge it). The Jedi, in this respect, are an excellent figure of medieval Catholicism. The protection of political stability became a passion, an end in itself in the Middle Ages, not ordered to any particular good. The fear-based reaction of the Reformation, the "sky is falling" mentality, resoundingly proclaims a tale of people who fear the loss of the thing they value so much that they desperately need to put their faith somewhere. The loss of perspective, sublimated in to eschatological hopes of a Third Age of the Holy Spirit and the concordant idea of temporal action of God, is reflective of a sickness that comes of putting too much hope in the world. It is, not coincidentally, a very Arian way of looking at the world, and I think there is some truth to the notion that the Carolingian Franks contributed to the social framework for this spiritual sickness, although their Arian tendencies never went entirely unchecked in the West.

You have to remember that this is the prequel. These are not the Jedi as we know them. Think about the differences between the Jedi now, and the Jedi in the movies we know. Many people seem to think it's just Lucas forgetting what the Jedi are like.

I don't believe that. Rather, I think that a big part of what we're supposed to be seeing here in these three movies is the fall of the Jedi order. Their disconectedness, and a lack of understanding of the force. I think this is made particularly clear at the end, when Yoda reveals to obi wan that he has been communing with Qui Gon, who arguably was the last of the true Jedi, and he had much to teach them. He was sending ObiWan off to learn from him.

Fast Forward to Episode IV and we see a vastly different ObiWan.

And note that it corresponds exactly to putting mutable goods in their proper perspective (witness Obi-Wan's "Strike me down, and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."). I agree that the book version of Episode VI covers Yoda's understanding of his own failure more clearly than the movie does, but Qui-Gon's understanding of what was at stake with Anakin failing to deal with his fear (as a microcosm of the problems in the Republic) was straight out of Yoda's earlier statement.

"Shamgar" gets much closer here:

This is Lucas' admittedly clumsy attempt to show the fall of the Jedi. They are hypocritical and arrogant. This was a big part of GuiGon's strife with the council. This is also demonstrated through the Jedi's blindness to the presence of the Sith, particularly Palpatine. They were so full of pride and arrogance they couldn't see it even when it was right in front of their face.

Great analysis, but he misses the reasoning badly:

Roll back to episode 2 and consider the sad display of Yoda's fight with Tyrranus. Tyrranus was a nobody, but he defeated Yoda. This was nearly impossible to understand. He, as we know him, is the greatest of the Jedi. How could he lose to a Sith apprentice! Because he was full of pride and arrogance, and had lost his way.

No, he loses to Tyrannus because he saves two lives, two members of his family. That's when we see Yoda at his best. If arrogance or pride were his chief concern, he would have won the fight, possibly even heading off the threat to the temporal safety of the Republic, but he would have lost his soul in the process. The most telling aspect is that he knows in his own rhetorical question "Victory?" (echoed later in Episode V: "Great warrior?") what has happened, although the dawning realization comes far too late to atone for his error, which Yoda does not even fully grasp until he realizes the sheer futility of his fight with Palpatine in Episode VI.

Same went for Obi wan and Annikan. Now, consider what happened in 3...Annikan defeated him easily. How? By balancing the force. He used his anger, lost his detatchment to some extent. A direct parallel to Luke in Ep VI, except Annikan made that crucial last step of destroying Tyrranus.

Fast forward to the confrontation between Windu and Sidious. Windu arguing for being judge, jury and executioner. The same thing Annikan did, yet he recognized it to be wrong even then. The lines continued to be blurred, what was the difference between the two, when the Jedi had fallen so far.

Here, "Shamgar" puts the problem perfectly, but makes evil into good, exactly counter to Christ's own wisdom in Matt. 26:52 ("Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword"). Anakin wins because he yields to his passion, and he loses because he yields to his passion. Luke, at the last moment, realizes that what he has done is wrong, that he has yielded to the same desperation that led to his mistake in going to Cloud City (where he lost his own hand). With Windu, it is the same. The point, again, is made more clearly in the novelization, which describes Windu's own Force style as "channeling" the darkness in a way, but Windu runs into the same problem that the others have. You cannot defeat fear by negating what frightens you, because that concedes the same conflict of opposites that ends in nihilism, putting one's trust in the things of the world rather than the One Who makes all intelligible in Himself. St. Peter evidently learned this from the Lord's rebuke, as he says "Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing" (1 Pet. 3:9). Or heed St. Paul "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21). The Jedi who failed, failed because they put their eyes too much on the world.

Thus, "Shamgar" here makes a suggestion that is insidious in its appeal:
In some of this, and in the books, we see a different side to the force than most of us assumed. We assumed there was a 'good' force, and an 'evil' force. Rather it seems the two sides of the force were seperated by the approach to its use.

The dark side wanted to use the force to make things better. The Jedi believed in 'letting things be' , eschewing the trappings of power. And in the dark side, we see that the use of their power in this fashion has corrupted them, as power generally does. This was the Jedi fear, but they went too far, overreacted in trying to avoid that trap.

On the contrary, the Jedi fear in this instance was quite well-founded. The akrasis (weak will) of the Jedi came exactly from putting too high a value on temporal things and forgetting their own lessons; they eschewed the trappings of power, but not the essence, which is the value of temporal goods (the "security" of the Republic) over eternal goods. In essence, the Jedi and the Sith were flip sides of the same problem: forgetting the ultimate good in favor of mutable goods.

Thus I must both agree and disagree here:
There's more to all this theory, but it is my opinion that Vader did bring balance to the force. Not thorugh any metaphysical mumbo jumbo...but by wiping out the Jedi. They had become completely onesided in their use of the force, causing it to become unbalanced. His actions led to the Jedi regaining their roots, and their sense of balance, specifically in Luke.

Vader did bring balance to the Force in the sense of negating his opposites (the akratic Jedi), but ultimately, that's not where the balance was restored. The balance was restored by putting the emphasis on love and compassion, spurning the temporal goods for what lasts. In other words, the balance was restored in redemption of the created order, in Anakin finally ordering himself to the good beyond himself and transcending the futile war of wills.

So to summarize, I think Star Wars actually turned out to be an incredibly accurate pedagogical tool both for teaching the valuable lessons of pagan virtue and in illuminating the failures that result from its deviation. As noted above, it misses explicitly motivating such virtues, which could lead one to think that it is pagan in its sensibilities, but I believe I have sufficiently noted that the compassionate element in Lucas's thinking partakes of the Christian answer to the harsher pagan philosophies (like Stoicism or Japanese bushido) while still preserving exactly what is good in those ideals. Thus, on the whole, I would commend the entire series for its insight into the key questions of existence, and even for an underlying concept of redemption that is peculiarly Christian, viewing man as microcosm with the parallel struggles of Anakin and the Republic against fear.