From Apostle to Apostate: Revenge of the Sith as Cautionary Tale
by Dr. Marc Newman
May 20, 2005
(AgapePress) - No one who is remotely theologically grounded would ever equate the Jedi of the "Star Wars" films with the Church -- but since, in the Star Wars mythology, they are the agents of good, Christians attending these films naturally identify with them. And why not? They are dedicated to peace and are, as old Ben Kenobi told young Luke Skywalker, the guardians of peace in the Old Republic.
But as the Star Wars legend unfolds, viewers discover that instead of continuing the clear good-versus-evil theme of the first film, the later films demonstrate that the Jedi operate heavily in what some might call the "gray areas." The Jedi are ascetics, but not in the mold of the Christian ascetics who subdued their bodies in order to get closer to God and become more holy. The Jedi are more closely aligned with the pagan ascetics who used self-mastery to gain power. (A detailed explanation of this similarity is available on the MovieMinistry website).
The latest installment, Revenge of the Sith, details Anakin Skywalker's descent from prospective Jedi Master to Sith Lord, Darth Vader. And while George Lucas' characters like to talk a lot about "destiny," it seems clear that the actions of the Jedi were more than mere coincidental factors in Anakin's transformation. What I saw in the film could be a primer in how to turn an apostle to an apostate. For Christians willing to use a fictional movie as a mirror to examine their own behaviors, Revenge of the Sith can serve as a cautionary tale, particularly about how some churches treat their young members. When the Church feels like a hostile place, acts hypocritically, is insensitive, and avoids dogma, it, like the Jedi, can contribute toward pushing people to an embracing, waiting Dark Side.
Kept at Arm's Length
A slave since birth, Anakin is forced to leave his mother on Tatooine because he is going to be made part of something bigger than himself -- the Jedi order. But once he is presented to the Jedi Council, their initial inclination is to reject the boy as too old and full of anger (never mind all of the things he might have to be angry about). But by Revenge of the Sith, Anakin has proven his worth on many occasions, including saving his master Obi-Wan ten times. That Anakin is a powerful Jedi is without question, but other than Obi-Wan, none of the other Jedi actively befriend the young man. When Chancellor Palpatine tells Anakin that the Jedi Council are afraid of Anakin's power and are keeping him down because they fear they will be unable to control him, the accusation has a ring of truth to it -- and not simply because Anakin is liable to pride.
In some of our churches, young people are viewed as a curiosity. They are kept at arm's length. They are separated from the main body of adult believers by means of special church services for teens and separate Bible studies. Other times, churches spend more time entertaining the young than discipling them. After all, there will always be adults in the church who can do things faster, and better, than young believers. Also, the zeal of the young can be infectious, but also threatening -- and can expose our own weaknesses. After a while, young people develop an identity that has little connection with the church as a whole. There seem to be few programs to see people through the difficult transition from teenager to adulthood -- instead colleges serve that function, and unfortunately many young people do not survive that fiery baptism. Unable to connect at church, they connect elsewhere once they are away from home.
Anakin commits a serious sin -- slaying the evil Count Dooku on the order of Chancellor Palpatine. As soon as he does it, he feels regret, saying that to kill an unarmed prisoner is "not the Jedi way." Palpatine tries to assure Anakin that the desire for revenge is natural -- but Anakin is troubled by his own actions. He wants to believe in, and follow, the way of the Jedi. But soon after, he discovers that even the guardians of the Jedi order lack the purity he seeks. His own mentor, Obi-Wan, asks him to spy on the chancellor, to use his position of friendship as a means to funnel information to the Jedi Council. Anakin balks at this treachery, citing it as a violation of the Jedi Code, but Obi-Wan tells him that the ongoing war justifies this breach of the rules. Later, after Anakin discovers the true identity of Chancellor Palpatine, that he is a Sith lord, he does what is right and reveals it to the Jedi Council. But when Anakin arrives at the scene of what is supposed to be an arrest, he finds Jedi Master Mace Windu about to execute the Chancellor in direct violation of the Jedi Code which demands that the unarmed prisoner be brought to trial. Again, Windu makes an excuse -- it is the same excuse the chancellor gave Anakin for killing Count Dooku -- and attempts to follow through on his threat until Anakin stops him, and mayhem ensues. It is the Jedi's abandonment of their own principles that leads to Anakin's abandonment of the Jedi way.
Hypocrisy leads to disillusionment. The old joke is that a man says that he doesn't want to go to church because it is filled with hypocrites, to which his friend replies, "Then you'll feel right at home!" As long as there are humans involved in churches, there will always be sin issues. It is how we handle those sins, particularly among leadership, that is important. When young people hear adults say one thing, yet do another, it causes them to question the veracity of other teachings. We are on dangerous ground when the Church does not appear to have any more claim to holiness than the world. The young are watching, looking for examples to follow.
Anakin is troubled by what he perceives to be unfair treatment at the hands of the Jedi Council. He is also plagued by premonitions of his wife's death in childbirth. What he seeks are justice and understanding. What he gets are platitudes and indifference. His friend and master teacher, Obi-Wan, advises patience -- eventually the Jedi Council will come around. Never does Obi-Wan commiserate with Anakin or explain, let alone defend him against, the perceived injustice. Troubled, Anakin tells his dreams of Padme's death to Yoda, who advises detachment rather than care for loved ones in danger. Feeling abandoned and ill-advised, it is not surprising that Anakin seeks aid and comfort from his friend, the Chancellor.
Young Christians have problems, doubts, and insecurities. Even if older believers think them unwarranted, they are real to those experiencing them. Dismissing the problems of young Christians as "phases" -- something the young will "grow out of" is insensitive, even if true. Additionally, sometimes advisors do not know how to act when faced with tragedy. When Yoda tells Anakin that death is a natural part of life and should be embraced, I thought of the many platitudes that people use when discussing death -- "well, they've gone to a better place," "death can be a blessing," etc. As someone who sat in the hospital room as my mother died from lung cancer, I can attest to the hollowness of such words. Death is the enemy -- we should hate it. When people have loved ones who die, and want to sob, Scripture says we are to cry with them (Rom. 12:15). This generation is marked by people desperate for understanding and community. One way or another, they will find it.
From Obi-Wan's brief hesitation in explaining the death of Luke's father in the original Star Wars, to his denunciation of absolutes (while, I might add, making an absolute statement himself) in Revenge of the Sith, I have been bothered by the loose sense of the truth exhibited by the Jedi. Considered to be teachers, custodians of the Jedi way and the Jedi temple, whenever they are caught in a lie, or in a compromise of their principles, they are quick to say that their explanations or actions are true "from a certain point of view." Anakin is a quick study. He comes to believe that whatever is convenient to move your agenda forward can be justified by identifying it as your point of view. And yet, when there is a final clash between Anakin's point of view and Obi-Wan's, Obi-Wan wastes no time in judgmentally accusing Anakin of being "lost" -- as if there actually is a way. When assertions of truth serve convenience, we cannot complain when others find them inconvenient.
Being dogmatic no longer is a descriptor of fidelity to truth, but a pejorative indicating intolerance. Harry Blamires, in his book In Defense of Dogma, claims that in a misguided attempt to court friends, the Church has lost its willingness, and prerogative, to speak truth. Instead, we are told to act in false humility, "as if we don't have all the answers." In fact, the Scriptures are full of principles for living that cover the range of human experience. If we did not have answers to the pressing issues of life, why would anyone ever want to join with us? People are not looking for subjective points of view; they want to know how to live life fully and rightly. As C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, humans need to know The Way. People may reject the Church because they do not like the answers they receive when they pose questions, but they are at least equally inclined to leave when they conclude that the Church's answers are not authoritatively different from ones they simply come up with on their own. Christians are commanded to speak the truth in love, but that still requires that we speak the truth. If the Church has nothing true to offer, the young drift away.
The Role of Cautionary Tales
The prequels to the original Star Wars Trilogy are nearly a primer on how to create an environment conducive to loss of faith. And lest this look simply like a "blame the Church" screed, I admit that Anakin's arrogance and pride were the primary factors that led to his fall. Individual rebellion is still the hallmark of those who stray from the path. Nevertheless, those in the Church should be willing to examine themselves to see if they are inadvertently creating a culture hostile to the growth of young believers.
Fictional stories have the tremendous capacity to enable us to look at ourselves by looking at others. But they work only to the extent that we are willing to change. By making our houses of worship inviting to all, by nurturing the gifts of our members, seeking forgiveness when we act inconsistently with our preaching, being sensitive to people who are hurting, and by bravely speaking the truth we can show the world the love of Christ. And in doing so, perhaps even those who have apparently abandoned their faith can turn around, as Anakin eventually does, and see embodied in the Church something to believe in.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of MovieMinistry.com -- an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.