Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here. - Editor
This article includes SPOILERS for the Star Wars series of films. - Editor
I was right in line with the rest of Star Wars fans when The Force Awakens was first released in the theater December 2015. My childhood was marked by the franchise that catapulted the Sci-Fi genre to blockbuster status. To see the original characters return to the big screen was sheer pleasure regardless of the storyline, as was evident when people in the theater clapped when Harrison Ford once again appeared as the legendary Han Solo. Since the Star Wars franchise ruptured all box office records in 1977, and again at the release of The Force Awakens, the Sci-Fi genre has expanded and developed to include many sub-genres including, fantasy, horror, time-travel and superhero. These stories often harbor many deeply religious characteristics and Christ-figures, those characters who in some ways represent the life, actions, or attitudes of Jesus Christ. These elements are sometimes overlooked, but they have powerful resonances in the Sci-Fi movie genre in which humanity is seeking something more: the desire to know more, to reach beyond what is visible, to push the limits of human intelligence. They spark our religious imaginations to help us understand contemporary society, values and beliefs. In doing so, there are underlying yearnings for redemption, renewal and reconciliation, often expressing a Christology for a technologically mediated culture.
We all seek to be redeemed of this sickness that pervades us, the sickness of the soul. It spreads through us no matter how hard we try to ignore it or push it down or drown it out through activity, preoccupations, and entertainment. This sickness is the sin that lives within us, as Paul notes, and is the cause of our dissatisfaction, disunity within ourselves and with others, and this disconnect with our Creator. There is the existential desire in every human person for salvation—a salvation that promises something more, that gives a reason to hope that this life is not all there is, that gives answers to the gnawing angst deep in the human psyche for communion and connection. Ultimately, the desire is for love, Love who is God, love who is the Person of Christ in the Trinitarian communion of Love.
In humanity’s search for redemption and salvation, only one who is beyond human limitations can be that fulfillment. Only the Creator, Being itself, can lead humanity out of its conundrum of disunity and disconnection. God, the Father, sends the Son to be the answer to humanity’s desire for a redeemer. Christ, being fully divine and fully human, shows us what true humanity looks like. He shows us that it is possible to find eternal beatitude and that God desires us so much that he seeks us out even through the sacrifice of his own Beloved Son. Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is not just one means of salvation among the many, but is the only way of salvation. Our contemporary pop culture often unknowingly expresses this deep human desire for salvation, for a redeemer. The current trend of Sci-Fi stories illustrates this. One only needs to watch the films of the Star Wars saga to see this desire expressed in popular culture. Christ is the answer to our most profound longings because instead of slavery and death, Christ brings freedom and new life.
In order to understand contemporary humanity’s search for redemption as expressed through popular culture’s stories, we will look at how sin effects human beings through alienation from oneself and others thus causing a rupture in relationships, a loss of self through death, physically but also spiritually, and an absence of truth and meaning in life. These are elements present in the dystopian worlds we create in our minds but also in reality. Christ is the Redeemer who delivers humanity from sin and He is the love that heals alienation, death and loss of meaning. Taking the philosophy of life present specifically in the Star Wars saga, we will understand how Christ answers humanity’s yearning for salvation.
Good vs. Evil—Seeking Redemption
The Star Wars saga created by George Lucas and now further developed by Disney after the buyout of Lucas Films in 2012 with The Force Awakens, centers on a classic good versus evil plot. The evil Galactic Empire was destroyed 30 years prior but now has spawned the First Order which seeks to destroy forever the New Republic. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last of the Jedi, has gone missing while the Resistance, backed by the Republic and led by his sister General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), fights to save the Republic from being obliterated. A young scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), joins with rogue stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Chewbacca in the quest to locate Skywalker in order to reawaken the Force for the Republic’s defense. Luke disappears after his Jedi-trained apprentice, the son of Han and Leia, went to the dark side and is now known as Kylo Ren. Aspiring to be powerful like his grandfather, Darth Vader, Ren goes so far as to renounce his father and kill him in loyalty to Supreme Leader Snoke.
The series paints a dark, constant struggle for truth and justice to win out over hopelessness, fear, and an abuse of power that comes through the control of the Force. The Star Wars series only hints at the presence of God through the power of “the Force.” However, much about the struggle between good and evil is scriptural and reminiscent of the apocalyptic heavenly battle between Michael and his angels and Lucifer (see Revelation 12:7). Humanity longs for freedom from a tyranny that controls the cosmos, causing divisions within creation. The Jedi are those heroes who are called upon to bring balance back into the universe, but, in many ways they are just as weak as everyone else who struggle to overcome the darkness of evil within them.
What we see in this epic series is the human desire to break free from the sin that binds humanity to its own weaknesses and base instincts. As in the biblical perspective, “the unredeemed world is a world cut off from God and his life and given over to death.” There is the desire for a Redeemer who brings hope amid the suffering and grace in the midst of sinfulness. However, redemption cannot come from any human being or human creation. It can only come from someone who understands the human struggle but is at the same time above it. Jesus Christ, the God-man, comes to redeem the world through love. He is, “by his very existence, placed within the unredeemed world.” And not only placed in the world, but lives a human existence, suffers excruciating pains and dies an ignoble death, yet rises again so that death does not have the last word. This is how Christ attained salvation for all humanity, by sacrificing himself and his glory as God’s only Son to be full self-gift. It all comes down to love—the divine self-gift, for, “the only true Christian renunciation is the renunciation that goes with love.”
Sin as Alienation, Death, and Deceit
In the Scriptures, sin is first and foremost a separation from God that leads to death. Genesis illustrates how Adam’s disobedience separates him from God by his being sent out of the Garden of Eden to labor and toil. This disobedience becomes our inheritance of which, “the human will, rendered weak and prone to evil, will remain permanently exposed to the influence of the ‘father of lies,’” as John Paul II states. It also brings death, as God pronounces a sentence on Adam that being dust he will return to the earth (Gen. 3:19) and distorts human reasoning and passion to the point of Cain murdering Abel (Gen. 4:8). Sin comes about through deceit, starting with the serpent who deceives the woman (Gen. 3:4-5).
The Scriptures repeat this same pattern of alienation, death and deceit throughout with Noah (Gen. 6-7), the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), Joseph’s Slavery (Gen. 37), the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), Saul’s Sacrifice (1 Sam. 13), David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11), and so on. Yet, God does not leave humanity to its own destructive force. God’s merciful and unconditional love continually calls human beings back to himself desiring their salvation from sin’s powerful influences.
Sin is the most acute alienation from God, self and others. The Gospel of Luke tells us through the story of the prodigal son (Lk. 15), that sin is a disordered love that excludes God (the father in the parable). Through alienation from his father, the younger son alienates himself and in order to be restored to the family he must be restored first to himself, become aware of his sinfulness and separation from the community. He deceives himself by thinking that separation from his father and the community will give him freedom and new life. Instead, his sin brings death. He squanders his money until he is destitute and dying from lack of food. When he comes to the awareness of his sin and how it has brought death and alienation then he experiences redemption. Life is restored, relationships are healed and meaning is given.
In The Force Awakens, the First Order has deceived the Jedi Kylo Ren into believing power is about death and devastation in order to have control over everyone and everything. By turning against all that he was taught in use of the Force, he alienates himself from those he loves and who love him. The evil holds him sway to its alluring, yet destructive power. Sin only brings disunity, deceit and death. Yet, as long as there is love, there is always hope.
Saved by Love
The very life, death and resurrection of Christ redeems sinful humanity from the power of sin and offers a promise of life beyond this world. And God’s way of dealing with sin is through the weakness of the cross, says Paul (2 Cor. 13:4). This is the weakness of love. We can only “believe in this victory of love...over everything which is not love.” This is the core of Christ’s salvific work. Love alone saves. Love alone restores life. Love alone gives meaning. We are saved by love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). According to John, love is the very being of God (1 Jn. 4:8). God’s creative love climaxes with the redemption. As Father O’Collins writes, “Love accepts, affirms, and approves whatever or whoever it loves….Love’s approval entails the firm desire that the beloved should never go out of existence.” Humanity is so beloved by God that he offers his very Son to redeem us from the destruction of sin and offer eternal life with him forever. Only by offering his Son, Jesus Christ, can humanity be restored to right relationship with God. Only through his Son can we find new life, new communion, and new meaning—“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).
It is the very person of Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Savior that restores humanity’s very existence. The incarnate Logos who was the agent of creation itself becomes the mediator of redemption and divine revelation. God offers to humanity a way out of the dystopian realities we create for ourselves—a world of all that opposes what our existential desires truly convey. We seek peace, but only produce war. We desire loving relationships, but only find insecurity and disunity. We search for meaning but only find suffering and death. It is the person of Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, who can redeem humanity from this dystopian existence. Therefore, “this offer of salvation is not primordially linked to a message, not even to a statement of faith in set truths. Rather, in a more radical fashion, it is tied to someone who is the base and origin of all these things: the very person of Jesus.”
Jesus as the Only Redeemer
The Scriptures express, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus Christ is the only mediator between humanity and God. He is the only Redeemer and Savior. As Jesus is not one manifestation of God among many others, for Jesus is not one among many. Humanity is not satisfied with only partial truths, but we want assurance that what we believe in, what gives our lives meaning, what we live for is not a partial truth, but we desire to know the Truth, who is Jesus Christ himself. We enter into a relationship with the person of Jesus with our whole being, not just intellectually but also spiritually. This is the truth for which we long, which we desire with all our might. We cannot make God in our image and likeness, as much as we would like to, but instead it is God who offers humanity salvation, freely. He pays the price. Humanity is the receiver of God’s pure, loving gift. And this salvation is a gift that extends beyond human beings into all creation for it is, “the realization of God’s cosmic design to be brought about in his Son, Jesus Christ—a project that began with creation and that is to be fulfilled in the parousia.”
Science-Fiction Seeks Redemption
The Star Wars stories present one oppressive force after another that hold human beings captive to their distorted human nature and attempt to manipulate them to the dark side of the Force. There seems to be no way out. Yet, in the stories, we see several of the characters, specifically the protagonist Rey, and before her Luke Skywalker, continually fight for intellectual, physical and spiritual freedom, as they grapple with the consequences of their own fallen human nature. Sin, shown as the opposite of the Jedi’s virtues, cannot be held at bay unless each person is willing to resist the evil that lives within them. Darth Vader and his grandson Kylo Ren played to the lure of evil’s power, so much so that it consumed them. Yet, the desire for redemption is a glimmer of light in the soul. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader saves Luke’s life by throwing the Emperor down into the Death Star’s core. The evil power from the Force’s dark side is unleashed striking Vader and mortally wounding him. His redemption was that act of self-sacrifice, giving of himself so his son may live. Sin, guilt, pain and suffering are part of human existence that seeks redemption. It is that spark of the supernatural in every human being that desires the good. The Force holds the power for good, for self-gift, for love, if we choose it. Symbolically, these stories answer the question of who will redeem us from this sin that oppresses us, as Paul so aptly describes (cf. Rom. 7:23). As Christians, we know the answer, the one who is both Creator and Redeemer, the One in whom the “Force” resides. Christ alone.
Without a Redeemer the struggle between good and evil within us would destroy us. There would be no reason to resist the darkness that sometimes pervades our human existence. But, because there is a Redeemer who transcends this struggle, who conquers death, sin and evil once for all, we can then have hope. Human beings innately know this. It is the supernatural existential at the core of humanity that assures us that there is something more for which we long that this world cannot satisfy. We seek freedom from this war both inside of us and around us, as the Jedi know too well. Christ sets humanity free from sin’s oppression for, “the death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Rom. 6:10). And because Christ put sin to death, we too, no longer present our members as instruments of wickedness, but rather we present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life (cf. Rom. 6:13). No longer do we live as those who are oppressed, but we have been given new life through Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer, for he has set us free from the law of sin and death (cf. Rom. 8:2) and offers not a dystopian view of life but a true, joyous, and hopeful promise of life with him for all eternity.
 Romans 7:17
 Gerald O’Collins, SJ, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus, (Oxford University Press: New York,1995), 282-3.
 Ibid., 280.
 F. X. Durrwell, In the Redeeming Christ, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 4.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 13.
 John Paul II, Sin Alienates the Human Person, General Audience, November 12, 1986.
 O’Collins, Christology, 281.
 Ibid., 287.
 Eberhard Jungel, God as the Mystery of the World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 339-40.
 O’Collins, Christology, 287.
 Ibid., 288.
 Luis F. Ladaria, Jesus Christ Salvation of All, (Miami, FL: Convivium Press, 2008), 74.
 Ibid., 67-9.
 Ibid., 71.
Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.