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Star Wars is an icon of the modern idol of distraction that has become the destiny of a generation of lost souls. Modernity’s enchantment with the film is rooted in a religious hunger for transcendence—but God has been left off the modern menu

And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was consumed.

-Numbers, Chapter 32, Verse 13star wars

HAN: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

LUKE: You don’t believe in the Force, do you?

HAN: Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.

Star Wars, Episode IV, 1977

In The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior wrote, “It isn’t necessary to document how much our music, architecture, poetry, art from Picasso, Stravinsky, and the Bauhaus to the popular stuff like Star Wars, are idolatries of force.” While it is interesting to see Star Wars ranked with the likes of Picasso and Stravinsky, it is even more interesting to think of Star Wars as part of a pantheon of a idolatry that has become the destiny of a generation of lost souls. Dr. Senior suggests that boundary-breaking, avant-garde trends in art, from Picasso to Star Wars, reflect that the world is wandering in a wilderness and has chosen to worship the golden idols of distraction—an idolatry that was given a new force with the advent of Star Wars.

Forty years ago this summer—what seems to many a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—Star Wars was released, and America was sold into the slavery of pop-culture merchandising. With this era-changing movie, the American cinematic focus shifted away from sophisticated dramas—such as The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Taxi Driver—back to a pre-60s golden-age trope where exhibitionism and carnival capers in motion pictures made money. Some say that George Lucas effected a return to what the movies were meant to be, while others argue that his swashbuckling “space opera” was a backslide from which cinema has never recovered. In either case, Star Wars was the flagship film to sell itself as a franchise, driven and dominated by mass marketing, special effects, action sequences, and cornball dialogue. Gaining the status of highest-grossing film of all time, Star Wars became the epitome of the summer blockbuster, recasting movies as commercial events that cater to the lowest common denominator of the movie-going public. The effects of Star Wars run deep in the entertainment industry and have made explosive, eye-candy spectacle an idol of distraction for many whose lives are so meaningless that distraction is a crucial drug.

Popcorn flicks like Star Wars are central, even integral, to American leisure—which is arresting if Josef Pieper’s notion about the basis of culture is correct. Where would society be without its screens, its celebrities, and its space sagas? It is rare to walk into a home that does not have a television dominating, or even enshrining, its living room. It is almost a matter of principle akin to a religious obligation in the civilian temples of Americanism. The parallels between the television and the tabernacle show how deft the forces of darkness are at leading man from the truth by imitating it. Leaving aside the comparisons that exist between the local church and the local theater, entertainment has become something like a new religion, a ritual for people to fill the voids in their lives—only entertainment is fast becoming nothing more than an addiction to nothingness, a placebo against the emptiness of the times. In these ways, modern entertainment is not simply distorting the elements of religion, but actually commandeering the role of religion in human society. A new idol has risen for the idle neo-pagans, and it is the idolatry of distraction.

Idolatry is not limited to worshipping false gods. The word and the practice also applies to the veneration, or pseudo-veneration, of anything that distances or obstructs man from God. Idolatry is the act of divinizing things other than the Divine, which can occur through rendering the reverence due to God elsewhere, an error that has entrenched itself through the widespread embrace of personal tech-products and mass-marketing entertainment. As in any form of idolatry, there are a misplaced faith and fervor toward something unworthy of that fidelity and feeling that postures as a fitting recipient—a fitting end. The only result is that such things drag man away from his true end—his ultimate End. It is often said that modern entertainment is addictive, and addiction is a reverse image of devotion—and that perversion of devotion can be interpreted as a species of idolatry.

There is a devious irony in the parallels between religion and popular entertainment and personal technologies. The movies and the Internet fulfill a primal human desire for another “reality” and another “life.” Social media and cellphones provide “communion.” Updates, upgrades, and data-deletion bestow a “clean slate.” Wi-fi and on-demand features brings a permeating, invisible source of “power” and “security.” The cloud lays up “treasures” which neither rust nor moth consume. Search engines are the man-made “mind of God.” Is it going too far to intimate that religion has, in some ways, been forcibly replaced as the guiding force of human destiny? To be fair, no one worships the Internet or prays to their favorite film characters, but there is a dependency on such distractions that mirrors a standard of dedication owed to God. To say that these trends, this popular stuff, appears idolatrous is not to say that they are a new religion. No one looked to George Lucas to fill a God-sized hole in their soul, but Star Wars and its ilk have presented a new way of acting religiously without revelation, dogma, or reality. Modernity’s enchantment with everything that Star Wars represents is rooted in a religious hunger for transcendence—but God has been left off the modern menu.

It is a Marxist principle that man is determined by his technologies, his means of production, and the technological trappings and cultural impact of Star Wars are emblematic of what man’s attentions have been seduced by. Again from Dr. Senior: “I have found a large plurality of students who find, say, Treasure Island what they call ‘hard reading,’ which means too difficult to enjoy with anything approaching their delight in Star Wars.” Taking advantage of this reality, the studios ceaselessly spend millions upon millions of dollars to produce high-voltage trash to distract the masses. The box offices collect millions upon millions of dollars to provide a prison of escapism. People who hunger for fact gorge on fantasy; and they come away confirmed only in their confusion and reinforced in the roots of their malady. This is a central problem of movies and moviegoers today—a problem perpetuated by Star Wars culture. There is a constant search for distraction from a gnawing sense of un-fulfillment, of being lost, of groping for affirmation in a culture that has lost touch with those realities that are intrinsically meaningful.

Though not on the same cultural level as Picasso or Stravinsky, Star Wars holds an unmistakable edge with the masses and is a force with which to reckon forty years later. Star Wars is strange stuff, indeed, but it is popular stuff, an icon of the modern idol: distraction. For distraction has become the stuff of religion for a generation wandering in the wilderness. It is an idolatry of force, as Dr. Senior put it, and that force, whether we believe in it or not, is with us.

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18 replies to this post
  1. Star Wars was quite good. But what really established the franchise was the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was even better.

  2. It’s just a movie, a mildly amusing Saturday-afternoon-matinee shoot-’em-up of no more significance than an episode of Roy Rogers. I do not understand the reactions, both pro and contra.

    • When a movie makes about $450 million (in 1970’s dollars), I’d say it’s a bit more important than an episode of Roy Rogers.

  3. This is an interesting point of view. If you have ever attended Akon or Comic-con, its hard not to conclude that many people indeed idolize these franchises such as Star Wars. I suppose for many its just a fun hobby, but I don’t doubt some twist it into something more sinister. Personally I don’t think Star Wars is bad in and of itself, but I do see the potential pitfalls.

  4. This article neglects the reality that stories speak to truths of our world. Sure, some may use Star Wars or any other film, technology, etc. merely as a source of escapism, but for most people there is more to it than that. There is truth and beauty in Star Wars, and it addresses themes of redemption, sacrifice, good versus evil, and more. Much of its appeal is in its communication of these themes and the depth of the universe and lore that it provides. To dismiss its appeal simply as escapism is failing to understand that.

  5. Thank you, Seth. Does the author feel the same way about Lord if the Rings, which also lacks explicit mentions of God and is imbued with paganism? If not, why not?

    Lord preserve us from the sad sacks who want to take away anything fun.

    • “The Lord of the Rings” is a book, and not a fitting comparison. Only recently, and with some violence, was it translated into a special-effects-driven film franchise – films which fall into the category here criticized, for the emphasis is on a species of spectacle that is ultimately destructive of the imagination. I think it a pity that it even comes to mind in the same vein as “Star Wars.” Some books were not meant to be movies, and I think “The Lord of the Rings” is one of them. Besides the evident fact that “The Lord of the Rings” is a deeply spiritual, even religious, story without being preachy, it does not pander to the lowest common denominator when it comes to edifying entertainment. It is high and wholesome storytelling.

    • Fun there must be if we are to be human, absolutely, but there is a difference between fun and flighty, flimsy fantasy. In other words, there is a difference, a profound difference, between the essences of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars.” “Star Wars” is enjoyable in its own way, that is true – but it must not be conflated with works of true depth and deep cultural, mythical expression. I say, in my turn, Lord preserve us.

    • Stephen, you will hardly ever meet a more joyful soul than the author. He is wise beyond his years, thoughtful to an uncommon degree, perceptive precisely because he subjects his perceptions to the conceptual faculty which in his case has been well trained and grounded in the truth goodness and beauty only found in the Natural Law. We must not ignore the grounding truth that what we consumes matters- absolutely stories matter, more than anyone here has been able to articulate. The truth is that our culture has been so degraded that we can no longer see the difference between the good and the bad, the true and the false or the beautiful and the ugly. We would be wise to listen to Sean Fitzpatrick because he still has the eyes to see and the ears to hear. It is an absurd misread to reduce him to a “sad sack who wants to take away anything fun” he is anything but that.

      • The author may indeed be all of these things, but in the context of this article he is being a bit of a killjoy. After 40 years it’s fair to say that Star Wars has stood the test of time and that Darth Vader in particular has established himself as one of the great villains of modern fiction.

  6. I think these ideas apply even more strongly to the whole superhero craze, especially the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” in which audiences are rooting for clearly god-like, superhuman entities, many of them drawn directly from ancient mythologies. I’ve watched many of these, and after the last one, I walked out with a clear sense that watchers were invested in a religious kind of awe and reverence for made up characters.

  7. Just finished reading this essay that left me with the impression of right on! The title itself could become an acedemic thesis; the power of knowledge which, we hope, will result in wisdom comes from the power of words, language, grammar. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, to quote John 1:1. All material was created through words, and this truth also applies to everything we create, for example, movies, television,art, usually begin internally through the minds of men and women; ideas of words finally materialize to sight. This is the foundation behind all that I was taught through my childhood, specifically in Sunday School. The seeds of wisdom must be planted early in life so that these seeds can mature through one’s life’s experiences and ongoing investigation in learning and discernment.

    I never watched Star Wars, but this essay tells me that I knew this entertainment was not for me anyway. It sounds like great and successful entertainment! But, I do worry about the effects all this has upon children. They cannot process what appears to be “fun stuff” to them, but is actually the opposite to an adult. Good versus Evil is an ever present reality. I realized long ago that everything has its own enemy.

    I am 70 years old and sometimes watch movies on TV that I missed in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, not being a theater goer, I watch these movies now out of curiosity about our cultural change. Sad to say, but it is no surprise to have discovered what “Lost Souls” we truly are.

  8. I enjoyed Star Wars, and James Emery White writes that it awakened in him a desire for fulfillment and meaning which he found realized in the Christian life. This same sort of obsession happens with LOTR, which as we know was written from an orthodox Christian perspective. I think movies – especially those about good vs evil – can be a powerful testament to the enduring relevance of goodness, truth, etc. in our culture. However, we must look through them to the meaning behind them instead of becoming overly attached to its vehicle, the way you can’t see what’s in a lake unless you refocus your eyes off your reflection. Of course, these movies should be watched carefully and critically, but much of what we have can still be used as a flawed but powerful way of connecting people with truth and meaning.

  9. The criticism contained in this essay is very similar to that which is often leveled against escapism. Perhaps we could say that distraction and escape are in many ways the same basic idea, at least in this context.
    There is a sense in which the criticism of distraction / escape is very valid and necessary. One might call to mind the quote from Elliot that we moderns are distracted from our distraction and we cannot bear very much reality. Distraction and escape from reality are, in general not good. Such distraction is frequently a coping mechanism akin to a drug that weakens the user and blocks the path to growth and maturity.
    However, there is something missing from this essay. It is particularly pertinent because it deals with Star Wars. The missing thing is the very profound truth that the “reality” presented to us by modernity the “world” of modernity is itself an illusion. It is a falsehood that has imprisoned most people of the modern west.
    The reason that Star Wars has become such a phenomenon is precisely because it is an archtypal story. It is a re-telling of the “mono-myth”, the “Hero’s Journey”. It resonates with people, even if they don’t understand it, or understand why, on a very deep level. For this reason it is not mere distraction. In a certain sense Star Wars is more real than the ‘mere reality’ of modernity and post-modernity.
    I grant you that Star Wars is flawed in theological and philosophical terms. It became even more flawed as the franchise was developed. However, it still serves a valuable purpose because it stirs something in people. Even if just slightly, it nudges something awake in the sleepers who have been caught in the web of dark enchantment that is our increasingly neo-marxist post-modern culture.
    This is certainly done better by JRR Tolkien, CSS Lewis, GK Chesterton and so on, but Star Wars has elements of it as well.

  10. The impact of Star Wars is often misconstrued as purely due to the spectacle and merchandising, and this essay seems to have been written from the same assumption.

    The truth is that without the deeper truths in the story of Star Wars, it wouldn’t have become so dear to many people’s hearts. The messages you can take from the films are many: everyone can be redeemed; faith in a higher power can save the day; there’s more to life than the next paycheck; freedom is fragile and must be defended; suppression of your feelings will only end badly; violence is not the answer.

    Star Wars doesn’t create idolaters. A secular society does. Just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean that you must be worshipping it.

  11. Star Wars fans idolatrous? Perhaps a few. I think most fans, like our family, just really enjoy the world of Star Wars, no more, no less.
    Now if you want to see some real idolatry and the attendant bacchanalia, come to Lawrence, Kansas the next time the college basketball team makes it to the playoffs; if they win the championship, you’ll really see something. Not joking here.

  12. It seems that with a movie like Star Wars, it depends on what level you approach it from and whether it meets your expectations in that regard. As simple entertainment, it is very successful and provides for many varieties of visual entertainment, from the costumes, the scenery, the special effects, etc.
    If you are looking for more, the more you want the less you get. Star Wars is not going to answer any theological or philosophical questions, or even point you in any direction to find answers of that nature.
    Yes, it is a great good vs evil story, but so is what you see on the professional wrestling shows, though with far less special effects and far more sexual appeal.
    Lucas always said that his idea behind Star Wars was to create something similar to the movie serials that ran weekly in the theaters, such as Flash Gordon, the Phantom, the Perils of Pauline, etc., except that they would be in installments every few years, rather than weekly.
    Comparing Star Wars to other films can be difficult because it has it’s own niche. Yes, there are many other sci-fi and fantasy films out there but comparing them is something different. Just like you wouldn’t compare a Marx Brothers movie to Gone with the Wind or to Lawrence of Arabia, comparing Star Wars to other movies would really be about, what do you want to compare; the special effects, the costumes, the acting…I suppose if you want to compare the acting in Star Wars to other movies than comparing it to a Marx Brothers movie wouldn’t be a far stretch, but Star Wars wasn’t about acting, it was about special effects and shoot’em up good vs evil action. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing profound, just good simple entertainment, and I am not a big fan of the movies any more. I liked the original 2 and after that it was all downhill for me with the Star Wars movies. What other people like, is up to them.
    One thing I have learned is that the more a movie tries to communicate something important, the smaller the audience appeal. People don’t go to movies to think, they go to be entertained, at least in the USA.

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