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Christianing the Dark Side:
Star Wars, Judaism and Church History

by E.W. Wilder

Koenrad Kuiper, writing in the Journal of Popular Culture in the mid 1980s suggests that "[the] Star Wars trilogy creates and recreates imperial myths which serve to sustain imperial culture" (77).  He goes on to contend that the Empire of George Lucas’s long ago and far away world recreate these myths for us now as, essentially, a form of social control.  Since Kuiper was writing, however, we have been graced with the first in the Star Wars series, The Phantom Menace.

The Phantom Menace has opened to tepid reviews and the expected box-office success. Its staying-power has been perhaps a bit disappointing for all at Lucasfilm, but the film has definitely made a cultural impact.  Interesting in light of Kuiper’s thesis is that this latest addition to the Star Wars mythology concerns itself with two beginnings: the beginning of the evil Empire of the other three movies, and the beginning of Anakin Skywalker, father to Luke Skywalker and the future Darth Vader.  The genesis of both the Empire and Darth Vader in one film is more than coincidence.  Rather than Star Wars sustaining an imperial myth, the new film argues for an interpretation that the series, taken as a whole, represents an intricate commentary on the history of Christianity, from its pure beginnings to its ultimate corruption as a quasi-political entity controlling much of Europe.

The first and most striking suggestion of this is the fact that Anakin Skywalker’s is a virgin birth.  When Qui Gon Jinn, the Jedi master who trains Obi-Wan Kenobi, asks  Anakin’s mother who the young prodigy’s father is, she responds: "There is no father."  Young Skywalker is later described by Jinn as a "virgence": a virgin birth.  The conclusion that is nearly impossible not to draw from all of this is that Anakin Skywalker is, at the very least a Christ-like figure.  I contend that Lucas presents us with a symbol of Christ himself: Anakin’s origins are as a slave on a back-water star, one hostile to the galactic Trade Federation that will later become the evil Empire.  The Federal powers are governed, much like the Roman Empire, by a senate, one that, at the time of The Phantom Menace, is largely becoming ineffective. This is much like the Roman senate at the time of Jesus.  Jesus, too, came from a region far from the center of the roman government, and hostile to the rule of Rome.  He was born into a working-class (although not slave class) family under inauspicious circumstances.

From his discovery of Anakin, Qui Gon Jinn takes the super-naturally talented young boy under his wing.  He arranges for him to be brought before the Jedi council, who reluctantly agree to have him trained.  All around, however, the Jedi agree that the "fate of" Anakin Skywalker is "uncertain."  Their feelings about him are clouded, although they acknowledge his budding power.  Jinn himself is described by the council as being a bit of a rogue.  The parallels between Skywalker and Jinn and the Jedi council, and John the Baptist, Jesus and the Rabbis of the day becomes apparent.  John the Baptist was a radical preacher of his day. Outside of the normal order of church hierarchy, he posed both a threat and was an important ally in winning-over the people to religion in an increasingly secular age.  His coming presaged the coming of a greater one: Jesus.  Jinn himself intends to train Skywalker, but, just like John the Baptist, his career is cut short by his untimely death.  The killer in Christ’s case is both the Roman rulers and the existing Jewish religio-governmental establishment.  Qui Gon Jinn is killed by a Jedi trained in the Dark Side by Senator Palpatine, later the emperor of the fledgling Empire of the other three movies.  This evil Jedi, Darth Maul, is, just like Pontious Pilate, a tool of the existing power structure, used by them to further their ends.

Interesting in terms of the future of Anakin Skywalker (and impossible to determine until the two films intervening between The Phantom Menace and Star Wars are made) is Anakin Skywalker’s pledge to come back to Tatooine, the planet of his birth, to free all of the slaves.  His message, just as that of Jesus, is one of liberation.  His prospects as a doer of good are, in the first movie, excellent.  Jesus, before being cast as the foundation of a great church, is a very hopeful figure, preaching political and spiritual freedom–even going so far as to proclaim victory over death itself.  If slavery can be seen as a symbol of death, then Anakin Skywalker promises as much.

But this also points out the limitations of my current exploration.  Without the two as yet to be finished parts of the story, Skywalker’s true colors as a young man are impossible to divine.  We do know, however, that Anakin Skywalker later becomes the epitome of evil in the universe, Darth Vader.  Kuiper contends this name to mean "Darth (death) Vader (father)," and therefore to represent that concept within a Christian framework (85).  Here it could just as easily represent the Dark Father: Jesus as corrupted by its association with an evil Empire.  This Empire, I  suggest, is the church itself, becoming corrupt as it falls away from its Rabbinical (Jeddinical) roots to build its own corrupt European power-structure.  This church helps to create and sustain feudalism in Europe, subjugates Jews and establishes widespread anti-Semitism in the name of a savior killed by Jews.  The Phantom Menace therefore implies that Christ as God-the-Father becomes corrupt and evil as Christianity becomes the established faith.

At one point during the first three Star Wars movies to be released, Luke Skywalker confronts Obi-Wan Kenobi about his father.  Kenobi has to admit that it is, indeed, Darth Vader, despite the fact that he has previously told Luke that his father was dead.  Obi-Wan explains that Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, effectively died when he became Darth Vader.  Presumably, upon becoming Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker becomes part of the evil Empire.  The lesson we can draw is that it was the imperial nature of the established church in Europe that corrupted Christianity: as a localized and specifically Jewish liberation movement, the teachings of Jesus were uncorrupt and pure.  By blending them with the trappings of a great Empire, they became evil.  By this logic, Jesus (Anakin Skywalker) dies when he becomes Christ, the Father of the Christian church (Darth Vader).  We can further extrapolate this to mean that Christ’s "resurrection" is in fact a re-creation into the figure of a Dark Lord.  By Jedi (Rabbi) standards, he is dead, as Jedism (Judaism) has no concept of life after death except in the memories of the living.  This is evident when Obi-Wan and the Jedi master Yoda appear to Luke Skywalker in visions in the second and third films: his memory of them keeps their spirits living.  The defeat over death proclaimed by Christian mythology is, as presented by Lucas, an evil thing, unbecoming of the religious traditions from which it sprang, and antithetical to a more natural Jedi-death which accepts the spirit-world of the living Jedi memory.

The influence of the Church on the psyche of Europe cannot be underestimated.  Considering the anti-Semitism Christianity in Europe engendered, one cannot help but consider the obviously Nazi imagery surrounding the Empire in the first three films of the series, episodes four through six.  Not even bothering to disguise the name, the Empire’s shock-troops are referred to as "Stormtroopers," the same name Hitler gave to his elite fighting force.  We can only suspect that Lucas is implying a link between the establishment of Nazism in Germany and the establishment of the Church with its Holy Roman Empire, the predominant emperors of which were German in extraction.  This idea would make Nazism the result of Christianity itself, Christianity’s inevitable offshoot in Europe.  Under this interpretation, the savior of the Jews becomes their Dark Lord; their liberator becomes the means of their enslavement.

Unfortunately, all of this can only be speculative at this point.  We cannot yet know the role Anakin Skywalker will play in the forthcoming films.  To a certain extent, we can never know the true influences of Christianity on the social ferment out of which the Nazi party sprang.  But the parallels here are enormous: Star Wars, taken as a series, is the history of the Church encapsulated, from humble beginnings and budding Empire, to corruption and ultimate dissolution.  One can only speculate about the revival of traditional Christianity currently exploding upon America: is there reason to believe that the Religious Right will become that new Empire?  Will the new war for liberation be right now in a galaxy quite close to home?

Addendum

It has been brought to my attention by many an astute reader that Darth Maul should more accurately symbolize King Herod. They are correct, of course--an oversight I should've caught. I appreciate the input, and should take the opportunity to note that the Darth Maul/Herod connection still works symbolically, representing the pathway toward an institutionalized and therefore corrupt Christianity.

Works Cited

Kuiper, Koenraad.  "Star Wars: An Imperial Myth." Journal of Popular Culture 21.2 (Spring) 1988.  77-86.

Lucas, George.  The Empire Strikes Back .  Lucasfilm Ltd. 1980
The Phantom Menace .  Lucas.  1999.
Return of the Jedi .  Lucas.  1983.
Star Wars .  Lucas.  1977.