Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cheap grace in Star Wars

Since the Star Wars reboot is due out in two months, that will renew interest in the franchise, which furnishes an opportunity to make some theological comparisons and contrasts. 

In Return of the Jedi, the emotional climax is Vader's death scene. Luke's priority is not to defeat his father but to redeem his father. Not to destroy the empire, but to coax his father back from the dark side. Does his father still have a conscience that only a son can reach into? Can Vader be reclaimed? 

Luke, of course, wants to break the empire, but that's not his number one priority. In a sense, the fall and redemption of Vader is the metanarrative of the trilogy. 

In principle, that's an interesting theme. The execution is so-so. The turning point is when Vader must choose between saving his son (from imminent death) or remaining loyal to the emperor. When I first saw it, I couldn't help thinking that in the time it took for Vader to decide, Luke might well have succumbed to electrocution.  

The unmasking is dramatic, but a letdown. The actor (Sebastian Shaw) who had this crucial, but cameo appearance, is too old for the part. The final exchange between Luke and Vader is potentially poignant–if you don't give it too much thought. Later we see the ghost of Vader, alongside Yoda and Obi-wan, to show that he went to "heaven" when he died. 

The weakness is not so much with the execution, but the worldview. The quasi-Buddhist outlook that informs the trilogy lacks the theological resources to underwrite a genuine concept of redemption. The concept of redemption ranges along a continuum, from a thin secularized idea to something much deeper:

i) A second chance. 

In American culture, we sometimes equate redemption with giving a person a second chance after they failed in some respect. Give it another shot to succeed, to learn from his mistakes and do it right this time around. 

And there are situations in which that's appropriate. But it's a very thin concept.

ii) Restitution

Somewhat deeper is a contrite person who seeks opportunities to make up for the wrongs he's done. Not just another chance to do it right, but to right his wrongs. Make amends. 

That has a moral dimension lacking in (i). In addition, that's not just about what's good for the individual, but recompensing those he hurt. 

However, Vader is in no position to redeem himself in either respect, even in this attenuated sense of redemption. He's mortally wounded. And even if he wasn't dying, he can't begin to fix all the harm he's done. He can't restore the dead to life. Can give them back the lost years. Can't erase the pain of the survivors. 

To take a comparison, suppose Himmler had a son who was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler. His son is slated for execution. Suppose, after some agonizing, Himmler shoots Hitler to save his son, but Hitler's bodyguards return fire during the altercation. 

In a sense, it's nice that Himmer died trying to save his son from execution. Nice that his paternal instinct was stronger than his allegiance to the Third Reich.

But that doesn't begin to atone for the vast and varied evils he facilitated. That's a tiny remnant of common grace in a morass of wickedness. 

There can be no true redemption in Star Wars because it has no true Redeemer. The categories of penal substitution and vicarious atonement don't exist in that world. It lacks the necessary underpinnings for redemption. 

Just say you're sorry and all is forgiven. There's no justice. No restoration. 

It's a touching father/son moment if you don't stop to consider what Vader got away with. But if you do think about it, then it reflects the underlying amorality of the worldview that informs the franchise. 


  1. Vader does the right thing, for a change. That's something. He also manages to fulfill the prophecy of restoring the balance to the Force, a balance that he had some hand in undoing to begin with, although a good deal of that had already happened before he turned to the Dark Side. But it's out of step with the Christian concept of redemption to confuse what he does with redemption.

    It's not any worse than the literary characters who are referred to as Christ figures without being all that much like Christ, though. This sort of thing is very common, taking a concept from Christianity and watering it down to the point of being unrecognizable, then applying it to something that's a huge stretch from the original notion while feeling proud of yourself for thinking you've made an intelligent reference to Western tradition.

    And it's a sequel, not a reboot. All the existing movies and shows are still canon. A reboot would wipe them all out as no longer canonical in the universe of the new story.

  2. Lucas' expressed ideas about where Vader's arc was going seems pretty different from the Kasdan/Kirchner take in commentary on The Empire Strikes Back. If Vader had moments of seeming more human and humane it was everyone else adding that incrementally over against Lucas' approach. Lucas has, I think, spent more time retroactively self-mythologizing himself as having a clearer idea what he really wanted than he put into formulating a coherent story in the rpequels.

  3. It should have been James Earl Jones under the mask.

    1. I read somewhere Prowse was disappointed it wasn't him since he was wearing the suit for the three movies. Jones was brought on later after it was discovered that, well, Darth Vader sounds less menacing when he sounds like Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons

    2. I read that Jones didn't want his name in the credits originally because he wanted to distance himself from the entire tawdry affair.