Star Wars - that is, the original Star Wars, was meant to be a self-contained movie about a bunch of rag-tag heroes who take down a cruel Empire. It was never meant to be a cinematic universe, complete with story arcs, and yet they got parts of it incredibly right in the first three and incredibly wrong in the second. Like Jacob wrestling with the Angel, they tried to write a story on the fly, struggling with the nature of the Ulitmate Question.

If you believe that we are Here For A Reason, it's obvious what the first film was trying to achieve. Han Solo needed to learn that there's more to life than running from your troubles and seeking nothing more than fun with your drinking buddies. Luke Skywalker did not want to be born, live and die in a desert backwater making his whole life's existence about farming water. Ben Kenobi was a hermit at end-of-life who suddenly saw in this young hotshot a promising heir to pass his wisdom on to. As for Darth Vader - he was an enigma in himself - a black mirror in which the other characters saw themselves.

And it was at that point that a glimmer of an idea - the idea of an old religion, mysticism - the Buddhism that nibbles at the edges of every kung fu chop sockey flick and the mysticism and magic that are only ever exploited for fireworks in the sword and sorcery genre - was seeded into the universe. It can be joked that Star Wars was the story of an unemployed desert dwelling kid who becomes fervent about a religion he just learned about and becomes a terrorist, but there's some element to that. Suppose there's more to all this than just waking up, consuming resources, giving off waste products and eventually expiring. What does it all mean? And what if you had some way to alter reality or at least perceive it differently through religion?

Vader seeks temporal power. At first. Luke is driven by justice. Ben is driven by duty. Yoda, the quirky little green alien who is quite content to live in a literal swamp, is at peace with the universe and is driven by literally nothing. 

When the first movie became a blockbuster - a series was demanded. George Lucas was not the writer of The Empire Strikes Back which is why it is so good.

The series moved away from set pieces and tropes, Lucas' stock in trade - I mean, what is Darth Vader but the Black Knight, what is Luke's Story but every single kung fu movie about a kid who wants to avenge the death of whomever and spends months getting beaten up by some wise master and readied to go out and throw down some justice? Sword and sorcery? Light sabers. Pirate and Buccaneer? Charming little fella Harrison Ford turned out for us. It moved into much bigger ideas.

Luke standing in front of a cave and asking Yoda: "What's in there?" "Whatever you take with you". I've been able to do impromptu sermons of a type based on some of the imagery in "Empire". What's key about this part of the Hero's Journey is that instead of simply spending enough time with a hermit to awaken awareness of a universe beyond the mundane, Skywalker spends a lot of that movie learning about himself and the universe and his place in it through a very real mystical retreat with an enlightened sage. Kenobi fought Darth Vader and sacrificed himself for the greater good. Yoda levitated an X-Wing fighter out of a submerged swamp. But the biggest lessons Luke learned were not so much about swinging a sword and throwing things around by force pushing, but the importance of purging his own character of fear, hate, and his ego-driven desire to foolhardy rush in to save the day.

It is a much calmer, gentler Luke, for example, who comes in to Return of the Jedi. He makes every attempt to redeem the lives of his friends monetarily and negotiate a reasonable truce before killing Jabba the Hutt and his henchmen to save Han Solo. His is not the young man's rush to save his friends - a significant amount of time has passed and Luke has very clearly gone out to get his zen on before taking on his home planet again.

The prequels were garbage for the most part, with George Lucas literally piecing together The Phantom Menace out of some sword and sandal set pieces and bits from 20,000 leagues. But in his rush to cobble together a prequel series that didn't need to be written to try and atone for the teddy bear dreck that was the ending of Jedi - he managed to enhance the commentary on faith and religion in a significant number of ways.

The religion of the Jedi is never explained. Apart from this very mystic and nebulous idea of The Force - borrowing a line from the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer for their catchprase - we don't really ever learn much about them. 

Which makes the jumbled mess of what the Jedi were in the prequels that much more interesting. The prequels showed the Jedi not to be a wise force for good in the universe, regardless of how Obi-Wan Kenobi nostalgically remembered them. They were instead a commoditized institution, reducing the mystic idea of force development to a literal blood test and looking only at the outward tricks and feats manipulating the interface between The Force and the wielder could achieve.

Compare and contrast Luke hanging out in a swamp communing with the universe, and the Jedi academy of the prequels, which looks ever so much like a megachurch daycare.

They were bureaucrats whose entire way of life had become a hierarchy. Nor were any of the Jedi we ever saw in any of the prequels wise or otherwise what you would expect from a priest/warrior monk. Qui-Gon Jinn was not averse to outright manipulation to get what he wanted, cheating someone to get what he wanted, but only what he wanted and leaving others to fend for themselves. (Would it have killed him to have Anakin's mother freed as well?) The Jedi motivation in freeing a child from slavery was not about being appalled at the institution but the very greedy desire to sieze a new recruit whose test scores were through the roof. Which makes his robed posturing that much more ugly to the viewer - not a Martin Luther King but a high school teacher who alters a kid's grades so that he can play that all important game against a well-heeled rival.

Anyone who's ever had dealings with a church is fully aware of the politicking involved and the ugly day to day mess that running a big institution like that involves. But Obi Wan Kenobi is well meaning but stupid - the others around him are bombastic, dogmatic and too involved with politics to even feign having anything to do with religion.

There's a BIG R redemption for Darth Vader as part of the story - even more so when you consider that the prequels reveal that his descent past a moral event horizon mirrored Faust. But there's a couple of little R redemptions as well - Obi Wan, having retreated out of necessity to Tattooine as a hermit, and for Yoda in doing the same, having clearly achieved a deeper enlightenment having done so. Having abandoned their ideals and turning to their darker instincts to achieve their human (sorry) goals - Skywalker becomes Vader, and the Jedi are wiped off the face of the entire universe.

It's a great commentary on faith and religion to point out that it's the little things that matter - and there's more goodness in small gestures in the dark than grandiose enterprises because faith is really, REALLY tricky to scale up.

An excellent albeit accidental insight can be found in the fact that the Star Wars universe makes its villains flawed but ultimately choosing evil in pursuit of a greater end. The series treats its completely irredeemable and simply vile characters as one dimensional throwaways. Senator Palpatine and Darth Maul are merely... evil. But Darth Vader is a Faustian figure, as I've previously mentioned, and Kylo Ren is also clearly a troubled and probably redeemable soul. Ren's story will ultimately be more interesting - Vader's murdering of a bunch of children we don't care about is a set piece but Ren's decision to murder a character we DO care about is a good sign that the series will make this cycle be about the Fall just as the previous six were about the Redemption.

The atheist Han Solo has a redemption of his own. In The Force Awakens he reverses his opinion entirely. Whereas the A New Hope Han Solo mocks religion entirely, it isn't the magical kung fu prowess of Luke and Ben that convinces him. It's the decades of living in a Force-aware universe up close and personal - having seen the death and redemption of the galaxy's most evil villain and watching his own son fall from grace - that makes him say with a shaking voice - "it's real. It's all real. I've seen it."

Tellingly, a generation of people are taking up the Bigger Ideas that theology has wrestled with for millennia and wrapping it in brown robes. An increasing number of people have also "seen it" and are actually self-identifying as Jedi. They're asking the same questions and coming up with some of the same answers, only with a different mythology. Because it's inspired them to "see it" too.

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