A long time ago …
In a galaxy far, far away …
… there was a movie unlike anything anyone had ever seen before: Star Wars. George Lucas’ space opera would recalibrate our cultural expectations of what a movie can do. And with its arrival on May 25, 1977, the era of the modern blockbuster began.
Much of the credit for how Star Wars revolutionized the theatrical experience goes to its groundbreaking special effects. That said, Lucas meticulously molded the Star Wars storyline for years before it arrived on the big screen. Blending an extensive list of narrative, theatrical, spiritual and philosophical ingredients, Lucas self-consciously synthesized all those influences into what he dubbed a “modern myth,” one he hoped would make a lasting cultural impact.
I know because my 8-year-old son is now as interested in Star Wars as I was when I was 8. And he’s asking for toys for Christmas—specifically, a LEGO AT-AT Walker and a LEGO Star Destroyer—that aren’t that much different from what I was hoping to find under the tree back in 1977 … and ’78 … and, well, you get the picture.
In a world in which trends and toys and fads come and go like the wind, Star Wars’ four-decade pop-culture presence is remarkable. No other entertainment franchise, I’d argue, comes close to equaling the staying power that Lucas’ galaxy far, far away has exerted. In 2012, Wired estimated that total Star Wars-related spending since 1977 has topped $33 billion. And with more movies and toys and TV shows on the way since Disney bought Lucasfilm that year (for the bargain-basement price of just $4 billion), the franchise seems set to extend its reign for years, if not decades, to come.
Now, having said all that, the point of this blog isn’t to gush like a giddy fanboy about Star Wars’ awesomeness. As I mentioned above, it’s also potent example of the power of story to draw us in, to light up our imaginations and to stoke the yearnings of our hearts. Lucas’ story succeeded so phenomenally because it taps into experiences, characters and a battle between good and evil that feel universal and particular all at the same time—even though they’re set in a fantastical sci-fi context. What young person hasn’t at some point scanned the horizon and wondered what the future held? Who hasn’t longed to participate in an adventure where old wrongs are righted, where justice and peace and goodness are restored?
Plenty of other movies have delved into those themes, too, of course. But very few have tapped into these archetypal motifs with as much lasting resonance as the original Star Wars trilogy. (Don’t get me started on the prequels, where Lucas’ infatuation with gee-whiz visual technology overshadowed the actual story in significant ways.) The result is a narrative that has transcended the cultural moment in which it was born.
So what do we do with this most pervasive “modern myth”? I think there’s space (no pun intended) and freedom to enjoy what Lucas got right here even as we help new generations of fans discerningly unpack the spiritual ideas that run counter to what we believe as followers of Christ. I also believe that any story that stirs our hearts and yearnings so deeply offers an opportunity to reflect upon another story of heroism, sacrifice and redemption that’s not a myth: the story of a God who sent His only Son into a hostile, reckless world to seek and save His enemies, transforming their lives and remaking them as His unlikely ambassadors.
So as some of us wrap up Star Wars-themed packages for the next generation of Force fans this Christmas, it’s a natural opportunity to remember another tale of rescue from a long time ago in a land far, far away … one that’s just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.