How Star Wars is Recontextualizing the Force to Reflect Modern Spiritualities
Beyond the laser swords, planet-destroying weapons, and teddy bears overthrowing an Empire, Star Wars is perhaps best known for The Force—the mystical spiritual power at the center of the narrative.
This spiritual center of the beloved space opera has sparked various reactions by Christians through the years. It has been condemned for reflecting unbiblical religious beliefs and embraced as an inspiring metaphor for faith (any pastor who hasn’t used the scene of Yoda lifting Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing starfighter out of the Dagobah swamp as a sermon illustration at some point clearly missed the memo).
Regardless of what you think of The Force or of the ever-expanding offering of Star Wars tales, there is something fascinating about a blockbuster franchise with spirituality at its core. Previously, I explored the emphasis on religion and spirituality in The Mandalorian. Now Ashoka, the most recent Star Wars show on Disney+, is raising some more interesting questions—particularly due to the way it appears to recontextualize the Force.
The shifting emphasis on how the Force is understood is not unique to Ashoka. Below is an exploration of how one of the prevailing cultural metaphors for faith and spirituality has frequently been recontextualized to reflect the contemporary mindsets of the culture. At least, from a certain point of view.
A Mystical Entity Beyond Ourselves
In the original 1977 film, Obi-Wan Kenobi explains, “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
What made The Force unique and intriguing (besides inspiring dreams of pulling the TV remote to your hand without getting off the couch) is that, unlike the “magic” in most fantastical stories (The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), the Force was a quasi-sentient essence. While it is perhaps more reflective of pagan and pantheistic spirituality than of a traditional theist belief, it is a power that speaks and has a “will.” It is not only a source of power the Jedi can harness but a spiritual essence to which they can relate.
In The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the diminutive green Jedi, Yoda, explains, “For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”
Another key aspect of how the original trilogy presented the Force is that even though its presence is universal, experience of it is somewhat limited. When princess Leia declares to Luke that he has a power she will never have, he responds, “You’re wrong, Leia. You have that power too. In time, you’ll learn to use it as I have. The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. And . . . my sister has it.”
The implication is that while the Force may be omnipresent, it does not run strongly in all families or people. Why not? Well, we’ll get to that below. But the original presentation of the Force is that of a mysterious, powerful spiritual reality that exists beyond us but somehow relates to us (or, at least, to those who belong to the established religious order).
A Scientific Reality
An answer to the above question was provided in the later prequel trilogy of films with the controversial introduction of “midi-chlorians.” In The Phantom Menace (1999), Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn tells Anakin Skywalker, “Midi-chlorians are a microscopic lifeform that reside within all living cells and communicates with the Force.” In other words, the more midi-chlorians you possess, the greater your ability to commune with The Force.
Despite how they are often described by displeased Star Wars fans, the midi-chlorians are not The Force. They are merely a biological entity that acts as a connection point with that power. Qui-Gon explains further, “Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you will hear them speaking to you.”
This revelation was not received well by fans, as it seemed to contradict the original conception of The Force (despite being the product of George Lucas’ imagination). Yes, there were still plenty of instances of the Force operating in mystical ways, but The Force was now something that could be measured. Access to the power could be diagnosed through a blood sample. The mysterious had been demystified and reduced to data on a screen.
Coincidentally or not, the “scienceification” of The Force also unfolded side-by-side with a sort of deconstruction of the religious institution of the Jedi (a trend that would be amplified in 2017’s The Last Jedi). In the original films, Obi-Wan painted a picture of the Jedi as noble, selfless protectors of the galaxy. In the Prequels, however, they were exposed as flawed, shortsighted, and filled with hubris. In other words, during this era of Star Wars, both the Force and those who wield it lost their mystical aura and were pulled down into a more mechanical natural world. The Force continued to exist, but with an almost atheistic slant: religious institutions are flawed and there are biological/naturalistic explanations for the supernatural.
A Power Within
In an early episode of the current Disney+ show Ashoka, an interesting conversation takes place between master and apprentice:
Sabine: “I can’t use the force. I don’t feel it. Not like you do.”
Ashoka: “The Force resides in all living things. Even you.”
Sabine: “If that’s true, then why doesn’t everyone use it?”
Ashoka: “Talent is a factor. But training and focus are what truly defines someone’s success. Not everyone can handle the type of discipline it takes to master the ways of the Force.”
While Ashoka’s words are not wholly inconsistent with how Obi-Wan Kenobi taught Luke Skywalker in the original film, there is a different emphasis. Then, it was about “reaching out” to something “beyond.” In Ashoka, at least in this scene, it is about “reaching within” to something “inside.” Gone is the exclusivity of the Force or strength of family bloodlines. Everyone has access to the Force inside themselves. Anyone can be a Jedi if they find the power within.
As with earlier Star Wars stories, this recontextualizing of the Force is also reflected in a shifting perception of the Jedi Order. Rather than the Jedi signifying those who have access to the Force, the Jedi are now merely followers of a particular religious philosophy or code. Despite teaching Sabine in the ways of the Force, Ashoka proclaims, “I am no Jedi.” The broadening of “Force sensitivity” presents a world (or galaxy) in which spirituality has been internalized and can be—perhaps should be—experienced without the confines of any antiquated religious order. This understanding of the Jedi and the Force is one in sync with a culture in which one of the fastest-growing spiritual/religious demographics are the so-called “nones” and “Spiritual but not religious” has become a defining slogan.
Cultures Change, Metaphors Change
During a production meeting for Return of the Jedi (1983), George Lucas said this about the Force: “Yes, everybody can do it…. It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.” Thus, in one sense, in Ashoka the Force has come full circle: closer rather than further from the original intent. At the same time, the changing ways the Force has been presented is interesting and provides a metaphor for the shifting spiritual attitudes of our culture.
Culture changes and so do the myths and metaphors that define it. The Force in Star Wars is arguably the most iconic and widespread representation of spirituality in the pop culture lexicon. As our culture wrestles with spirituality and religion, our prevailing myths do as well. A survey of nearly 50 years of Star Wars stories provides insight into a culture that was once captivated by a greater power beyond us, became cynical and demystified that power, and ultimately settled on a more individualistic and internalized spirituality.