Is ‘Star Wars’ Gnostic?

COMMENTARY: What is Gnosticism anyway? Are Star Wars’ spiritual influences more Gnostic, Buddhist, or Christian?

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Just before Christmas, an article appeared in The Washington Post comparing the Star Wars prequel trilogy to the “Gnostic gospels,” such as the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Judas”: “Like the gnostic Gospels, the prequels aren’t true. Or to put it another way, they aren’t the same story as the originals.” While the Gnostic gospels “have garnered headlines, they’ve never been embraced by the faithful. That’s in part because they’re terrible, filled with stilted dialogue and bizarre plot twists.”

That’s an accurate characterization both of the Gnostic gospels and the Star Wars prequels. On the same day, though, Damon Linker in The Week disparaged the whole Star Wars phenomenon — even the universally loved original film and its even more revered sequel, The Empire Strikes Back — for:

[w]ooden dialogue, cardboard acting, hokey humor, and a grade-school Manichean/Gnostic metaphysics in which characters choose between darkness and light, bodies are dismissed as “crude matter,” and dead friends and teachers stand around glowing and offering portentous advice…

“A kind of ‘soft Gnosticism’” is how Catholic author Michael O’Brien, in a 1998 book that has been influential among Catholic parents and educators, characterized the spiritual milieu of Star Wars, adding that in Star Wars “the gnosis is an undercurrent beneath the surface waves of a few Christian principles” (A Landscape with Dragons, 60-70). While expressing warm appreciation for the Star Wars films on a number of fronts, O’Brien adds notable reservations:

The force is neither good nor evil in itself but becomes so according to who uses it and how it is used. … Luke and company act according to an admirable moral code, but we must ask ourselves on what moral foundation this code is based, and what its source is. There is no mention of a transcendent God or any attempt to define the source of “the Force.” And why is the use of psychic power considered acceptable? … Moreover, the key figures in the overthrow of the malevolent empire are the Jedi masters, the enlightened élite, the initiates, the possessors of secret knowledges. Is this not Gnosticism?

Is the Star Wars mythos Gnostic? If so, how Gnostic is it? The question is complicated by confusion over exactly what Gnosticism is. At least since the mid-20th century the label has been thrown around far too freely, describing anything from hidden knowledge or a vague or mystical spirituality to pantheism, utopianism or a one-story cosmology without a transcendent, divine reality.

Gnosticism, like Buddhism, can be understood as a response to the problem of suffering and evil. Orthodox Judeo-Christian faith holds that creation is the good work of a wise, loving, eternal Creator, and suffering and evil are a result of human and angelic rebellion against God.

Belief systems classified as Gnostic diverge widely, but a common thread is that suffering and evil are baked into the cake of the material world, which is the shoddy work of an inferior and/or evil deity, not of the good God, who is remote and uninvolved in this world.

What traps us in the prison of this material world — the “original sin” of Gnosticism — is ignorance or unknowing; what frees us is mystical or experiential knowledge of divine truth or of the good God, by which we transcend the illusions of corporeal existence: a process for which only a few have the necessary receptivity or openness.

Claims of Gnostic themes or influences in movies are often overstated, or at least one-sided. A movie often mentioned in this connection is The Truman Show. Jim Carrey’s protagonist does inhabit a shoddy, fake world, a kind of prison created by a false god (“Christof”). On the other hand, he’s that world’s unique prisoner; everyone around Truman knows the truth and is in on the deception. This resonates less with Gnosticism than with solipsistic fears: the thought that perhaps I alone am real and everyone else is “fake.”

The Matrix is closer to being a Gnostic parable: Mankind has been enslaved in a shoddy imitation world, and knowledge can enable a select few to transcend the limitations of this world. On the other hand, the “real” world beyond the illusion is worse than the illusion. Gnostic contempt for sexuality is inverted: Mankind’s jailers “deliver” us from sexuality with artificial reproduction, while “pure, old-fashioned, home-grown human” reproduction is celebrated. The villainous Agent Smith, with his contempt for even simulated sense perception and physicality, is the movie’s one true Gnostic.

What about Star Wars?

Yoda’s famous line from The Empire Strikes Back, alluded to by Linker — “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter” — is the most overt echo of Gnostic ideas in the Star Wars films. (That dead characters appear in spectral form isn’t specifically Gnostic; ghost stories are common in many traditions.) There’s also an elitism in the idea that sensitivity to the Force is a gift of the few that is congenial to the elitism of Gnosticism.

But there is no Gnostic secret in Star Wars, no sense of the world or any system in the world as a lie or a trap for the uninitiated. O’Brien calls the Jedi a “mystery religion” — a different category from Gnosticism — but nothing we see of the Jedi in the original trilogy or even in the prequels seems to warrant either term.

While Star Wars has mystic initiates, it neither disparages nor neglects non-initiates (as the Harry Potter series neglects, though it does not disparage, non-magical Muggles, who are never important, effective characters even when they’re sympathetic ones).

Non-adepts in the Force play crucial roles throughout the series. Han Solo actually takes Darth Vader out of the fight in the climax of the original film so that Luke (certainly not yet a Jedi master) can blow up the Death Star. In Return of the Jedi, Han disables the shield protecting the second Death Star, which is destroyed, not by a Force initiate, but by Lando Calrissian.

“Darkness” and “light” are notable themes in Gnostic and especially Manichaean thought; they also feature prominently in 1 John, for instance. (In Star Wars, the “light” side of the Force is usually called the “good side” — when it’s specified at all. “The Force,” used without clarification, often means “the good side,” giving goodness a kind of priority.)

Likewise, it’s true that Star Wars never mentions God. God also goes unmentioned in many of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, along with The Wizard of Oz, The Princess BrideThe Lord of the Rings, and, um, nearly all the parables of Jesus.

Of course Jesus himself explains the theological context and meaning of many of his parables, and in his other writings J.R.R. Tolkien fleshes out the religious world and meaning of The Lord of the Rings.

But why would it count against any story, much less make it implicitly Gnostic, that it takes good and evil seriously without explicitly mentioning God? (Gnostics don’t mind talking about God.)

If Jedi spirituality resonates with any non-Christian religious tradition, it is less Gnosticism than Buddhism. The Jedi path is a way of detachment; wayward emotions, and especially ties to family and loved ones, can lead to terrible consequences, according to Yoda and Obi-Wan.

Yet the larger Star Wars narrative subverts this notion: It is precisely Luke’s feelings of obligation to his father, and Vader’s feelings for his son, that redeem Darth Vader and overcome the Emperor’s evil. In the prequels, the Buddhist influence becomes more pronounced — but so does the subversion of the Jedi, who are less wise and more fallible than they think.

Seen as a whole, the original trilogy is the story of how evil is undone, neither by heroic violence, mystical power, nor Buddhist detachment, but by love: specifically, by filial piety, paternal attachment and moral conversion.

That doesn’t negate any Buddhist or Gnostic influence. Still, it would be fair to say that the arc of the central Star Wars mythos culminates in the triumph of typically Christian virtues over rival visions. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, such signposts of truth are ever more notable and valuable.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.