This little article started as a series of conversations I have had with a fellow seminarian (now ordained reverend!) who hopes to one day teach an introduction to New Testament literature using pop culture analogies to explain its origins and functions. I do hope that course someday comes to fruition, and if you ever come across a Dr. Coyle-Carr teaching a course called “Comic Books and the Gospels” or something, I do suggest you take it. These conversations grew in my mind to bring together two of my great loves, two of the great influences on me as a person, and two of the defining forces of my childhood: the New Testament and Star Wars.
I grew up many years after the words “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appeared on screen. I grew up many more years after the words “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1) dripped off the tip of a pen. I think that is a valuable insight to begin this self-indulgent discussion of mine. In both cases, with Star Wars and the New Testament, the media that has had such a profound impact on my life is not my own and it was not written to me. I am an inheritor of a tradition (as foolish as it may sound when it comes to Star Wars) that was not addressed to me. I should come to this tradition, then, as a humble outsider called to the truth within. I cannot handle that truth with my hands and possess it — it is there speaking to me. It is up to me to hear what it has to say and to choose whether to listen. That doesn’t mean the tradition cannot be subject to critique, but it does mean that I need to come to it with a bit more humility than I am accustomed to having in our world. I can’t tread the text like its mine alone and there to serve my interests. That’s probably a bit too sacred an approach to Star Wars and not nuanced enough for Scripture, but, hey, this is a novelty article.
I decided to write this piece because as Christians we are rarely familiar with the origins of our own sacred texts. We are so unfamiliar that when someone confronts us with those origins, it can send us into a spiral of panicky doubt and hysteria. Look no further than responses to Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code), Reza Aslan (Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth), or Bart Ehrman (Jesus, Interrupted among others). Christians respond with uninformed denial that has contributed to a cottage industry of so-called “apologetics” that have less to do with scholarship than the Star Wars movies. Christians need to know where there texts came from, at least in a general sense, and what has been done with them. It is not as threatening as it may sound depending on who is explaining it. It’s definitely not as bad as Jar Jar Binks or the musical scene added to Return of the Jedi.
If you’re interested in Star Wars or the New Testament, this article is for you. If you’re interested in both, definitely read on — hopefully this will be a fun ride. If you haven’t the slightest interest in Star Wars or the New Testament, I’m sorry. At least one of those will make your life a great deal more enjoyable. I might even make promises about both. So, without further ado, let’s start at the beginning.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ….
In a time before me, there was a man who wanted to shake things up, challenge the status quo, and change the world. And he truly believed that he was the one to do it. He worked tirelessly at his life’s mission and found himself in constant disputes with the establishment, but in the end, his story left an undeniable mark on human history. Born in 1944, George Lucas grew up in Modesto, California. He made some short films in the 1960s, but gained notoriety with the movies he made in the 1970s: THX 1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars. The final of those films sparked a cultural phenomenon that endures until this day. Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope began a series of works that changed the face of the film and entertainment industry. These films were highly cherished as works that bucked the studio and industry model while remaining highly successful and influential. The lines of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia were memorized by children and adults alike for decades. Star Wars became a part of the cultural consciousness wherever it went.
Early Christian behaved in similar ways. The story of Jesus of Nazareth had an undeniably compelling spirit about it. The Jewish man who the stories claimed to be an incarnation of the Son of God captured the imagination of thousands in a very short period. His sayings and stories quickly became the stuff of household conversation wherever the Christians went. These stories were framed around a general form of the life of Jesus. These oral traditions, however, were not yet codified by an institution. They were still bucking convention and industry models of successful religion — these Christians did not practice Jewish law (most of them) or sacrifice to the emperor (most of them) — but they were still quickly becoming highly successful in gaining converts.
Within a few decades of their debut, both of these stories received an institutional remix. If any of you remember watching Star Wars in the theater in 1977, you probably recall with agony the cringes that came with the Special Edition of the trilogy came out in 1997. Lucasfilm, Ltd. had changed a number of important facets of the film that are still hotly debated among diehard fans. Some have tirelessly sought to recover the original versions of the film, though Lucas claims these original manuscripts have been lost, destroyed in the redaction process. Now, we are left with only the Special Edition (don’t even get me started on the BluRay) with little memory of what once was — the original story of Star Wars.
The “Gospels” in your New Testament came about in a similar way as the Special Editions of the Star Wars films (though I would suggest they were not as damaged qualitatively in the process, though some would disagree even though they’ve never seen the originals). The Gospels came down to us as edits of the original story/stories of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke come to us as the institutionalized (or institutionally accepted) versions of a commons story of Jesus. John’s Gospel came later as the well-intentioned and mostly well-crafted remake (which no one should attempt with A New Hope). These stories were not the originals, but the negatives were lost (we are told) and they’re the best we have.
What can we learn? Like the Star Wars movies, the Gospels came to be what we have today through a series of additions and editions. We may fight about what those additions and editions mean for us and whether or not they are valid, but the core of the text is still what we love and cherish from our first encounter with it. Star Wars fans fully acknowledge the complicated source material that is their favorite saga, but they don’t let it (most of them, anyway) ruin it for them. When you find out that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were working from similar material from sources that predate their composition, it need not cause panic or alarm. God is still speaking through the tradition that brought these texts into your hands and God can be encountered there just like I can still find joy in my modified Star Wars movies (but Han still shot first, no matter what the text says).
The Return of the Gospel
The Star Wars movies were not the end of the story. Even before the Special Editions, more stories and texts commented on the original story and the fate of its adherents. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye came out in 1978 as the first addition to the storyline. The first major addition to the saga came in the “Thrawn Trilogy,” beginning in 1991 with Heir to the Empire. The Jedi Prince series, beginning with The Glove of Darth Vader, sought to continue the story directly after the events of Return of the Jedi. Certain books eventually came to be considered canon and others did not, but elements of both remained in the canon of Star Wars. The Thrawn Trilogy for years was essentially Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the Star Wars saga. The Jedi Prince, however, fell out of favor and was not included in the canon that came to exist before the Special Editions.
The New Testament evolved in a similar way. After the original stories of Jesus began to circulate, texts popped up all over the Christian subculture. There were the letters of Paul and other established first-generation church leaders, letters that followed in the ‘schools’ of those leaders, the so-called gnostic gospels eventually emerged, a numerous other texts appears (e.g., “Gospel of X, Y, and Z”). Some of those became canon and some of those did not. Various people attempted to assert whether something was or was not canon (an argument that was live among Star Wars fans such that multiple levels of canonicity had to be established), including Clement of Rome (who didn’t consider Paul canon), Marcion (who edited his own version of the Jesus story and Paul’s letters), and Irenaeus (who advocated the four gospels we have today). In 367, Athanasius of Alexandria produced the list of 27 books that make up most Christians’ New Testaments today. However, regardless of whether or not a text wound up in the official New Testament, the stories had an influence on the Christian religion that proceeded from that point onward.
What can we learn? We can learn that there is a lot to learn. Things are more complicated than they appear, but that is all the more for us to learn. We can learn a lot from contemplating our origins. The differences between the Thrawn Trilogy and Jedi Prince abound — at their core, they are addressing very different concerns and questions. It’s similar with early forms of the canon. By examining the early canons, we can see the questions early Christians had and we can see which questions our forebears determined to be the questions God had answers to in Christ. Some questions were good questions and some were bad questions. Some people produced harmful narratives that were eventually declared heresies, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have something to learn from those heresies, just like we can learn a different version of the Star Wars saga from Jedi Prince (in fact, I was exposed to Jedi Prince long before hearing of Admiral Thrawn). Obviously, the former has a lot more value than the latter — just saying so, that way no one accuses me of sacrilege. If you want to know more, I would suggest Heresies and How to Avoid Them, edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward as a place to start (but not to finish). In learning about the heresies, you tend to learn a lot more about the orthodoxy, too, both good and bad.
The Expanded Universe
While the official account was supposedly sealed in 1999, more and more Star Wars kept coming (excluding the prequels, which make this metaphor a bit complicated). That same year, The New Jedi Order launched a new Star Wars storyline that persisted for years with nineteen novels, three novellas, and three more short stories. Dark Nest (novel trilogy), Legacy of the Force (nine novels), and Fate of the Jedi (nine novels) came out over the next decade (incidentally, the last novel of Fate of the Jedi shares a name with the end of the New Testament). Everything changed with the tradition of the Star Wars universe in 2012. The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm from George Lucas for over $4 billion and announced that it was rebooting the franchise. All canon subsequent to Return of the Jedi was no longer canon and Disney would be producing a new Star Wars trilogy.
A longstanding tradition of exposition and addition came after the closing of the New Testament canon, as well. As time went on, different works, practices, and expressions received varying levels of canonical status in the established forms of Christianity. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox expressions of the Christian faith persisted for centuries, growing and developing. Monastic orders, liturgies, modes of prayer, church offices, styles of architecture, and ideological debates flourished in the first thousand years of Christianity. In the Catholic expression of Christianity, however, everything changed in 1517. Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers launched a new movement within Western Christianity and many adherents to the movement came to see the thousand years of history after the closing of the New Testament canon as non-canonical. They announced that they would be producing new forms of church that were more faithful to the originals and that their churches would be the true Christian church.
What can we learn? Church history is complicated. The decision to de-canonize what had come known as the “Expanded Universe” by Disney was highly controversial. Many people felt that much of what they had dedicated themselves to for years had been devalued and thrown away. Others rejoiced at new beginnings and still more found themselves somewhere in between. The Reformation is like that but infinitely more complex and influential. We need to value the points of departure everyone has when coming to questions of faith. Catholics may be offended by Protestants who flippantly regard a thousand years of tradition as meaningless. Protestants may be eager to find out what God is saying in the here and now. In reality, all of the traditions have something to bring to the table. God is speaking in all of them, and I’d recommend reading and practicing parts of all of them (though that’s a particularly Protestant thing to say).
The Historical Skywalker
Beginning in the Enlightenment and into the late nineteenth century, a scholarly field emerged known as The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Scholars began to go beyond the confines of the text as we have it and attempted to create the text as it actually was and Jesus as he actually was. They produced Lives of Jesus numbering in the hundreds that attempted to get back to the real Jesus of history, not the Christ of faith. In 1906, Albert Schweitzer released a book that coined the Quest terminology and asserted that these reconstructions of Jesus reflected their authors more than the Jesus they sought. For years, Schweitzer was the final word on the subject until the mid-twentieth century saw it rejuvenated. A third phase of the Quest began in the 1970s and 1980s and we may find ourselves in a new phase of it today. Schweitzer’s critique still looms large over the enterprise, but it still produces dozens of books each year on the subject.
Not dissimilarly, there have been numerous attempts to get back to the historical Star Wars. When Lucas declared the original negatives lost and asserted that the new Special Edition DVDs would be the Star Wars that would live in everyone’s memories, there was a revolt. Original copies of the movies were digitized and released on the internet for free. Other fans attempted to remake the original trilogy as it “should have been.” All of these attempts were to get back to what was true and real about Star Wars. They wanted the original, unfiltered Star Wars, or at least a reproduction that was better than the Special Editions. Schweitzer’s critique of the historical Jesus might have something to say here, too. None of the versions of Star Wars that exist now can really be said to be better than any of the others (except perhaps if someone gets ahold of those original negatives), and they reflect more about the opinions and passions of the editors than Star Wars itself.
What can we learn? In 2013, Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, went on Fox News to promote his new book on Jesus — Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The subsequently embarrassing (for Fox) interview launched Aslan’s book to the top of The New York Times Bestseller List. Christians all over reacted violently to Aslan’s account of the historical Jesus. In reality, Aslan’s book is nothing more than a convenient summary of the second and third quests for the historical Jesus. There’s not really a new sentence in its pages. If Christians were more broadly aware of this enterprise, they might have reacted differently to the Aslan controversy, maybe by pointing out that someone was making a significant profit off others’ work than smearing a Muslim writer for daring to write about Jesus. In the end, we ought to see the quest for the historical Jesus like the fan edits of Star Wars. They are enjoyable and edifying digressions about specific parts of Jesus ministry and the nature of Jesus’ work. They can help us think more clearly about Jesus and the Gospels and enrich our reading of the texts.
Episode VII: Where We Go From Here
I think I always need the reminder to treat the New Testament a bit more like I treat Star Wars. I am not saying that I regard Star Wars as sacred or revelatory of God. Ha! What I am saying, is I approach Star Wars with a sense of childlike wonder, curiosity, and a peculiar sort of passion. I always want more. I think if we approached the New Testament (and its origins and contemporary commentaries) with a bit of that zeal, we’d greatly benefit. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3)? What if we picked up the New Testament as if it contained all the joy of our childhood and all the complications that have come with becoming an adult? What if we were as curious (and just as critical!) about our Scriptures as Star Wars fans are about that saga? If we could just get an ounce of that passion in everyone in the pews on Sunday morning, the world would be a different place — and not just because Hasbro and Lego reaped profits from the merchandizing.
So, a few take-a-ways (better than sacrilegious Wookiee Jesus):
Be curious, not confrontational about New Testament origins.
You might come out knowing better your orthodoxy by knowing your heresies.
Look into the breadth and depth of tradition and you might find Jesus there, too.
Pay attention to how we talk about Jesus — it might say a lot more about you than God.
Take everything simultaneously less seriously and more seriously, like a child, and you just might meet God in a new way — even in your New Testament.