The Gospel According to Star Wars, 2nd Ed.

Faith, Hope, and the Force

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John C. McDowell
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , September
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664262839.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

John C. McDowell’s second edition of The Gospel according to Star Wars: Faith, Hope, and The Forcebegins with an outdated claim in the opening sentence stating that “Star Wars is the most successful franchise in cinematic history” (xv), a statement refuted by worldwide box office numbers indicating the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has presently grossed $14.8 billion, compared to the Star Wars’ films $8.9 billion. McDowell’s book is nevertheless a fascinating mashup of Star Wars fandom and scholarly study. In his comprehensive evaluation of the Star Wars franchise from a Christian theological perspective, McDowell admits that he focuses on ethical content and worldview more than aesthetics or the cinematic medium: “Because I am exploring the ethically interesting material of the movies, this book is not particularly interested in the typical cinematographic questions that many voice…” (xix-xx). Strictly applied, this approach divorces ethics and aesthetics, focusing mainly on content while ignoring the unique form of filmmaking and its capacity for shaping one’s theological and moral imagination. Thankfully, McDowell doesn’t entirely follow his own approach as he explores the genre dynamics of myth and fairytale in the tradition of Tolkien, noting the influence of Joseph Campbell’s views on mythology within George Lucas’s screenwriting. Moreover, McDowell is attempting to combat overly critical approaches that dismiss popular culture as either shallow or dangerous, as well as the apologetic approach where religious readers (Christians in particular) co-opt and appropriate the Star Wars universe for illustrative or didactic ends, missing the reality that culture (particularly cinema) can dotheology, not merely depict it.

McDowell offers a deep reading of the Star Wars mythology, one which demonstrates his personal knowledge of the stories and universe—he includes the books, the animated TV series, and even deleted scenes from the films as part of the canon. He suggests that “it is this supposed mythic quality that makes SWas myth such rich material for theological and moral reflection” (2). Beyond analysis of the narrative world or Star Wars, McDowell addresses external interpretations and announced motivations from George Lucas, as well as actors, theologians, and film critics. While acknowledging Lucas’s personal readings of his created universe, McDowell wisely goes beyond authorial intent in his analysis and addresses the filmic worlds themselves, even offering counter-interpretations to Lucas. For example, while Lucas (and others) have described “the Force” as being dualistically good and evil, McDowell utilizes Augustinian theology to suggests that the Force is not as dualistic or Manichean as one might initially think: “What I am suggesting is that Lucas’s practice (his movies) is theologically much better than his theory (his theological understanding)” (41). McDowell thus demonstrates not only extensive knowledge of Star Wars, but also familiarity with theology, moral philosophy, and political theory in his interdisciplinary approach. In fact, the latter themes—philosophy and politics—make up the bulk of the book, with chapter 1 focused mainly on mythology and myth-making, chapters 2 through 5 devoted to the metaphysics of good and evil and their political ramifications, and chapters 6 and 7 exploring violence and ethics. It’s not until chapter 8 that the overtly theological concept of redemption emerges, while chapter 9 serves as a coda for this second edition, evaluating J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens and the ethics of the empire of Disney. (McDowell notes in the introduction that he will address the ongoing Disney-produced Star Wars films in a future edition.) In the most beneficial portions of the book, McDowell gives a deep political reading of the entire saga, looking at gender and racial dynamics, especially within the prequels and later within The Force Awakens: “ROTS in particular represents the series ‘all grown up’ politically. It is flush with a distinctly more modern skeptical (but not cynical) and perspectival (but not relativistic) feel” (87).

There are often moments where The Gospel according to Star Wars reads like an academically-minded fanboy argument, offering meticulously idiosyncratic details in order to make a point. For example, McDowell lists every female character who has ever been on the Jedi High Council in order to argue for Star Wars’ egalitarian standpoint (81), later listing every female character on the side of the Empire (156-57) in his exploration of Rey and Captain Phasma from The Force Awakens. As such, those with similar pop culture obsessions may find this work useful. Despite its publication in 2017, the book already feels outdated, with no mention of Rogue OneThe Last Jedi, or Solo. Yet despite these critical observations, McDowell’s optimistic, even hopeful, discernment of Christian themes and ethics within Star Wars is noteworthy, and readers looking for an academic resource on Christian themes within the saga may find McDowell’s work rewarding.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joel Mayward is a paster-theologian, film critic, and doctoral candidate at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John C. McDowell is professor of theology and director of research at the University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of numerous works on the ideologies of Star Wars.

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