With the premiere of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and a whole slew of movies, books, and various other media on the horizon, it seems that Star Wars is poised to seize the hearts of a new generation of fans.
So why is Star Wars so popular? Father Dwight Longenecker from the blog “Standing on My Head” offers a rather convincing explanation. The reason behind Star Wars’ success is that it follows the “Hero’s Journey” narrative. The movies tap into the innate spirituality and heroism that dwells in the average viewer, inspiring them to be something greater than themselves:
“Star Wars works because it works at a deeply human level of awareness. Following the hero’s quest, the films unlock the human potential for greatness. With the spiritual theme underlying the hero’s quest the films also keep alive in the human imagination the importance of prayer, spirituality and a “higher force”.”
Personally, I find this explanation quite neat. It is at once something deeply Catholic – the idea of being in communion with a “higher force” (albeit a more personal one than the movies portray) – and yet with a wider appeal, one that I believe all humans share deep down. And the newer movies have captured this spirit well too – with a stronger presence from women and people of colour, these underrepresented groups can also hopefully find it easier to place themselves in the narrative of the Hero’s Journey.
I remember falling in love with Star Wars around the time Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit cinemas. As a ignorant little kid at the time, I had only the slightest understanding of the Original Trilogy. And by slightest understanding I mean lightsabers and “No. I am your father.” As such, I was not exactly in a place to realize that the prequel movies were not exactly stellar examples of storytelling. The plot did not matter so much to me, back then. What I do remember from watching those movies is the character I immediately took a liking to: Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The prequels show Obi-Wan at his prime, or initially, a bit before it. As Obi-Wan was an apprentice to a Jedi Master in Episode I, I ended up identifying with him more than a little, perhaps more so, surprisingly, than Anakin Skywalker, who was shown to be about my age.
There was a children’s book I read of The Phantom Menace back then, and coming across the scene where Obi-Wan’s master, Qui-Gon Jinn, declares his intention to leave his apprentice in order to train the boy Skywalker, in whom he sees more potential. That resonated with me even then, that sense of struggling with the wounds of rejection and inferiority – as I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve always been somewhat of a sensitive boy. And it was a delight to me also, growing up, to see Obi-Wan rise above those hurdles and become a gentlemanly Jedi Knight, calm, collected, and able to resist the pull of his inner darkness to an incredible degree. Of course, all this led to the story we already knew for decades: that Obi-Wan Kenobi eventually becomes an iconic archetype for the Wise Mentor figure, to guide the hero Luke Skywalker in his quest to save the Galaxy.
It is this idea of mentorship that I wish to focus on today, especially in a Christian or Catholic context. It is a common thing for Catholics to seek role models or mentors – to follow the teachings or the examples set forth by various saints, for example. It is also not uncommon for Catholics to seek Spiritual Direction from someone, usually a priest or religious, but not necessarily, to guide them in their spiritual formation. Pope John Paul II, when he was young, received just such spiritual direction from a very holy lay person, the tailor Jan Tyranowski, who led a Catholic religious group in Poland during World War II. And of course, as a priest JPII in turn became just such a mentor to many Polish youth.
So what does this have to do with Star Wars or Obi-Wan Kenobi? As I mentioned, when people think of the idea of a mentor, it is likely they picture Obi-Wan, as portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness in 1977. What I would like to do is examine just how Obi-Wan is portrayed as such a mentor, and attempt to draw some lessons for those of us who are in the position of leaders in the Church.
One thing Obi-Wan can teach us as leaders is detachment. Throughout the movies, Obi-Wan never seems to be overwhelmed by how desperate or panic-inducing the situation might be. Though Luke Skywalker might be the last hope to save the Galaxy from the Sith Emperor, Obi-Wan never seems to be in a hurry to train him (which would go against the wishes of Luke’s Uncle, Owen Lars) until Luke himself asks for it. Even then, while Luke’s training had only just begun, Obi-Wan is still quite willing to give up his life so that the others can escape the Death Star, trusting that through death, he would become “more powerful than you could ever imagine”. For me, this detachment is captured beautifully in the Star Wars Rebels cartoon, when an aged Obi-Wan, in exile on the desert planet Tatooine, is confronted by his nemesis Darth Maul, the murderer of his master.
“Look what has become of you.” Darth Maul sneers. “A rat in the desert.”
Obi-Wan’s response is full of pity at the hate-filled Sith in front of him: “Look what I have risen above.”
I confess that sometimes as a leader in Christian ministries or communities, I sometimes get impatient with the spiritual progress of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes I am intolerant of their faults, and judge them in my heart of hearts even if I don’t express it outright. From Obi-Wan’s example, perhaps, I can realize that I am not God, and that God has plans for me as well as them, and that forcing their growth earlier than in His good time will not end well for anyone.
Another lesson, and I think one that needs some reading between the lines of the films, is to remember that even as leaders, we are flawed. Obi-Wan actually gives some pretty terrible advice at times, and also says some things that don’t make sense. When his fallen Apprentice issues him a “with me or against me” ultimatum, Obi-Wan retorts that “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” Conveniently missing the irony in the absoluteness of that particular statement. More seriously, when Luke Skywalker doubts his own ability to kill his father, Obi-Wan grimly replies, “Then the Emperor has already won.” Following this, Obi-Wan tries to convince Luke that his father Darth Vader is beyond saving. Fortunately, the plot of the movie proves the Wise Mentor wrong, in perhaps one of the most famous scenes of redemption in all media.
I think it’s always moving when someone comes to us to share their lives and even ask for advice. It speaks volumes about trust and vulnerability, which can be a beautiful thing when expressed rightly in a Christian context. But as leaders, it’s also important to safeguard the well-being of those entrusted to us, and to recognize the need for prayer and discernment before we dispense any advice, if it is our place to give advice at all!
Star Wars and other facets of pop culture might seem rather shallow at first glance. However, as Fr. Longenecker points out, these popular stories can reflect something of our deepest human desires, if we were to look long and hard enough. That said, I’m looking forward to catching The Last Jedi in theatres soon, I’m sure it’s gonna be a blast!
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng