Monday, June 20, 2005

Star Wars III-- Very Dark Vader

The cycle of Star Wars films which began in the late 70s is now complete, and it ends on a truly dark and down note. The Revenge of the Sith, which is the name of this particular episode is indeed all about the apparent triumph of evil. While this would have been fine if, as with the Lord of the Rings, we finish where the cycle properly ends, this is not the case with this film. It is the last of the three prequels and the little children who go to see this film will leave with foreboding images in their heads, having not seen the previous films, particularly not the first three which came out so very long ago. This is not a case of all's well that ends well.

The film is well put together, the plot makes sense, and the stuggle between good and evil goes on, but my concern is with the portrayal of evil in this film. Towards the end of the film there is a tell-tale remark--- "Only the Sith believe in absolutes". The 'good guys'as it turns out, are relativists. After Anakin Skywalker busily slaughters the Jedi innocents, we still hear his girl friend/wife urging-- "there is good in him". Not really in fact-- he even puts the choke hold on her at one point and accusers her of collaborating with his betrayers. He is a very Dark Darth Vader indeed by the time this movie is over.

But even the good guys believe in a continuum of good and evil. In fact they don't believe in dualism of any sort. There is simply the one force which has a dark side and a good side, and one can be lured or attracted to either side of the force. From a Christian point of view, this is not a philosophy that we should be blithely endorsing. For one thing it involves a denial not only of absolutes but also of an absolutely good God. The philosophy is rather like ancient pantheistic Stoicism that believed some impersonal power or force was really running the universe, and that there was a bit of it in everyone. Now when you have a force running a universe you may be able to feel it, or get in touch with it, but you can't have a personal relationship with it, and of course this is a movie without any praying persons. It is a very secular vision of good and evil, and good and evil are always being exercised by sentient beings-- there are not even any angels or demons, only mortals of one sort or another.

And as for the resident philosopher Yoda, he serves up the following message "death is just a natural part of life. You should not grieve or mourn the loss of loved ones." Its all a natural part of this great big impersonal life cycle in the universe. This could hardly be less like a Christian approach to death or mourning for that matter. There is nothing natural about human death. As Paul reminds us in 1 Cor. 15, death is the wages of sin.

I have no problems with sciene fiction, and I have enjoyed much these imaginative Star Wars films have to offer, but Christians should not be beguiled into thinking that these films are value neutral. They are not, and so should be critically sifted. This is all the more important in a post-modern culture where we imbibe and even come to inhabit and imitate the stories we admire. As one wise man, not named Yoda, once said--- "You become, what you admire."


J. B. Hood said...

Has anyone read "The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back" (Peter Jones, I think)? I wonder if the title ties the films and Lucas to Nag Hammadi? But based on what BWiii wrote, it seems as though 'gnosticism' may not be the best description of what's on offer...

Prof Witherington, do you have a handle on NT textbooks available in Russian? (I'm looking for a complete list.)

J. B. Hood

Ben Witherington said...

Hi J.B.:
No Gnosticism is not Lucas' think--- they believed in absolute dichotmoy between good and evil, with matter and all things material being evil.

I do not have such a list of NT books, but you may get one from my former student and current Dean at Moscow Evangelical--- is his address.



J. B. Hood said...

Thank you, Prof Witherington. I'll try to get in touch with him.

J. B. H.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I don't think you've gotten Obi-Wan's comment about absolutes in context. Absolutism, by the way, isn't a contrast with relativism. The opposite of relativism is to say that right and wrong are independent of your own perspective. Absolutism isn't about which people right and wrong are right and wrong for. It's about whether the things that are wrong are wrong in every circumstance. An absolutist thinks lying is always wrong, whereas most people think lying to the Nazis to protect the Jews is ok. That doesn't entail relativism, because lying might still be wrong for everyone in the circumstances when it's wrong, while lying is ok in the circumstances when it's ok no matter the views or cultural background of who might be lying.

As for the context of Obi-Wan, it seemed to me that he was saying Anakin's picture of the world was black and white in the sense of people being against him and for him. He was turning loyalty issues into absolutes, and Obi-Wan didn't think that was accurate. You can be for someone in the sense of caring about him while being against him in terms of the direction he's taking. The Sith don't accept that, because they see any opposition to their goal as opposition to them, because they become identified with their goal of power. They set their own ego and agenda as absolute, and any opposition to any of it makes someone an enemy. That can only be true of God, not of a human in a fallen world, so I don't see why a Christian shouldn't simply agree.

You're right in connecting the Jedi with the Stoics. It's not just in their metaphysics, though. It's also in their ethics. The passions are what they spend so much time avoiding. Every single thing Anakin does that they warn him of (or that they would if they knew about it) has to do with something the Stoics would have called a passion. They do clearly believe that this is the right ethical framework, however, which is evidence that they're not relativists. They don't think the ethical framework of the dark side is ok even from their own perspective. Palpatine, interestingly, does use relativistic thinking to convert Anakin, though I doubt for him that it's more than a rhetorical tool.

Matthew Self said...

Great point, Jeremy. To bring it home, I've had several discussions with friends who have "outed" themselves on me. I've had to explain this changes our relationship, because I am not in support of their lifestyle. Interaction in a spiritual, intimate sense is limited, because they have abandoned their faith, although the how we interact and how often doesn't neccesarily have to change.

This is often interpreted as an absolute, that because I don't support their lifestyle I now don't support or care for them. Nothing could be further from the truth, although from their point of view, it's difficult to distinguish the two.

I think we see a similar misunderstanding play out in the perceived tension between the writings of Paul and Peter/James. If you read one over the other, it's hard not to become swayed and dogmatic about the tug-of-war over faith and works. There is a balance laid out for Christians, and to speak in absolutes that downplays one or the other can shred the whole doctrine, IMO.

brad said...

I tagged you for a book meme..I couln't find an e-mail adress.
21st Century Reformation

Beyond The Rim... said...

>This is often interpreted as an absolute, that because I don't support their lifestyle I now don't support or care for them.

And I believe this is the underlying source of the generalized "homophobic" argument as applied against most Christians because they stand against the "acts". In addition, I believe that now, maybe more than in other periods, people accept as defining "you are what you do." So in essence since what they do is condemned, they are condemned.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Gaddabout, we're thinking alike. I hadn't thought about homosexuality when writing this comment, but it occurred to me as I was writing the post. Then I came back here and saw you saying the same thing. So now we can call that mindset Sith Absolutism.

By the way, the link to the post is here.

John said...

"In addition, I believe that now, maybe more than in other periods, people accept as defining "you are what you do." So in essence since what they do is condemned, they are condemned."

Which is why Christians need to stop focusing on particular sins (like homosexuality) so much and move the dialog back to original sin. We all sin and we are all condemned by it- but that isn't the end of the story.

When we engage in the culture war over this one issue or that, we leave little room for the doctrine of God's grace. But when we get into a general understanding of the pervasiveness of sin, then we can make traction. So even when we discuss specific sins (due to context) we should always connect that dialog back to original sin.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jeremy:

Actually you are wrong if you are talking about ethical absolutes or relatives. I don't know of any Evangelical Christian ethicist who would say lieing is o.k. or morally neutral in some situations. What they might say is that if you lie in some circumnstances it may be the lesser of several evils. That is a very different matter, as it implies a hierarchy of goods and evils and the critical faculty to discern the difference. A person who lies still needs to repent, and ask God's forgivenness even if it is done for a good cause, or is better than the alternative. It is not enough to talk about original sin. You also have to talk about the fallen order of the world, and fallen structures which often put all persons between a rock and a hard place with two bad choices.


Jeremy Pierce said...

In the philosophical literature, there are a number of views, and as I've read through commentaries on Exodus, Joshua, and Samuel on this issue I've seen three major views taken. There's Kaiser's absolutist view, and then there's a second view that sees a hierarchy with moral principles such that if you face a conflict of principles it's worse to break a more important one but wrong to break any. I think this is Geisler's view. Then the third view says that a less fundamental moral principle is just canceled by a more important one if they conflict. W.D. Ross is most associated with this view in philosophy, but I've seen evangelicals defend it.

The view I have in mind is that there is indeed a moral constraint against lying, as there is against killling, but a constraint can be nullified if what's at stake is more important in the hierarchy of moral principles than the constraint against lying (or killing, or whatever). Capital punishment, when administered justly and in a context when it's appropriate, nullifies the constraint against killing. Just war also would. Self-defense might. Protection of others more easily might.

The claim is that they are morally justified and not something to repent of, but that doesn't mean there's no moral consideration. It's just not in effect because of a more important principle that nullifies it in these circumstances. It's important to see that this is not simply utilitarianism, which takes any action with better consequences to be a better action, even if it violates what most people take to be a moral law.

This view says that not just a better consequences can cause this outweighing, but it must dire enough consequences. Most breakings of the law would be wrong. In more extreme circumstances, it might not be. The burden of proof would be on someone who intends to deceive. It's a serious moral commandment, and we should never take it lightly that we're going to be doing something that in most circumstances would be sin. It isn't sin, however, or God would have been commanding Samuel to sin when he told him to lie to the elders of Bethlehem that he was there to perform a sacrifice when he was anointing David.

On this view, repenting for lying when it's justified makes no sense. It would be tantamount to repenting for leaving your light on to deceive criminals. In motivation, both actions are equivalent. You are saying to people that you are home. You just aren't using words. It's not something to repent of, though.

I believe David Howard's NAC Joshua commentary takes just this view, and Bill Arnold's Samuel commentary (NIVAC) takes a very similar view, one that I think is a little more nuanced regarding motivation for the action. Rushdoony also takes this sort of view in his explication of the modern application of the ten commandments.

There are, of course, people on the other side, but you said that no evangelical ethicist takes this view, and I don't think that's correct even if you discount me and most evangelical ethicists who are in philosophy rather than theology (because this is pretty much the standard view among all the evangelical philosophers I know).