Yesterday, I went to see the new Star Wars movie with my family and parents and I loved it every second of it. At the first site of the yellow, scrolling text, I was transported back to 1977, when I was 10 years old, seeing the original for the first time. A moment later, I was lost in a new story with familiar, though older characters.
I saw the original trilogy as it was released, but by the time the prequels came along, I’d moved on and didn’t bother with them. After yesterday, I may have to re-think that decision, especially since my kids, who’ve never seen a Star Wars movie, told me they wanted to watch the first six.
When I say the experience I had yesterday was magical, I’m not using hyperbole. I believe that the ability of one person to fabricate a made-up story in a way so powerful that it causes another person to be transported into that make-believe reality for a even a brief moment is the closest we come to making magic.
It’s no secret that George Lucas based the structure of that first Star Wars film on The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell’s synthesizing of myths from around the world into a cycle that includes a call to adventure, followed by an adventure that involves adversaries, helpers, jokers and heroines.
Of course Star Wars isn’t the only movie to pick up on the structure of the Hero’s Journey, as Campbell called the cycle. That story structure is coded into our DNA, buried deep within the recesses of our subconscious, and one needs to look no farther than stories like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or High Noon or Gone With the Wind to see the cycle at work.
I find it fascinating, though that Campbell connected world mythology (or religion, if you please) to the secular mythos of popular entertainment, for the power of story is just as strong in the form of parable as it is in a story like Schindler’s List or The Killing Fields to hook us emotionally and point us to a deeper truth.
Story always trumps facts, and the great teachers throughout history prove this point. Jesus didn’t argue as the lawyer, parading a progression of facts that proved his point. He told stories that were relatable to everyone, from the mightiest king to the lowliest outcast.
The Soviets and the Nazis understood this, and used propaganda, or storytelling, to reinforce their narratives and rally their respective citizenry to their causes. Because of the potency of story to engage the emotions, it can be used to manipulate large numbers of people. Just look at the way debt has been marketed to Americans over the past 50 years, to the point where we are a nation up to our ears in crippling debt – all because of the power of banks and financiers to hook us emotionally with a narrative that tells us that we deserve better.
Story is like The Force, in Star Wars. It can be used for good or bad.
On the good side, we can always point to a William Shakespeare or an Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King Jr., who said that he had a dream, not a ream of data or a pie chart. It was a dream – a story – that galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
Last week, I had lunch with my cousin Greg, and when I told him of the plans to see Star Wars, he rolled his eyes cynically and said that the Hollywood machine would get none of his money for what he was sure would be a formulaic pile of shit. He’s not the only one to express this sentiment, but after seeing the movie for myself, I can say that he’s wrong. While the movie, like all movies, is designed to separate me from my hard earned money, it’s also a nice escape from the stress and headaches that go into making that hard buck. And at 135 minutes, it’s a bargain compared to other movies, in terms of bang for the buck.
It’s funny, and no coincidence, that just as our churches went from being opulent cathedrals to more utilitarian or even multi-use facilities no too different from warehouses, so too have our movie theatres gone from ornate palaces to functional, cramped spaces that are little more than warehouses with drapery hung on the walls for better sound.
Times are tough, friends, for sacred and secular churches alike, and while the places where we go to hear these stories may have changed, the power of stories to transform our lives is just as potent now as it ever was.
I can’t wait for episode 8 of the Star Wars saga, and while I’m waiting, I can’t wait to go back with my kids and catch up.