STAR WARS BETWEEN MYTH AND GOSPEL

“The original idea was a story, ultimately of salvation, of revealing that the villain is actually the hero.” – George Lucas, in an interview on the occasion of the AFI Life Achievement Award.

The goal of the following video essay is to highlight the difference between Joseph Campbell’s reading of myths and René Girard’s reading of myths, as well as their different understanding of the Gospel.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is inspired by Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), among others. He understands the Gospel as one more example of a myth. According to him, myths are essentially about a dying and resurrecting “monstrous hero-god”, whose necessary and inevitable violent sacrifice establishes an ever provisional peace and order. Moreover, Joseph Campbell believes that such hero myths exemplify inescapable dynamics working in human life and culture, at an individual as well as a collective level.

René Girard (1923-2015), on the other hand, understands the Gospel as a radical criticism of the violent sacrificial structure that is justified by traditional hero myths. The Gospel takes the universal mythological pattern, only to uncover from within its dependency on the lie of the scapegoat mechanism. In contrast to Joseph Campbell, René Girard shows how the Gospel undermines the idea of violence as an inevitable “transcendent” force that governs human culture. The Gospel shows that violence is human, not divine.

The way the following video essay highlights the similarities and differences between Joseph Campbell and René Girard, is by analyzing the first six episodes of the Star Wars movie saga. As is well-known, Star Wars creator George Lucas was heavily inspired by his eventual mentor Joseph Campbell in the final conception of the Star Wars story.

Understood as a “mythological tragedy”, it will become clear that Star Wars revolves around the similarities and radical differences between Myth and Gospel, between the Sacrifice of the Mythological Hero and the Sacrifice of Christ.

Joseph Campbell and René Girard both turn out to be indispensable, brilliant guides in uncovering “the magic of myth”. 

Watch the video below (or click to watch a pdf of the video here):

Star Wars

To conclude, here are some excerpts from interviews with George Lucas where he exposes some of the ideas that formed the background for Star Wars:

From an interview with Ty Burr for The Boston Globe (25 October 2005):

GEORGE LUCAS: There’s absolutely no conflict between Darwinism and God’s design for the universe – if you believe that it’s God’s design. The problem for me is that I see a very big difference between the Bible and God. And the problem they’re getting into now is that they’re trying to understand intelligent design through the Bible, not through God. Our job is to find all the “intelligent design,” and figure out how He did everything, and I think that’s consistent with science.

All we’re doing in our own fumbly, bumbly, human way with our inadequate little brains is trying to figure out what He did. And once we figure it out, we say “Ooh, that’s great!” And then we just continue on. Will we ever figure out everything? I don’t know. There’ll always be that faith there that there’s something more to figure out.

TY BURR: When you’re in there creating the nitty-gritty of the “Star Wars” universe, figuring out how an inhabitant of a given planet might evolve a given way, do you feel like you’re playing god?

GL: Well, I started out in anthropology, so to me how society works, how people put themselves together and make things work, has always been a big interest. Which is where mythology comes from, where religion comes from, where social structure comes from. Why are these things created? Now we’re getting into more of the social sciences side of the things, but the biological side is starting to float into that. I’m looking forward to the evolution of neuro-anthropology, because I want to see our genes affect how we build our social systems, how we develop our belief systems in terms of our social beliefs and cultural beliefs. We’re at an exciting time.

TB: What’s neuro-anthropology? I’m not familiar with the term.

GL: It doesn’t exist. [laughs] It’s sort of an extension of neuropsychology, which does exist. But the next step is neuro-anthropology.

TB: The nervous systems of social groups?

GL: Yeah. A friend of mine is writing a book on the social interactions of people based on brain research and how the way we interact with other people is affected by the development of our brains in terms of how the synapses and neurons work. You know, like how married couples influence each other just on a neurological level. What I’m interested in is what happens when you take that to the next level. How do the social institutions reflect the neural activity of the individuals. But that’s an outgrowth of how, in the case of “Star Wars,” I’ve taken psychological motifs from 4,000-year-old stories and put them into a modern vernacular. The reason they worked then is that they were told verbally over and over and over and handed down from father to son. Because they were tested by an audience for thousands of years, they have a certain emotional integrity to them, and you can take those little modules and stick them into a story as they are. They work well because emotionally we have not shifted all that much in the last 4,000 years, whereas intellectually we have.

TB: Are you saying that motifs like the lone hero coming to grips with his father are encoded into our cultural DNA?

GL: I see mythology as a kind of archeological psychology, in which you take psychological fossils that sit in our brain and test to see if they’re still working.

TB: Does your penchant for painting detailed pictures of entire societies come from these interests?

GL: Yes. Also, I love history, so while the psychological basis of “Star Wars” is mythological, the political and social bases are historical. I like to take things and strip them down, then use the model and build a different story on it. You can put in a motif of Saturday-afternoon serials to make it relevant to kids of today, but the political situation of the Empire and the Republic — that’s a scenario that’s been played out thousands of times over the years and that never seems to change much.

I had an interesting discussion when I was doing publicity in Europe for the final “Star Wars” movie. I was sitting around with a dozen reporters, and the Russian correspondents all thought the film was about Russian politics, and the Americans all thought it was about Bush. And I said, “Well, it’s really based on Rome. And on the French Revolution and Bonaparte.” It’s shocking that these things get repeated through history. The same mistakes get made and the tension between democracy and tyranny is always the same. And we haven’t figured out any way around it.

From an interview with James Cameron (in his series Story of Science Fiction, 2018), wherein George Lucas makes some claims that might sound “scandalous” in some ears: the “good” Jedi of the Star Wars movie saga are compared to “terrorists”. Lucas talks about the Viet Cong, while Cameron even mentions the Mujaheddin. The dialogue, in other words, points to the underlying similarities between adverseries in what René Girard would call “mimetic rivalry” (rivalry based on imitation):

“The original idea was a story, ultimately of salvation, of revealing that the villain is actually the hero.” – George Lucas, in an interview on the occasion of the AFI Life Achievement Award:

 

Man MAKING UP and MADE UP BY Mimetic Stories

Some stories are more true than others. This statement runs the risk of being loaded so much with criticisms by postmodern epistemologies that it might ultimately be abandoned, destined to become a lone voice crying in the wilderness of supposedly interchangeable cultural narratives. And yet the idea that there are different degrees of truth in storytelling is one of the major claims made by René Girard’s so-called mimetic theory. His work basically explores two sides of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture.

First, human beings make up stories for a number of reasons. On a formal level, however, this make-up seems to maintain some general characteristics, regardless of the specific contexts in which it appears. As a mimesis of reality storytelling always relates to actual events with different degrees of interconnectedness. Stories can represent actual events, can represent a fictional situation that shows what potentially happens in the actual world, or can represent a fictional situation whose fictitious character is realized precisely because it exceeds the limits of what could happen in the actual world. Each representation reveals its own character in a comparison with the actual world. From this comparison we may conclude in what sense a certain representation is true. In any case, every narrative representation always also includes, as a mimesis of reality, a distance from reality. No story is reality itself (outside the story). One of the questions that could be addressed is how and to what extent this distance can be considered positive or negative.

C.S. Lewis on Myth

It should be stressed that the acute awareness of a distance, or even a divide, between different representations of reality and reality itself is not as old as humanity itself. It probably coincides with the birth of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. From that time onwards, the cultural experience of reality becomes an issue. Whereas in archaic cultures man seems to mainly consider himself as a receiver or transmitter of truthful stories forged by sacred powers (great ancestors, spirits or gods), in Western culture man begins to discover himself as the author of stories (and gradually as a historical being). This also means that he becomes more aware of his potential to deceive others. Hence traditional stories, as they are told by man, should not necessarily be considered true anymore. Those stories become unreliable myths, while the search for truth becomes the quest for a language that uncovers reality from behind particular cultural deceptions.

The shift from a mythological to a philosophical worldview thus is twofold:

  • In mythological cultures stories represent the subject of meaningful speech, while man is the object that is spoken to. In other words, man is shaped by the stories of his culture. In post-mythological cultures man gradually becomes the subject of meaning, while stories become objects of inquiry. In other words, man shapes the stories of his culture.
  • In mythological cultures truth is only accessible to man insofar as sacred powers don’t trick him and grant him knowledge and truth. In post-mythological cultures man himself becomes capable of and responsible for gaining knowledge and truth.

The pinnacle of the belief that there is a culturally independent, universal language for accessing an objective truth is reached in the Age of Enlightenment. Of course, as is known, that universal language is provided by a so-called transcendent reason and the modern scientific method. Today, however, there is a well-established tradition in the humanities where the enlightened reason is believed to have overstepped itself. Enlightened reason not only claimed objectivity regarding the explanation of the natural world, but also regarding the justification and evaluation of cultural values, which became highly problematic on the political level. For indeed, by reducing reality to a so-called objective and inevitable truth, modern political ideologies like fascism and communism became violent totalitarianisms. One could say that, in these contexts, reason became violently unreasonable in ‘forgetting’ that it doesn’t escape being embedded in a cultural narrative as well (a ‘made up’ story).

The unprecedented scale of the violence of modern political ideologies in a paradoxical way reveals the second side of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture. Cultural narratives serve as an attempt to escape social disintegration by distinguishing so-called justified sacrificial violence from so-called unjustified escalating violence. This is essentially René Girard’s definition of myth.

René Girard on Myth

In other words, cultural narratives contain violence. They keep violence in check… by violent means. From the perspective of Girard’s mimetic theory, modern totalitarianisms therefore can be interpreted as failed myths. They were stories that could not ‘make up’ human beings, meaning that they produced more violence than that they provided human beings with protections against violence. Exactly why this kind of mythmaking increasingly fails in the course of history is yet another issue that could be explored.

In short, man and his culture are not only the cause of potential mimetic representations of reality, they are also the result of mimetic dynamics represented in mythic storytelling. As René Girard shows, mythic representations exteriorize the potentially violent nature of those mimetic dynamics (violence in this context is understood as a possible outcome of mimetic desire). This exteriorization at the same time is a kind of exorcism of uncontrollable violence. Through myths man claims to ‘know’ which habits, desires and creatures are taboo or should be ritually sacrificed in order to prevent (social) chaos. The cultural order thus not only produces sacrificial violence, it is itself also the product of such violence; it is the result of violence ‘kept in check’.

René Girard on Tomb as First Cultural Symbol

Today, however, we find ourselves confronted with the opportunity to be highly suspicious of whatever cultural justification (i.e. myth) for taboos or sacrifices. According to René Girard, Judeo-Christian tradition especially revealed archaic cultural justifications as part of a scapegoat mechanism. Cultural justifications, in other words, were discovered as at least partly blaming the wrong phenomena for certain events. In this sense, Judeo-Christian tradition hurts the ‘ego’ or narcissistic identity of any cultural order, insofar as this order is maintained through scapegoat mechanisms. It is perhaps possible to understand and examine the heritage of Judeo-Christian spirituality, and other spiritual traditions, as a criticism of individual and collective narcissism (as this narcissism is shaped by particular cultures and preserved by their narratives). I would like to show that a spiritual realm of forgiveness allows for individual self-honesty as an epistemic device for truth, as it also allows for freedom and responsibility beyond guilt. If man acknowledges his initial vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of what happens beyond his control, he might neither punish himself nor others to regain power over a certain situation. Instead, he might start looking for the real causes of what happened and no longer exteriorize his fears and frustrations as entities apart from him.

Finally, in this regard it could be investigated how stories can function as ‘safeguards of transcendence’. This could be a major concern. In other words, the question could be how stories do not get locked up in themselves as a kind of tautological reduction of reality (a deviated transcendence). The history of science-fiction stories, and especially the influence of the graphic novel Watchmen as a ‘meta-story’, might be a good way to address this issue. More specifically those stories, under certain circumstances, might help to transform (physically or mentally) violent sacrifice into non-violent sacrifice (a concept that could be developed).

As for now, it seems there are two major pitfalls in storytelling. On the one hand, there is the temptation of using modern technical reason and the scientific method to establish a totalitarian story of universalism wherein individuality is defined within limits relevant to a system of ‘technical management’ (politically speaking this is the temptation of a communist or neo-liberal globalism). On the other hand, there is the temptation of making truth wholly relative of individual particularities and thus establish a totalitarian story of particularism (politically speaking this is the temptation of nationalism). This totalitarian particularism refuses to acknowledge the sameness with others and therefore, paradoxically, excludes otherness. In this context, it would be interesting to bring scientific insights into mimetic processes to the table and also explore what happens when these processes are denied.

 

 

 

Mythical Thinking after 9/11

René Girard is among those scholars who like to point to the similarities between myths from around the globe. In this regard his work follows in the footsteps of people like James Frazer, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. Girard’s explanation of the source of mythological structures and motives, however, is quite different from the approaches of his colleagues. Girard maintains that the archetypal mythological pattern is eventually rooted in a so-called scapegoat mechanism, following a typical ritualistic pattern that is rooted in the same mechanism (for more on this, click here).

Aztec human sacrificeMyths can be considered as tales which contain the worldview of a culture, transmitting from generation to generation the belief that certain phenomena (from certain things to certain persons and acts) are sacred or belong to the gods. Traditionally, the realm of the gods or the sacred is also the realm of violence. If the sacred order of things is not respected or approached in a proper (i.e. ritualistic) way it brings about violent chaos, diseases, death and destruction in the (human) world. Next to connecting chaotic situations to the realm of the sacred (portraying chaos as “the wrath of god(s)” or “bad karma”), myths also contain messages on how to transform sacred disorder into sacred order. Following René Girard, myths can thus be understood, more specifically, as justifications of certain taboos and of certain types of sacrifice which should help to conserve or renew order in the world.

In short, according to René Girard, mythical thinking consists in connecting violent mayhem, natural disasters and contagious diseases to “god(s)” or “a sacred realm”. As such, violent mayhem etc. are explained as necessary moments of disorder from which a new order is generated. This never ending mythical cycle of “disorder – order – disorder – order – …” at the same time often functions as justification of the sacrifice of certain people whose death should bring about order.

A comparison between some ancient myths and contemporary interpretations of today’s international terrorism makes clear that mythical thinking as Girard understands it is on the rise again, especially in an eschatological sense and also in secular circles that hold on to a naïve version of the myth of human progress. Just take a look at the schematic presentation below presenting the mythical structure, time and again… (for more on the sexist implications of many myths, click here).

A) The Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods

Prometheus Gustave Moreau1) A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Fire belongs to the gods and is considered TABOO

2) (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Prometheus steals the fire from the gods

3) Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Prometheus is banned to the Caucasus mountains, where he is chained and tortured

4) GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

B) The Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realmsAdam and Eve driven out of Eden by Gustave Dore (1866)
=> Fruits of the Tree of Knowledge belong to God and are considered TABOO

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Adam and Eve “eat from the forbidden fruit”
[from a comparison with the Song of Songs: this is a transgression of the taboo on sex]

• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Adam and Eve are banned from Eden and have to accept a life with suffering and death

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

C) The Greek myth of Oedipus

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Killing the “father-king” and taking the “mother-queen” is considered TABOO
[Note: “thanatos” and “eros” motif]

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Oedipus kills his father, the king, and marries his mother, the queen and allegedly causes a plague in the city of Thebes

Oedipus stabs out his eyes• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Oedipus stabs out his eyes and goes into exile

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

D) A religious fundamentalist mythical interpretation of 9/11 (“end times”)

(Jerry Falwell & Pat Robertson)

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Types of relationships which differ from the “traditional”, patriarchal family are TABOO

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Feminists, gays, lesbians and other “liberals” challenge the patriarchal family structure

• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Two days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two evangelicals, shared their “theological” views on the terrorist violence (transcript from the 700 club, a well-known evangelical television program in the States – September 13, 2001). Especially these comments are telling (for more, watch the video below the transcripts):
survivors of 9-11 attacksJERRY FALWELL: The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this.
PAT ROBERTSON: Well yes.
JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur…

In other words, 9/11 is interpreted as an unavoidable SACRIFICE, sanctioned by God; it is “the wrath of God” caused by people who keep on transgressing “sacred” laws and taboos. This sacrifice manifests itself in a twofold manner: the autoaggression of the terrorists’ suicide implies the heteroaggression against the victims in the planes and the twin towers.

Conclusion: “Secularists” or “the secularist lifestyle” (as Falwell and Robertson understand this – which corresponds to the Islamic fundamentalists’ notion of “the satanic West”) should be abandoned or banned.

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

To conclude this post, I’d like to mention an article by John Gray on the book The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn. Gray points to the eschatological myths of religious and secular political ideologies, from Christian Millenarianism (especially in today’s context we might think of Islamic Millenarianism as well) to Nazism and Communism. All these ideologies have justified sacrifices and massacres to bring about a new world order, a “paradise” – hence every utopia turns into dystopia… At the end of his article, Gray also warns for new versions of the eschatological myth in “liberal humanism”:

There is a line of reasoning which accepts that totalitarian ideologies were shaped by apocalyptic and utopian thinking, while insisting that liberal humanism is entirely different. They – the Nazis and communists – may have been deluded and irrational; we – enlightened meliorists – have purged our minds of myth. In fact, the belief in progress in ethics and politics, which animates liberal rationalism, is itself a myth: a view of history as a process of redemption without the Christian belief in a single transforming event, but nonetheless a faith-based narrative of human salvation. It is obvious that human life can sometimes be improved. Equally, however, such gains are normally lost in the course of time. The idea that history is a process of amelioration is an article of faith, not the result of observation or reasoning.

Reading Cohn will not lead secular thinkers to relinquish their cherished myths. The need to believe in them is far more powerful than intellectual curiosity. But, for those who want to understand the origins of the conflicts of the past century and the present time, The Pursuit of the Millennium may be, as it was for me, a life-changing book.

Considering all this, we might want to rethink the concept of “eschatological battle” as a struggle we have to face within ourselves, in the depths of our soul… The true fight is a spiritual one, as we are converted from our human violence (and all our man-made gods, idols and ideologies justifying that violence) to the absolute non-violence of the God of Love, The Merciful One… 

The challenge is to build an order and a “peace” that is not built on the violence of sacrifices, but to build a peace that allows for “non-violent conflicts…” (a “non-totalitarian peace”).