“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: