‘Star Wars:’ The return of the transcendent

(NOTE: The following column is spoiler-free!)

(RNS) “Daddy, he’s real.”

She had seen computer-generated Yoda from the prequels, but upon seeing the actual puppet in “Empire Strikes Back,” Simon Pegg’s daughter couldn’t contain her wonder. When Pegg (who has a cameo in the new film) related this story to J.J. Abrams, the director of “The Force Awakens” used it to convince Disney of his plan to build a huge number of real sets, puppets and costumes.

Indeed, Abrams now introduces Pegg as “the guy whose daughter saved ‘Star Wars.’”

And saved it is. In addition to record-breaking ticket sales, the film has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Abrams has put us back in the reality of Star Wars, a familiar world in which people actually live.

But beyond the wood of the actual sets and flame of the real explosions there is another kind of reality — the reality of the story being told. Instead of the cynical manipulation of trade federations, banking clans, and senators, “The Force Awakens” focuses on people. On family and friendship. On the backstory of unlikely heroes and the human motivations of villains. It focuses on the primordial motifs that George Lucas used in the 70s to create a new mythology.

For many, this mythology evokes a sense of the religious and sacred. Indeed, going to see a new Star Wars movie in the theater, especially in the first 2-3 minutes, is a kind of liturgical experience. There is a thick and reverent silence when “A long time ago, a galaxy far, far away…” fades onto the big screen, and this is followed by cheers and applause when the “Star Wars” title and opening crawl makes its appearance. Said one fan interviewed before seeing the film: “I think it’s going to be an almost religious atmosphere. After all, this is a bit of a sacred experience.”

I can relate. Some of my earliest and happiest memories involve seeing “Empire Strikes Back­,” both with my father in the theater and with my brother on a black-and-white basement TV during countless summer-afternoons. That same brother won a radio contest which bagged us tickets to a special sneak preview of “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. All these experiences were formative in ways that, even now looking back, are difficult to overstate.

Fast-forward fifteen years to 1999 and the release of Episode I. In graduate school at the time, I was something close to desperate to experience that world once again. To feel what it felt like. To learn its lessons. To meet the people who lived there. I even took a job at the local movie theater just to get an employee showing of the film — unable to wait even one more day to return to this world.

But the prequel world wasn’t real. The characters were wooden, cartoonish. The dialogue was terrible. The story was hyper-political and full of heavy-handed cynicism. Like Pegg’s daughter, we knew it was fake.

Abrams has created a film which returns us to the world of “Star Wars.” It is a world in which we are able to connect to the lives and motivations of the people who live there. Indeed, we are drawn into the stories of these people — even the evil ones — hoping against hope for their redemption.

I think this is a big part of what makes it a religious and sacred experience for so many people. “Star Wars” gives us hope for the possibility of redemption and conversion. Of our ability to transcend on current condition or state in life. In the new film, Finn begins as a Stormtrooper, stolen from his family as a young boy, raised and trained to slaughter for the evil First Order. But when it comes time to do the slaughtering, Finn’s transcendent humanity wins out and so begins his journey of redemption.

We obviously saw something similar in the original trilogy with Darth Vader. The same man who Obi-Wan Kenobi described as “more machine now than man, twisted and evil” is redeemed through the love of his son who never ceases in believing that there is still good in his father.

Han Solo also undergoes a redemptive conversion. In the first film he dismisses the Force as a “hokey religion” and insists that “there’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.” But in the new film Han has lost the cynicism and is now a true believer. Interestingly, some of the newer characters in “The Force Awakens” seem to think that Luke Skywalker, the Jedi, and the Force are nothing more than myths. It is Han — the former skeptic — who now insists, “It’s true. All of it.”

On some level, Han is speaking to us as well. We live in a world dominated by disconnected, cynical politicians ruled by big-moneyed special interests. By reductionist scientism which insists that everything about us can be described as nothing more than matter in motion.

But “Star Wars” invites us to recapture a different kind of world. A world in which people transcend politics. A world in which we are “luminous beings. “A world in which stretching out with our feelings, and not cold rationality, is the true path to wisdom. A world in which we can tap the transcendent and awaken a new part of ourselves, beyond “crude matter,” and take our first steps into a larger and more authentic reality.

“Star Wars” is back. And with it, so is the transcendent.

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