Anything Worth Repeating is Worth Repeating: An Orthodox Apologia for Star Wars
(Eds. note: Every once in a while, we invite a friend of Redeemer Church to write a post for our blog in a series we've cleverly titled Friends of Redeemer. Today, we are happy to welcome back our favorite Eastern Orthodox friend, Ryan McLaughlin, who offers up an Eastern Orthodox defense of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Yes, it's as crazy and awesome as it sounds).
“Monastic time truly does lie close to eternity, said Elder Innokenty, but they are not equal. The path of the living, O Amvrosy, cannot be a circle. The path of the living, even if they are monks, has been opened up because, as one might ask, how could there be freedom of will if there is no way out of a vicious circle? And even when we replicate events in prayer, we do not simply recall them. We relive those events once again and they occur once again…
There are events that resemble one another, continued the elder, but opposites are born from that similarity. The Old Testament opens with Adam but the New Testament opens with Christ. The sweetness of the apple that Adam eats turns into the bitterness of the vinegar that Christ drinks. The tree of knowledge leads humanity to death but a cross of wood grants immortality to humanity. Remember, O Amvrosy, that repetitions are granted for our salvation and in order to surmount time.”
~from “Laurus”, by Eugene Vodolazkin (only just translated into English a couple of months ago, and easily the best novel I’ve read in the last 10 years)
WARNING: HEREIN LIE STAR WARS SPOILERS
If there’s one complaint I’ve heard consistently about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s that it copies too much from the original trilogy.
“Sure, the latest installment is a vast improvement over the prequels” (boy ain’t that a low bar to get over…), they’ll say. “The acting was superb—three cheers for newcomer Daisy Ridley and the legendary Harrison Ford, in particular! The cinematography and special effects looked great. John Williams turns in yet another John Williams-level score. But, come on… what we watched was essentially a reboot, right?”
And to be fair, there are a lot of repeated elements. Let’s see: we’ve got an orphan on a desert planet that’s got a rare gift for piloting spacecraft. We’ve got a droid that’s carrying secret information upon which the fate of the galaxy depends. We’ve got a masked villain with a super weapon capable of destroying planets and his rival from the military brass. I could go on…
So is this just lazy storytelling, as one critic put it? Was Abrams just incapable of making a movie that wasn’t totally derivative?
I don’t think so. I highly doubt Abrams would say this, but I couldn’t help but notice a good deal of subconscious patristic theology in the way the narrative was handled…
There is an old theology of the atonement, first expounded by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202 AD) and still widely taught in the Eastern Orthodox Church, called the recapitulation theory. The great Church father Irenaeus argues that part of how Jesus saves us is by recapitulating—that is, repeating the main points—the story of mankind. But because He is the perfect God-Man, when He relives the main points of salvation history, He redeems them.
We might note that the narrative of Jesus’ life in the Gospels does indeed contain a great deal of repetition from Old Testament stories. When we read St. John’s Gospel, our attention is immediately drawn to this: “In the beginning…” it begins, just as the book of Genesis begins with the same words. And Christ recapitulates salvation history from there, repeating many of the main points of the story—but when Christ repeats those main points, He repeats them better.
That is, He fulfills the purpose of the story that the original cast of characters never could because of their sinfulness and human frailty. To give just a few examples:
-When Christ is presented at the Temple, He repeats a custom that the Jewish firstborns that came before Him had all gone through. He also recapitulates the story of God giving the Law to Moses (see Exodus 13). But He does it better! At what other presentation were there prophesies like Simeon’s and Anna’s?
-When Christ is baptized in the river Jordan, in a sense He repeats Israel’s crossing of the Jordan. But He does it better! The Holy Spirit descends upon Him, and God the Father voices His approval.
-When Christ is tempted in the desert by Satan, he walks in the same path that Adam and Eve did—“has God really said…?”—But He does it better! For where our ancestors fell, Christ obeys the Father!
-When Christ dies, His death on a “tree” recalls the tree that Adam and Eve ate fruit from. But by His Resurrection, Christ defeats the death of all of Adam’s descendants!
In his book Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus writes:
“He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam ...the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man [born] of woman who conquered him. ... And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.”
Elsewhere in the same book, the Church father writes:
“[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering ... He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam—namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God—that we might recover in Christ Jesus.”
So how does this relate to Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, maybe I’m a little too predisposed to seeing the redemptive value of repetition to fairly critique a movie that so heavily riffs off an older film. On the vast majority of Sundays, we worship God by following the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which doesn’t change a whole lot from week to week, so I already lean in the direction of approving repetition. But, I can’t help but see a certain heroic framework in this story…
In so many ways, Rey recapitulates the history of Star Wars. In her life, she repeats many of the same points we’ve seen lived out in the older films.
-Yes, she’s yet another orphan surviving on a desert planet. But she’s better at it than the others, isn’t she? She’s got none of Luke’s whiny immaturity from when we first met him in Episode IV.
-Yes, Rey pilots the Millennium Falcon, a perennial fan favorite but a ship we’re lead to believe should have been sold to a galactic junkyard for parts several movies ago. But she’s better at it than either Han or Lando, isn’t she? I mean Abrams basically shows her outsmarting Han at flying his own ship.
-Yes, Rey also escapes captivity from a Death Star…er, I mean, Starkiller Base. But she’s better at it than Leah, isn’t she? I mean, she actually escapes on her own, using those good ol’ Jedi mind tricks and her desert orphan survival instincts.
-Yes, she confronts yet another masked villain in a lightsaber duel. But she does it better, doesn’t she? When she faces off against Kylo Ren, she’s got none of Luke’s arrogance when he eagerly rushes to his battle with Vader in Episode V.
And when she does have that climactic lightsaber duel, we’ve got that moment when the saber is stuck in the snow. And the mind of every Star Wars fan is immediately drawn back to that scene from Episode V, when Luke is hanging upside-down in a wompa cave on the ice planet of Hoth, and trying to call his lightsaber to himself with the Force. But when Rey tries to call Luke’s lightsaber to herself, she’s got competition from a guy who’s trying to recapitulate Darth Vader’s history. And when that lightsaber breaks free and rushes towards Rey, we’re not just seeing a recapitulation of Star Wars…heck, we’re seeing a recapitulation of Arthurian legend, with the sword in the stone only breaking free for its rightful master!
What I am suggesting is that Rey is cut from a heroic archetype that makes a great deal of theological sense to me. The plot of The Force Awakens repeats a bunch of the same plot points from the earlier movies and thus gives Rey the opportunity to fulfill and redeem them. She “commences afresh the long line” of heroes that included Anakin and Luke and the Jedis before them, but so far at least, she seems to be repeating the story in a more fulfilled way then either of them were capable of…
And what I am further suggesting is that, once again, we see that eternity is written in the hearts of men. We’re hardwired, it seems, to be drawn to a certain kind of story that stars a certain kind of hero…
"Remember, O Amvrosy, that repetitions are granted for our salvation..."
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