In our culture, films have become a place where we wrestle with the big questions of life. Who is God? What gives life meaning? What does it mean to be human? Reel to Real explores the intersection between film and theology, offering thoughtful engagement with an art form capable of conveying deep spiritual truth. Dr. James Read, executive director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg, and Eilis O'Connor, a teenager who aspires to a future in human rights law and politics, reflect on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Dear Eilis,

I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in late December (it had already grossed $1 billion—can you believe it?). I originally planned to see it on opening weekend with my son. He's been a Star Wars fan for a long time. I remember him talking about Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker as a toddler more than 35 years ago. He could spout whole scenes of dialogue, without having seen the movie. If there were action figures back then, we certainly didn't own any. But Star Wars—the original—captured his childhood imagination even without toys or seeing the movie.

I want to come back to that point, and to comparing the original movie with the new one—I want to hear your impressions—but first let me reminisce a bit more.

When I was a kid growing up in The Salvation Army, we didn't go to movies. If anyone asked why, we would have said, “Because movies are worldly.” Nobody talks that way now, do they? You're an astute teenager with a strong sense of values, but I'd guess you've never heard anybody talk about “worldliness.”

It's an important concept if it reminds us that some behaviours and desires are opposed to Christ (which is how the phrase “of the world” is used in parts of the New Testament). Teaching kids to ask if something is worldly points them to the necessary critical question: Despite the fact that something is glittery and lots of people like it, is it actually good?

Unfortunately, the term worldly lost its force because it came to mean rejecting mainstream culture. My generation said, “Just because something is popular doesn't mean it's bad.” There were many movies back in the day that were plain awful from an artistic point of view, and many that were morally bankrupt. But there were also many that were innocent, and some that confronted injustice. Refusing to watch them was more self-righteous than godly.

So I had to resist feeling guilty the first time I watched a movie. But I didn't feel guilty watching the latest Star Wars. I enjoyed it. How about you?


Dear Jim,

I saw the newest Star Wars movie last December, too. I must confess that I hadn't seen any of the other Star Wars films. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. As a feminist, I often have a difficult time watching movies that fall into the action and sci-fi genre. Female actors are frequently relegated to secondary roles that aren't instrumental to plot development, and often seem to be no more than eye candy.
Rey is resourceful, skilled, tough and brave … anything but a helpless damsel in distress

Although I hadn't seen any of the original Star Wars films, I was familiar with the iconic Princess Leia bikini scene. Because of that, I wasn't expecting a whole lot from the series' most recent instalment in terms of non-sexualized female characters. I have never been happier to be proven wrong.

Rey is everything I thought she wouldn't be. She is resourceful, skilled, tough and brave. I won't give any spoilers, but I was overjoyed to see that she is anything but a helpless damsel in distress. Her outfits are practical for maneuvering around a cockpit, not designed for the viewing pleasure of the audience.

You're right—I am somewhat unfamiliar with the concept of worldliness. It's not something you hear a lot of millennials discuss. I do agree that in our materialistic society, it's crucial that we try to rise above the temptation to value only what has a price tag.

It's important to remember that godliness is not a contest. Genuine efforts to prioritize the spiritual over the material can lead to keeping score—which ruins the whole purpose of those efforts, if you ask me. There's nothing worse than someone who boasts about being holier-than-thou, especially since boasting is not a Christlike quality.

The fact of the matter is that the world is a messy, complicated place. That won't change any time soon. In the meantime, I keep in mind that all that glitters is not gold.


Dear Eilis,

You've said some really significant things. Thank you. I especially liked your turn of phrase, “godliness is not a contest.” Our culture seems to prize competition where it's essential that there be losers as well as winners, so what you have said is important and also hard. Not hard to believe so much as hard to be motivated by. Can I really aspire to an excellence that I hope everybody will reach? You've got me thinking.

You've also got me thinking about feminism. There are almost as many strands of feminism as strands of Christianity, so I'm not sure whether a man can be a feminist in your sense of the word. But if it means that women should not be excluded from education or jobs of social significance or having a serious voice in political decision-making, I am absolutely a feminist. One of the reasons I love Laurie, the woman who has been my wife for more than 40 years, is that she has her own ideas and is fully able to challenge mine.

Laurie was not as taken with Star Wars as I was (she's not a sci-fi fan either), and maybe not as impressed with Rey's lightsaber skills. But I think she was pleased that Rey is not just another pretty face. Women have had to fight an uphill battle for equality. I hope the women of your generation are able to build on what previous generations achieved.

Before signing off, I'd like to hear your ideas about “the Force.” I don't want to suggest that Star Wars is a message movie. It isn't. But it does have ideas that propel the storyline, and the Force is one of them.

The Force seems to be some kind of morally neutral cosmic power. Is that right? “May the Force be with you” is a benediction. Unless you have power beyond creaturely limits behind you, you're doomed. But the Force is also with Darth Vader, Kylo Ren and the Stormtroopers. So, the Force isn't necessarily good. Maybe the Force is the sort of thing that the Apostle Paul called “principalities and powers.” Anyway, it isn't God.

At the same time, Star Wars doesn't preach that might makes right. There are powerful villains and powerful good guys. When I was a kid, you could tell who the good cowboys were on TV by the colour of their hats: good cowboys wore white, bad cowboys wore black. That's not the key to Star Wars mythology, however. The white-helmeted Stormtroopers are as evil as the black-helmeted figures. Here the good characters seem to be the ones who wear individually distinguishable coloured costumes. Is that the message? Being starkly black or white is evil; having no individuality is evil; striking out on your own and embracing variety is good? Or is there more?


Dear Jim,

As a Star Wars newbie, so to speak, I'm still wrapping my head around the idea of the Force. There are good characters and bad characters that have the Force, so as you said, it seems to be morally neutral. In the Star Wars universe, is it something creatures are simply born with? I don't know. In the real world, it may be that you are born predisposed to certain character traits, but who you grow up to be largely depends on what kind of environment you grow up in and who your influences are.

In the movies we millennials watch, we can still easily identify who the good guys and bad guys are. While I assume some screenwriters do this for the sake of drawing clear storylines, it doesn't do the audience much good later in life. People don't have the luxury of being sorted into two categories. Even the so-called good people have a less-rosy side to their character. What makes them a good person is how they deal with that part of themselves.

As to whether or not someone can be pure evil—it's hard to say. It would be nice to be able to say no, but I think of people like Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot and wonder if they're the exception. How could these real-life villains have done what they did, if they had even a shred of humanity in them? I suppose we'll never know.


Leave a Comment