Star Wars: Episode I – Making Sense of Midi-chlorians

Donna Bowman

Our Theology of Star Wars series also includes essays on Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, and Episode VIII. A free eBook version of the entire series is available here.

If there was a Spectrum of Awesomeness for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, it would run from Darth Maul on one end (awesome) to Jar Jar Binks on the other (crime against humanity). Most fans would put midi-chlorians—the blood-borne symbiotes that mediate the Force in all living creatures—somewhere on the Jar Jar end of things. We first learn of midi-chlorians when Qui-Gon Jinn finds young Anakin Skywalker pod racing with the help of the Force. On the evidence of a blood sample, Qui-Gon reports to the Jedi Council that Anakin’s midi-chlorian count is off the charts, the highest ever recorded. More midi-chlorians, more access to the Force.

This explanation of Force-wielding talent strikes many fans as unnecessary, at best, and uncomfortably reminiscent of Nazi Aryanism at worst. Pure blood, strong blood, elite blood—the idea that access to power comes through something in one’s biology troubles us deeply. In one sense, midi-chlorians are merely a scientific facade for a near-universal element of the mythic “hero’s journey—the Chosen One. We find these Chosen Ones everywhere there’s a quest to be undertaken and a world to save. Often, they do not choose themselves; some force—ancient prophecy, galactic guardians, miraculous ancestry—marks them for greatness. The world of myth is not a meritocracy. Its heroes are born to their fame and fate; our role is to recognize and facilitate their singular effort. We are not the one we are all waiting for, and the proof is in our pedestrian blood.

The pesky American ideal of opportunity, where anybody can grow up to be president, doesn’t square easily with this archetype. In popular Christian theology, too, we treasure the idea that the great heroes of the faith—such as Jesus’ disciples, plucked from their fishing boats—were ordinary Joes before they said yes to the call, and only thereafter were empowered with grace. But John Calvin found this notion offensive. For him, God’s election of individuals could have nothing to do with rewarding their willing assent or even recognizing their potential. Instead, it could only be the present consequence of a divine pleasure which, before time began, marked them for a specific fate.

But the idea that having a concentrated substance in your blood could make you spiritually gifted runs counter to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel as a pathway to Gentile inclusion in the family of God. We who do not have the blood of Abraham in our veins, nevertheless through adoption become brothers and sisters of God’s only-begotten.

Midi-chlorians reveal a deeply conflicted attitude toward egalitarian values and structures.

Of course, Paul recognizes that people do have special talents, which he describes as spiritual gifts, bestowed diversely on the redeemed to equip them for the various labors of the divine mission. He insists, however, that the gifts are not hierarchical, railing (perhaps futilely) against churches where possessing particular gifts bestows “Chosen One” status. Our democratic sensibilities agree, at least in principle. We prefer to see difference in talent as special graces, not inherent differences that separate us at birth.

Say what you like about the missteps of the Star Wars prequels, but one virtue is undeniable. As works over which George Lucas exercised total creative control, they function as a crystalline window into their creator’s imagination. And what the midi-chlorians reveal is a deeply conflicted attitude toward egalitarian values and structures. Everyone lives by the power of the Force, but sensitivity to it and the channeling of it are not available to all. The midi-chlorians mediate the Force to all living things, but some get more of them—and therefore more of it—than others. Christian theology wrestles with this same irritating tension between our equality in an existential situation—standing before a just but merciful God—and the temptation to view some of us as better equipped to handle that situation than others. Ascribing Chosen One status to Jesus, for example, or the heroic apostles in Acts, has the Docetic effect of guaranteeing their mythic triumph and downplaying their human frailty.

That’s where Lucas could still surprise us, though. Qui-Gon seems to have been wrong to trust in the midi-chlorians as a signpost to the Chosen One. Anakin will not bring balance to the Force, at least not directly. Maybe the heroes who emerge in the final trilogy will acquire their talents and exhibit their election in a way that sheds a different light on these much-mocked midi-chlorians.

Topics: Movies