Our Theology of Star Wars series also includes essays on Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, and Episode VIII. A free eBook version of the entire series is available here.
After the last words of the iconic opening crawl drift off into deep space, the camera pans down to take in the horizon of the planet below. Suddenly a spaceship races onto the screen, traveling away from us in an attempt to out-pace ensuing blaster fire. Then, it arrives on the scene: another ship, so huge as it enters the frame from above that it dwarfs the first vessel and threatens to obscure the entire planet. Hulking and intimidating, the fittingly named craft is an Imperial Star Destroyer.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope opens with rebels on the run and a towering figure in black on their tail. Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer eventually captures the rebel ship, allowing him to board with his legion of Stormtroopers. The “hope” of the movie’s title may be new, but it’s considerably outgunned.
If A New Hope was a silent film (an appealing prospect, given young Skywalker’s whiny pitch), the imagery alone would convey that this is a story of unlikely heroes overcoming great odds. Consider how frequently Star Destroyers dominate the mise en scène, often by entering and overwhelming the frame. Or, conversely, think of how the robot duo of C-3P0 and R2-D2 register as tiny dots while wandering the widescreen desert landscape of Tatooine. Even the hologram distress message carried by R2 is small: when Princess Leia’s image is projected onto the floor (“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi … You’re my only hope”), it’s only a few inches tall.
Much has been written about the spirituality of Star Wars, especially concerning the mysterious Force that acts as a guiding presence in the universe. But upon an umpteenth revisit of A New Hope, I noticed a theology that was much more tactile. In its use of models and sets, in the composition of its frames and even in the occasional snippet of dialogue (Leia to Luke in disguise: “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”), the movie consistently defines its vision of hope in terms of scale. Hope in Episode IV is almost always placed in direct contrast to overwhelming objects of oppression.
German theologian Jurgen Moltmann described Christian hope somewhat similarly. For Moltmann, our hope could not be separated from our suffering. He saw hope as a crucial tenet of Christianity not simply because it represented our yearning for the new creation, but because it also provided an impetus for contemporary Christian action (rebellion?) in a world still tainted by sin. In his introduction to A Theology of Hope, he wrote that “From first to last, and not merely the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.”
The “hope” of the movie’s title may be new, but it’s considerably outgunned.
Even if Moltmann saw hope as a guiding light, he didn’t describe it as a blazing one. Instead, hope was small, “…the passionate suffering and passionate longing kindled by the Messiah.” It is, in Star Wars’ visual terms, Obi-Wan’s flickering, pale blue lightsaber just before he succumbs to Vader’s strong, red glare. It is something like Luke’s description of his home planet of Tatooine: “If there is a bright center of the universe, you’re on the planet it’s farthest from.” Yet that is precisely the place from which the movie’s hope springs.
In his commentary on Hebrews 11:1, John Calvin notes the role of hope amidst the often overwhelming realities of this world: “We are promised an abundance of all good things, but we are often hungry and thirsty; God proclaims that He will come to us immediately, but seems to be deaf to our cries. What would happen to us if we did not rely on our hope, and if our minds did not emerge above the world out of the midst of darkness through the shining Word of God and by His Spirit?”
Perhaps this is why Episode IV’s climactic explosion of the Death Star at the hand of the Rebel Alliance is so cathartic. A looming orb, the Death Star is so gargantuan and powerful it’s capable of incinerating planets. As the rebel leaders lay out the attack strategy, a pilot scoffs, “What good is a small stunt fighter against that?” Indeed, when Luke and the others approach the Death Star, their X-wing fighters look like tiny mosquitoes in comparison. And in keeping with the film’s thematic sense of scale, the target the rebels must hit is improbably small.
In Romans, Paul speaks of hope not as something massive and assured, but as something barely glimpsed: “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” This is the scale of hope: a flicker in the universe, yet one that nonetheless turns the universe on its head.