Why Post-Christian Fantasy is Inferior to the Real Thing

Thursday , 12, January 2017 15 Comments

Over at First Things, Marc Barnes points out how the spiritual element of Star Wars was retconned away in the prequels:

In the prequels, the Force is a part of the biological world. It is accessed not by the mind or spirit but by microscopic organisms. This view renders the Jedi religion superfluous—one either has a “high midi-chlorian count,” or one does not. The prequels rewrite the Jedi’s disciplined access to the mystical life as something determined by a blood-test.

This secularization of the Force coincides with its most grotesque, irreverent use. The Jedi of the originals were concerned with not using the Force, with the profound need for being “ready” to wield it. Yoda told Luke he will be able to discern the ways of the Force “when you are calm, at peace. Passive.” He restricted its use: “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” He warned that the “quick and easy path” is precisely what makes one an “agent of evil.”

But in the prequels, the Force loses its sacred status and becomes a magic weapon. Yoda—who trained Luke Skywalker by saying “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things”—draws his lightsaber by sucking it from his belt to his hand. He uses the Force to jump higher and fling things at his opponent, while dropping one-liners: “Not if anything to say about it, I have.” The all-pervading life-stuff of the universe becomes a mechanism for heavy-lifting. This is antithetical to Yoda’s original description of the Force, which is an “ally” not because it is a cool weapon, but because it is sacred: “For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” The Force is used so often, and for so many purposes, throughout the prequels—from eating pears to throwing people—that it loses its religious valence and becomes just another technological element: blasters, lightsabers, X-wings, Force.

This isn’t something that happened in isolation. This sort of secularization was at work across genres well before Star Wars transformed the science fiction landscape.

Consider:

  • Vampires were divorced from concepts such as damnation and hell and transformed into sparkly boyfriend material.
  • Evil witches that trafficked with demons were similarly defanged in a move to present them as mere “wise women”.
  • The freaky pagan cults responsible for building things like Stone Henge went from working horrific rites involving human sacrifice to being proto-hippies living in tune with nature.
  • Elves ceased to be inscrutable and inimical to humanity and were recast as effete snobs that differ from us only insofar as they have pointy ears and longer lifespans.
  • Crucifixes ceased to have any inherent power over vampires, elves, and the occult; they were replaced with whatever symbol a protagonist might have strong feelings of nostalgia for.

With spiritual elements removed or watered down, these fantastic creatures are reduced to glorified superheroes. They become less horrific. They instill less wonder. The worlds they live in lose an entire dimension. Worst of all, the people that stand against them face significantly lower stakes.

It’s true. The old style of fantasy produces far better stories. There’s just so much more depth and so much more contrast and so much more to work with! Why would this happen…? Why would fantasy have to be dumbed down like this? It doesn’t make any sense. I mean… you don’t hear a whole lot of people complaining about these things the way you would with old style heroism or romance. And yet, the most iconic elements of fantasy were just as surely bled out of the culture in about the same time period as that other stuff.

Did stories gradually get altered over time as a reflection of a culture that was itself becoming less Christian? Or were the stories revised as a means of instigating such a process? It’s hard to say, really. Either way, the root cause is the same: the very idea of objective evil makes some people uncomfortable. They’d rather see its most extreme depictions edited out of their entertainment rather than entertain the thought that it exists even in imaginary worlds.

15 Comments
  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    A lot of food for thought here; I’ll definitely consider this going forward.

  • PCBushi says:

    This is probably connected to the fact that even we Christians ourselves, in the modern world, are less pious on the whole. I know Christians who don’t believe Satan is real (then is hell?). Seriously. There must be some sense of wonder and dread lost to the imagination when you don’t believe in the possibility of hellfire and damnation.

    • m.tin says:

      it is quite common. Moderns are unable or unwilling to accept the possibility of nonhuman or suprahuman evil influences, and that if they are even willing to accept that good and evil are anything other than “constructs that are molded based on place and time”,

  • DanH says:

    It has gone the other way as well. God/Christ has become the gentle, loving friend that is saddened when we sin instead of the harsh judge that demands we lead a proper moral life as defined by His word and will deny our souls eternal salvation if we fail.

  • Marc is spot-on about the secularization of the West exhausting the creative capital bestowed by Christendom. Thanks for calling this out!

    Where Marc and I diverge is on the old “midi-chlorians demythologized the Force!” complaint.

    He’s right that in the prequels the Force is just another technology. But that’s how it was in the original trilogy, too. They just hand-waved the nuts and bolts away with mystical-sounding dialogue.

    Star Wars and Empire state outright that the Force is an energy field and that it’s created by living things. It was always a really powerful creature; never divine. Lucas’ attempt to have it both ways places the Force among the worst thought out magic systems in SFF.

    If we draw on the rich patrimony of the Christian tradition, we can do better.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      A good comment, Brian. But that lack of explanation added to the Force’s mystique — it felt like something truly unknowable, not a technology.

      Now, though, it’s midichlorians all the way. Too bad.

      • MB Moore says:

        Agreed. There’s actually a lot of literature on how the Force more closely resembles the Tao. I think Lucas–like many young men of his time–was probably into Eastern religions more than Christianity.

        Rawle is right. It felt like the force was a mystical technology. But I think Jeffro is right about one thing: the Force FELT more “mystical” more “spiritual” in the originals than the Prequels.

        • Andy says:

          Lucas has mentioned that he was raised Methodist but became a Buddhist because that’s just how it was in Southern California.

          The really big problem I have with the midichlorians is that they brought quantification into it. Like, if someone is strong with the force because their glucose meter says they have a super high count, does that mean a weak person can become strong by getting a midichlorian transfusion or what…?

  • Michael Maier says:

    Is that pic from “Horror of Dracula”? If so I just watched that for the 1st time last night. Odd coincidence.

    After watching EPI 1, I thought Lucas should have said midichlorians were minor, harmless parasites attracted to and found in high concentrations in powerful Force users. And thus, convenient to measure one’s Force-using potential. Fulfills the need of the plot without really ruining anything.

    But Lucas is an awful story-teller and the luckiest hack in Hollywood history.

    • [] says:

      Or even better, to find that the Jedi of that time were using midichlorians as a crutch because they couldn’t sense the Force anymore, and that the aggressive force miracles they pulled off were all Dark Side.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “Evil witches that trafficked with demons were similarly defanged in a move to present them as mere “wise women”.”

    Back when the Alt-Right DM was on twitter and I was as well I had a secret plan to troll the #DnD hashtag with the spoof class of “Abortion Witch” and to use examples of it from the film Beastmaster which portrayed an “Abortion Witch” as a minion of evil who stole the baby from a pregnant women then contrast it with the mentor herb lady in the third season of Penny Dreadful where the “Abortion Witch” is portrayed as a slightly crotchety old hag with a heart of gold but who ultimately is a victim of cruel ignorant men trying to take her land and who blamed the pregnancies that she was terminating on the men who impregnated them.

    Watching for future incarnations of Witches in culture will be interesting. @JillDomschot pointed out on twitter that Millennials are more pro-life [than] their parent’s generation so I expect the abortion aspect of the character that has creeped into pop culture to disappear but with a growing number of single women breaching past 30 and into the despair of misery with cats for the character to grow more sympathetic, more of a victim, and more popular.

    • m.tin says:

      My own personal favorite, of sorts, is how every negative or downright evil female goddess, demon, or any sort of folklore figure, must be “discovered” to be originally a positive figure or an allegory for matriarchal or wise woman figures that was then perverted and misrepresented by patriarchal Christians… Whenever i read modern work on folklore or watch a documentary with that theme, I automatically know that I will hear something like that the moment they touch some such subject. Not that there are no such genuine cases, but the amount of reaching, poor scholarship and downright distortion is often both sad and darkly hilarious.

  • Rick Stump says:

    The writer’s think they live in a post-Christian world but the world disagrees.

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