Is Religion Dying?

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Pop culture. What is it? Here's a definition:

"Its culture (ideas, music, films, books, mass media) based on the popular tastes of ordinary people rather than the highbrow ideas of an educated elite."

That is pop culture. By its very definition it is popular, it has mass appeal and therefore loads of people think about it, talk about it and more significantly the way they view the world and behave in it is influenced by it. And the point of this short series, over the next few weeks, is to acknowledge that and to try and critique certain current expressions of popular culture from a biblical worldview. Our starting point is that popular culture contains what theologian Ted Turnau describes as

"a messy mixture of both grace and idolatry".

And so, what we actually see woven into movies, songs, TV programmes and so on are 'fragments of grace'. But because they are fragments they are incomplete… and because they are incomplete they often get warped or twisted as they try and make sense of things they don't fully understand. So, we've got three recent examples to consider. And what we're going to try to do with each is to identify the 'fragments of grace' – what's good and true; to identify the issues of idolatry – what's not so good and false; and then suggest how we can apply the gospel – how can we draw the lines to Jesus in any conversations we may have with non-Christians? And we begin this week

"a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away"

with the latest instalment from one of the most successful film franchises ever. Star Wars isn't just a series of films or toys. It has been described as "an almost atmospheric part of modern day global popular culture". And I don't think it's an overstatement to say that. Even if you've never seen a film or played with a toy there's a good chance that you made the connection to Star Wars from those words I just uttered… "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." There's a good chance that you've heard of the Force, the Jedi, a lightsabre, and you recognise the names of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker – even if you don't quite know how they're related! Such is the popular cultural impact of these films. The first one was released in 1977. There was an original trilogy, then a prequel trilogy and now a sequel trilogy! It's estimated the profit from all the films and merchandising is a staggering $42billion – it is hugely successful in those terms. Here's the trailer, for the latest instalment – The Last Jedi, recently out on DVD. Take a look at this.

There are literally hundreds of entry points to a gospel conversation from any Star Wars film – I want to just raise four of the most obvious that come from The Last Jedi. I'm casting each one as a question based on one of those quotes in that trailer. Here's the first:

1. Who's in Charge? "This is not going to go the way you think!"

Luke Skywalker states, "This is not going to go the way you think!" and for fans of the Star Wars universe eagerly anticipating this movie, his comment proved to prophetic. The film did not go the way most people thought it would. So, even before we get into drawing lines from the film itself, we need to understand that one of its biggest talking points is the controversy surrounding it. The Last Jedi has spilt audiences from top to bottom. Some loved it. Some hated it. Why? Because in many different ways it broke the mould of all the pervious Star Wars films – in dialogue, humour, in people's understanding of key themes and characters… and so on. There are websites and blogs and vlogs too numerous to mention all bemoaning that this shouldn't happen or that shouldn't happen.

The focus of their anger? The film's director Rian Johnson and the parent company Disney. The issue seems to me to be one of control and authority. Who has the authority to make creative decisions? Previously of course it was Star Wars' creator and first director, George Lucas. But he sold the franchise to Disney in 2012 and they immediately began to make decisions about what was official and unofficial in the Star Wars universe. It has upset the faithful big time and they have rebelled. Star Wars fans have a long history of rebellion. They rebelled against the Creator's second trilogy between 1999 and 2005. They're doing it again now. And a great question we can ask into this seemingly trivial debate is this: Who's in charge? You know, when it comes to Star Wars, surely the creator and owner have some say. Who are the fans to tell the Creator of this whole universe what he should and shouldn't be doing? You see where I'm going with this? It's an issue of ownership and authority. Isaiah 45.9:

"Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, 'What are you making?' or 'Your work has no handles'?"

The created, or indeed fans of the created, have no right to critique the creator. And so, I'd want to say something like 'Star Wars is great and fun and exciting, but have you ever thought about a much more significant story. Who's in charge of you? Who created you? Who has authority over your life? You know the big claim of the Bible is that there is a Creator who has been rebelled against. But he still loves his creation and wants what's best for them. That's why He has revealed himself through his son, Jesus and through the pages of his word the Bible… In fact, the Bible is trustworthy. God will never contradict his word, the way some people think Johnson and Disney have played fast and loose with Star Wars.' Do you see how that could work? But not only do we tell others that God's word is trustworthy… we need to remember that ourselves as we critique popular culture. It is the lens through which we need to look at everything else. It helps us to make sense of things. It helps us discern what is good and right and pure. 2 Timothy 3.16-17 says this:

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."

Who's in charge? God says, 'I am, and as your owner and creator I've got a much better story in mind for you and its recorded in my trustworthy word.' Here's our second question:

2. Is Religion Dying? "Let the past die. Kill it if you have to."

A recurring theme throughout The Last Jedi can be summed up in a line from Kylo Ren (who is basically the new Darth Vader figure in this trilogy). He says to Rey,

"Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That's the only way to become what you were meant to be."

For Kylo Ren, this means destroying everything and starting over from scratch. He has no particular attachment to either the evil First Order or the good Resistance – he believes both could be annihilated to start something new. This same theme is also connected to the Jedi Order. Luke Skywalker, has turned his back on his religion, disillusioned by his own failures, his own pride and inability to stop evil remerging in the galaxy. He's become a recluse who's come to the realization that it would be better if he died, the sacred texts burnt, and the Jedi ended - possibly bringing peace to the galaxy.

So, is this a good thing or a bad thing? What are the fragments of grace here? Well, God in his word puts a big emphasis on dying to harmful behaviours and sinful habits. Paul writes to the Ephesian church (Ephesians 4.22-24):

"put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and … be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and … put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."

In this sense, yes, we should 'let the past die – if necessary we should kill the old self' as we become the people God means us to be. On the other hand, though, there is a very real idolatry here, which has gathered much traction in our modern world and we need to be wary of it. You see, current conventional wisdom goes something like this: 'Religion is a thing of the past. We have science now. There's no need for religion. Let it die. Kill it if you have to.' But actually, we're all religious - we all believe and trust in someone, whether it's God, a counterfeit god, a person or ourselves. Everyone trusts functionally in someone. We always have. The question is: 'are we believing and trusting in the right source?' I think this is what Paul was driving at in our reading from Acts. In that passage he arrives in Athens, has a good look around and observes the ways that people are religious. Then (Acts 17.22) …

"standing in the midst of the [council of the] Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious."

You see, he's looked around and he's seen the objects of people's worship – this god, that god, they've even covered all their bases and made an altar to an unknown god! And Paul says 'aha – let me tell you about God. He's the true source of religion. He's the only one worthy of your worship.'

And contrary to popular opinion, there is much worth preserving in this world. Especially when it comes to truth. That's why God, in his word, places a big emphasis on holding on to good traditions of the past. Paul again, this time in his second letter to the church in Thessalonica (2 Thessalonians 2.15):

"So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter."

You see the better story to tell here, is that true religion will never die. I'd want to be able to say to people in conversation true religion can never die – so identify and kill what is bad but keep and preserve what is good and brings life. Here's another question that the Last Jedi raises:

3. Is There More to Life Than We Can See? "Something inside me has always been there."

These words are uttered by Rey, one of the two young protagonists in these new films:

"Something inside me has always been there, but now it's awake and I need help."

Of course something inside you has always been there Rey - God has seen to it. Do you want to know what it is? He tells us in his Word. Here's the fragment of grace - Ecclesiastes 3.11:

"he has put eternity into man's heart"

This notion, this idea, of 'eternity' is in each of us. And George Lucas particularly wanted young people to engage with it and ask the question – 'is there more to life?' He's to be commended for that! That's the fragment of grace. Unfortunately, though, Lucas misfired with his own conclusions about God. This is what he said in an interview with time magazine in 1999:

"I don't see Star Wars as profoundly religious. I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distil them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct - that there is a greater mystery out there. I remember when I was 10 years old, I asked my mother, "If there's only one God, why are there so many religions?" I've been pondering that question ever since, and the conclusion I've come to is that all the religions are true."

That's a common worldview, isn't it? All religions are different paths up the same mountain. And so, for Lucas, the idea of God finds expression in the Force – an unseen energy field created by all living things. It surrounds the characters, penetrates them, and binds the galaxy together.

This is where Christians watching Star Wars need to be so discerning. The Force is Star Wars' main area of idolatry – based as it is in false, eastern, pantheism. Pantheism is this worldview where all living things are essentially one and connected in that oneness – including God. And sadly, I've heard some Christians, myself included when I was younger, compare the Holy Spirit with the Force. That's not a helpful thing to do. Much better to contrast the Holy Spirit with the force and thereby show why he is a better story. Let me just briefly offer a few contrasts to that end.

  • First, the Force is an impersonal energy field, but the Holy Spirit is a person! Relatable, loving, intelligent. The third person of the loving trinity of a pure, almighty God!
  • Second, the Force is made up of all living things in the universe, but the Holy Spirit isn't. He's an eternal being who was involved in creating the universe from nothing! Not being part of it in that sense. So that means he has an authority and purpose and role apart from the creation we see – and can exist apart from it.
  • Third, the Force can be manipulated by Jedi and Sith. Not the Holy Spirit. None of us can bend God to our will or desire – instead He leads, influences, teaches and provides power for Christians to live faithfully.
  • Finally, and most obviously the Force has a good side and a dark side. Not the Holy Spirit. He is pure and good and holy and there is nothing bad in him whatsoever!

I don't know about you – but those are the lines I want to draw. 'I mean the Force is cool and all that. But at their heart these films show the futility of such a power if it were real. It can be abused and manipulated for selfish ends (indeed that's the conclusion Luke Skywalker has come to in this film). So, let me tell you a different story about a loving Creator who exists outside all of this.' Is there more to life than we can see? Yes! But it's not the force. That's what makes our last question all the more relevant. Because we need to help people understand what their place is in all this! Here's Rey again. She who has asked for help. This was the last line in the trailer: "I need someone to help me find my place in all of this." This is our last suggested question:

4. What's Your Place in All This? "I need someone to help me find my place in all of this."

This actually is the main thrust of this trilogy of Star Wars films. Who is Rey? Where has she come from? What is her purpose? What is she supposed to do with this awakening? Will she be seduced by Kylo Ren and the dark side or will she take up the mantle and stand frim and fight for what is right, true and good. The scenes between her and Kylo Ren are some of the best in any Star Wars film and are really what make the film for me. I don't think there is an easier link to the better story of the gospel of the Jesus. Is this not the question of our life saga?

Who are we? Where have we come from? Do we have purpose? Or to quote Glen Scrivener:

"are we insignificant beings clinging to an insignificant rock, hurtling through a meaningless universe towards eternal extinction?"

No we're not! This is the better story of the gospel that we need to learn to tell. We were lovingly and carefully created for an incredible existence with our Creator. He calls us to come. He wants us to follow and he will give us:

  • Life: "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." (John 10.10),
  • Rest: "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11.28)
  • Hope: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3.16)

And of course, once you come to Jesus and follow him – through repentance and faith – you take your place, helping to fulfil the most important mission in the whole galaxy! You want to know your place in all this? Answer: Jesus told his disciples to (Matthew 28.19-20):

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…"

Your place in all this, friend, is one of eternal significance as you join the Creator of the heavens and the earth in making more disciples. And I love the way Matthew's gospel finishes. Jesus says (v.20):

"… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

We don't need to ask him to be with us. We don't need to hope he'll be with us. He has promised to be! That's far more reassuring than 'may the force be with you!' isn't it? If you are one of his, then Jesus is with you!

So, will we join the Star Wars conversation? Can we point people to the better story, by using these questions…?

  • Who's really in charge?
  • Is religion dying?
  • Is there more to life than what we can see?
  • What's your place in all this?
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