Read

Star Wars and Understanding Our Place in the Cosmos

Creator:
Published:
June 24, 2024
June 24, 2024
Read this interview to learn more about Star Wars' Christian themes and how you can apply them to your own life.

Since the late seventies, Star Wars has enthralled generations. But what many don’t realize is that George Lucas internalized various religions’ rituals and values and spun them into the concept of “the Force.”

Sometimes the religious themes bubble up to the surface as in the character of Din Djarin, the protagonist of The Mandalorian, who searches for fulfillment in “the Way” and in community. Other times, though, the spiritual lessons are more subtle, churning just below the surface. It’s themes such as these that Eric Clayton explores in his new book, My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars (Loyola Press, 2024).

Over the span of the book, Clayton extrapolates lessons from the fictional world, which, as an extension of our own, offers us something extraordinary by way of grace. 

I was excited to interview my fellow Grotto contributor about his new work, and he was gracious enough to offer valuable insight on the topic.

The following interview took place over email and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

John: Thanks, Eric, for sending me a copy of your new book, and for doing this interview! How old were you when you fell in love with Star Wars? And what about it captivated you?

Eric: I was probably about ten years old when my dad pulled out his VHS tapes of the original trilogy, popped them into our VCR, and away we went! I was the right age for laser swords and space wizards, but more than that, I was intrigued by the story: This kid discovers he has powers and potential beyond what he’d ever dreamed to be possible, and when an old recluse emerges from the desert to teach him, they go on this wild adventure. I was probably thinking, I could do that! I could train in the ways of the Force! Because in large part, the Force seemed so accessible — it was in everything, available to those who just turned their attention to it. That’s where I think you begin to say, Wait a minute — is there something spiritual about this story?

John: It doesn’t take long to notice echoes of Christianity in the Star Wars saga. But what first gave you the idea to write a book about Star Wars and its relationship to faith?

Eric: The beautiful thing about Star Wars as a story is that George Lucas intentionally leaves it vague. That’s on purpose: he wants viewers to bring their own faith traditions to the narrative. But I’m not super interested in figuring out who the Christ figure is in Star Wars; I’m more interested in how Christ might be speaking to us through Star Wars. And that, to me, is very Ignatian. Ignatian spirituality is built on this notion that God is present in all things. And if that’s the case, what do I do in response? Do I enter into this dialogue with spirituality and story?

There’s a feeling of responsibility, of inviting — I’ve been invited and now I invite others to enter into that same dialogue from their own spiritual journeys. God is in all things in the same way that the Force connects us. But God desires our good, delights in us — so that’s way more powerful than an amorphous Force.

John: You have a very powerful line in the book that reads, “The world is literally dripping with grace.” In life, how would you say God fits into the picture?

Eric: My spiritual director often asked, “Who is God for you?” That question seems like it should have an obvious answer. And yet it’s a hard one, and you find yourself repeating trite phrases because God is in all things. God is everywhere, and God is constantly inviting and delighting. And that’s how God fits into the picture, I think: God delights in me and God beckons me forward, deeper into knowledge of self, deeper into God’s creation, deeper into God’s own life. 

John: You use the desert sands of some of the saga’s locales, perhaps most notoriously the sands of Tatooine, as a symbol of discomfort that pushes a person to pursue who they are meant to become. In the Bible, the desert has been a place of abandonment where people encounter God. John the Baptist, St. Anthony the Great, and the Desert Fathers come to mind.

Much more recently, Pope Francis has said, “The desert is a place in which it is difficult to live, but precisely there, one can now walk in order to return not only to the homeland, but return to God, and return to hoping and smiling…Each one knows what desert he or she is walking in — it will become a garden in bloom.”

Our trials are opportunities for growth. There are lessons to be learned in our own personal deserts — what do you think about this?

Eric: Yes — I agree completely. I think precisely because of those coarse, uncomfortable experiences, we become our best selves. We are challenged to really encounter God, to draw deeper into God’s life. But then we also set out as a result; we go to meet others. Isn’t that what Jesus does in his experience of the desert? It’s not terribly helpful if we have these profound experiences of God’s love and then fail to share them with others. And in these encounters, God speaks to us. God invites us. God desires to push us further along our own unique vocational paths. So, I think it makes sense that Tatooine shows up often at the beginning of our Star Wars stories. The discomfort isn’t good in and of itself; it’s God’s Spirit awakening something within us that says: But what if there’s more? What if God dreams something bigger for me? What would it take to respond?

John: Kind of related to these images of sand and deserts, I’d like to bring up the concept of “spiritual dryness” and doubts. One of the themes in your book is how no one is ever too far gone to start doing good. Have you had a time in your life where you experienced a sort of spiritual dryness, where your faith dwindled? If so, how did you get through it?

Eric: The year after graduating from Fairfield University in Bolivia was a very challenging year. I felt as though God had invited me into this experience and then kind of left me out to dry. Things never really “clicked” as they seemed to for my friends in similar situations. When I returned home, I was pretty determined not to do any work in the faith-based space; I wanted a straightforward job in the field of international relations. But then this job popped on my radar at Catholic Relief Services and my then-girlfriend (now-wife) was like, “Give it a shot.” And so I did — and that was probably one of the most important professional decisions I’ve ever made.

As I’ve grown in my spiritual life, I’ve naturally experienced moments of desolation. Ignatius reminds us that these are quite natural; my own spiritual director often said that they might be invitations from the Spirit to change how we pray. When I’m in these moments, it’s not so much that I doubt God or doubt my own faith life; it’s that I know God is at work in a new way — our God of Surprises. The real question is whether I’m open and available to receiving God as God desires to work.

John: In your chapter titled “Wounds,” you write that if we have compassion for ourselves, we can emerge from our personal deserts and thereby “help others journey out of theirs.” I think it’s wonderful that your book talks a lot about redemption. Have you ever struggled with forgiving yourself and letting go of your past?

Eric: Oh, of course! I’m a One on the Enneagram — dogged determination to not forgive oneself is the whole game. I’m kidding, kind of — but I do constantly need to remind myself: “You are beloved. You are enough. God is at work.” It took me a long time to work through my supposed failures in Bolivia. But even a poorly worded email might haunt me at night. I am quite fortunate that my wife and friends constantly remind me that I’m doing enough, being enough. My own spiritual director, when I first started direction back in undergraduate studies, asked if I knew God delighted in me. I’d never heard that question before, but it has completely shaped how I see God and the kind of spiritual writing I do. So, yes: self-forgiveness is a constant struggle. Letting go of past missteps is a constant struggle. But remembering that we are beloved, each of us, I think is the mantra we should repeat to help us rest more easily in God.

John: Eric, you’ve written that the will of God for our lives is nothing but our deepest desires. But you make the important distinction in the book that “our feelings and desires and passions can either be manifestations of [God] or a trick of the enemy…” How can we know what our deepest, truest desires are?

Eric: We have to test them. We have to game them out. Where is this leading me? What are these desires evoking in me? I think the Spirit aligns our truest desires to bring out our most authentic selves. Will we feel a bit anxious in living them out? Of course. But we’ll also feel excitement; we’ll be energized; we’ll see our unique gifts put to action. But if we’re left solely feeling anxious or spiritually dry or angry and fearful — well, that might not be the way to go. And weighing the destination of our desires is key: Is this path only going to end in more money, more fame, more power? Or, is this path going to put me at the service of those who might need me? Will I be able to be myself in a unique, essential way?

John: You also discuss how learning about other religions can expand your mind and your understanding of other people. What’s the difference, would you say, between learning about others’ beliefs and incorporating those beliefs?

Eric: In both My Life with the Jedi and Cannonball Moments, I talk about the important role that studying Daoism played in my faith journey. This was just one class in college, so I’m not an expert at all, but I have read some books, and these texts give new language to the Christian story. It’s like entering a room through a different door: you see things from a new angle, a different perspective — but it’s the same thing you’re seeing. I very clearly brought my own Christian mindset to these Daoist texts — which is probably unfair to the texts — but it kept Christ centered in my mind. I don’t have a Daoist practice or anything, but there are a few writings that I find really inspiring, really helpful in understanding my own story.

John: You quote Jesuit priest Dean Brackley as saying, “What unites us to God is the practice of love. If prayer, or any religious act, is not grounded in that, it is an offense to God.” That’s really powerful to think about. Our actions, if devoid of love, are empty. How have you seen God’s love and the love of those around you transform your life?

Eric: When I worked at Catholic Relief Services, we prioritized sharing the stories of the real people we served. This wasn’t just a marketing ploy, but an expression of the mission: We care about real people because Christ is here, even in suffering and hardship and tragedy. Perhaps especially so. As a result, the fullness of each person was cared for; full human flourishing was the goal. This wasn’t just about hitting key progress indicators or nailing the strategy; this was about people. I think it was love manifested in a very clear way.

That’s love at a global scale, but of course, I have two little girls that my wife and I care for each day. And they love right back. There’s a constant willingness on their part to forgive — when I screw up, they’re grumpy for a bit, but then they’re right back to, “Let’s play! Let’s color! Let’s build LEGO!” And that kind of love, too, reflects what I think we’re all called to: a constant turning back toward the other to forgive and to rejoice.

John: In the book, you mention LEGO Star Wars in passing. You say that “anything LEGO Star Wars gave space for playful, creative, thought-provoking, and boundary-pushing reinterpretations of an old story.” Have you enjoyed building any particular sets on your own or with your family?

Eric: My brother got me the E-wing set for Christmas, which is awesome, mostly because it comes straight out of the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, now considered “Legends.” It had barely any screen time in Ahsoka, so I feel like the folks at LEGO made this set just for fans like me. But I also remember building Obi-Wan Kenobi’s hut with my eldest daughter, and it sparked a conversation about what the little blue piece was — of course, it was Princess Leia in hologram form, but my daughter didn’t know that. It was a really cool opportunity to bring her deeper into my Star Wars fandom.

John: In the book, you write about some relatively recent content such as the Ahsoka series that started airing last August. What did that look like behind the scenes, in terms of turnaround time and your writing process?

Eric: My friend and editor at Loyola Press and I were emailing back and forth about the Obi-Wan Kenobi series when it was debuting in June 2022, which prompted my book pitch. I had until February of the following year to produce the manuscript. But I said then — and my editor agreed — we have to keep this fresh; this has to be as up-to-date as possible. And so, I was adding in references and new tidbits up until the very last moment, which was about October 2023. There was a book, too, Rise of the Red Blade by Delilah Dawson, that [was] published in July 2023. I wanted to incorporate it. So, between that and Ahsoka, I kept my editors on their toes!

John: What’s your goal for this book?

Eric: I hope folks that are fans of Star Wars and are curious about applying the spiritual ideas to their own lives will take something useful from this book and begin to explore Ignatian spirituality. I hope folks that are already engaged in the Ignatian tradition are challenged to go deeper and bring into their prayer lives stories from pop culture; I hope everyone learns more about Ignatian spirituality — and I hope I introduce some new Star Wars stories to folks who might only be familiar with the films!

John: This is undoubtedly the most contentious question I’ll ask you. So, once and for all, who shot first? Han or Greedo?

Eric: Han Solo, no question. It’s in his character. See: Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Creators:
John Tuttle
Published:
June 24, 2024
June 24, 2024
On a related note...
St. Thomas the Apostle Spotify Playlist | #GrottoMusic

St. Thomas the Apostle Spotify Playlist | #GrottoMusic

Grotto

Hope for Uvalde

Hope for Uvalde

Javi Zubizarreta

How I Found the Courage to Speak About God

How I Found the Courage to Speak About God

Krista Steele

What You Should Know About This Distraction at Mass

What You Should Know About This Distraction at Mass

Grotto

4 Tips If You're Alone on Christmas

4 Tips If You're Alone on Christmas

Christine Chu

Jesus' Favorite Podcast EP 7: Fighting For A Cause With Alexia Dukes

Jesus' Favorite Podcast EP 7: Fighting For A Cause With Alexia Dukes

Grotto, Ebony Moxey, Javi Zubizarreta

How an Encounter Taught Me to Be Welcoming at Mass

How an Encounter Taught Me to Be Welcoming at Mass

Katie Prejean McGrady

Listening to the Gentle Nudge to Leap Into Service

Listening to the Gentle Nudge to Leap Into Service

Meghan Franklin

Growing up Gay and Catholic

Growing up Gay and Catholic

Jacob Walsh

A Playbook to Bring Faith into Your Mental Health Journey

A Playbook to Bring Faith into Your Mental Health Journey

Elizabeth Hansen

Pope Francis Announces New Young Adult Saint

Pope Francis Announces New Young Adult Saint

Jonathan Lewis

Why Pope Francis Wants You to Pray the Rosary Right Now

Why Pope Francis Wants You to Pray the Rosary Right Now

Grotto Shares

Honesty Isn't Just Moral, But Good For You

Honesty Isn't Just Moral, But Good For You

Maria Walley

“The Saint Who Became a Leper”

“The Saint Who Became a Leper”

Josh Noem

The Ultimate Guide to Thriving in Life After College

The Ultimate Guide to Thriving in Life After College

Grotto

Why We Need to Get Comfortable with Death

Why We Need to Get Comfortable with Death

Sophie Caldecott

The Commencement Address We Can’t Stop Thinking About

The Commencement Address We Can’t Stop Thinking About

Mike Jordan Laskey

Jesus' Favorite Podcast EP 9: Celebrating His Goodness with CeCe Winans

Jesus' Favorite Podcast EP 9: Celebrating His Goodness with CeCe Winans

Grotto, Ebony Moxey, Javi Zubizarreta

3 Things to Consider Before Entering Grad School

3 Things to Consider Before Entering Grad School

Molly Gettinger

Seeking Beauty with St. Josephine Bakhita | #GrottoMusic

Seeking Beauty with St. Josephine Bakhita | #GrottoMusic

Grotto

newsletter

We’d love to be pals.

Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll meet you in your inbox each week.