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Following the Jedi path

For the faithful, the opening of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace has been likened to having a new chapter of the Bible – the one explaining the mystery of life and the origin of God – delivered in THX sound on a giant screen.

And while Francis Ford Coppola was mostly joking when, two decades ago, he suggested director George Lucas start a religion based on the Force, such an idea is hardly the most far-fetched in the Star Wars universe.

For fans – and not necessarily the geeked-out ones who have already seen Episode One a dozen times, either – the idea rings with a certain truth.

Forget what the film critics say about Lucas’ dubious characterizations, flimsy plot and cutesy Muppets – after all, every great religion must have its heretics.

When it comes to the far, far away movie galaxy where Lucas plays God, fans’ faith in him as a benign, albeit occasionally inscrutable, deity is clear. Even when he does things they don’t like (mention Jar Jar Binks to die-hard fans and you’ll hear a litany of groans), they accept his vision, because it is just that. A vision.

The parallels between themes in the Star Wars films and those in organized religions are many and intentional. It’s no accident that Lucas portrays Anakin Skywalker as the chosen one, a galactic holy spirit conceived by the Force who ultimately becomes a fallen angel. Jedi knights are easily pegged as Zen masters, practitioners of martial arts with a sagely Eastern philosophy. The evil Sith Darth Maul is, of course, the satanic embodiment of evil. And then there’s the Force itself, which flows through the universe and binds it together, as Obi-Wan Kenobi explained a long time ago.

There’s a dippy irony at the Internet-based "Unchurch" (www.theunchurch.com), which has launched a campaign whereby visitors can elect George Lucas to the position of God. "What would you rather do, see a movie or go to church?" the site asks. "No more boring Bible to read. Just watch Star Wars movies."

Sure, moviemaking is like playing God. But there’s more to it than that. The ties between storytelling and religion are as old as humanity, and Lucas’ movie mythology taps into a system of beliefs that have been part of human consciousness thousands of years.

Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, in his numerous books, examined the nature of myth and discusses how stories shape our beliefs.

The connections are easily made: From the Bible to urban myths, we’re affected by stories and live our lives accordingly. Do unto others, we say, unless of course they’re driving around with their headlights off. In a multimedia society, the sources of the stories – be they church or movie theater – become less important than what we ultimately make of them, and how they affect our lives.

Lucas’ well-documented interest in the late Campbell’s work makes it clear that he’s making allegories in his films. Even when the hero-versus-villain, good-versus-evil themes of Star Wars seem difficult to apply to, say, a rough day at work, the greater influence of the Force can make a lot of sense in everyday life.

Steve Greene, 24, of Hamtramck, flashes his rebel alliance key chain after a recent Phantom Menace preview as he explains that the Force has a tremendous impact on his daily life. When he’s having a good day, for example, he feels that the Force is with him. A bad day, on the other hand, has allowed the Force’s dark side to take hold.

He and cousin Aaron Greene, also 24 and from Hamtramck, study the Star Wars trilogy – and its accompanying backstories and spin-offs – with the same fervor that a pair of monks might devote to the Apocrypha. They’re looking for meanings and messages carried deep in the layers of the film.

The Force, rather than being a religion in and of itself, is more like a metaphor for religion, explains Steve. "It’s not a God thing – it can’t be compared to that. It’s more just like tapping into a mysterious energy, but sometimes I think religion is used to explain that energy."

Call it Tao, call it nature or call it God, the Force remains. Aaron sees it another way. "The Force is about the human spirit – about the belief in the power to do good. Nowadays people really get off on being cynical – Star Wars and the Force are one of the only noncynical things left."

But in an age where cynics turn to physics to explain the nature of God, it’s fitting that Episode One presents a similar explanation for the Force: Midi-chlorins – microscopic cells that live symbiotically inside all things – are the physical essence of the Force.

This scientific explanation is welcomed by some fans, but refused by others. John, a 29-year-old psychology student from Ferndale, who didn’t want to give his last name, is clearly outraged by the idea. "That was the only part of the movie I actually became angry at," he says. "It’s so biologically reductionist. I’ve always liked how there’s a mystical element to the Force, that it’s in everything."

At the JediNet fan Web site (www.jedinet.com), the debate over "midis" rages, but the amicable answer is that they can be likened to DNA. Perhaps it’s a compromise, but true believers aren’t likely to let go just because of a science-vs.-God controversy.

Chris Couling, 21, decided to become an artist because of Star Wars. "Following the morals and spirituality of the Jedi is a good way to live your life, for any religion you come from," he says. However, he doesn’t believe in the Force, exactly. "I’m a firm believer in Christ," he says, then quickly adds, "but the Force is something inside of you."

Anthony Morrow, 25, was "force-fed religion" in Catholic school, but has since stopped attending church. A fan who’s seen the trilogy more times than he can count, he says "I believe in Star Wars, ultimately. … Every single life experience, I can draw right back to Star Wars."

Even so, he doubts that Lucas or the Force would make it as an organized religion. But as a way of living life? Sure. "I think the belief system is huge," he says.

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