The Empire Strikes Back: A Theology 40 Years in the Making
40 years old. Wow. I remember The Empire Strikes back absolutely unsettling me as a kid. My dad showed me A New Hope, a movie that while not without its dark moments, ended with a glimmer of triumph for the rebels. When I saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first I was turned off by it. From the scenes of Luke in the Wampa’s cave to Luke in the bacta tank to Luke losing his hand (theme?), I was completely sure this was nothing but a sci-fi movie chock full of dark scenes of hopelessness.
As the last words disappear from the open crawl, we are cast into space, alongside one of Darth Vader’s search probes as it heads for a crash landing on Hoth. The rebels are in danger. We’re beginning in the middle of things.
As the film commences, we only see the broad strokes of the story; we know only the middle and are dragged along to the end. What’s more, this notion of beginning in the middle of things is repeatedly explored in the film through the symbolism of rebirth. Early in the film, Luke Skywalker is “reborn” when he violently crawls his way out from the wampa’s cave. Found by Han Solo, he’s placed in a tauntaun’s abdomen to keep from freezing to death.
Luke’s second rebirth is the result of a challenging gestation period on Dagobah, where Yoda trains him in the ways of the Force. It is a birth that will bring him into a new life — birthed perhaps prematurely but definitely strong — and into a time when he is much needed and expected.
Walter Brueggemann once wrote,
“Being born again peculiarly — and public — is to learn to live with the staggering freedom of being fully the beloved. That birth in turn entails love of the light, to be ruled out of the world of calculation into utter gospel-given, peaceable freedom and well-being.”
In Luke’s case, his rebirth after Dagobah is a time to publicly begin a new life, to be born into a peculiar family, to be born through the Force, to leave his anger behind, to be redeemed of his past personal sins and — unbeknownst to him (although foreshadowed in the cave at Dagobah) — of generational sin.
Unlike Han Solo, who is looking to leave the rebels and cowers from leadership in an effort to save himself, Luke is eagerly and courageously reborn into a time when the galaxy desperately needs the possibility of what he can become. He is thus reborn, not only for himself but as an integral part of the rebellion and as a hope for all those threatened by the oppression of the Empire.
Luke is reborn into a time when the galaxy desperately needs what he can become.
I now love the Empire Strikes Back. Many say it’s the best Star Wars film. I can’t say I disagree.
The Empire Strikes Back is no longer a movie that I turn away from. Rather, I see it as a movie that challenges humankind. A movie that challenges me deep in my soul. In this time of rampant egocentrism, in the midst of desperate need and with the world waiting for heroes to be born, may we act upon the power and command of our rebirth, may we be born for others and may we be born into action. May we have the courage to be born publicly and peculiarly into the middle of things.