Ultimate Superlative

“Push men too far and they fall off the cliff.  Push great men too far and they soar.”  The words are those of my novelist friend K. Marvin Bruce.  Unless you read this blog you’ve probably never heard of him; his novel publishing record is about as successful as my academic career.  Still, I think quite a bit about Marvin’s plight.  He seems to be a gifted writer—he sends me copies of his stuff—but publishers take no notice.  He’s had a few short stories appear in online journals; two of them even won prizes, but the internet is a very crowded place.  It’s not easy to get noticed. Those who try to make a living smithing words often face a dilemma; it feels like all the momentous words have already been taken.

Marvin on a superlative walk

Marvin on a superlative walk

I mentioned in a recent post that we are suffering from a crisis of superlatives.  The other day I was in a mall (this is a foreign activity for me—the people all look far trendier than I do, and they seem to think this is the place to be, not just where you have to go to have your laptop serviced).  I saw a mother walking by holding the hand of her maybe three-year-old son.  His little tee-shirt read “Über Awesome.”  I recall when awesome really meant full of awe.  And that was rare, reserved for things like towering, severe Midwestern thunderstorms alive with constant lightning, or gray north Atlantic waves crashing mercilessly into the cliffs of Maine. I stood, small and insignificant on the prairie or the coast, utterly at a loss for words. Yes, it was that impressive. My superlatives, however, have all been absconded. We live in a world where “greatest” sounds somewhat ordinary. Even the apocalypse has grown thin from overuse, and that used to be the ultimate end of everything. How weak it all sounds.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching the second Star Wars trilogy. While the special effects are impressive, it suffers compared to the original trilogy. One of the reasons, in my idiosyncratic hermeneutic, is that the Jedi knights were reconceived, or reconceptualized. They are action figures, hands on hips, ready to dart into a fight. “May the force be with you,” has become a mere “God bless you.” Was not the real strength of Obi Wan his silence and lack of haste? Was Luke ever more impressive than when he slowly walked into the cave of Jabba the Hut, light saber tucked away, only to be used when such an awesome weapon was called for? It takes a certain placidity of soul to stare long into the abyss. Perhaps this is a metaphor for our superlatives. Calm lives of measured, considered action. This seems to be what the world lacks. To find it would truly be experience simple greatness.

Jedi Night

Star_Wars_Phantom_Menace_posterIt all began with that trailer. You know, the teaser for the new Star Wars movie. I was among those many small-town boys crowding into theaters in 1977 to have their small-town minds blown with a Luke Skywalker, somehow just like us, getting to go on a galactic adventure and conquering evil. It was a transformative experience. Later I was to learn that noted Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell had advised on the story, helping to produce image after archetypal image that spoke to deep levels of viewers’ psyches. Hungrily we watched, as even through some missteps, the franchise grew to trilogy proportions, creating its own cultural memes (has “I am your father” ever been the same since?). Then somehow I missed The Phantom Menace, or episode one. It could be that work at the time (Nashotah House) was an epic struggle in its own right. With a small child and not sure about baby-sitting options, taking a night out to watch the prequel to a story that had already nicely resolved itself felt kind of pointless. We already knew how it ended. But that trailer. Now it seems, the story will continue.

So it was that my wife and I decided to catch up. Over the weekend we watched The Phantom Menace. Of course, I’d seen clips before. I’d also read the reviews that were less than complementary (Joseph Campbell had died in the meantime and George Lucas couldn’t seem to come up with archetypes on his own). I was curious, but not curious enough to rent the video (as people did in those days). So The Phantom Menace, cast from the same die as episode 4, also has a strong religious resonance. The Jedi (and already the religion of Jediism has begun to appear) filled the backstory with near invincibility, and all the aliens seemed somehow comic, yet we are told remarkably little about the Force. Perhaps episode 4 had said enough. When Darth Vader is introduced as a prescient boy, the audience (at least this audience) finds it hard to believe he is the result of a virgin birth. Indeed, Lucas throws us the midi-chlorians as a sop, but we know that when a woman gives birth with no male intervention we’re in messianic territory. And of course, non-Muppet Yoda tells us straight up that he may be the chosen one.

Introducing the Sith, who are the embodiment of the dark side of the force, we are treated to a devil in only a thin disguise. The red and black greasepaint warn us that when he removes his hood he will have horns. Although we’re not shown, I suspect he has cloven feet as well. So through the movie with its gratuitous cameos of creatures we already know from episode 4, we come to an end that is strangely familiar. We’re back where we started. The Jedi favor earth tones over white, however, and the Sith is neither all red nor all black. The evil of the galactic empire seems to be no more than the very real overtaxation of the poor. And yet for all my disappointment, there’s that trailer we all saw in December, and using my own version of the Force, I foresee an attack of clones in my future.

The Force

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, or so it seems, I began studying religion not knowing where it would land me.  One of the great things about studying religion is the perpetual refreshing of religious thought that grows with human culture.  Anthropologists and philosophers and sociologists have difficulty defining exactly what religion is.  It is clearly a belief system of some description, but in many parts of the world religion is not so much reflective and reflexive—doing the ancient rituals and getting on with life.  Every great once in a while I learn about a new religion.  Those who don’t spend too much time thinking about it might be surprised to learn that new religions emerge quite frequently, and sometimes with the most unlikely of inspirations.  Consider Scientology.  While reading about new religions recently I discovered Jediism, or Star Wars religion.  Like Scientology, it is based on science fiction.  For those of us alive in another universe in 1977 it is difficult to convey to more recent hominins just how impressive Star Wars was.  Life-changing, in some instances.  Jediism takes the concept of the Force and makes it a central tenet of a belief system for the twenty-first century.
 
Having witnessed the impact of Avatar in even more recent lightyears, perhaps we should not be surprised that fantasy worlds spawn new religions.  After all, although death and suffering pervade even the most pristine of human-concocted galaxies, good ultimately wins over evil in these realms.  It is something worth hoping for.  Maybe even believing in.  Some people question how serious those who call themselves “Jedi” on religious surveys really are.  There are online Jedi sanctuaries, and even humor can be a part of a serious religion—consider the craze of Christian clowns that was going around in the 1980s.  For those of us from long ago, religions just don’t seem authentic without some antiquity to them; they should’ve been started centuries ago by founders who can be mythologized to sainthood or divinity.  We have more facts about the life of Yoda than we do of Jesus.


 
The thin line between fact and fiction grows more effaced every day.  Can religions be based on fictional founders?  Of course they can!  Without any means of determining objectively which religion is right (if any), we are left with only a person’s word about what s/he believes.  If I choose to believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real person what harm does it do?  It may even benefit the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  As Matt Rossano points out in his book Supernatural Selection, religions are about perceived relationships.  Many people have relationships with fictional characters, sometimes falling in love with one or fantasizing about being one.  Basing a religion on a fictional character may be the greatest sign of trust.  After all, we can’t even define religion in a way on which all specialists will agree.  Religion itself may be the ultimate fiction.  May the Force be with you, just in case.