What watching Star Wars teaches us about reading the Bible

[Be forewarned. There will be spoilers from Star Wars: The Force Awakens included in this post.]

Joining the masses who have made Star Wars: The Force Awakens the biggest blockbuster of all time (so far), I took my family to see it recently and came away thinking not just about the story I’d just seen, but about the grand biblical story and how we read the Scriptures.

More than just a series of movies, Star Wars is a world and a way of living within that world.

The movies, the books, the comic books, the action figures, the bed sheets, the Legos … Like the Force itself, Star Wars “surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

The same is true of the Scriptures. As Eugene Peterson has said, the term “biblical” describes more than just a book. It describes a world and a way of living within that world.

Where the characters in the Star Wars myth living in a world saturated with the Force, an amoral energy field created by all living things that seeks to be balanced between its dark and light sides, we live in a world saturated with God, a moral being who creates all living things and seeks his kingdom, where life triumphs over death and good over evil. The Star Wars movies cannot be watched in any way that makes sense without engaging with the Force. Likewise, living in a Scripture-shaped world cannot be done in any way that makes sense without engaging with the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But there was something about watching The Force Awakens that make me think about how the Scriptures were written and how we read them. In particular, it was the repetition and self-referencing in the movie that reminded me of the Bible.

The Force Awakens includes so much self-referencing repetition of previous plot lines, characters, and other fixtures that it almost lacks a plot of its own.

Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, and C3PO reappear from the original trilogy (Star Wars episodes IV-VI). So, too, does the Millennium Falcon and a third Death Star, this time a Death Planet (which like the first Death Star has a glaring weakness which is easily exploited).Where Darth Vader wears black and a mask and is Luke’s father, Kylo Ren also wears black and a mask (though his mask wasn’t necessary) and is Darth Vader’s grandson and Han Solo’s son. Where Anakin Skywalker is trained by Obi Wan Kenobi and seduced by the Dark Side, killing every padawan in the Jedi Temple, Ben Solo is trained by Luke and seduced by the Dark Side, killing all of Luke’s padawans. Where the older movies have an evil Empire ruled by the evil Emperor Palpatine (i.e. Darth Sidious), episode VII has the First Order ruled by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke. Both episodes IV and VII begin with a cute droid who steals a key piece of software and escapes to the Tatooine, where it is aided by a youth with an adventurous spirit who is trapped in a meaningless existence on the desert planet. The Force Awakens has a gratuitous reference to A New Hope’s trash compactor scene, among with other verbal and visual references, tying those two episodes together. There’s more, but that’s enough for my purposes.

What’s interesting is how the Bible does the same sort of self-referencing repetition of characters and themes.

The way the gospel writers tell the Jesus story draws on characters and themes that we’ve seen throughout the preceding Story of God.

John starts his gospel with an echo of Genesis 1, with its account of God creating through spoken words. John echoes this with Jesus shown to be the Word who is God and who created the heavens and the earth. John then continues his seven-day creation themes by having Jesus give us seven “I am” statements, perform seven signs, and take part in seven Jewish feasts. The gospel also walks through seven days during the first two chapters (Day 1 – John 1:19-28; Day 2 – “next day” – John 1:29-34; Day 3 – “next day” – John 1:35-42; Day 4 – “next day” – John 1:43-50; Day 7 – “on the third day” is a wedding/sabbath – John 2:1-11). While none of these days has specific creation contend, all of them together point to new creation. We finally get to new creation with the resurrection of Jesus. It takes place in a garden (a reference to Eden) “early on the first day of the week” (John 20:1) — a new week for a new creation.

The whole point of all of these creation themes is that Jesus, who is the Creator, is starting a new creation through his life, death, and resurrection, enabling us to lead an “eternal life.”

Where John wants us to see a repetition and expansion of creation themes in Jesus, the other gospel writers want us to see a repetition and expansion of Exodus themes in Jesus.

Just as new creation takes place in Jesus, so too new exodus takes place in Jesus.

Mark starts his gospel with a quote from Isaiah 40 which is itself a reference to a new Exodus. So, just as the Hebrews goes through the waters and into the desert where they are tested for 40 years, Jesus goes through the waters of baptism and is sent into the desert to be tested by the devil for 40 days. But where Israel is faithless in the desert, Jesus is faithful. And the Exodus themes don’t stop there. Where pharaoh and his army are drowned in the Red Sea, Jesus sends an army of unclean spirits (Legion) into a herd of pigs which rush into a sea and are drowned. There are more stories in Mark’s gospel which echo the Exodus story that I won’t repeat for the sake of brevity.

Luke picks up on this Exodus theme and makes it explicit in the story of the transfiguration, when Jesus, Elijah, and Moses “spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, where the word “departure” is literally “exodus”).

Matthew also picks up on Exodus themes, setting up Jesus as a second Moses. Where Moses survives the killing of infants by the king of Egypt, Jesus survives the killing of infants by the king in Jerusalem. His family moves to Egypt so that we can get the quote “out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15, which is quoting Hosea 11:1). In Hosea, the “son” is Israel, the people of God, but in Matthew the son is Jesus. Not much later in Matthew, we see Jesus up on a mountain, speaking with authority like a new Moses. His beatitudes don’t quite add up to 10, but are like a new Ten Commandments. He doesn’t replace the Law, but he reinterprets most of the Ten Commandments. Again, self-referencing repetition.

Matthew also sets up Jesus as a new David. The genealogy in Matthew 1 shows Jesus to be a descendant of David. And the odd groupings of three sets of 14 generations (where the third set doesn’t actually add up to 14) also points to David through a form of Jewish number play. The name David has the numeric value of 14 (there are no vowels in Hebrew; the letter D is the 4th letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the letter V is the 6th letter; D+V+D = 4+6+4 = 14). So, Matthew gathers together all of the themes of kingship and particularly the Davidic kingship that we’ve seen in the earlier Scriptures and applies them to Jesus the Messiah (Messiah being a term for the one who is anointed to be king).

At the same time, as Matthew 1:1 points out, Jesus is a new Abraham. God’s people are constituted through him, not through genetics. As he says in Matthew 3:9, “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” As a new Abraham, we are only children of Abraham as we are “children” of Jesus. Also point to this, Jesus chooses 12 disciples to echo the 12 tribes of Israel.

And when we get to the end of Matthew, Jesus passes on a modified version of the Abrahamic covenant. The original covenant in Genesis 12:2-3 — where all the nations in the earth are blessed through the family of Abraham — is echoed in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 — where the disciples of Jesus (his family) are sent to all the nations to bless them through making them disciples as well.

And when we finally get to the last book of the Bible, almost every verse in the Revelation is an echo of some other passage from earlier on. All of the varied themes that are woven throughout what has come before get pulled together as the grand tapestry is completed.

Playing the game of finding all of the echoing characters and themes in the Star Wars movies can teach us how to do the same with the Bible, where doing so is actually meaningful.

Seeing how the Star Wars universe both repeats itself and moves the story forward simultaneously can help us see how, with each of his covenants, God has been repeating and moving forward his story as well. This helps us see ourselves within this grand narrative while moving us away from using the Bible as a book of pithy quotes and rules to follow.