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Monday, June 04, 2007

Waste of Mythology: The peril of ignoring our modern fables

The History Channel re-broadcast Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed last night. It's a two-hour documentary about the film saga, its mythic roots, and the timeless values that it's tried to share with the modern audience.

As the program was winding down I thought, and not for the first time lately: after all of these years of being a devout Star Wars fan ... well, what is the point of it? What has been the point of any of the loyalty that we as fans have shown these movies?

Guess what I'm wondering is: in spite of the multitude of morals and lessons that this movie series has given us, what have we actually done with them, at all?

F'rinstance, George Lucas intended for the recent Star Wars prequels to be a parable about the decline of republican government: that democracies invariably become dictatorships. The final step toward tyranny usually happens when an elected leader assumes wide-ranging powers in the face of some emergency, "for the good of the people". Palpatine took over after blaming the Jedi, just as Hitler had to "protect" the Germans from the Communists following the Reichstag fire.

In the past few weeks President George W. Bush has signed a directive that would establish himself as a veritable autocrat. All he has to do is declare an emergency and seize power over everything and voila: America will have an emperor, in fact if not in name. And even if Bush does nothing on his own to seize unprecedented power in the United States, he has done far more than his share of setting the stage in this country for a predecessor to push that button ... and probably sooner than later. It's not the tendency of human nature to shy away from such a temptation.

This is one thing from the Star Wars movies that we should very much have taken to heart, especially in light of the violent history of the Twentieth Century. This is something that should earnestly bother us, and move us to make our stand. By showing the powers-that-be the line in the sand and telling them "to this point and no further".

That is how tyranny is stemmed before it has a chance to blossom. And you would think that in light of this move by Bush and others by legislators (such as the ill-named PATRIOT Act), that armed with the metaphoric wisdom of these stories we would do whatever we could to stop this slide toward an all-powerful state.

Instead, the biggest thing that Star Wars fans in general have been thrown in tumult over is the matter of whether or not Han shot first. We vent more white-hot hatred on Jar Jar Binks than we do on high taxes, or on the governor of Texas when he tries to enforce an un-thoroughly tested vaccine on children, or on the most foolish-conceived war in American history.

It's not a new phenomenon. Scripture tells us that the people of Israel flocked to hear the prophet Ezekiel cry out his warnings ... but they did not heed his words. To them, Ezekiel was nothing but mere entertainment (Ezekiel 33:30-32). I'll bet the people of Troy considered Cassandra to be quite a spectacle. Too bad they didn't believe her when she told them there were Greek soldiers rattling around in that wooden horse.

What is new is the sheer volume of fiction – and with it so much wisdom – that we are inundated with ... and how little we seem to have taken from it.

We should consider ourselves blessed to live in a time of such rich and vibrant storytelling. No other era in human history has been gifted with so many tales along with so much raw knowledge, from the entire breadth of civilization. And we should be the most enlightened culture that has ever existed in recorded time because of it: Maslow's "self-actualization" realized across the vast scope of an entire society.

Cast me melancholy, but I have to ask: what good have any of these stories been? They weren't just meant to be "great entertainment", were they?

Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830. Do you know what pulled the trigger and moved the Belgian people to war? It was a performance one night of the opera La Muette de Portici. It stirred the people of Brussels to riot and take over the ruling regime's buildings. From there the fight spread across the country.

Consider that for a moment: one performance of an opera ignited an entire country to revolt against its masters ...

... and we have had countless movies, playing to audiences of millions, to stir our souls. And still we've yet to do anything like what those Belgians did after watching one opera.

I've been a Star Wars fan from one wild extreme of the spectrum to the other. And it's been a heckuva lot of fun, no doubt. But when it comes to taking Star Wars seriously, as an epic that has conveyed age-old wisdom that we can apply to our world, it really saddens me that we as fans (and there are plenty of us) haven't played this to the hilt. And we've had thirty years to do it, too.

If my generation, having grown up watching the Star Wars movies and the Matrix trilogy and The Lord of the Rings and everything else, has been literally assaulted with the theme of good against evil and still has done nothing with it ... then what does that say of us, compared to those who have come before?

George Lucas might as well have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and not made the Star Wars movies at all, for all the good that we have made of them.

Consider the Matrix trilogy. This is one movie series that I absolutely believe has been nowhere nearly as appreciated as it should be. I can think of no more effective metaphor from the movies than the Matrix series for the system that we seldom dare admit to having become enslaved to.

How many Americans are capable of even considering the fact that they don't have to choose only between the Democrat and Republican parties? You know the answer to that as well as I do: not that many. Their minds are not free. Their thinking is still imprisoned by a machine that defines for them the parameters of what is possible and what is not possible. If the machine expects them to believe that there really is no other choice because other candidates are "unelectable" or otherwise illegitimate, then these people believe it without question. You see it even now, with the mainstream press establishing it in the minds of most Americans that there are, at most, three "serious" presidential candidates from either of the two major parties.

I thought that The Matrix was a two-hour package of everything that we would need to know to start fighting our own matrix. Some people seriously predicted that when the V for Vendetta film came out that it would result in mobs of thousands taking to the streets in a bid to confront "them".

In a sane world, these stories would have motivated us so. Even though things should have never come to the point where we would need those to spur us to action, anyway. But that didn't happen. It was like millions of people were confronted with the very ugly truth of the world around them ... and decided to do nothing at all about it.

And then, think about the novel and movie series The Lord of the Rings. I don't know anything else to say other than Tolkien's story is the finest parable about the danger and self-destruction that comes with seeking power, that has ever been produced in modern English literature. Tolkien laid it all out, in terms that anyone could understand. And yet, our mad pursuit of power and influence over others continues unabated.

The one great modern story that I can see signs that its message is being sought and cherished by many is the Harry Potter series. What message is there in that? I believe it's the most profound of all: that death is not something to be feared. That in being fearful of death, we allow death to have a power over us that we should never yield to it. Voldemort has sought to be all-powerful because to him, death is something petty and ignoble: it's for the weak, not the strong. His "flight from death" (the literal French meaning of the word "Voldemort" by the way) has made him enthralled to power, instead of being its master. On the other hand, Harry Potter has let go his fear of death, and is not controlled by it. He is the one with the freedom and real choice. And not being bound to fear of death, Harry is spiritually free to live a full and abundant life: one that Voldemort can never know or understand. In fact, I've thought that the Harry Potter books do a far better job at teaching a lot of Christian virtues than have many modern preachers and theologians. But I digress ...

Why are the Harry Potter books working where movies such as Star Wars aren't? It's likely because Harry Potter is still a story primarily of written literature. To read a Harry Potter novel or any other book demands that the reader think about what it is he or she is. Reading a book actively engages the mind. Watching a movie or television show presents those thoughts ready-packaged for consumption. There are very few stories in the visual medium that do strive to be "thinking man's entertainment" (I would count Lost as being one of them). Otherwise, it seems that part of the mind turns off and accepts whatever the eyes see without question ... or critically thinking about. At least the Harry Potter books can exercise the mind to think about things like not having to fear mortality, and about having the strength and will to stand up and fight (something that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix did beautifully). For that much, we can be thankful that our young people will be wiser for the time they have invested in such entertainment.

It's not a guarantee though. The Chronicles of Narnia are founded on the deeper tenets of the Bible ... but on such a basic level that even a small child can grasp them. Yet it's hard to see them put into practice by many of the "grown-up" Christians that I see every day. Indeed, the belief system that I profess to share has had its own rich collection of history and proverbs for going on two millennia now ... and I can only lament at how many of my fellows do not seem to care enough to pursue sincere appreciation and understanding of it.

And if we are to discuss how even literature has failed to enlighten our generation, then we must mention George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's twenty-three years too late, and bedecked with more color to be sure ...

... But how is America not so far removed from the superstate of Oceania? We even have much the same order of society: the "Inner Party" of an entrenched elite – you can pick any number of "political families" and "favored" individuals – who sit at the top of the heap in this country and play with Senate seats and the Oval Office like title deeds in a Monopoly game. They will never let anyone from the "Outer Party" (the traditional middle class) ascend to their level. Think about it: when was the last time that Mr. Smith really could go to Washington? It sure hasn't been anytime lately. And then there is only what with trepidation I think of as the real-life analogy to Orwell's Proles: the too many Americans well enough engaged in drinking beer and pursuit of sex than to educate themselves about the surrounding world past what the TV is telling them.

What enforces this rigid structure? A "mainstream press" that long ago lost its independence and is now just part of "the system" spouting approved propaganda. A military-industrial complex that has engaged the nation in meaningless war that saps away our youth and vitality. Government surveillance of nearly all our communications and finances and movements. Even our own "Two Minutes Hate" used to expend what passions we might turn toward overcoming our lot, instead wasting them against propped-up straw-men both here and abroad.

All of this at work on a people expected to believe whatever is told them, however contradictory, and consider it true: "doublethink", as Orwell called it. Individual deviancy from the mindset means consignment as a "fringe thinker" or "moonbat" or whatever is the current jargon. And when people like Charles Krauthammer earnestly declare that to disagree with "The Leader" is an indication of mental illness, how is that different from the "derangement" that had Winston Smith dragged to Room 101?

We have, at last, arrived on the shores of Oceania.

No sense complaining about our destination now: we've had almost sixty years to try to change the course of the ship.

Growing up, I was taught that there was such a thing as right and wrong, and that it wasn't hard to tell the difference between the two. Then I saw how real life works: and that too many of the people in this world don't act like they care about doing the good thing. Stories like Star Wars may not have necessarily been real, but the values within them were certainly ideal, and virtuous enough to put into practice. Enough so that I gained courage from them to persist in seeking out good. Years later, I still don't see any reason why we shouldn't strive to adhere to them, in spite of the callousness and corruption everywhere we look.

Maybe these stories aren't meant for us at all. Perhaps they are the inheritance of those who will come after us: the ones who will follow our own generation and the mess that we have made of things. It's not a pleasant thing to wonder about how much we are like Rome before that empire fell, and that if there is a collapse then a much more terrible dark age might ensue. But if there is any shred of hope, it is that a better and nobler people might arise from the ruins of our age.

They will be the ones to whom Star Wars and The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings and every other tale of our era will be more than something to make "fan fiction" of and dress up as characters from.

I'm sure they will also be asking about what we did with these stories. "How did they tolerate so much wasted mythology?" "Didn't they learn anything from all those movies and books?"

Look, it's really very simple: bad things are happening around us. They aren't going to simply "go away" no matter how hard we try to wish them to vanish.

Stories don't become eternal classics solely on the virtue of their entertainment value. They stand the test of time because they are founded on something imperishable and true, that no tyrant or army or even the ignorance of ages can destroy. But they only have meaning if we take what they are teaching us to heart and act upon those values.

We have every reason possible to stand. And to fight. And to dare rebel against the things that are wrong without shame or apology. We have every right to make the empire tremble.

We've been shown the way, may times over. Now we just have to start boldly walking it.