When does engaging popular culture become apostasy?
That’s a big question, but I’ve found at least one example of that line being trampled. The collection of “Star Wars Church” examples over at Pirate Christian will (read: should) make you laugh, grieve, weep, and lash out at inanimate objects. In what follows, I present the problem with this trend – uncritically baptizing culture and calling it church – in three classic Star Wars quotes. I will demonstrate, by the logic of the very narrative that has been appropriated, why this is a false move. (And these quotes are classic because…duh…these are all from the original trilogy before CGI and Jar-Jar killed a beloved franchise.)
This will be “all too easy.”
The logic of making church a mirror of a cultural phenomenon is not a mystery. It goes something like this:
If we can relate the message of the gospel to a beloved story – particularly at a time of international fever over the release of The Force Awakens – we can leverage that pre-existing cultural equity into a connection with the gospel. A preacher dressed as Hans Solo and a photo opportunity with inter-galactic mass-murdered Darth Vader might not be what those stodgy Episcopalians would do, but that’s just because they aren’t willing to reach people where they are. If it reaches just one person, isn’t it worth it?
Notice the Vader-like pragmatic logic: if you compromise, you can save your friends. Perhaps the methods are questionable. Maybe the aesthetics are troubling. It doesn’t have the dignity we associate with “traditional” church, but it is damned effective. And in an era when people are skeptical about all institutions, especially the church, maybe this is exactly the kind of thing we have to do.
That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
One problem, though: as Admiral Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!”
This is a Devil’s bargain. There’s a brilliant moment in Episode V when Lando proudly states, “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever.” Of course, it was a trap. You can’t trust the Empire. You can’t play with the Dark Side. “Flee even the appearance of evil,” as we learn in a different canon altogether. (1 Thess. 5:22)
Playing with fire will burn you eventually. Baptizing popular culture and calling it church is effective. There’s no doubt about it.
But so is McDonald’s.
So is the Death Star.
I can get my dog to eat his twice-daily pills by coating them in chocolate, but in the long run that is going to create much more serious issues for my dog than the illness that made the pills necessary in the first place.
“Whatever works” is simply not a sufficient metric by which to determine what the church messaging. Why?
Because the church has other standards of success than those that the market dictates to us. Growth that is based on kitsch and fluff is neither evangelical nor sustainable. The church does not make saints by inviting people into a faith community that simply regurgitates culture. It is easy for children to reach the sugary cereal at eye level at the grocery store, but if you keep letting that child eat the sugary cereal, they may never learn to eat a fine steak or pick out a good head of lettuce. Cheap grace is easy to sell, but is it really worth any “results” that may come? (Or are the results themselves really just a farce?)
As Han Solo says in Episode IV, “no reward is worth this.” Turning the church into Comic-Con is fun, Instagram-friendly, and will create headlines. But God’s people deserve more. God’s people deserve a church that has something better to do that offer them a photo booth and a Wookie costume.
They don’t need more marketing. The people for whom Christ died don’t need more entertainment. They will not be moved, much less transformed, by lowest-common-denominator community that makes following Jesus as radical as costume party. They may show up. But will they leave sanctified?
“Take up your lightsaber and follow me” is not something our Lord ever said.
No reward is worth this. The church, in 1 Peter’s formulation, is “a royal priesthood.” Treat her accordingly. Resist the Dark Side. Resist baptizing culture and calling it discipleship. Don’t compromise the beautiful, challenging call to counter-cultural community.
The church is called to offer an alternative to the golden calves and banalities of the world.
Hear me out: I dig Star Wars. I am going to see The Force Awakens opening night.
But I love Jesus Christ and his church more. The church has her own story to tell, and her own language, culture, and practices. We don’t need Storm Troopers and X-Wings. We have the incarnation, radical ministry, suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
There is no better story. No matter what rewards the Dark Side promises, remember, they are Siren calls. The cheap rewards of cultural prostitution are merely invitations to shipwreck. (Judges 2:17 speaks to this danger.)
Let us have confidence in the story to which God has entrusted us. The martyrs did not give themselves to the flames so that we could have Lightsaber Church. Thanks be to God.