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Hellfire and hyperdrive: the Gospel according to Star Wars

"I AM trying to bring up my children with Jedi values." So wrote an earnest Christian recently in a discussion on an internet site devoted to modern culture. The combination of Christianity with Star Wars may seem one of the more bizarre bits of merchandising in the hype around The Phantom Menace, but now a Methodist university chaplain in Liverpool has written an entire book on the subject.

"I'm not into buying light-sabres, running around pretending to be Princess Leia, or anything like that," said the Rev David Wilkinson, who worked for six years as an astro-physicist before his ordination. He claims to be only a moderate fan, though he has already seen The Phantom Menace twice in the line of duty. But, he says, this is the way that schoolchildren and students get their moral discussions nowadays: "I went to a school the other day and spoke to a group of around a hundred people. Half of them had already seen it in pirate video even before the official release."

Although The Phantom Menace has been generally panned, Wilkinson sees it as in some respects the most theologically interesting of the films because it centres on a character changing sides. "How does the boy Anakin Skywalker turn into the evil Darth Vader? What is it that conspires within us to produce evil?" That the answers to this are not necessarily Christian ones does not bother him, though conservative Christians around the world have complained that Star Wars spreads New Age heresies.

In the climactic scene of Return of the Jedi, where Darth Vader returns to his original team and chucks the evil Emperor into the glowing maw of the hyperdrive, Wilkinson sees an echo of the Christian theme of redemption though self-sacrifice. He sees the Force as a sign of hope: "It's not a picture of God, but it's raising the question of God. There is a tension in the films between the scientific materialist world view and the transcendence: the good guys rely on the Force and the bad guys rely on the death star. They even use a robot army in The Phantom Menace, which is an illustration of a western technological society trying to stamp out any sense of the transcendent."

On the other hand, to most people, the Force is nothing like the idea of a Christian God. The interesting bits of Christianity, from the book of Job onwards, are adaptations to the fact that the space ship does not rise miraculously from the swamp even when the good guys want it to, really badly. This does not worry Mr Wilkinson. It seems to him that Star Wars, though it is one of the greatest consumerist phenomena of the age, opens up a vision of a world beyond technological consumerism. It is designed to appeal to the kind of characters - "a small boy and a whiny teenager" - who would never have anything to do with normal church life.

It's all an imposing theory, and will make an interesting companion to an earlier book he published on The Spirituality Of The X-Files. Both phenomena, he says, show evidence of a tremendous need to believe in the reality of stuff outside our narrow imaginations, and to anchor myth with detailed reality.

There is a key difference, he insists. Christianity's gospel stories weren't made up in the way that those about Skywalker and Darth Vader were. Star Wars fans, of course, might not agree.