Star Wars and Religion

The Divinity School offers a major and a minor in Religious Studies. This Spring Quarter we're offering a variety of classes including "Star Wars and Religion." 

Star Wars and Religion  (RLST 28511)

TTH  3:30–4:50pm, Swift 106.
Instructor: Russell Johnson, PhD Candidate in Philosophy of Religions 

What's the class about? 

This course is an introduction to comparative religious ethics, using the familiar Star Wars film franchise as a point of reference to compare different conceptions of heroism. When asked about the religious elements in Star Wars, creator George Lucas said he tried to “distill the essence of all religions” and incorporate them in the Star Wars mythology. We’re going to find out how well he succeeded. We’ll also discuss the significance of myth, and learn about the unique power of stories to bestow meaning on human life and express that which transcends ordinary existence. 

Who should take this class? 

Any student who is interested in how stories help us make sense of our lives—and how movies captivate, unite, and divide people—will have something to contribute to the class discussion. Students don’t need any prior familiarity with religious studies; they don’t even need to have seen Star Wars before. 

I believe you can learn a lot about a group by analyzing the hero stories they share, whether those stories are millennia-old miracle stories or sci-fi space operas. Anyone who wants to think critically about these stories, how they relate to one another, and what they tell us about morality and psychology, should definitely take the class. 

What was your inspiration for this class? 

After The Last Jedi was released in 2017, a massive argument erupted online about the film’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker. Some people loved it, some people hated it. Sifting through the arguments, I realized Luke’s character arc echoes stories from the Christian, Buddhist, and atheist traditions. Religious studies, I figured, might help us understand and appreciate the films more, or at least help us understand why millions of people care about them. Also, if you can understand why people love Star Wars, you might be able to understand why so many people are invested in religious traditions. 

What are you reading in the class? 

One book we’ll be reading is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell argued that the world’s religions and mythologies all share stories with a similar structure: a person gets drawn out of their boring life into a grand adventure, they face a climactic struggle against evil, and they gain wisdom and power they can use to make things better. George Lucas used Campbell’s theory to write Star Wars, and the same story structure can be found everywhere (The Matrix, Harry Potter, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.) In the class, we’ll talk about why this story structure works and what this says about “the good life.” 

Anything else students need to know? 

The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30–4:50 in Swift 106. There will also be screenings of Star Wars movies on Monday evenings, which students are not required to attend.

Russell Johnson

Russell Johnson is a PhD Candidate in the Philosophy of Religions at The Divinity School. His research interests include conflict and nonviolence, religious conceptions of heroes and enemies, and the philosophy of communication.