Today fewer Americans than ever identify with a formal religion, just 47%. Yet, Americans remain overwhelmingly religious. The same Gallup poll also found a record number of Americans choosing to identify as “religious” with no affiliation. America is more religious, even as it grows less ‘Christian’.
Christianity isn’t facing persecution in America as much as a change of address. The move from a sort of Christendom to a religious authority on the margins is cultural. Yet even from the margins, the ideological influence of Christianity on western society is not so easily jettisoned. Historian Tom Holland and pastor/theologian Tim Keller both point to the subterranean streams of Christianity flowing beneath the bedrock of ideological secularism. The future is not strictly secular, but spiritual and religious. Where do we see this most clearly? I believe the cultural vestiges of Christianity, as well as new streams of religious authority converge in the myths we tell and love to be told.
May 4th, on the calendar this week, is celebrated as Star Wars Day. Cultural myths like Star Wars have a capacity to rival & replace traditionally religious streams of authority. It’s not just for nerds, anymore. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, drew from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, who believed myths function as mirrors. To him, myths helped people locate themselves and navigate their life journey.
“Unifying cultural myths” writes Tara Isabella Burton, “transcend their fictional origins and provide us with a handy vocabulary for envisioning a meaningful world.” Burton’s excellent book Strange Rites: New Religions in a Godless World, shows how popular myths and their fictional universes can have a “measurable impact on a whole generation’s moral universe.”
Christianity is not primarily a system of morals. When it functions at this lower level, it operates parallel of our cultural myths in a postmodern society. And so the vaguely religious can dip into Star Wars just as easily as the Sermon on the Mount. Myths disciple.
From Wandavision to the Mandalorian, cultural myths are a formative power. This doesn’t mean we should expect more people to identify as Jedi, or Wizards, though some do. Instead, we should expect more people to source their everyday functional theology, their ethical norms, and their sense of meaning from these stories.
And what of the claims of Christianity in this new brand of American spirituality? For one, as we’ve said, it’s not easy to jettison centuries of Christian moral influence. Theologian David Bentley Hart notes that the past remains a part of our present, no matter what we repudiate or affirm. There remains plenty of common ground for Christian witness in the myths we tell.
Second, contrast also serves to clarify the claims of Christianity. The myths we tell are inseparable from the postmodern stream we inhabit. I believe the role of myths in postmodernity is to function as projections of our existential angst. They reflect our attempts to resolve the inherent tensions of a dissonant, critical, and cynical age. We can see a bit of ourselves in Luke Skywalker’s “it is time for the Jedi to end”, and experience with him a redemptive arch as he declares “I will not be the last Jedi” to end Disney’s 2018 film, The Last Jedi.
Some might say, “this is all a bit much for Star Wars, after all, it’s just a movie” and to that I’d agree in part. But my point isn’t to critically examine whether or not such fictional universes are authoritative in ways claimed by Christianity; I simply wish to point out that, today, myths like Star Wars, Marvel, and Harry Potter function as formative theological and ethical systems, albeit in varying levels, for an increasing number of Americans.
Our myths may function as moors for cultural morality and meaning, but they cannot witness to the historical singularity of the Christ event. And without this grounding, Christianity itself becomes a sort of rival system. Christian witness in a new America must recenter its radical claim of resurrection. More than this, it must also participate in Christ’s new creation as a credible story, told to a postmodern world described by David Bentley Hart as one telling the “story of no stories”.