One of my favorite places at Walt Disney World is the Sci-Fi diner. In true Disney fashion, the restaurant is themed like you’re outside. You walk in, and suddenly you’re under the stars, sitting in fin-swept neon cars— at a drive-in movie theater in the Fifties.
Your table is your car. And you watch these corny B-movie alien films. They have titles like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” or “Invasion of the Martian Men” As a bonus, you get to eat a really overpriced cheeseburger. The atmosphere is worth at least one trip. Those alien b-movies are really something. And now I know why.
One of the most interesting things I’ve come across in my research into conspiracy theories happened during the 1950’s Red Scare of Communism.
Before the moon landing, the Cold War between US democracy and Soviet communism was going pretty poorly for the US. Fears of communist infiltration reached fanatic & hysteric levels. The US was losing because communists were in the government! (So they said)
The American public, along with American politics, was swept up in this paranoia over outing communists apparently hiding in plain sight. (Unlike slave revolts or Catholic conspiracies, you had a harder time outing a communist.)
And what I never pieced together, until reading Michael Butter, was how those corny B-movie alien invader films of the 50’s were one way American culture negotiated the fear of being infiltrated by communism. But in the movies, the good guys always won.
Alien invader films were these cheap, corny, thrill seeking B movies. But they did something important for Americans. They took the real fear, hysteria and fanaticism from the world outside the theater, dropped it in a controlled narrative, gave it meaning, and resolved it.
The stories we tell say something about us, our likes and dislikes, our ideas of good and evil. But they also do something for us. It’s why I’m fascinated by the new Obi-wan Kenobi series. Why this story? Why now? My research into the US, into evangelicals, and our practice of politics today makes me wonder.
Kenobi takes place 9 years before the original Star Wars. The Empire is hunting Jedi. Kenobi is reliving his failure of losing Anakin Skywalker to the dark side as Darth Vader. In all this, there’s something very fitting for a show that invites Americans to negotiate and resolve exile, failure, a loss of trust in institutions, and the collapse of religious orders tied to power.
But Kenobi is not a new story, even if it’s a story we haven’t seen in the Star Wars universe. This story has been told before.
Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, tells the story of a “whisky priest”, a sort of euphemism for a corrupt or failed clergy. This priest is on the run from an authoritarian Mexican government in the 1930’s, he’s also a drunk. In one scene from the novel, which is nearly transposed shot for shot into Kenobi, a police investigator on the hunt for the priest brings an entire village out into the town square and threatens to kill one of them if they don’t give up the priest.
The investigator of Greene’s novel, just like the Empire in Kenobi, seem to think that a true priest would step in—that their “compassion would leave a trail” to quote the latest Kenobi episode. And so they wreak chaos in darkness to force the light to reveal itself. The problem, both with Kenobi and the whisky priest, is they see themselves as failures. The resolution of Greene’s novel is a profound commentary on sin, salvation, redemption, and hope.
I don’t know which turns Kenobi will take. But what I do know is that the themes it deals with right now are important, if only because they are immediate. But are we willing to see them, and ourselves, for who we really are?
Our ability or inability to cast ourselves in the story is significant. In my own experience, Americans have a sort of hero complex, quick to see ourselves as rebels, not Empire, as Jedi, not the dark side. Evangelicals do this with Scripture, too.
I mean, at the end of the day, we all want to see ourselves as Kenobi, a broken but heroic Jedi in hiding. But that would mean carrying & confronting failure, hubris, and corruption. That would mean embracing short term pessimism. It would involve admitting the collapse of a religious order, and adjusting to life in exile and wilderness. Are Americans capable of this? Are evangelicals?
These stories, the ones we love, say something about us. Not just who we are, but who we hope to be. They also do something for us, giving us space to negotiate and resolve tension: fear and faith, good and evil. And in all this, it’s worth remembering God in his wisdom reveals himself, his works and ways, in a story. How we receive and repeat this story matters, with its own patterns and themes of exile, redemption, and hope.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” isn’t as far away as we might think. How could it be? C.S. Lewis wrote Narnia with the comment that one day, his grown daughters would come to believe in fairy tales again. I get it now, “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10.8)