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On the beach with Rogue One

Spoiler alert: This piece will discuss the ending of the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One. If you don’t want to know what happens at the end of this movie, read no further. (But, well, you’ve had the time to see it by now, haven’t you?)

When the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, I thought it was an important moment in popular culture. Hope and faith had returned. It was certainly not the fullness of the Christian hope and faith, but a new light was shining in a culture that had only 11 years before celebrated the “Death of God” on the cover of Time. The film was originally titled simply Star Wars, and a subtitle was added in 1981 (A New Hope).

Throughout the Star Wars series the battle between good and evil is depicted as a spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of people. The forces of good and freedom are up against truly impossible odds, but if “the Force be with you,” all things are possible. In the end all hope rests on the faithfulness and perseverance of the chosen one. Star Wars borrows widely from the world of mythology, but it is the half-remembered fragments of the Christian story that provide the most galvanizing moments of drama. I have written elsewhere on Covenant about my conviction that the popularity of these movies represents a rebellion of the human heart against the God-forsakenness of a world that has, as the theologian Robert Jenson says, lost its story.

In the latest installment of the Star Wars epic, faith and hope are again dominant themes. The movie is about the stealing of the plans of the Death Star, which made the victory of the first movie possible. Again there is a chosen one, this time a young woman named Jyn. She must accomplish an impossible task, upon which the fate of the rebellion and the existence of entire planets and their populations depend. She is helped by many people, including a blind spiritual warrior, Chirrut Îmwe, whose temple is in ruins but who prays fervently that he and the Force may be one. He is thus able to fight with a miraculous power.

She is also helped by a rebel officer named Cassian and his followers. Cassian was once tasked with killing Jyn, but now must decide whether to have faith in her and her mission. Cassian and his men have done such terrible things in the name of the rebellion that they feel compelled to commit this last hope of a mission lest all that they have done should be in vain and meaningless. With this act of faith they hope for redemption. “Rebellions are based on hope,” is a phrase repeated in the movie at key moments.

The final scene of the movie takes place on an Edenic tropical island. Jyn and Cassian must break into the Imperial archives and upload plans for the Death Star, while their small band of commandos keeps the enemy from stopping them. Much of the action of the final moments of the film occurs on the beach.

The location is significant. It is not unknown for moviemakers to reference previous works of cinema in their art, and I think that is the case here. I believe the screenwriter is making a reference that many younger viewers may not catch but that provides an important clue to understanding the message of the movie. On the Beach is the name of a book and movie. The film version was released in 1959, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins. Although not a commercial success, it too was a major cultural event.

Nevil Shute wrote the novel, which concerns the survivors of a massive nuclear exchange of World War III. The Northern Hemisphere has been devastated and all those not killed in the original missile attack have died from radiation poisoning. The radiation cloud takes time to reach the Southern Hemisphere, so life continues in Australia, where the inhabitants await the inevitable. In anticipation, the Australian government has issued suicide pills to its citizens, who wait for the end on the beach, precisely where Rogue One ends.

The beach setting of Rogue One’s last scene has affected my interpretation. Think about it: Cassian and Jyn succeed in getting the plans of the Death Star uploaded to the rebellion thanks to a complete act of faith by Chirrut Îmwe. At the crucial moment, he walks through a hail of blaster fire unscathed, praying not in the composure of some Eastern sage but with a desperate fervor that he and the Force may be one. Even with this incredible success, the whole band of commandos is doomed. The Death Star fires off a shot that sends a mushroom-like cloud of destruction roiling across the planet. Jyn and Cassian embrace each other as they await the end on the beach.

I think this film means to address this question: Is there hope on the beach? Planet-destroying technology is in the hands of the greedy, wicked, and ruthless. These forces look unstoppable, but perhaps they have a fatal flaw and can be brought down. Success relies on a mixture of faith, hope, prayer, and courageous action, especially self-sacrifice for the sake of others. This film touches on the current generation’s truly apocalyptic despair regarding the fate of the planet, and it paints the depth of that despair with much the same grimness of On the Beach.

But here is the difference. In this film, there is more room for the hope of supernatural assistance. In this film, people of hope who align themselves with the Force and take courageous action may prevail. They may. Their sacrifice may matter. It is not clear as we await the finale, on the beach. Faith is put to the test.

What clues about apologetics can we draw from this film? This film helps us measure the depth of despair about the future of the human race and the planet in our society, especially among young people. It should alert us also to the irrepressible instinct for faith, hope, and prayer, as well as the deep desire of the human heart to take courageous action for the common good. It is fascinating to me that the primary way in which such courageous action is imagined is in the form of armed rebellion. There is a suggestion in the film that a rebel who is condemned by other rebels as an extremist and terrorist may have had it right all along. He plays Joseph to the Empire’s Herod in saving Jyn from being slaughtered as a child. A question is raised here about the limits on the use of violence in the service of good. What word can we speak to the struggles and anxieties this film describes?

To people who are hungry for a big story, we should tell — with great confidence in our preaching and liturgy — the world’s true story. We should tell them of the God who holds the whole world in his hands and will not let the earth be destroyed, but who will make the heavens and the earth new. We should tell them how this new life has already appeared in the real savior of the world, who conquers the evil empire not with guns or the sword but with the humility and love of the cross. We should tell them about faith, hope, and answered prayer in the service of this Savior. We should tell them that no courageous deed done in his name and according to his way is ever done in vain.

We should tell them that even on the beach there is hope for us, for our people, for our planet, both here and hereafter. They just might listen to someone whose temple is in ruins but who still believes, still hopes, still prays, and still acts with courage.


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