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‘Star Wars’ and the 12 steps of the ‘Hero’s Journey’: Finding God in surprising places

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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‘Star Wars’ and the 12 steps of the ‘Hero’s Journey’
Promotional image from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the last film in the last Star Wars trilogy, opens in theaters today.

I remember my first Star Wars film as if it were last week. I had never seen such technology on a movie screen. And when Luke destroyed the Death Star, the cheers shook the theater. 

We’ve been cheering for the Skywalkers for forty-two years since. 

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the Star Wars business has been good business for Disney. The Force Awakens grossed $937 million domestically, the most of any movie in box-office history. Disney’s new streaming service launched with a Star Wars spinoff called The Mandalorian; Disney reported that ten million users signed up a day after the service launched. 

An immersive Star Wars-themed attraction called Galaxy’s Edge opened this year at Disney parks in Orlando and Anaheim. The attraction sells $20 Blu-rays, $84 Darth Vader gold rings, $32 Chewbacca kitchen aprons, and $199 lightsabers as well. 

“A fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo” 

What explains the remarkable generational popularity of the Star Wars franchise? 

Dr. Travis Langley is a professor of psychology and lead writer of Star Wars Psychology: Dark Side of the Mind. He explains that Star Wars creator George Lucas “deliberately wove the most successful elements of heroic epics from throughout history into his story.” 

Dr. Langley points to Lucas’ use of Joseph Campbell’s work on the “Hero’s Journey,” which Campbell based on Carl Jung’s writings about the power of archetypes and myth.

According to Campbell, the hero takes twelve steps: 

  1. Living in the ordinary world
  2. Hearing the call to adventure
  3. Refusing the call
  4. Meeting with the mentor
  5. Crossing the threshold to leave the ordinary world
  6. Testing allies and enemies
  7. Approaching a challenge
  8. Facing the ordeal of death or a great fear
  9. Gaining the reward but facing the risk of losing it again
  10. Taking the road back to complete the adventure
  11. Facing the resurrection—one more severe test, a possible moment of death and rebirth
  12. Returning with the elixir—the hero has been transformed.

Shortly before he died in 1987, Campbell told reporter Bill Moyers that this “journey” is “a fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo.” 

The “God-shaped emptiness” in us all 

Campbell is right: we are all on a journey toward God’s purpose for our souls. Unfortunately, many attempt to reach their supernatural destination through natural means. 

Observant Jews strive to obey the 613 laws of God. Muslims live by the Five Pillars of Islam. Buddhists seek to follow their Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Hindus practice ascetic rituals as they attempt to progress through multiple reincarnations toward their concept of salvation. 

As Pascal noted, there is a “God-shaped emptiness” in each of us. Like the Skywalkers, we battle the Evil Empire in our hearts and our world as we seek to fulfill our ultimate destiny. 

But unlike the Skywalkers, none of us can complete the “hero’s journey” without the help of the one true Hero. 

“He went to set up his monument” 

First Chronicles 18 tells the story of David’s conquest over the enemies of his people. Included in the narrative is this unusual statement: “David also defeated Hadadezer king of Zobah-Hamath, as he went to set up his monument at the river Euphrates” (v. 3). Think of it: just as a king was building a monument to himself and his power over the region, he was defeated by the king empowered by God. 

What happens to self-made heroes happens to self-made nations as well. The Lord said of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria: “This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, ‘I am, and there is no one else.’ What a desolation she has become, a lair for wild beasts! Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist” (Zephaniah 2:15). 

Trying harder to do better is imprinted on our cultural DNA. Self-reliance explains much of the material success of our society. 

But self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide. None of us can try hard enough or do well enough to compensate for our sins and earn our place in God’s sinless heaven. 

That’s why God came to us at Christmas. It’s why he comes to us in his Spirit and word today. It’s why he calls us to submit to his Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), follow his will (Psalm 16:11), and depend on his power (Proverbs 3:5–6).  

“Humanity at its worst. Divinity at its best!” 

Max Lucado: “Never did what is right involve itself so intimately with what is wrong. God on a cross. Humanity at its worst. Divinity at its best! God doesn’t gasp in amazement at the depth of our faith or the depth of our failures. He knows the condition of the world and he loves it just the same. 

“Just when we find a place where God would never be, like a cross—we look again, and there he is . . . in the flesh! Inconsistent surprises. Maybe the next time a surprise comes your way, you’ll see God in the middle of it.” 

Where in your broken world do you need to see God today?

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