ESSAY
Star Wars and the Typological Imagination
POSTED
December 24, 2019

I. Introduction

With the final installment of the sequel trilogy complete, it’s fair to say that Star Wars fans are, and evermore will be, a house divided.

The sequels have split opinion since they were announced. The chief accusation has perhaps been that they amount to little more than nostalgia—not just in their resurrection of the brand, or recalling of old actors, but in the very content of their narratives.

2015’s The Force Awakens suffered this charge heavily. One critic sums up its narrative similarities to 1977’s original:

Here again we have a cute but determined droid that has been loaded with valuable information, dropped in a desert type planet and found by a character who’s clearly a diamond in the rough. Their chance encounter will take them on a journey that will conclude with the destroying of a planet-buster Death Star in a battle where dozens of ships will fly in opposite directions without any of them colliding. The villains will be after the same things as their predecessors more or less, but in this case they are made to look (not too subtly [sic]) like Nazis.[1]

He’s not wrong. Even Rian Johnson’s allegedly revisionist The Last Jedi echoed plenty about The Empire Strikes Back. And, not to spoil anything, but The Rise of Skywalker only adds to the conversation.

For many, this makes the sequels a failure—at best resting on the franchise’s laurels, at worst weaponising nostalgia for megabucks.

Now, there is some fair criticism here. However, I want to argue that much of this criticism stems from a failure to grasp the way in which these films deliberately tell their stories.

I’m not trying to argue anyone into enjoying these films if they don’t already – the definition of a pointless exercise, surely. But I am hoping to demonstrate that our failure to grasp how these stories have been told is rooted in a deficit in our imagination—specifically, a typological deficit.

Then, I want to illuminate how that same deficit besets evangelicalism today, preventing us from understanding Scripture's typological storytelling.

Finally, I want to compel readers to cultivate an open, fertile typological imagination, so that they don’t miss the beautiful ways in which Scripture holds out Christ to us.

II. Intentional Repetition and Variation

One often gets the impression from critics of the Star Wars sequels that they think the filmmakers hoped audiences wouldn’t notice these repetitions.

Trouble is, the filmmakers have been very open about intentionally repeating the narratives of the earlier films. JJ Abrams, director of The Force Awakens, said in a 2016 interview:

It was obviously a wildly intentional thing that we go backwards, in some ways, to go forwards in the important ways… The story of history repeating itself was, I believe, an obvious and intentional thing, and the structure of meeting a character who comes from a nowhere desert and discovers that she has a power within her, where the bad guys have a weapon that is destructive but that ends up being destroyed — those simple tenets are by far the least important aspects of this movie, and they provide bones that were well-proven long before they were used in Star Wars.[2]

These repeated elements—the character from “a nowhere desert,” a planet-sized super-weapon—these are just “the bones” says Abrams. It’s the flesh put on those bones that is key. To put it another way: yes, much is the same this time around, but how does that draw attention to what is different?

Abrams also applies this to TFA’s Starkiller Base—or what plenty regard as the film’s “complete rip off of Darth Vader’s Death Star.”[3] But Abrams says the point is that viewers focus on what is different this time:

[Y]es, they destroy a weapon at the end of this movie, but then something else happens which is, I think, far more critical and far more important… [w]hat you really care about is what's gonna happen in the forest between these two characters [Rey and Kylo Ren] who are now alone.

Comparing the climax of TFA to A New Hope, we see what he means: in ANH, destroying the super-weapon is the pinnacle of victory; however, in TFA, it’s incidental. The real climax is the intimate clash between Rey and Kylo. ANH has its emotional duel between two masters, Obi Wan and Darth Vader, midway through the film; TFA shifts its duel into the finale, pitting two apprentices against one another. Things are familiar, but different... and it is there that we find the story’s emphases.

This is just one example. We could do the same for The Last Jedi, and (again, not to spoil) The Rise of Skywalker.

Criticizing the films’ narrative similarities to the originals, then, seems to some extent rather like proudly declaring “the Emperor has no clothes on!” in the middle of an imperial outing to a nudist beach.

It’s kind of the point.

III. Aversion to Typology

Why then, if the filmmakers have been so intentional and open about their storytelling, have we been so prone to miss it?

I propose that it is due to a lack of “typological imagination.”

This is to say that Star Wars tells its stories typologically, but that we lack the imagination necessary to see this. Imagination here does not mean “seeing what is not there”, but rather “seeing what is there, but hidden beneath the surface.”

Now, we accept, even expect, most films to function typologically in some ways. All genre movies riff on basic “types” of character, plot, and aesthetic. When you watch a James Bond movie (in fairness, a genre unto itself), you don’t balk when one film repeats elements of the last: disfigured villains, deceptive femme fatales, convenient gadgets. In fact, if those were missing, you’d question whether it was meaningfully a Bond movie.

Indeed, we are attracted to typological storytelling in this vein. The predictability is comforting. We can even enjoy certain twists and variations (within limits).

And the Star Wars sequels do use this kind of typology. Certain repeated elements across all installments are never criticised, because they’re regarded as necessary constituents (inspiration from samurai movies, at least one lightsaber duel, spaceship dogfights etc.)

Yet the sequels seem to take their typological storytelling a step further. The above elements are acceptable, even expected. But when TFA introduced audiences to a planet-sized super-weapon, many balked at it. Why?

It seems to be because the story uses its own earlier events as types later on in a continuous narrative, rather than using elements from a broader genre-based “stock.” It is going backwards in order to go forwards—but not going backwards within its genre or to other inspirational films; it’s going backwards within itself. It is concerned not with types created by others, it is concerned with types of its own creation.

Our natural response to this is likely to assume that the writer is lazy, or thinks the audience is too stupid to notice, or both. We fundamentally find it hard to believe that both the story and the audience are being taken seriously.

Yet, if we can read Abrams (and elsewhere, Rian Johnson) without undue cynicism, we know that they take both their work and their audiences very seriously. Their storytelling is very intentional; and of course they expected you to notice what they’ve repeated. But that’s only the half of it!

With all this in mind, it seems fair to say that much criticism of the sequels fails to understand their typological storytelling.

But what has Mos Eisley to do with Jerusalem?

IV. Typological Imagination in the Church

Star Wars is uniquely able to use typology in this way because it has been telling one story for forty years across nine films. Ithas a critical mass of its own narrative material, enabling it to draw deeply from within itself.

Yet because this storytelling is quite unique, we miss it.

And, in the same way, we often miss Scripture’s typological storytelling.

We can allow some typology of course—where the New Testament explicitly points it out, or where the Reformers highlighted it. But it is not central to evangelical exegesis.

We struggle to believe, except in the clearest instances, that Scripture is wildly intentional in going backwards—and that this is how it actually moves us forwards.

We do not expect a religious text to work that way. We often feel it would be much more helpful if God revealed himself in tracts—or at least more epistles. Yet epistles are only 24% of Scripture; 33% is poetry, and a sizeable 43% is narrative[4]—and typology dominates the storytelling of those narrative sections.

Scripture is unique in religious literature in its reliance upon typological narrative. Robert Alter, in his famed The Art of Biblical Narrative, points out that “[i]t is peculiar, and culturally significant, that among ancient peoples only Israel should have chosen to cast its sacred national traditions in prose.”[5] Most ancient peoples used poetry for sacred writing. Compare the Mesopatmian “Epic of Gilgamesh” to Genesis, and you’ll see Alter’s point.

Yet it doesn’t take long in this sacred prose to start finding Death Stars and Starkiller Bases. In Genesis 12 Abram half-deceives Pharaoh by telling him Sarai is his sister; he then pulls the same trick with Abimelek in Genesis 20; then, Isaac does the same with Rebekah in Genesis 26. How do we react to such conspicuous repetition?

To caricature: a liberal reading takes this is as obvious evidence of an editorial mishmash. The author, and his subsequent editors all worked with minimal overlap in time, place, or agenda (a bit like a Hollywood studio). They threw together variations (none historically true) of some lost genre of Jewish oral tradition, never imagining that they were forming Torah.

In contrast (again, caricaturing), an evangelical takes historicity and authorial intent seriously, and concludes that the author really wants us to learn a lesson, so repeats for emphasis. Yet they will still be thinking “well, I wouldn’t have told it that way,” as this glaring repetition seems a distracting blip.

Despite their differences, these two have something in common: a low view of the author as a storyteller. For the liberal, the “author” is long lost, and who knows if his story ever even had a lesson. For the evangelical, the author has an obvious lesson, but lacks storytelling finesse.

If we assume that Scripture’s stories are concerned with lost Hebrew traditions, or succinct modern life-lessons, they will baffle us.

However, if we cultivate an open and fertile typological imagination, assuming Scripture to be stubbornly concerned with itself, to be wildly intentional in going backwards within itself in order to go forwards, then quirks such as “the old wife-sister routine” begin to make sense.

A typological imagination assumes that Scripture is highly intentional literary art.Alter describes the role of literary art in biblical narrative as “[a] crucial one… finely modulated from moment to moment, determining in most cases the minute choice of words and reported details, the pace of narration, the small movements of dialogue, and a whole network of ramified interconnections in the text.”[6]

If we expect this, then we will of course see Genesis 12 replayed in Genesis 20—but we will ask “what’s different?” Well, we now have Abraham, not Abram; Abimelek meets God in a dream, Pharaoh did not; Abraham identifies Sarah as his half-sister, unlike in Egypt. And maybe Genesis 12 shouldn’t even be our starting point, but was alluding to something even earlier![7]

We could go on. What do these differences mean? Well, that’s one for the preachers to answer; but the thing is, they do mean.

Scripture demands a typological imagination—not to see things that aren’t there, but to see what is there but beneath the surface. This imagination must be open—ready to believe that, yes, the author is sending you there of all places, and he is not being lazy about it. And this imagination must be fertile—acquainted with what has come before in the story, and so aware of all that the author could be replaying.

Scripture is always moving us forwards, from one degree of glory to another, by holding out Christ to us. Yet, more often than not, it does this by sending us wildly, intentionally backwards. Only if we let our imaginations follow Scripture’s typological storytelling will we able to behold Christ fully, from every point along its circuitous routes.


Rhys Laverty is a Graduate Diploma with Union School of Theology. He podcasts about film and TV on For Now We See, and tweets @IfADoubleDecker. He lives in Chessington, UK with his wife and daughter.


[1]Gerardo Valero, “Plagiarizing “Stars Wars”: The Problems with The Force Awakens”, RogerEbert.com, January 5 2016, https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/plagiarizing-star-wars-the-problems-with-the-force-awakens

[2]Scott Feinberg, “Awards Chatter Podcast’ – JJ Abrams (‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’) The Hollywood Reporter, January 8 2016, ’https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/awards-chatter-podcast-jj-abrams-853171

[3]“How The Force Awakens is a Remake of A New Hope,” Looper, https://www.looper.com/6702/ways-force-awakens-remake-new-hope/

[4]The Bible Project, “How to Read the Bible: Literary Styles”, YouTube Video, 5:27, 22 June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=69&v=oUXJ8Owes8E&feature=emb_logo

[5]Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 27

[6]Alter, Biblical Narrative, 1

[7]See p.86 of James Jordan’s Primeval Saints for an outline of this type-scene’s roots in Genesis 3 (James B. Jordan, Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis (Moscow: Canon Press, 2001), 86

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