On not saying Amen to Star Wars

The three major cinema chains that control 80% of UK cinemas recently rejected an advert that consists of a 60 second montage of the Lord’s Prayer, spoken by a variety of different people in different situations and prepared by the Church of England (see news report). The advert was set to go out before screenings of the new Star Wars film, and the church saw it as a way of reaching the wide audiences that would come to see this film before Christmas. The reason given by the cinema companies is that they do not accept any political or religious advertising, for such advertising might be offensive to some customers. The 60 second clip, however, has a simple message “Prayer is for everybody”, and (beyond what may be implied by that statement) does not advertise any particular religious view. You can see the advert here.

I can hear the Christians shouting “What’s offensive about this?” and the secularists shouting “Quite right too. We don’t want religious propaganda on our cinema screens”. But let’s try to unpick the likely assumptions of both sides a little. As usual, absolutisations on both sides tend to obscure the issues.

The Christians may find the Lord’s Prayer so familiar and culturally routine that they may not notice how absolute its language is. It asserts the existence of God in heaven. It embeds the metaphor of God as father that helps to entrench patriarchy. It asks God to exert his power and will over the earth in a way that could leave us passive or with a sense of false certainty about everything being taken care of for us. It asks God to ‘deliver us from evil’ as though to obscure all the tsunamis, cancer victims and murders in his name that he seems to have done nothing about, despite his supposed omnipotence. It also completes the fantasy by affirming belief in the kingdom, often interpreted as an ideal state in the future where God will have fixed everything. Although there are some lines in the prayer, such as those urging us to forgive others, that seem to have a helpful integrative orientation, the Lord’s Prayer taken just as a set of words is not really that inoffensive. It is indeed religious propaganda for unhelpful absolute beliefs that – at least as they are most commonly understood – will not actually help anyone to overcome conflict or address conditions better. On the contrary they may make it worse.

But then, watch the video again, this time focusing not on the words but on the people. The atmosphere of the whole carefully constructed video is extremely positive and reassuring. All the different people, in their diverse situations, are mindful and focused, taking a moment of reflectiveness in the middle of their day. That moment of reflectiveness is powerful. But then imagine all the same scenes with slightly different words. Would the effect be very different? Perhaps for some people the reassurance of the time-worn words, apparently almost meaningless but vaguely comforting, would be lost. But much of the power of that moment of recollection would remain. So most of it is not intrinsically dependent on the Lord’s Prayer itself.

The movement between diverse people all similarly focused also creates a strong sense of human solidarity that I find inspiring, even uplifting. Again though, it is not the words that intrinsically create that sense of solidarity. Religion has developed in such a way that layers of ritual affirming human solidarity are overlaid on a core of beliefs that tend to undermine that solidarity. To see how they might undermine it too, imagine the reactions that would be provoked by singing the Lord’s Prayer in a mosque, or at a lecture given by Richard Dawkins.

So, to understand what the secularists may also be missing, think about the disjunction between the absolute beliefs affirmed by the Lord’s Prayer and the positive meaning of the prayer for millions of Christians, as it is depicted on the video. Those Christians will probably be bewildered if you tell them that their prayer of peace is also productive of conflict. That’s really not what it means to them. Nevertheless, we can all integrate our interpretations of the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer by acknowledging the wide range of things it can mean, and that those meanings depend on the various bodies of the people who experience it, rather than the prayer having a “real” meaning (whether that meaning is good or bad) independent of those people and their bodies. This mistake in what we take meaning to be seems to be at the heart of the mutual incomprehension that arises on topics like this.

Another thing that secularists often neglect to recognise is that absolutisation is not at all the sole preserve of religion. Let’s go back to the Star Wars showing in the cinema. Is the Lord’s Prayer advert uniquely ‘offensive’ because it contains absolutisations (as well as conveying an experience of human reflectiveness and solidarity)? Well, if it’s offensive, it’s certainly not uniquely offensive. The Lord’s Prayer advert, if it had been shown, would probably have been preceded and followed by other adverts that encouraged people to absolutise beliefs such as that they would be uniquely attractive is they use a particular perfume, or absolutely powerful if they drive a particular car.  Belief in the value of hedonism, that value comes only from pleasure, could also be seen as reinforced by nearly every commercial advert. But these kinds of consumerist absolutisations generally pass without critical comment.Clip from Lords Prayer advert

Then there’s the film itself that would follow. Not being a Star Wars devotee, I’m not familiar with the details of the religious elements of Star Wars, but I gather that they involve a certain amount of cod Zen mixed in with the providentialism of ‘May the Force be with you’. Probably a good deal vaguer than the Lord’s Prayer, but it doesn’t sound as though it’s free of absolutisations. Those absolutisations will be far more forcefully propagandised by a lengthy film with a narrative, characters etc than they would have been by the Lord’s Prayer advert. Indeed it seems likely that by the end of the film 98% of the audience would have completely forgotten about the Lord’s Prayer, swept away by the power of fantasy. Again, the meaning of this for the people who watch it is probably far more important than the effect it will actually have on their beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that no dubious beliefs are being promoted.

So, were the cinemas right to refuse to screen the Lord’s Prayer advert on the grounds that some people might find it offensive? No. I disagree with the absolutisations in the Lord’s Prayer, but let’s also understand the role of these in context. If we start trying to control the expression of absolutisations in the public sphere in any way, let’s at least try to do so consistently, rather than picking on religious ones as offensive when commercial ones are apparently not so. In its context, too, the Lord’s Prayer advert would have functioned mainly as a moment of calm, reflectiveness and solidarity in the midst of a storm of over-stimulation, hedonism, violent combat and archetypal idealisation. Let’s have more of those moments of calm and solidarity. If they could come without absolutisations, that would be preferable, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

5 thoughts on “On not saying Amen to Star Wars

  1. Hi Robert,

    I would agree that this advert shouldn’t be banned, in principle, providing that an advert promoting Islam, the British Humanist Society or even the Middle Way Society, can also be shown. Although, as I understand it the policies of the cinemas would not allow this, and I suspect that there would be considerable outrage if they did (Interestingly, Richard Dawkins had said that the cinema should show the advert and that people should not be offended).

    I’m not sure that the spiritual elements of Star Wars are wholly analogous with those of an actively held religious belief, in that they are not intened as a dogmatic creed to be followed/ believed out side of the fictional narrative. Which is not to say that it might not be treated dogmatically by some, or that a viewer can’t drive useful meaning from it. Of course there are even a minority of Christians who find literature/ fiction such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings offensive due to the non-Christian nature of the depicted spirituality. In many ways it is almost impossible to exist without offending someone and I suppose that the nature of one’s offence should be judged on the motivations of those that are considered to be the offenders. Did they set out with the primary intention of offending me, or do they just have a world view or oppinion that is in contrast to mine? Are any individuals or groups likely to intentionally or unintetionally come to harm as a result of the offending belief/ oppinion. There are lots of facts to consider when deciding what to do with an ‘offensinve’ belief or oppinion. I am just uncomfortable with anything being banned purely on the basis that it causes the feeling of offence.

    On a personal level, I happen to like the Lord’s Prayer which seems to show some of the most admirable and useful aspects of the Christian doctrine.

    Rich

  2. Hi Rich, I didn’t really tackle the issue of ‘offence’ in the blog, although I know that was the reason given by the cinemas. Offence is a tricky issue, because it seems to consist in a negative reaction to something. The idea of ‘causing offence’ often conceals the responsibility of the person ‘taking offence’ for that negative reaction. We can’t be responsible for one another’s feelings of hatred or anger, and it’s probably not a good idea to try. Of course what ’causes offence’ may have contributed to the reaction by the form of communication that was used, but how can we fairly distinguish communication what is ‘offensive’?

    I’d suggest that the best way of distinguishing communication of the kind that needs to be avoided because it is ‘offensive’ (rather than just ‘causing offence’) is probably that such communication is absolute in some way. The trouble with absolute claims in communication is that they assume one side is right and the other wrong, fail to acknowledge shared responsibility for the communication, and fail to recognise shared ignorance. By those criteria, as I’ve argued, the Lord’s Prayer by itself is pretty offensive, but fortunately the way it’s presented and used in the advert makes it much less so.

    I don’t think the communicating person’s intention tells us very much, as ‘intention’ is in any case a very complex thing. Talk about intention usually seems to assume that we must all be clearly conscious of the morally dubious things we do, when the very problem is usually a lack of awareness. Saying ‘I didn’t intend to be offensive’ doesn’t primarily communicate much about my mental state at the time, but rather much more about me being ready to take responsibility for what I said and engage with the complexity that my previous statements may have denied.

    1. I stumbled across your website today in a search for poetry to meet the dark time of the year and was intrigued by your middle way philosophy and the turn from absolutism or absolutisation to which I find I am inherently drawn. However I wonder if you are placing more absolutism on the Lord’s Prayer than is inherently there. There are certainly assumptions in it. 1.) we are created and have a progenitor one part of which is masculine ( a father assumes a mother right?) 2.)that there is existence beyond our present experience (a Heaven) 3.) that their is a meaning of some sort (thy will) 4.)we have needs (daily bread)5.)that there are things that are helpful and unhelpful (trespasses and evil which might be defined as good misplaced). I find, however, that there is very little which is definitively defined. We are left very free to interpret what Heaven is, what God’s will is, what even is our daily bread or a trespass against us or from us, even what the EVIL is. Our Father only assumes that we come from somewhere and does not define that, other than to assert that there is the masculine movement behind it which is largely generative and not nurturing as say Our Mother the Earth would be which holds the feminine within in and as I said by saying our Father we assume a Mother so it actually holds that door open.
      Anyways those are just some thoughts and I would be interested in your response and what holes or wholes you might find in my thinking. Thank you for your work and your website, which I look forward to exploring more.

      1. Hi Barbara, welcome to the site.

        I agree with you very much that the symbols and concepts in the Lord’s Prayer can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, and also that it is our responsibility how we choose to interpret them. It would be possible to interpret them in terms of absolute beliefs, but also just in terms of meaningful archetypes that did not necessarily imply any such absolute beliefs. This distinction between beliefs and meaning is quite important in Middle Way Philosophy, but it’s also apparently uncommon and needs a lot more exploration.

        What I was saying about the Lord’s Prayer (but perhaps should have emphasised more) is intended to apply to it as most commonly interpreted. It would be very difficult to know how it was most commonly interpreted just by looking at the text, but personally having a Christian background I think I do have a sense of how it is most commonly interpreted by Christians. That doesn’t mean that the sense can’t change, and that the Lord’s Prayer couldn’t be used in a way that was more integrative than absolute. In the case of the Church of England advert, though, my guess is that for most of the audience in the UK, the majority of whom will be at least vaguely Christian, the absolutisations I mentioned are probably there being assumed in the background. But then, as I also suggested, the way it’s presented and the context also tends to mitigate that absolutisation.

      2. Which leads me to hope that the “common” interpretation is indeed shifting and a new more critical thought process is becoming much less uncommon than popular media would have us believe.

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