Catholic grace in outer space

Paul Campbell finds surprising depth in the new Star Wars show Andor on Disney+

One of the things I love about pop culture is its ability to do the heavy lifting when it comes to what I’ll call human literacy, understanding what it means to be human.

Because it has access to the widest possible audience if the message it delivers has the power to elevate the human soul, then good pop culture represents an authentically salvific force in the world.

Take, for example, the Disney+ Star Wars series, Andor. A prequel to a prequel, the series explores the origins of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel Alliance captain with a criminal past.

It’s part of one of the most widely consumed entertainment franchises in his- tory. But its genuinely artistic merits have caused some fans to complain that it isn’t real Star Wars.

If what they mean by ‘real’ Star Wars is updating knights, wizards, and dragons with spaceships and lightsabres, then they have a point.

But our legends about knights, wizards, and dragons have always sneak lessons about human literacy into far-fetched adventures.

So, why can’t Star Wars contribute to human literacy while describing much more relatable adventures?

The plot charts the origins and development of the Rebel Alliance, whom you will recall as ‘The Goodies’ in the original Star Wars trilogy.

But Andor takes a nuanced approach to such labels of black and white morality, particularly in relation to its eponymous character. It tackles the age-old, indeed Biblical, question of ‘what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?’

Andor’s journey could be the origin story of a saint and it paints a vivid picture of what I believe should be at the heart of the Church’s mission, especially today.

The burgeoning rebellion, certainly not yet a unified Alliance, is characterised by what I’d call a charismatic energy. The Galactic Empire represents such an existential threat to its peoples that comparisons with historical regimes, movements, and organisations are apt.

The Roman Empire, the British Empire, Germany’s Nazis, Russia’s Stalinism, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge… they all can be seen in the Galactic Empire.

The Empire corrupts the virtuous by making an idol of their virtue; it eliminates virtue in those within whom its roots are weak or diseased; it makes evil not only the path of least resistance but also the ladder to success: it reminds me of the Institute in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.

It reminds me why people without the grace to perceive the Church as it really is, are able to see in certain aspects of its operation precisely those things its entire purpose it is to battle.

And why sometimes it isn’t the militant atheist who lacks the grace to see evil staring them in the face but the ardent Christian; and the apparently unlikely beneficiary of the clear-sightedness God’s vision brings is not the Believer but the Heathen.

And it is passionate opposition of this threat, as much as promotion of any other cause, that the people who will build the rebellion are animated.

It puts me in mind of people I know whose antipathy towards the Church, or any organised religion, cannot be overstated but who are inspirational in the cause of peace and justice.

Perhaps during the Acts of the Apostles (as in the time of Jesus), the Gospel appealed as a raw message of hope which the Church has since somehow forgotten how to communicate as radically.

I can imagine, for instance, people who consider themselves Christians who are deeply troubled by the ambivalent ‘goodies’ in Andor, not because of the means some of them employ but because of the end they seek.

And yet the Apostles and the early Church comprised just such a rag-tag collection of hopers. What sort of people and forces trouble the Church more today? And what does the answer to that question tell us about the state of the Church and the world today?

I cannot recommend Dostoyevsky to just anyone, or to everyone. But I can, and do recommend Andor. Andor makes tangible the feeling I have about my sense of Christian mission, including such aspects as vocation, conviction, complex personal motivation — even dashes of secrecy, and spycraft! Maybe the last is mostly my imagination but, then, maybe that’s my point.

What the Church fails to do, that pop-culture cannot survive without, is engage the imagination, and give articulation to a yearning we all have to be involved in some Great Story, and, ideally, protagonists of some Great Cause.

What would the Church be, and what might the world it seeks to manifest look like, if it could feel, in some ways, like the Rebel Alliance and inspire people to be an Andor?

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