I loved the newest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. As a lifelong Star Wars fan—I saw the original in 1977 when I was eight—I can honestly say Episode VII exceeded all my expectations. As you might imagine, as a dad I was very eager to share this latest Star Wars experience with my kids. But, before I did, I thought it was important to ask myself a few important questions as well as think about how I could help my kids prepare to be discerning viewers.
From the opening fanfare to the final crescendo, the original Star Wars: A New Hope with it’s quirky droids, blaster fights, exotic aliens, harrowing escapes, and epic final space battle scene transported my childhood imagination permanently to new dimensions. Riding home after the movie that night in 1977, the backseat of my mom’s car became the cockpit of an X-wing fighter. From that moment forward Star Wars became a big cultural force in my life. I collected the toys, played the games, and passed the rumors. As a brand, Star Wars was as instantly recognizable to me as McDonald's and Coca-Cola.
So naturally, when I became a father I couldn’t wait to share Star Wars with my own kids. But when I introduced my oldest child, Joey, to the original Star Wars movie, it didn’t go quite as planned. Around his seventh birthday I set up a screening of A New Hope on my brother’s huge 60” TV. I sat Joey right next to me...with a big bowl of popcorn. Excitedly, I hit play. Three minutes into the film, my little boy was hiding his face behind my arm and I was fumbling for the pause button.
As a kid in the ‘70s, I loved a good (rated PG) shootout or dogfight. However, by the 2000s, movies and TV had become arguably much more intense and graphic; so we had limited my son’s TV and movie watching to predominately G-rated content. I hadn’t stopped to realize that my son had never seen a full-on action film or TV show.
Well, we did finish the movie. And, in the end, he was just as thrilled as I’d expected him to be. But I learned something in the process. I had based my decision to show him the movie on his age, and on my desire for him to share in the experience of it with me—not on his spiritual and emotional maturity.
Assessing your child’s readiness to view different films and TV shows is an important part of your parenting responsibilities. However, I don’t think our responsibility ends there. I now realize that I must also actively prepare them to be discerning viewers. To help me, and my children, discern whether they should watch a movie or not, I teach them to reflect on a few important questions.
First, since we’re free in Christ, much is “lawful” to us (1 Cor. 10:23), but we need also to teach our kids to ask, “Is this beneficial to me?” Certainly, entertainment has value. Not everything has to be a Sunday school lesson, but entertainment is better when it delivers benefit. As with good literature, good movies wrestle with themes that connect the story to real life. Can the child process the themes in a way that helps them gain understanding of their real world? If yes, there is probably benefit to the experience. In the case of my son and his first Star Wars experience, after hitting the pause button, I was able to talk with him about what laid ahead in the film. We discussed the images he had seen and we talked, in an age appropriate way, about the concept of good and evil. After processing a bit, I asked him if he wanted to continue. Because of our conversation, he had a better context for what he was seeing and he recognized that the story was one of good overcoming evil in the end. Ultimately, he benefited because he was able to appreciate the entertainment and glean some understanding of his own world from the fiction.
In an earlier article, I wrote about key, overarching themes that run throughout the Star Wars series, themes that reflect God’s grand narrative. When using any kind of media, I believe that, asking the question, “What does this tell me about God, Creation, and the redemptive story?” helps us discern the value of a media experience. For example, The Force Awakens adds interesting twists to the long running Star Wars theme of struggling to resist the allure of the Dark Side of the Force. In Episode VII, we see the conflicted villain Kylo Ren, take extreme action to put himself beyond the reach of redemption, apparently to seal himself in the Dark Side. Episode VII is the beginning of a new trilogy, and the story is far from over. Is Kylo Ren redeemable? His grandfather, Darth Vader, Ren’s inspiration, was a pretty bad dude, but he turned to the light in the end. Interesting topic for discussion. And there’s much more.
With the release of The Force Awakens, another drama now plays out with our younger son and daughter, 10 and 8 respectively. Both are big Star Wars fans and are eager to see the latest film. Our son, Elijah, however, is particularly sensitive to intensity and peril in movies, especially those he’s seeing for the first time. Episode VII features a few scenes that are particularly intense, even for a Star Wars film. Perhaps unusually, Elijah recognizes his own vulnerability and he reluctantly agreed that going to see the movie in a theater was probably not the best plan for him.
To help Elijah have a good experience with The Force Awakens, my wife and I came up with a plan. We decided to wait for the DVD release (April 5). When we eventually show it to him, we have the ability to skip the parts he feels are too intense or stop to talk about what is happening. But we’re taking it a step further. Before showing him and his sister the movie, I am reading the novelization to them. I have to admit, this has been a lot of fun. By the time they see the movie, they will be familiar with the story, will have grappled with some of the themes, will know what happens even if we decline to watch certain parts. I wish I’d thought of that before dropping my seven year old in front of my brother’s TV.
Star Wars has been a major cultural influence in my life, and it looks like my kids might grow up to be even bigger fans than me. (For the record, we’re far from the biggest Star Wars geeks out there—we don’t dress up or train as Jedi.) Along the way, they need my help to learn the art of discernment, so that they can not only be appropriately entertained, but also connect the experience to the life they live in God’s grand narrative.
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Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster