Star wars and the road to Christianity
When the University of Newcastle and the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle embarked on an international search for the inaugural Chair in Theology, creativity, energy and the ability to bring academic rigour to the discipline were prerequisites. An affinity with Star Wars, on the other hand, was not.
In Professor John McDowell, a former Cambridge researcher with an international reputation for his work on Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the interaction of theology with other disciplines, it was a package deal.
Author of The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope, and the Force, McDowell often draws on popular culture to illuminate theological concepts and to critically test the theological values assumed by popular culture.
"The Star Wars space epics have strong overlaps with Christianity," McDowell said. "I admit my work on Star Wars is contentious, but I do examine the films from an ideological perspective so that they can be read in their own contexts rather than be reduced to Christian concepts."
Previously the Meldrum Lecturer in Systematic Theology at New College at the University of Edinburgh, McDowell has been given the opportunity to shape the future of theological study in Newcastle. The introduction of a Bachelor in Theology in 2008, supported by the Anglican Diocese, provides the platform for the evolution.
McDowell's major research interests centre on questions of hope and he has been inspired by the writings of the eminent Swiss theologian Karl Barth. "The reason that hope interests me is because philosophers have often described it as the central facet of life. Without hope there is no future.
"What Barth challenges Christians to consider is that hope is not something that directs us away from the life of this world into some 'other' world, but instead grounds and shapes so called 'good' actions."
Implicit in his research is an intimate knowledge of Christian theology, however some of his teaching questions many popular ways of understanding the relationship between the church and the secular world, hence his interest in popular culture. "The irony is that those [Christians] who tend to oppose Star Wars and other modern stories like Harry Potter don't see the Christian underpinnings in both texts."
McDowell said George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, was drawn to Christianity, especially to Christian stories and rituals he experienced, but felt they were essentially self-concerned. Lucas saw his religiously eclectic films as a way to provoke people to think harder about human responsibility.
Research interests aside, McDowell is excited about the potential for the broader engagement opportunities as a result of establishing theology as a discipline in a mainstream university.
"The fact that the study of theology largely takes place in denominational colleges in Australia makes the position in Newcastle appealing, and hopefully it will contribute significantly to theology in Australia," McDowell said.
"The prospect of encouraging theologians to maintain the highest education standards while engaging with many other disciplines within the University is exciting. Conversely, it provides an opportunity for universities to take theology seriously as an academic pursuit."
"Add to this the possibility of developing links with theologians and theological colleges within Australia and South East Asia, the opportunity to come to Newcastle was too good to pass up."