I was teaching the Gospel of John to a group of university student ministers and someone at some point made reference to the opening of Star Wars. The reference got my mind rolling about how these two epic (and cosmic!) stories begin.
First, lets look at Star Wars:
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
What a beginning, right? Instantly, that blue script foregrounding outer space grasps our attention. And then blasts John Williams’ triumphant musical score. Oooh, this is gonna be good. I saw the film as a 4-year old in the late 1970s in some beat-up cinema in Canton, GA. Good times.
Let’s now compare George Lucas’ narrative opening of Episode IV with the fourth evangelist’s opening of his majestic Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The Prologue of John, especially 1:1–5, is jam-packed with allusions to Genesis 1. “In the beginning” is an explicit appeal to the opening of Israel’s Scriptures. “Word” echoes the means of Creation: by divine speech (“and God said”). John’s reference to “Light,” “Darkness,” and “Life” also point back to Genesis 1.
A New Hope begins in media res, that is, in the middle of an ongoing story (the scrolling yellow text clues us into what is happening). The Gospel of John begins at Creation’s first breath. There is nothing prior to “in the beginning.” John takes us directly back not just to a “long time ago,” but to the birth scene of the cosmos.
And here is another major difference between the narrative openings of these two epic stories: Star Wars is signified as a story disconnected from our actual lives, whereas the Fourth Gospel forces us to rethink our entire life in reference to its story.
Here is what I mean…. “A long time ago far, far away” indicates something that happened too far in the past to have any bearing on the present, and too far in distance to have any bearing on our current location.
“In the beginning was the Word,” however, reminds its earliest readers (Jewish Christians) of the epic story that had shaped their lives and the lives of their ancestors, a story they had known from earliest childhood, the grand story of Israel’s Scriptures, the story of the Creating and Redeeming God. The fourth evangelist’s narrative is to be understood in reference to that familiar, close-to-home story. It may be “long ago,” but it is certainly not far away—it is the language of their personal and communal lore.
And what John was insisting is that this familiar story had to be reread and reconsidered through Jesus.
“In the beginning was THE WORD” compels a Christological reworking of the familiar cosmic tale that had heretofore shaped their lives, their theology, their worship. The Word did not just become flesh—Jesus took up residence within the age-old story of Israel and Israel’s God.
He exploded that story’s narrative boundaries and redefined it. Nothing will ever be the same again.
When we watch Star Wars, we can enjoy a story that is distant from us, disconnected from our lives and entirely out of our orbit.
But when John’s Gospel was read amidst early Christian assemblies, it was instantly clear from Jewish hearers that this was a story close to home, embedded within their veins. This account of Jesus cannot be heard or read as an intriguing fantasy.
It is the story of their own lives that must be reread and reheard through the risen Christ.