Faith and Fandom
To Boldly Go Into All the World, Preaching the Good News...Where No One Has Gone Before

Failure at the Cave

Right in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), there’s a surreal scene that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the sci-fi blockbuster’s action-packed storyline. The film’s breakneck pace slows down for just a moment during Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) Jedi training on the swamp planet Dagobah. Due to the vignette’s subject matter, positioning in the plot and stylistic filming, it’s clear that creator George Lucas and director Irvin Kershner intended to set the episode apart from the rest of the film for a specific reason, which invites a close examination of the sequence.

To set the scene, diminutive Jedi Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) has been drilling Luke with a series of physically demanding exercises. During a break in training, Yoda initiates Luke’s next challenge…a psycho/spiritual exercise designed to test the young initiate’s character.

“That place,” Yoda indicates with his withered wooden cane, “is strong with the Dark Side of the Force.”  

The Force is the mystical energy that “surrounds us and penetrates us” (pantheism) and grants magical powers to those skilled in its use. The Dark Side is the embodiment of evil, and the cave that Yoda is prompting Luke to enter is saturated with it.

Concern evident in his voice, Luke asks what he’ll find inside the pit. Yoda’s cryptic response is, “Only what you take with you.” This seemingly innocuous line, delivered by the green-skinned alien as he draws circles in the muck with his walking stick, has huge implications for Luke’s impending test.

As a precaution, Luke picks up his weapons belt and prepares to face the unknown. But Yoda, ever the intuitive instructor, senses Luke’s apprehension and says, “Your weapons, you will not need them.” That statement generates the only moment of levity in this otherwise serious and dark passage in the film.  Luke tosses Yoda a skeptical look, as if to say “Yeah, right!,” and continues fastening his utility belt around his waist.

Standing at the mouth of the cavern, Luke reaches a crossroads…you might call it a crisis of faith.  Will he enter the cave or not? What will Luke find inside the “domain of evil” and will he be ready to face it?

As Luke descends into the dank, reptile-ridden pit, he comes face-to-face with the manifestation of his greatest fear…the black clad Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. There are a couple important points to consider in this scene. First, Vader activates his lightsaber only after Luke does; a defensive posture. Secondly, and most importantly, Vader makes no serious effort to either attack Luke or defend himself against Luke’s assault (the contest is comprised of just three lightsaber clashes). Due to Vader’s feeble resistance, Luke decapitates him within a matter of seconds. In the aftermath of this short-lived duel, Luke sees his own face inside Vader’s helmet, which, of course, sets up the haymaker revelation later in the movie.

The brief battle is shot at a pseudo slo-mo speed and has a dreamlike quality to it. This visual aesthetic, which is highly effective in creating an atmosphere of palpable dread, is cunningly symbolic when considering Luke’s earlier statement about boggy Dagobah resembling something out of a dream.

The cave confrontation confirms Yoda’s unheeded advice since Luke could’ve completed the challenge far quicker and without any violence had he entered the grotto sans his weapons. Ironically, even though Luke learns the lesson, he still fails the test.  This fact is confirmed later in the movie when Yoda says, “Remember your failure at the cave.” 

Luke’s conscious decision to shun sound counsel recalls many similar situations in the Bible where ostensibly righteous men chose to ignore, reject or modify God’s will in order to suit their own purposes.

Remember the Sunday school story of Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1&2)?  God called Jonah to teach in Nineveh, but obstinate Jonah jumped on the first ship headed in the opposite direction.  Jonah eventually ended up preaching in Nineveh, but not before he was tossed into a stormy sea, swallowed by a whale and vomited onto a beach. That’s what you call learning the hard way.

Or how about when Moses struck the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it as God had commanded (Numbers 20:11&12)?  Moses’ moment of anger prevents him from entering the Promised Land.

And what about mentally tortured Saul, who, after failing to hear God’s voice, consulted with the witch at Endor (who must’ve been short and furry) to conjure up the spirit of departed prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7)?

Luke’s disregard for Yoda’s instruction smacks of the same kind of disobedience demonstrated in these Biblical examples. Even though Luke’s hesitation over entering a potentially dangerous situation without any defenses is completely understandable, the way he responds to the situation, by taking matters into his own hands, is still an act of rebellion against his teacher.

Turning away from the Master (Romans 3:23) is something we all have in common with Luke. However, the fact that we can glean insight from a mishandled mission (just like Luke does) is a reassurance that God’s plan can still be fulfilled in spite of our selfish motives. But how much more could we accomplish for the Kingdom if we did things God’s way instead of ours?

So have you ever had a failure at the cave?  Have you missed out on God’s best by relying on your own wisdom instead of His (Proverbs 3:5)?  Have you tried negotiating (or wrestling, as Jacob did in Genesis 28:10-17) with God only to discover that your efforts were in vain and that things would’ve worked out far better had you just done what He asked from the start?  Do you find that the guilt you experience over past failures keeps driving you back to the cave time after time in a habitual cycle of shame?

Whatever challenge the cave represents in your life, know that God will never allow you to face a trial that you can’t overcome with his power (1 Cor. 10:13), nor will He abandon you in your darkest hour (Deuteronomy 31:6).  In fact, He has promised to protect you and lead you through life’s many dangers and pitfalls (Psalm 23).  So, whenever you’re faced with a cave moment of your own, prepare your heart in advance to learn the lesson God is seeking to impart.  Or, to tie the moral of the story back to Luke’s training, always do what the little green guy says.

February, 5, 2016