A saintly wisdom figure deliberately sacrifices his life to a warrior’s sword to save a protégé and his friends. They sally forth with a small handful of others relying upon ingenuity more than weaponry to confront the greatest empire of the age. Obi-Wan’s appearance in a beatific vision during a victory banquet along with Yoda and Anikan confirms the existence of a realm of light beyond. In the latest Star Wars installment, The Rise of Skywalker, Luke and Leia cap the series by returning to bestow a similar benediction upon the new heroine, Rey.

Star Wars isn’t promoting Christianity, merely marketing a dummied down version of it much like Christmas has become a holiday shopping season and St. Valentine’s feast day a romantic interlude — or Halloween’s ghouls a mockery of the communion of saints. In fairness, Christianity has at times appropriated pagan celebrations and folded them into liturgical feasts; Roman temples like the Pantheon in Rome or the Parthenon in Greece were re-consecrated as churches. Mystery can be reduced to myth or myth elevated to mystery.

Fictional, self-sacrificing superheroes who pass over into an eternal realm or are resurrected in some form like Captain America maintain an appeal that merely highlights an undercurrent of religious belief within every culture whether primitive or superficially secular. That yearning is as innate to the human soul as is the craving of the body for food.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” That gnawing desire ultimately led St. Augustine to God to convert to Christianity after years of frustrated searching for enlightenment that Greek and Roman philosophy could not sate.

Cynicism is the last gasp of the atheist or agnostic before breathing in the grace of the Holy Spirit, a necessary step along the pathway to truth. C.S. Lewis, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest Christian author, snippily wrote as a teen, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” Lewis later recognized that, like Augustine, he spent too much time protesting a bit too much. Contempt is often a sign that a seed of faith has gotten under a person’s skin waiting only for an infusion of grace to burst into blossom.

St. Paul believed in the God of Israel but as a young Pharisee could not conceal his scorn for the burgeoning movement of Jewish Christians. But Paul after his conversion along with other early martyrs understood how threatening a seemingly insignificant band of Christ-followers were to a powerful secular order unconvinced about the homage it was paying to alternative deities.

Later Paul wrote from prison, “ ... we even boast of our afflictions knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance proven character, and proven character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4) Hope is the sign that grace lives within us even when darkness seems more powerful than light.

Pagan or fictional heroes reveal a desire for God that may lie dormant for a time but is not dead. Imitations or mockeries of Christian belief merely betray its timeless truths. Rey might slay an emperor, but Christo Rey conquered the world without sword or saber. Even if it’s a twisting path, there is simmering grace in the stories of Ben and Yoda, Luke and Leia — Wonder Woman and Captain America too.

If we feel afflicted when a culture seethes with contempt for faith while liberally borrowing and watering down its metaphors, we should not despair but rejoice. Its condemnations and protests are a papery skin concealing a deeper longing, its blind appropriations of Christian hope a bitter but desperately wintry plaint that must ultimately yield to Pentacostal spring. The real force that is the Spirit has a strangely wondrous and mysterious way of confounding and employing for its own purposes plot lines outside its standard orbit, and, indeed, it is always with us.

Father King, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, is an instructor of theology at the University of Portland.