As easy as it might be to do, I feel inclined to quickly skip over the part where I compare Star Wars to The Great Controversy. It’s true, and it’s been talked about, and quite honestly it’s a tired trope. Yes, there’s “good versus evil” going on in this story – but you can observe that pretty plainly in Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Shannara, and pretty much any story in the fantasy genre. And yes, I said fantasy – more on that in a bit.
Apparently Adventists have been picking up on this connection since the 80s…
But Star Wars has been – for a while now – a contributing force (pun intended) in our culture to shape how people think about religious themes. In A New Hope we saw that the so-called “supernatural” can have an effect in the real world, shutting down skeptics like Han Solo. In The Empire Strikes Back, we sat at the table with Yoda and learned about the tempting allure of darkness, the value of self-discipline, and the importance of finishing what we start. And in Return of the Jedi, Luke and Vader showed us the story of redemption – how love, compassion, and grace can melt a cold, hard heart and restore a family, when violence and brute strength never could.
But the more recent additions to Star Wars canon – including The Last Jedi – have deepened the implications that the series has for modern people who want to reflect on the theology that exists in pop culture. And while Star Wars has always leaned heavily on Buddhist and Daoist themes, Christian ideas have also been dispersed throughout it, and it is these that I would like to reflect on.
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1 – Faith & Science
So you noticed earlier that I referred to Star Wars alongside fantasy stories. Many people think of Star Wars as “science fiction,” but this a bit of a misnomer. Science fiction is driven by science – obviously. Star Wars, however, is driven predominantly by mysticism and religion. Yes, it is set in a science-fiction universe with aliens, spaceships, hyperdrives, and unfathomable weapons, but the driving force of Star Wars is the Force. Spirituality has always stepped in and operated in the places where science cannot operate in this saga. Or at least, that’s how things more or less worked in the original trilogy.
With the arrival of the much-maligned prequels, some people felt that a change in worldview was introduced to Star Wars that reflected our real-world generational shift. You’ll hear many fans complain about midi-chlorians – microscopic organisms that exist symbiotically inside every living thing to communicate the influence of the Force – as having demystified or naturalized the Force into a scientifically explainable phenomenon. But really, the Force remained what it was – a supernatural reality binding the universe together. The midi-chlorians were simply one part of the natural world that related to the influence of that Force.
So in The Last Jedi, when Rey seeks knowledge about the Force, Luke Skywalker has her look at the dynamics of natural life and death on the island of Ahch-To. Rey is able to learn about her own connection to the Force by observing its presence in all of creation. For Christians, this is a reminder that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV). This view of the Force reminds us that there is no hard division between faith and science, but that they both are deeply relevant parts of our experience of the world, co-existing alongside each other harmoniously.
2 – Failure, Idolatry, and Ecclesiastes
Failure is definitely the central theme of The Last Jedi. While some fans have been upset by the portrayal of Luke Skywalker as a broken man filled with regrets, insecurities, and unthinkable temptations, I believe that the Luke we see in The Last Jedi is a perfect embodiment of the book of Ecclesiastes. He has experienced the vanity and meaninglessness of life, the futility of being a “legend” in the eyes of the galaxy, and the sorrow of being a man who has lost everything he had. He is the righteous man who feels as though his righteousness has availed him nothing while the wicked prosper (7:15) while at the same time knowing that he is living proof that “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (7:20 ESV). Yoda returns to reassure Luke that failure is itself the greatest teacher – to free Luke from his rigid dogmatism and self-condemnation (7:16-19).
Luke’s temptation to kill Ben Solo is actually quite similar to the temptation faced by his father Anakin Skywalker – the desire to achieve a future peace through destruction now. Luke, even in his disgrace, ultimately succeeds where Anakin failed. In fact, Luke’s shame over his temptation is an indication of his righteousness, whereas Anakin as Vader justified his own actions. Luke, by contrast, resists the urge to be perceived as a hero even for his actual heroic acts. Luke most likely recognizes that it was not he who destroyed the Death Star, but the Force working through him. Luke refuses to justify or mitigate his failure with Ben on the basis of his other good deeds. Luke resists Rey’s idealization of him as a hero. And while I don’t advocate retreating from the world to become a hermit, I would submit that there is much that real-world religious leaders could learn from Luke in this regard.
3 – Messiah & The Gentiles
In 1999, The Phantom Menace not only introduced a more naturalistic dimension to the Force, but also transformed the original Star Wars story into a Messianic tale about the “Chosen One.” And this Chosen One was not the pure-hearted, hopeful Luke Skywalker, but his father Anakin – the notorious Darth Vader. Vader became a dark messiah – one who defeated evil by embracing it and then allowing it to be destroyed in himself – rather than one who remained untainted.
The now de-canonized “Legends” continuity picked up on these Messianic cues and wrote a post-Return of the Jedi story that saw a sort of Old Testament – New Testament shift in the Jedi Order. Luke’s new Jedi Order had certain rules removed from the old way. Celibacy was no longer mandatory for Jedi, allowing even Luke himself to marry. There was a certain amount of “ceremonial law” done away from the Jedi Order after Anakin Skywalker – the dark messiah of Star Wars – brought balance to Force by ending the Sith.
The new canon does not make these same moves, but instead has been taking a different angle on the relationship of people to the Force both before and after the Chosen One. In The Last Jedi, Luke voices an opinion that has rung true for many viewers of the prequel trilogy: the Jedi of the Clone Wars era allowed themselves to be manipulated by the dark side, got wiped out, and ultimately failed to preserve the light in the galaxy. The Jedi were hoarders of their knowledge of the Force, locking themselves in their towers on Coruscant in monastic separation from “the world.” Other orders like the Guardians of the Whills harbored ambivalent sentiments about the Jedi because of this reclusiveness.
Lucasfilm has been trying to make this point now over the course of a few movies and books. The Force is for everyone. We saw it in Rogue One with Chirrut Imwe, one blind Guardian of the Whills who, while not a Jedi, had such a deep faith in the Force that he was able to walk by that faith even without his sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), and to help secure a victory for the fledgling Rebel Alliance. And in this most recent film, even Leia was able to use the Force in extraordinary ways without any serious Jedi training. The Force is not just for “chosen ones” or a special “chosen people” like the Jedi, but is for everyone.
In The Last Jedi, Luke has had this realization and communicates it to Rey, although he evidently struggles to act on this truth and put it into practice. If Anakin was our messianic figure who brought balance to the Force, Luke is perhaps like Peter – who has received the revelation that the gospel must go to the Gentiles (Acts 10), but who struggles to apply what he has learned (Galatians 2). To that end, I am expecting that as the saga continues, we will see Rey take on a very Pauline characteristic in bringing a new generation of people into a knowledge of the Force, perhaps in training up new Jedi, but perhaps also by reaching out beyond the boundaries of Jedi religious identity and bringing others to faith in the Force as well.
Episode VIII has proven to be one of the most controversial Star Wars films ever released simply on the basis of the kind of story they chose to tell. The characters are imperfect and their plans fail. Our favourite hero does not quite live up to the legends that surround him, and instead comes across as a real person in need of connection to something great than himself. Perhaps The Last Jedi is really a bad movie, as some have said. Or, perhaps this movie confronts our prejudices, fantasies, and overly-simplistic views of the world. This story was written expressly to challenge us as an audience. This is a movie that does not only want to be watched, but wants to turn us to watching ourselves more closely. In that respect, Star Wars: The Last Jedi stands in the tradition of Jesus’ parables, the wisdom writings, and the prophets. There is certainly more to be said, not only about this film, but about the real-life experiences of the people and culture who write and tell precisely this kind of story. Here’s hoping that at such a time as this, the church won’t dare to think of its own voice as irrelevant.