Jedis and Religion?
Anyone who has seen the film Star Wars: The Last Jedi (warning: spoilers) may have noticed a very direct statement by Luke referring to what he called “the Jedi religion”. This phrase is perhaps the most explicit statement relating the force and the Jedi Order to “religion”. While what we may term forms of organised religion are largely absent – if by this we mean forms and traditions of worship and devotion to deities and the institutional paraphernalia associated with that – many have seen religious themes as present throughout the films. Certainly, the Jedi order and references to the force have been seen from the earliest films as somewhat akin to religious phenomena.
This is obviously the place for the Religious Studies scholar to stick their nose in and point out that the term “religion” is neither nearly so clear nor simple as might be supposed. This blogpost is not to place to rehearse the dozens of learned books and articles which have debated whether the term “religion” is meaningful at all, but we need to be alert to some problems with the usage of the term.
First off, let’s leave the films aside and look at real life and those people who see themselves as following the Jedi religion around the world today. We simply have very little real idea of numbers of adherents to such a thing, however, there are people studying the ways religions develop from fiction. In recent censuses, in the UK and elsewhere, a fair few people have inserted “Jedi” under the category “religion” when asked to identify their affiliation it seems likely that this is often done as a joke or as a type of non-religious objection to this question. So far, to be best of my knowledge, no countries have officially (legally) recognised it as a religion. However, in the Czech Republic and elsewhere censuses now feature “Jedi Church” or Jediism as a census option, and it may only be time before you can have it officially recognised as your religion. This question relates to one important part of the classification which is the legal/ governmental side of the equation: what is or is not officially regarded as a religion in any state or polity. Generally, this has institutional significance because being recognised as a “religion” comes with tax breaks, rights to propagation, and other benefits. However, it is far from being the only way people seek to identify “religions”. By way of analogy, in many countries tomatoes are classified as vegetables for taxation purposes, but scientists still recognise them as technically being fruit – legal and technical or usage (in this case culinary purposes) may not align.
The kind of issues noted above can leave some to describe “religion” as an “empty signifier” meaning that it is an essentially meaningless term which anybody can ascribe any content they wish to. Indeed, we see disputes as to whether Buddhism and Confucianism are religions or philosophies, whether Christianity is a religion (or the definitive religion) or a relationship (a popular answer for evangelicals), and whether Hinduism is a single religion or rather of a variety of different traditions falsely labelled as a single religion, or perhaps some suggest it is more than a religion being a culture or way of life. While most people, if asked, could typically reel of a list of those things we think of as religions (or are society typically understands as religions) such as Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, etc., etc., it is not quite so simple as noted. There is not a single universally recognised definition of what a religion is, and therefore conversely what it is not.
This brings us back to Luke’s phrase in The Last Jedi, and what he meant by “the Jedi religion”? Clearly it is not about belief in a God, but many things we typically call religions don’t have this. The force seems to operate as what we may term the transmundane or transcendent or supernatural force which is the “real/ divine/ ultimate” in this tradition. There are also the celibate monk-like members of the Jedi Order with rules and codes governing their way of life and a training programme with initiations. Again, this looks a lot like the stuff we typically call religions. They even speak of having “temples”, again another word we associate with religious institutions. Meanwhile Luke is seeking to protect the “scriptures”: the “sacred” texts of the Jedis and which he seems to see as foundational, which again resonates with our association of “religions” as having books which form their basis. However, none of this are simple descriptors of a “religion”. Indeed, the problems with the phrase lead many to assume, as noted, that it is an “empty signifier”, and that simply some “folk” sense of what religion is passes for analytic description. So, if we are not sure what is a religion and what is not should we attach any significance to looks phrases and similarities between what we typically see as “religions” and what we find in the film version of what we are now told is the “Jedi religion”.
This is not the place to discuss the arguments in any detail, but I and other scholars have argued (quite convincingly I think) that those who say “religion” is an entirely meaningless, non-academic term have overplayed their hand. It is not simply an “empty signifier”: we actually get a fair sense of what people mean when they use it. While those things we today call “religions” have been relating together as interrelated spheres of thought throughout history. Put simply if the Jedi had post offices instead of temples it would be pretty weird, while nobody goes into the greengrocers or supermarkets to offer prayers to the deity enshrined in them (although we could argue that we do treat commercialism as an all-powerful belief system, and capitalism certainly does have “religious traits” – but that is an argument for another day and which I explore elsewhere). Further, to say such things are imaginary is to ignore what has been termed the social reality of religions. People belong to (or we could say claim to belong to) particular religions, shape their life in accordance to them (or the teachings, practices, etc. that the tradition they relate to enjoins upon them), etc. Religion is not simply a random “empty signifier” that anyone can fill anyway they like and which is part of only a scholarly imagination (though some have argued this).
Of course, saying the religion is a useful term to refer to social realities in the world doesn’t mean we ignore the power dynamics behind who gets to decide what is or is not a religion, nor the grey areas where we see things which may or may not fit within what we mean by the term (which varies both geographically and historically). Nevertheless, like many other “contested concepts” (on how this term relates to religion, see here) which we struggle to adequately define like philosophy, politics, social justice, environmentalism, etc. claiming it doesn’t exist or means nothing is hardly helpful either. Every word has a history or how it came to be, what it means, and how it has been used (and abused), and the interrelated sets of vocabulary to which it relates.
With this in mind, we can though ask more carefully questions such as why the film makers decided to employ this term within the film: what it will mean to the audience, how it will relate to the rest of the Star Wars universe and mythology, what exactly Luke is referring to by it, etc. It is not that the word has been uttered and we can now identify another “religion”. Rather, we can ask a whole set of questions more clearly and carefully about what is going on when this word is uttered.
I know that, no doubt, other scholars would wish to spin it differently and give different questions. So please don’t take these thoughts as reflective of a “Religious Studies” approach (there is no single approach), but rather one way that one scholar of religion may wish to think about it. (To note, arguments around what the term “religion” means are very heated right now and during 2018 two academic journals Implicit Religion and Exchange are having special issues that arise from a debate on this started when in 2016 I challenged the way Dr Teemu Taira used the term on the Religious Studies Project website – linked above). I would also note that other aspects could be picked up like everyone saying: “may the force be with you”. Is this some form of “blessing”? A desire to be attuned to the universe and its ways? While in the previous episode (The Force Awakens) we also saw Donnie Yen playing Chirrut Imwe as some form of monk-like figure seemingly as again something that seems to us perhaps as a religious order? Meanwhile if we return to the first film, or episode 4, the exchanges between Obi Wan Kenobi and Han Solo and Luke seemed redolent of something perhaps about superstition or some form of transcendent force – raising questions of the relationship of myths, superstition, religion, and such matters. The films are of course saturated with mythological imagery going back to George Lucas’ fascination with Joseph Campbell’s work on this and so stemming in turn from the work of the mid twentieth century scholar of religion Mircea Eliade.
The Last Jedi?
I am not entirely sure we know who that last Jedi is yet either – maybe another surprise or too in store as the series roles on here? So, some thoughts as to what it means:
- Luke has declared the Jedi order should end and so as he is the last trained Jedi (I am fairly sure Rey is not fully trained) he is the last Jedi. However, he ends by saying there will be more, and we see Rey of course carrying the flag. While we also see that young groom in the final scenes bringing a broom to his side – so another who can use the force. However, again, he is untrained and we will pick out some other themes here below.
- Rey is the last Jedi as the person trained by Luke and seemingly implied by him at the end when he tells Kylo Ren that he is not the last.
- Maybe the Jedi Order is ended, but in some new form the Jedi live on? So Luke is the last “master” but Jedi types do linger with the force open to all. Maybe we see a new democratisation of the force? Anyone can use it, no longer simply is it restricted to the Jedi order. This is inherent in Luke’s words that it is everywhere and between everything. However, I do not think there is anything new in this, it always seemed to be the case, the Jedi were simply those attuned to it. There was some weird stuff about blood tests and so making this some kind of genetically programmed thing which people were born with or not, but in theory it is around us all anyway.
As I have suggested it is not clear what the term the “last Jedi” refers to and how this ties into the stated need for the end of the Jedi order and the final prediction that there is another? But should we expect everything to be entirely consistent and tied together. Here, it may help us to think this through a Religious Studies lens. While we often see statements about what “religions believe” or what the “teachings are” (including in the main text books), a focus on what is often termed “Lived Religion” tells us that religions (well, nearly all traditions) are never this neat and tidy. What people say and what they do often don’t match up. Ideals and aspirations are not equivalent to lived practice and on the ground facts. Even if somebody, even a leader, says something must come to an end it doesn’t mean to say that this is followed through in practice. Religions, like all human traditions, are messy things.
In order to help think about the possible end of the Jedi Order/ religion, we can reflect for a while on the other end of the question: beginnings. People often ask when a religion began or who founded it, but these things are never easy and straightforward. To take Christianity as an example (as the world’s largest tradition numerically and one very widely spread people are likely to be familiar with it and so it is a good example) we really cannot define when it started. Jesus was, historically speaking, a Galilean Rabbi who fits into what appears to be a pattern of temple restoration prophets we can associate both with his C1st context but also with the Second Temple Judaism (as it is often termed) which he was part of. (You get a few radical scholars wanting to get popular by claiming Jesus never existed, but this is really not a credible argument.) So, the founder of Christianity was not Jesus, who was a Jew who taught other Jews. Many conspiracy types like to point the finger at Paul and claim he turned Christianity from a tradition focused on Jesus’ teachings to a religion about Jesus. Again, this is not academically credible. First, how does one person transform an entire tradition single-handedly? But, also, contemporary studies which read Paul through a C1st Jewish lens have shown how thoroughly steeped in the Jewish tradition he was. Certainly he had his own take on the tradition, as did many other teachers (if not all of them), but he was a thoroughly Jewish figure and basically like many others finding ways to open up Judaism to non-Jews. We also find moves towards focusing on Jesus in many other sources too, such as the Johannine literature (especially the Gospel according to John). It is also clear that for several centuries Judaism and Christianity were intimately intertwined and it wasn’t till about the fourth century that we actually can clearly see them fully split and differentiated as traditions. Indeed, what we mean by calling them “separate religions” is also a whole issue in and of itself. Now, we have gone a long way from Star Wars here, but it is making a point about what it may mean to call somebody the last member of a tradition – though showing this through questions about where they begin as also a problematic issue.
Traditions rarely suddenly come or go, and so understanding the evolution and history of religions would make us wary about thinking there would be a simple answer to the question of who is the last Jedi.
Bad Commanders: Ethics and Stuff
Going in another direction, why isn’t that commander/ captain guy court-martialled? Oooh, they love a bit of a rogue, so let’s just ignore that he destroys most of the fleet, defies direct orders, and mutinies! Now there is a very interesting blog about how Poe Dameron may be a good tactician, but a very bad strategist and other issues about the command chain in the films. However, that is not where I wish to go. Instead, let us look at some of the ethical questions and moral complexity in the film. So, is Poe a good guy or a bad guy? Maybe he has good intentions, but he also clearly breaks the rules and almost brings total disaster to the rebellion. These may not, though, be the most interesting moral questions in the film.
We certainly see in the film many shades of grey rather than black or white. While parts of the Star Wars film have been very much good guys versus bad guys and the light side against the dark side, perhaps more than before we see much more ambivalence. I think on the whole the debates about moral complexity and nobody being utterly evil match with what we have seen before, so not a betrayal as I think some have suggested. Luke, the Jedi master, being a flawed character who feels homicidal rage (if only for a split second) against his student. (Come on, though, surely everyone who has taught has felt this at some point! – I should add the smiley face emoji here to show it’s a joke I think!) Meanwhile we see the talk about Kylo Ren as conflicted, and we are even led to think he may return to the Jedi ways. Of course, we saw Darth Vader return to the “light” in his death by saving his son and so it is not a completely new course. Now, this does not mean that we see nothing new. Rey’s seeming embrace of her fascination with the dark side, epitomised with the descent into the hole in the island that represents the dark side, is quite different. Until now we have seen Jedi as using only the light side, with the dark side representing the Sith way. Does this point towards something else?
Ethics is certainly not the sole preserve of religious traditions, nor of Religious Studies as a discipline. Nevertheless, in many ways ethics has often been very closely associated with those traditions we call religions. In the monotheisms that originated in the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we see an often stark division drawn between good and evil as polar opposites. God is seen as good, and to follow Him (of course God is often seen beyond gender, but is often portrayed as, or spoken about in, masculine ways) is to do good and avoid evil. Nevertheless, this God can also be spoken of as wrathful, violent, and even vengeful. This God, at the very least, has an awe-some side that is terrifying to humans. Or, His justice is portrayed as a source of rightful wrath or terror. There is, though, at least some ambivalence here. In other traditions, however, the polar opposition is not so strong. While still associating goodness with the divine forces, in some of the Hindu family of traditions we see the Goddess, in forms such as the ferocious deity Durga, as a source of both life and death (as, of course, is the Abrahamic deity), and the creator and destroyer. The nature of deity as fierce (though the ferocious side of Durga like many other deities of Asia often represents Her strength and power to overcome and frighten off evil/ demons) is more prevalent than in many contemporary forms of, for instance, Christianity where the loving side of God is given greater weight. Likewise, in traditions like Daoism evil per se is not seen as bad, and the transcendent (the ideal figure of Daoism, often (arguably poorly) translated into English as “immortal”) needs to go beyond all dualities (often associated with the yin-yang polarity) which includes between good and evil. This is not to say that they can do evil or act how they want, but they become attuned to the Way (Dao) and act in accord with Nature.
This very brief overview of some attitudes towards concepts of light and dark, or good and evil, in various traditions is rather simple and brief, but points towards the way that such polarities are dealt with in these traditions. We can think about the way that religions manifest these things, and so ask what motifs are being represented in the Star Wars universe. Indeed, it is notable that Luke suggests that the greatest evil has actually come from the Jedi Order who, at the height of their powers, allowed Palpatine to rise and also trained Darth Vader. So, is the Jedi Order a force for good or evil (supposedly they had kept peace in the galaxy for centuries if not millennia, and so maybe this also needs to play into the equation when we think about these things)? Today, people ask if religion is a force for good or evil in the world, and certainly many atheist critics look to its faults and failings. We can also think about ways that morality plays out in the films in other ways too. How far do we see morality being a simple equation or is it always more complex than things being good or bad: is anyone completely good or evil?
Marxist and Other Turns?
One of the best known quotations from Karl Marx is that “religion is the opium of the people”. He was, though, not wholly critical of religion, but I am invoking a “Marxist turn” in The Last Jedi for another reason. Much of the Star Wars series has focused on princesses and the rather aristocratic Jedi. Alongside this, and played out in this film between Kylo Ren and Rey, is the question of the prestigious Skywalker lineage and family tree. Without this, and rather markedly, Kylo Ren tells Rey that she is nothing in this story! But it is her, the girl from nowhere and of no significant family connections who may be the last Jedi. Again, we see Rose Tico explaining to Finn why she despises the luxury of the casino world they find themselves on. Not exactly class war, but a clear sense that these lowly figures who are not traditional hero types are the ones who are leading the rebellion now. Of course, Star Wars has always emphasised the kid from nowhere, the seeming nobody who becomes a hero – as with Luke who seeks adventure from his drab farming life. This is a typical motif of adventure stories. However, the more explicit class based turn seems marked here. The adventurers don’t meet princesses who need saving, but are disgusted at the luxury fed off the intergalactic arms trade. Very much, we may think, a message for today.
So, what is the connection here to religion and Religious Studies? Well, as with many other academic disciplines Religious Studies can ask questions about power, who controls the narratives, and who gets to tell the stories. Traditionally, of course, this is the dominant high-class males, often the priests/ monks, etc. An emphasis from areas like post-colonial studies, feminist studies, Marxism, race studies, and other angles shows us that religion is often thought differently from other places. While not raised here, one question may be how these underclasses respond to and react to the elite Jedi Order? It is also worth noting, while we are on this, that the rebellion is portrayed as much more diverse than the First Order. The latter is very much white and male. The former is led by women, and has both different ethnicities, and races (in terms of alien species) amongst its members. Indeed, while to some degree our focus in this film is on Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke there is also a very strong theme in which Finn and Rose have their own specific plot line. Again, this seems very much to have a message for our own day and time, and is an issue in the study of religion. The Jedi order, we may note, has always been quite diverse, with different races and ethnicities amongst the council in previous films. If the Force is the spaces between all things and the connection there which is open to all we would certainly expect this. Indeed, the dominance of only one gender, race, or ethnicity would seem to go against this religious aspect of the films and the emphasis upon a Force open in principle to all and being between all beings.
Some Stray Thoughts
I would like to end with a few odd thoughts on parts of the film. One of which is weren’t they meant to kill off Princess Leia? With her death in 2016, I thought she would be written out, and indeed it seemed that this would be the case when she was cast into outer space. Nevertheless, in one of the most spectacular usages of the Force ever seen she brought herself back to the ship. Now, of course if we speak of the Jedi religion and the Force being a part of this was this a religious thing? Was it a miracle? Certainly we don’t see such language, but it is an interesting way in to discussing what we mean by the word “miracle” and what would count as such?
We could also mention the final view of the young groom in the stable when he brought the broom to himself by using the force. A very mundane usage of this power. Seeing as we have spoken of the Jedi religion and the force being a part of this would this be a religious thing? Here, as above, we return to a question we asked early on as to what the term “religion” itself means. Is it about what goes on within temples or special occasions – which would relate it to the “sacred” in its original meaning as something set apart. However, in traditions such as Daoism (and there seems to be a fair bit of stuff here that can relate to Daoism as others have also suggested) the Way is not special or set apart, but simply about being attuned to the way things are. Again, it can make our normal assumptions about what religion is, or what the term may mean problematic. But, as noted, almost every word we use (certainly the more interesting ones, and almost every single word in fact) are not really simple or straightforward. So, either we stop using any words, or we reflect on our usage, what we imply, and what we mean when we speak. Helping us realise that things which may seem simple and straightforward are actually vastly complicated may be one thing that we see when we study religion, and maybe also when we look at The Last Jedi through a Religious Studies lens.
As noted above, and just to reiterate, I have not set out here to say how Religious Studies (as a multidisciplinary area) must or does look at this movie. This is simply the way one student of religion using some tools in the methodological kit has decided to tackle some questions of interest to him. Others may use other tools, give different answers, or ask another set of questions. I hope though that people will find this a useful lens for looking at The Last Jedi.