It’s been 42 years since George Lucas first introduced Star Wars to the masses, so there’s nothing we can say about the original franchise’s religious symbolism that hasn’t been said before.
For decades, scholars, fanatics, and moderately-interested practitioners have all searched for a kernel of their own religious beliefs in Lucas’ saga. Of course, they didn’t have to look too hard. Lucas himself has stated that the story of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, of the Jedi Order and the Galactic Empire, have all been influenced by religion in some way.
Anakin Skywalker was basically a product of immaculate conception, while his son Luke, the recognized “Chosen One,” was exiled to the desert, so certainly, Christianity makes a guest appearance. The Force itself, a universal energy that provides harmony and balance in good and evil, is essential Taoist credence, as is the idea of sacrificing emotion and attachment to walk the divine path. But the search for peace, the amount of time spent meditating and convening with nature, the idea that we must reckon with the darker elements of our own nature, that’s Buddhism. And the levels of the Jedi Order — whether you’re a Padawan, a Knight, or a Master — those might hark back to the life stages associated with Hinduism.
So yes, the Star Wars franchise cherry picks from some of the world’s most ancient belief systems to craft a story of promise, failure, and redemption — a religious allegory as old as time.
But the best thing Star Wars has ever done is to reject religion altogether.
Rian Johnson’s contribution to the Star Wars universe, The Last Jedi, is, how to put it, polarizing. It incited anger in diehards and joy in those looking for a fresh take on Lucas’ space swashbuckling epic. We’re not here to argue over the validity of the film. You’re entitled to hate it. You’d be wrong to hate it. But you’re entitled to be wrong too. Because freedom.
But if you instantly dismiss the movie because it doesn’t gel with your traditionalist view of what Star Wars should be you’ve missed the whole point of this franchise, the initial idea that Lucas was working on, an idea that Johnson took and executed better than any director of this series has done before.
Twenty years ago, Lucas told Bill Moyers he created Star Wars “to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people — more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.” Lucas intended for his films to wake people up to the idea of faith, and they’ve certainly done that, but religion today looks drastically different from how it did in the ’70s.
A quick Google search will clue you into the fact that more and more people, particularly millennials, are leaving “the church.” Now, the church could literally be a church, but it could also be a temple or mosque. The point is, the idea of a structured and strict religion doesn’t appeal to people in the same way it did so many years ago. In fact, for some, the unforgiving rules and prejudices inherent in old world religions are a major turn off. Maybe we’re interested in the idea of God, of having faith, but not enough to walk through the doors and be tortured by Evangelistic cattle prongs.
And that’s where The Last Jedi has found us. If Lucas’ original and prequel trilogies set up the Order of the Jedi, introduced the rigid hierarchy of religion and began to question its authority by giving us heroes and anti-heroes who intentionally went against its archaic teachings, Johnson’s entry rises up and demands we examine what we believe and why we believe it.
And it does this through its two main characters: an aged, disgraced Jedi and his eager, unconventional Padawan.
Luke Skywalker is a character who’s fallen from grace. He’s tried to restore the Jedi by training his own pupils, unwilling to let the old ways die. By doing so, he creates a greater evil in his nephew Ben, lured to the dark side in part because of the neglect and abuse he suffers at the hands of those closest to him. With his students murdered, his dream destroyed, Luke exiles himself to Ahch-To as some sort of self-imposed penance for his crimes — and it’s there that Rey finds him.
Rey is a young woman yearning for spiritual teaching, hoping to find purpose and knowledge in the wisdom of her elders. What she discovers instead is an old man too cynical to care about the state of the galaxy, too jaded to believe things can change.
The journeys both undertake represent a larger idea about the future of religion and faith.
For Luke, The Last Jedi is a reconciliation with the old ways he once ascribed to — the notion that to be a Master Jedi one must forego attachment, must reject empathy, must study the ancient texts — and a new path that Rey represents. Luke spends the film first fighting against the idea of a new Jedi, then trying to control Rey’s use of the Force, before finally, at Yoda’s instruction, burning the old books and sacrificing himself to save the Rebellion. Luke’s arc doesn’t necessarily represent the death of religion, but it does make a case for the deconstruction of it. By choosing to spurn tradition, to reject what he’s been taught about the Jedi Order to aid Rey, a woman unconventionally seeking her own relationship with the Force, the story of Luke suggests that, reaching new generations requires religious communities to value the individual over the masses, to foster intimate, catered relationships with God, instead of employing a watered-down one-size-fits-all approach.
Rey, as the new crop of Jedi, symbolizes a divergent view of faith. For Rey, who has an affinity for the Force, studying texts and following rules feels less essential than understanding her inner power, an ability to connect with the larger universe thanks to this omnipresent energy. Her attempts to observe the expected path towards understanding the Force are thwarted by her desire to question, to challenge, to know more. Ultimately, Rey steals the ancient texts of the Order, understanding their inherent value, but also rejecting the notion that being one with the Force requires that she ignore her Dark Side and detach herself from her loved ones. She’s forging her own path.
And that’s The Last Jedi’s greatest strength, the idea that spirituality — a deeper, intimate connection to faith — is the answer for anyone struggling to reconcile religion and reality. Rey doesn’t forsake the Force simply because her elders tell her she’s practicing the “wrong way.” Instead, she seeks a deeper understanding by taking matters into her own hands, trusting her instincts, and finding a more solitary relationship with the Force.
And Luke, a man raised up in the traditions of the Order, finds a greater fulfillment in helping her find that relationship through unconventional, illegitimate means than he does by sticking to outdated doctrine and restrictive dogma.
Perhaps The Last Jedi is an answer to a bigger question about how younger generations can tap into their own spirituality, how older generations can find a renewed faith by accepting and approaching these New Age ways of thinking with an open mind and a willingness to learn and evolve, instead of viewing anything that challenges their traditional beliefs as a threat or, worse, an attack.
What Star Wars does so well, by representing so many different religions, is prove that no one culture, ethnicity, belief system, has a monopoly on universal truths like kindness, justice, compassion. What The Last Jedi does so well is to build upon that idea to argue that, not only can one religion not be placed above the rest, but that religion itself can and should be challenged if it proves unwilling to evolve with the society it belongs to.
And if it’s found lacking, if it no longer serves a purpose, as the old ways of the Jedi fail to do, then it can and should be sacrificed for the greater good, because, as Rey discovers, faith doesn’t hinge on a bunch of books, outdated traditions, or accepted methods of practice. It relies on connection, understanding, and a willingness to seek the truth, to find the answers that satisfy your own questions.