The Controversy Over The Last Jedi Is Nothing New
Christians are no strangers to ideological controversy.
For generations, many have been inspired by the old story of a seemingly insignificant man from a poor village in the desert, who amassed a following of rag-tag nobodies to confront the most powerful empire of the day on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden. He possessed supernatural abilities that enabled him to accomplish miraculous feats. The actions of this man and his followers would overthrow an empire, shape society, and capture the hearts and minds of countless individuals across the globe.
Yet those who are most inspired by this ancient story are nonetheless sharply divided on how to embody the values of this narrative and accurately interpret its message in our 21st-century context…
But enough about Luke Skywalker and Star Wars. Let’s get back to Christianity.
[This article contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi (and other Star Wars films). Proceed at your own risk.]
All joking aside, the resemblance between Christianity and Star Wars does not end with their narrative affinities, and The Last Jedi has perhaps highlighted this fact more clearly than any other film in the Star Wars franchise.
The latest installment has provoked both the adoration and ire of the most devoted fans. According to film critic David Chen, objections to The Last Jedi can be organized into three (admittedly broad) categories:
- Objections regarding the film’s progressive politics (the film hosts a diverse cast and strong female characters).
- Objections regarding the movie’s handling of Star Wars themes and mythology.
- Objections regarding the basic cinematic elements of the film (e.g., acting, dialogue, stylistic choices, etc.).
What’s striking to me is how the first two categories of criticism are mirrored in Christian dialogue. In a debate that may sound eerily familiar to Christians, there’s a sharp disagreement regarding how to interpret the messages, themes, and overall narrative of Star Wars for contemporary contexts.
Rightly Dividing the Myth of Star Wars
The Last Jedi not only reinterprets beloved Star Wars themes—it deliberately refuses to follow the conventional Star Wars formula. Whereas J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens stuck close to the script and narrative trajectory of A New Hope, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi does the opposite. Contrary to The Empire Strikes Back, the grand reveal about Rey’s parents is that they are nameless and unimportant. Furthermore, the training provided by Luke serves as a contrast to the kind he received from Yoda. And Snoke (a clear parallel to Emperor Palpatine) is abruptly killed off.
Johnson’s decisions have (expectedly) enraged fans who wanted the more traditional Star Wars motifs and plot points. Yet, in diverging from the specific formula of the original trilogy, it can be argued that Johnson is actually being true to the Star Wars legacy. After all, The Empire Strikes Back delivered all kinds of plot twists the original audience didn’t expect, and isn’t that what The Last Jedi accomplishes, as well? Likewise, moviegoers in the 80’s didn’t know what to expect with the third installment of the original trilogy, and we have no idea how this new trilogy will wrap up.
So there are those who want the new Star Wars movies to “follow the script,” more or less, like The Force Awakens. On the other hand, there are fans who want the new movies to be more true to the “spirit” of the original trilogy, and that involves breaking taboos. Sound familiar?
Abolishing the Law? Or Fulfilling it?
The debates surrounding The Last Jedi bear a striking resemblance to recent theological discussions. In fact, many of these discussions have even overlapped. As Men’s Rights Activists complained about the presence of female heroes in The Last Jedi, Denny Burk, the head of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, did the same. Burk insisted that it’s unbiblical to have “warrior women protagonists” and that portraying women as “damsels in distress” is a more “biblical” approach.
And days after these Men’s Rights Activists edited The Last Jedi to remove all the scenes that included women, John Piper insisted that properly “biblical” seminaries should refuse to employ female professors simply because they’re not men.
Additionally, scholars NT Wright and David Bentley Hart began debating this month about whose translation of the New Testament better handles the original text. While it may seem esoteric, their argument is just a microcosm of the larger discussions that have raged for centuries regarding the translation and interpretation of Scripture for each generation.
Of course, theological debate is not unique to Christianity. All of the major world religions are in constant and heated discussions about the best way to interpret and embody their faith. Jesus was no stranger to theological controversies within Judaism, as he responded to his critics by maintaining that he was fulfilling the Law and the Prophets instead of abolishing them (Matt. 5:17-20).
This plurality of interpretations, and the passionate discussions they spark, seems to be an indispensable byproduct of religious devotion. And that’s precisely why we see these fervent debates abound within Star Wars fandom.
The Religious Significance of Star Wars
Since it debuted on screen, Star Wars has played a religious role in our society. The original trilogy offered a compelling worldview, a multi-faceted commentary on human nature and society, an ethical guide for navigating an unjust world, and a robust sense of hope. It’s no wonder that Star Wars fans are so passionate: Star Wars provides the narrative lens through which millions of people, consciously or unconsciously, have interpreted the world and their own role within it.
This religious significance predictably leads to a form of devotion that generates new, fresh interpretations that will cause dissension among ardent followers. This is as true of Star Wars as it is of major world religions. Just look at Rian Johnson’s defense of Luke’s use of astral projection: In response to widespread incredulity concerning the possibility of projecting one’s doppelganger somewhere else in space, Johnson tweeted a passage from an authoritative Star Wars text, which indicates that Jedis can, in fact, perform such feats. The similarity between Johnson’s appeal to an authoritative passage in a canonized text and a theologian’s appeal to Scripture is uncanny, and that’s no random coincidence.
Such diversity of interpretation is nothing new, nor should it be surprising to those who are accustomed to religious controversy. After all, the Church has been debating the ideal trajectory of Christianity since its inception (Acts 15:1-41), and we can only expect these discussions to expand and proliferate. Such is the nature of religious dialogue.
Embodying The Narrative
These controversies are the consequence of different communities debating how to best embody a beloved narrative in a brave new world. We seek to cast light into the darkness. We are animated by a passion for justice that’s perpetually fueled by the hope within us. And we are called to remember that while darkness can appear to contaminate even the purest of hearts, no one, and nothing, is beyond redemption.