Why The Last Jedi Is More 'Spiritual' Than 'Religious'

December 27, 2018
Chaim Saiman for The Atlantic

The new Star Wars film dramatically breaks with the franchise’s reverence for tradition when it comes to learning the ways of the Force.

The Last Jedi - Photo by Disney

                                                                                                            Photo: Disney
This story contains spoilers for The Last Jedi.       

For at least two generations, the Star Wars saga has served as a kind of secularized American religion. Throughout the series, the Force is a stand-in for a divine power that draws on a number of mystical traditions, representing the balance of good and evil, the promise of an ultimate unity, and the notion that those learned in its ways can tap into the infinite.

In the latest Star Wars film, though, the theology of this secular belief system shifts. From A New Hope through The Force Awakens, learning to master the Force required faith, ritual, and ancient wisdom—all of which are hallmarks of institutionalized religion. But in The Last Jedi, a grizzled Luke Skywalker dismisses the Jedi mythos, and presents a more modern take on theology that accords with the “spiritual but not religious” trend that finds younger Americans to be less interested in organized faith but more open to spiritual experiences. Rather than being brought into the tradition, Rey, Luke’s would-be trainee, must find the Force within herself.

It doesn’t take much to see how classically religious themes pervade the early Star Wars movies, which feature an intergenerational narrative of temptation, sin, and redemption that recalls several biblical story lines. The prequel trilogy likewise tells the story of Anakin Skywalker’s virgin birth, the prophecy of the “chosen one,” Anakin’s fall to the dark side, and his eventual resurrection (though it is as evil incarnate in the form of Darth Vader).

Star Wars also weighs in on more contemporary religious questions, especially the tension between the material (or scientific) world and the spiritual domain. Recall an early scene in A New Hope, where Darth Vader dismisses the Death Star as “insignificant next to the power of the Force.” When mocked by one of the generals who notes how Vader’s “ancient religion” has failed to locate the rebel base, Vader deems his “lack of faith disturbing” and underscores the point by using the Force to choke the doubting officer into submission. At another point in the movie, Han Solo tells Luke that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side.” But the rest of the series affirms the message that the significant battles are the mystical, intimate fights between the Sith and the Jedi who use medieval-ish weaponry, not the Empire’s planet-sized technological marvels. In Star Wars, those who control the Force are always more powerful than those controlling the guns.

Still, to control the Force in the first place, the movies have long suggested that one must join a community of practitioners and undergo patient tutelage in the context of an institutionalized quasi-religious order. Led by trained masters, the Jedi saw themselves as inheritors of ancient texts and traditions and were conscious of their own continuity. This sensibility flows from the original trilogy, and is reinforced in the descriptions of Jedi temples and padawan training in the prequel trilogy. It’s also a central idea in 2015’s The Force Awakens. That movie concludes with Rey—whom it’s hinted may be a Skywalker—ceremoniously trekking to a remote island to restore a holy object (Vader’s original lightsaber) to its owner (Luke) in anticipation of Luke’s expected second coming.

In the weeks since The Last Jedi’s premiere, much has been made about how the film turns the Force from the province of a particular family (high midi-chlorians or not) to something available to anyone—even a nobody from the desert planet of Jakku like Rey. But in some ways this turn of events is hardly surprising: If many religious narratives are bound up in anticipating a chosen one, others teach that spiritual leadership can emerge from the least likely of places.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi breaks with its predecessors and revolves around the failures of organized religion. Rey points out that though Luke has returned to the Jedi’s sacred space on the island of Ahch-To, he has walled himself off from the Force. When he relents and begins to train Rey, he suggests to her that the Force is a free-flowing spirituality that an individual can simply feel. Though the earlier films had already established that the Jedi do not control the Force, Star Wars had until this point implied the Jedi at least possess an ancient tradition of how to tap into it.

But Luke strongly rejects this heritage. In a pivotal Last Jedi scene, he sets out to torch a Jedi holy site along with the books that embody its history. Luke, to be sure, was always a bit impulsive and arguably never a fully realized Jedi master. Which is why the film brings back an even more accomplished figure to do the honors: Master Yoda, the character who most embodies the Jedi tradition. Yoda appears to Luke in a Force vision and, when Luke hesitates, sets the once-revered uneti tree ablaze rather than attempt to stop him.

In his exchange with Luke, Yoda both discounts the value of the Jedi past and explains that though Rey has hardly been trained, the sacred “library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” True, later in movie, a quick camera shot inside the Millennium Falcon, carrying Rey and the remnants of the Resistance away from the salt-coated planet of Crait, reveals that she has stashed the Jedi texts aboard the spaceship. (Note Yoda’s ambiguous use of the word possess.) Perhaps Rey is more alert to the power of tradition than Luke. Regardless of the books’ future, Episode VIII shows the sacrilege committed against the last of the Jedi heritage by two of its greatest known practitioners in the Star Wars universe.

Consider also the stark difference between Yoda’s training of Luke on the swamp planet of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back and Luke’s instruction of Rey in The Last Jedi.  Whereas Yoda inducts Luke into Jedi ritual and lore, Luke focuses on mythbusting, telling Rey why the Jedi failed, and why they are not necessary for her to locate the Force. Further, like Luke, Rey is drawn to a dark-side cave with the hope of learning about her origins. But whereas Luke gets a lesson about the allure of the dark side, Rey sees nothing but herself a million times over, projected as a seemingly infinite series of mirror images.

Even the villains seem to sense the shift. In 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader repented toward the light following his betrayal of the dark Emperor. But after slicing the evil Supreme Leader Snoke in half, Vader’s admiring grandson Kylo Ren assumes he can rule the galaxy with neither the Jedi nor the Sith. Thus, he implores Rey “to let old things die. Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the rebels, let it all die” and to join him instead.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the move from structured religion to an unbounded spirituality is found in The Last Jedi’s final scene. The parting shot, which shows a lowly stable boy casually accessing the Force, has received considerable attention from reviewers celebrating the Force’s new democratic ethos. In A New Hope, Luke himself was little more than a stable boy (his lineage doesn’t become apparent until The Empire Strikes Back), and Anakin/Vader was likewise born into ignominious poverty.

But in the older movies, locating the Force takes work: Luke and Anakin slowly make their way through an extensive training regimen, and haste is often the cause of disastrous decisions. Though The Last Jedi also expands on what the Force can accomplish (Princess/General Leia can float through space and resurrect herself; Luke is able to project himself halfway around the galaxy), a child with no mentoring simply intuits it when he needs a broom. The Last Jedi reminds viewers that even a fictional secular religion will likely reflect the spiritual economy of its time.

CHAIM SAIMAN is a professor of law at Villanova University.