The Battle over The Last Jedi... and the Church

Note: I am not going to discuss key details of the movie in order to avoid spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, you can read this blog. 

We are a Star Wars family. My son could recite the scroll at the beginning of Return of the Jedi when he was two years old. We have seen all the movies, of course. We also have been united in our assessment of all of them. That is, until The Last Jedi. We walked out of the movie, and I asked my husband what he thought. “I didn’t like it,” he replied.

“What?!” I exclaimed.  “I really liked it!”

That began a 45 minute argument about the problems or perfections of the movie, which only paused because we had to go to bed, and then continued for at least an hour after we first woke up the next morning.

Look, I am used to disagreeing with my husband. We both see the world very differently. It was very disconcerting, however, to disagree about Star Wars. That was one of our rock-solid anchors of affinity in the midst of an increasingly divided world. I was so disturbed by the experience that I spent much of the day following the end of our argument ruminating on the change. In this case, my training as a religious studies scholar and as a pastor proved incredibly helpful, and it also helped me understand more deeply the tension present in the 21st century church today.  But to understand, you need to know how my husband and I were each introduced to Star Wars.

My husband was six years old when A New Hope came out. He saw it in the theater, and it changed his world. He collected the toys and played with the toys. He emulated the characters. He saw the next two movies, also in the theaters. Later, he read some of the books and some of the comic books that came out, expanding the Star Wars world. The values of the Jedi in many ways became his values. He was shaped by this story, and he was deeply committed to the way of the Force, and the specific, particular mythology (including its rules and worlds) of Star Wars.

I was three when the first movie came out, and also a girl. Now, I certainly would not say that Star Wars is only a boy’s movie, but in the 1970s, even the most enlightened parents wouldn’t rush out to take their three year old little girl to see it. I wasn’t much older when Empire came out, and when Return came out, well, I hadn’t really seen the other two, so why go to this one? I eventually saw A New Hope and Return on video (I kept sitting down to watch the one I had never seen and kept confusing Empire and Return, so I kept watching Return accidentally). I didn’t have the toys. I knew how to play as Princess Leia, but only as a fill in for the boys around me who played Star Wars. No, my first real introduction to the Star Wars world was in 10th grade English class, when we did a six week unit on the Star Wars trilogy. We studied how it illustrated the great archetypes of the world: the hero, the villain, the damsel-in-distress turned earth goddess, the rogue. We learned how it was influenced by Eastern mythology, particularly yin-yang and practices such as yoga. And once I understood all of that, I was in love. But I was in love by how it tied into the world’s story. How it was universal in its characters and journey. How it spoke to something primal and central to who humans are. I wasn’t attached to THE mythology. I was attached to mythology.  Little surprise I became a pastor and religious scholar, then.

And that is why we had such different reactions to The Last Jedi. For my husband, it broke all the rules of the Star Wars universe. Luke was too grizzled and apathetic, too disconnected from the people he loves. There were too few aliens in the casino. It also broke the rules of Jedi and Sith training. It had too many American references. No, no, none of this would do.

But oh, how well it amped up the tension between good and evil! How well it raised the stakes and yet at the same time showed that you cannot have good without also having evil! How dark was the dark, and how light the light! It also raised important questions about whether our sacred texts anchor us in a tradition, or whether they keep a religion from evolving to meet new challenges. It raises the question of whether we need someone to guide us in our faith, and if we do, at what point do we leave them behind and connect with the divine directly? Oh, it was a pastor and religious scholar’s dream come true in a movie.  So beautiful, and so broken all at once!

And that is when it occurred to me. We have the same challenge in the church.

There has always been a tension between those who belong to the church and those who are newly coming into it. The Bible is riddled with such stories of tension. Paul deals with the challenge of a blended church of Jews and Gentiles throughout his writings, but certainly in Romans and Galatians. Jesus knew we would struggle with it, which is why he gives us the story of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and the elder brother in the prodigal son story (Luke 15:11-32). 

But what the Western Christian church has not encountered in great numbers for centuries until relatively recently is a significant number of people who are shaped more by a pop culture theology than by a Christian theology. What we have now are vast numbers of people that feel connected to a story about God, but that story is a hodge-podge of pieces of God that come from all sources – music, movies, television, fads like the rise of kabbalah and yoga. There are generations now who might best be described as having a universal theology rather than a specifically Christian one.

The challenge comes when those worlds collide, and particularly when they collide on the home turf of the church. Those who have grown up in the church take very seriously their role as guardians of the tradition. They do not mind if new people come in the doors, as long as those new people do not try to change anything. This is how church works, and to stray from that is to become something other than Christian.

In the meantime, there is a generation hungry to have a place to express their faith and to connect with a larger whole, and the church seems like a great place to do that. Many of this generation are also drawn to high church ritual as a place where people can authentically connect with God. But they still want to bring who they are and to bring their culture with them. They want their larger story to map onto, but not be excluded by, the church’s story.

The result: a parking lot argument.

 Something in me feels like there is room for both, though. I will admit, the answer is not clear. That ancient text that I do still find relevant tells me we have to keep trying to come together. It is the great challenge before us in the Western world. I am seeking guidance. There are many sources for truth, and I am looking to them all in hopes of finding the Way God has for us. Some of those sources are deep in my tradition, and some come from the pop culture world. For me, my God is active in both.

 And maybe, just maybe, part of that Way will be revealed in Episode IX.

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