Theology and the Star Wars Universe. Edited by Benjamin D. Espinoza. Theology, Religion, and Pop Culture series, edited by Matthew Brake. New York: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2022. 250pp. $100.
Theology and the Star Wars Universe approaches Star Wars from the perspective of progressive theology. There is a heavy emphasis on the Disney sequel trilogy and on its middle installment The Last Jedi in particular, which is not surprising given the movie’s themes. A more illustrative title for the volume might in fact be Theology and That Scene from The Last Jedi Where Yoda Burns the Sacred Texts.
Editor Benjamin Espinoza’s introduction sets the tone:
“Theology by its very nature is contextual; we theologize from our sociopolitical contexts, making sense of God and the world through the lens of our experiences. As such, scholars have given greater attention to theologies that expand beyond the Western emphases of orthodoxy, individualism, and objectivity to include theologies that make sense of God and the world through the lenses of current social and political locations.”
These two sentences illustrate many of the major problems with the volume. First, it is rather strange that orthodoxy and objectivity are here the hallmarks of a Western sociopolitical context, when, for example, we might point to the Eastern Orthodox Church and its firm adherence to doctrinal truth. And to claim that absolute truth or a depositum fidei are mere social constructs already begs quite a large and dangerous question. Second, the “Western” individualism here said to be eschewed in fact stampedes rather flagrantly throughout most chapters, concerned as they are to oust received teachings or traditions in favor of one’s own personal experience (thus the touchstone scene mentioned above). Third, and to the least degree, the repetitive nature of these two statements betokens a lack of detailed editorial oversight in general. Typos and other errors abound, with at least one or two in each chapter (for this author, the “Tolkein” on p. 50 is especially galling).
Space does not permit an analysis of every chapter, most of which are either poorly argued or simply superficial. For the remainder of this review I will highlight three particularly egregious examples.
Zachary B. Smith’s essay, “Use (the) Force: Jedi, Monks, and Unexpected Violence” asserts that much like the Christian monks who “deploy[ed] violence to teach lessons” about spiritual formation, the Jedi employ violence both to teach and also to “enforce their view of the correct universal order” (25). Such violence creates “trauma and cognitive dissonance” because we do not expect our heroes to behave this way (26). This entire chapter is sloppily argued throughout, from empirically false statements such as “violence and pain are inimical to real learning or real change in a person” (26) to historically false statements such as “late antique Christian monks believed that it is through their actions, especially through their prayers and ascetic lives, that God’s side wins and Satan’s side loses” (28).
Smith compares the desert monks to the Jedi in their battle against the Sith, neglecting that the primary battleground for the monks was their own heart, a la the psychological introspection of Evagrius of Pontus. For Smith, the Jedi and monastics operate on a self-aggrandizing belief that only they can bring order to the world. But the silliest portion of the essay comes when Smith asserts that the rough-and-tumble appearance of characters like Obi-Wan, Yoda, or Han “belies the insidious reality that their attitudes and actions are not fully heroic” (29). They do not fit our archetype of what a hero should look like or how they should behave. “This abuse of the other characters or of the audiences creates trauma,” Smith writes (30). Aside from the larger issue of the misuse of the word trauma in current social discourse, Smith demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding of the storytelling mechanics on which Star Wars relies. The entire point is that false expectations need to be broken, that viewers should look beyond appearances to the hidden goodness and wisdom underneath. Smith would have us assume that any unreflective movie-goer’s mental image of a hero or monk must be correct, and calls anyone who would imply otherwise an abuser. He repeats the exploded myth of the Christian murder of Hypatia in an attempt to illustrate how we can learn from past failures (32-33). But Yoda’s hitting R2-D2 with a stick or Arsenius’s refusal of hospitality to those who intrude on his seclusion–these are not mistakes, they are deliberately iconoclastic methods used to confront their targets about their assumptions of holiness or wisdom.
Nathan Garcia offers another equation of the Jedi with the desert monastics in “Rediscovering the Sith and the Jedi: A Spiritual Analogy in Renaissance Humanism and Desert Asceticism.” The central claim here is that the Jedi and Sith share the same fundamental religion, but with a diametrically opposed anthropology. This in itself is already false, since the world-within-the-text clearly distinguishes between the Jedi and Sith religions. They may share a metaphysic, but not a faith.
Garcia believes the Jedi are like the desert monks in that they have a deep sense of community, believe that the human person requires transformation from sin into holiness, and accomplish this transformation through self-mastery and asceticism. Contrarily, the Sith correspond to the Renaissance humanists. Figures like Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, or Petrach are inherently individualist, believe in the innate goodness of humanity, and respond to this anthropology with a drive toward self-creation and artistry. But it is far from clear that Garcia’s likening of the Sith to the humanists works; on the surface, the Sith really only meet the first criterion.
Garcia once notes how “someone who can justify any action can be dangerous” (58). But that is virtually the extent to which Garcia categorizes the Sith as evil. Now, offering a revisionist interpretation of Star Wars in which history is recorded by the light-side victors is an interesting exercise, but it raises two concerns. First, whatever the benefits of such an exercise, they are not what Garcia himself highlights as the takeaway of his essay. Second, Garcia implies that he is not being revisionist, but instead bringing out “a more nuanced interpretation of the cinematic account” (49). As a result, we are told that, “While certainly Sith lords have assumed nefarious purposes, it cannot be forgotten that the Sith aren’t deranged malcontents without philosophical framework or cause.” Instead, Garcia sees in the dark lords “a diverging response to the monastic repressiveness of the Jedi order” (55). The Sith are artists, and the dark side is “the unrestricted exercise of the spiritual life in the Force” (58). It is hard to believe that anybody sufficiently well-versed in Star Wars lore could make the claim that the Sith are simply misunderstood creative-types.
“Mysticism and Resistance: Theology of The Last Jedi” by Rostislav Kůrka, opens by explaining that the theology of the Disney trilogy seems different to that of the older trilogies in, for instance, offering a much more direct and independent access to the Force. Rey is “a true nobody who was able to master the Force out of nothing…she does not need the help of anyone but the Force itself to take her first steps” (141). Again, “Everything implies that Rey is ready to be called a Jedi [before meeting Luke], at least ready enough for all practical purposes. Once again, her mystical connection to the Force substitutes for disciplined training,” (151). Second, the new trilogy does not focus on the heroine’s internal struggle; in her final battle against Palpatine, Rey has no significant trouble overcoming her anger. In Kůrka’s words, “The internal metaphysical conflict is sidelined for the sake of an external one,” (151). A reader might ask whether we are to see these changes as truly positive or as evidence of incompetent storytelling and a hollow impact. It is precisely the lack of internal struggle or difficulty that makes Rey’s journey ring false, and the particularizing of the conflict into First Order vs. Resistance, rather than Light vs. Dark, that makes the Disney trilogy less mythic. Kůrka seems to approve, however, taking these differences and explaining how they map onto the mysticism of Dorothee Sölle, the German liberation theologian who coined the term “Christofascism” to refer to fundamentalists. Hers is a democratized mysticism, much as the Force in more recent films has found a presence outside the Jedi. “Regardless of the degree of their doctrinal purity, the Force ‘listens’ to these characters’ pleas,” she writes (143). We might observe that the Force also seems to aid genocidal maniacs.
Kůrka then notices how, in contrast to the Zen Buddhist spiritual underpinnings of the original trilogy, the newest trilogy reflects an individualized and non-denominational spirituality. “We find no doctrine being taught at all,” she writes, and quotes John C. McDowell’s assertion that we see instead an alignment with “New Age, self-help spiritualities” (144). Again, rather than perceiving this to be evidence of a decline in quality or depth, Kůrka praises this “unmediated spirituality” in which personal experience is the means of contact with the transcendent (144-5). She views Luke’s instruction of Rey (after yet another reference to burning Jedi texts) as the provision of a religious language that can articulate her own pre-existing experience. (Here, by the way, Kůrka denies that the Force is pantheistic, choosing to categorize it as the transcendent. But this is false. The Force is dependent on nature, on the existence of biological organisms, a point later picked up by Ryan Duns).
Kůrka prefers this Rey-style mystical path, beginning in amazement, to the traditional Jedi path of self-purification, since such a high startup cost may prevent some people from even starting. In which case, we as readers might again ask whether that does not in itself demonstrate a false understanding of our responsibility toward the transcendent God. “A Jedi is not one who follows a doctrine, or wields a lightsaber, or lifts rocks. Being a Jedi is essentially connected with the act of resistance,” (150). This too is patently false, and a category mistake. While it is true that the Force does not equal Jediism, Jediism is most certainly a set of doctrines. Kůrka’s thrust seems to be that we should make the next step into applying the same view to Christianity itself–not a set of stuffy doctrines, but a personal experience or decision that requires no absolute commitment and no real change.
There are still several helpful essays within the volume, namely Andrew Kuzma’s “In Defence of the Nonviolence Luke: A Confrontation between Niebuhrian Realism and Christian Nonviolence in The Last Jedi”, Edward Dunar’s “Undoing the Memory Wipe: Metz, Droids, and the Victims of History,” John C. McDowell’s “Bringing Balance to the Force: George Lucas’ Politico-Critical Refiguring of Salvation,” Shaun C. Brown’s “Thomas Aquinas’ Account of Hope as a Hermeneutical Lens for Star Wars,” Ryan G. Duns’s differentiation of the Force from the Holy Spirit in “An Archē Not Anarchic Enough: A Spirited Critique of the Force,” and Russell P. Johnson’s “Lifting Rocks: Camus, Sainthood, and the Anti-Heroic in The Last Jedi.”
Overall, the handful of effective chapters in this volume do not justify its price tag or its existence as a finished work. The book could have used more rigorous editorial oversight and peer review in order to shore up the gaps in argumentation. Perhaps some of this perception is due to its clear slant toward progressive or mainline Christianity, in which case so many of the unexamined interpretive assumptions would not need so much justification. Readers looking for a thoroughgoing academic approach to the theology of Star Wars would still do better to stick with John C. McDowell’s recently updated edition of The Gospel according to Star Wars.
Austin Freeman teaches a variety of courses on theology and culture at Houston Christian University and The King’s College, New York. He is the author of Tolkien Dogmatics and editor of Theology and H.P. Lovecraft, along with numerous articles and chapters on theology and literature.
This is, in fact, how the body of the book literally opens (7). ↑