Not long ago, my daughter and I went to see the latest Star Wars movie. The content has always been New Agey and I’ve been under no illusions as to it being otherwise.
So I was interested to see how CNN’s Dan Burke dissected “The Last Jedi” in terms of its religious content, or lack thereof.
You may ask if this is really a "news" subject. Look at the size of the "Star Wars" audience and its influence over multiple decades. Next question?
Burke sees this new movie as a symbol of a higher indifference to traditional forms of religion found among today’s Millennials and suggests that this attitude got picked up by the filmmakers. I’m not so sure the makers of “Jedi” thought it through to that point. Still, read on:
"Star Wars" has always kept its fingers close to America's spiritual pulse.
In the '70s and '80s, the interstellar saga explored Eastern traditions, mainly Buddhism and Taoism, just as many "spiritual, but not religious" dabblers were doing the same.
At the turn of the millennium, "Star Wars" caught the McMindfulness craze. "The Phantom Menace" opens with two Jedi talking about the benefits of meditation. Riveting, it was not.
But the latest film in the saga, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," touches on trends in American religious life in some surprising ways, especially for a franchise that's so nakedly commercial. ("The Last Jedi" was the highest-grossing movie in the United States last year and raked in nearly $1.3 billion worldwide.)
"It is very much a movie of this time," said the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a Buddhist teacher, social justice activist and "Star Wars" aficionado who lives Berkeley, California. "It draws on ancient teachings, as well as what is happening in this country right now."
Is the movie trying to make a statement about organized religion or its demise? And if “Star Wars” really kept its finger on America’s pulse, it sure didn’t reflect any of the Christian revivals that happened in that same period. And there was a lot more going on in America amongst the monotheistic religions than the non-theistic ones.
By the way, there are all kinds of religion and pop-culture scholars who have studied all of this in-depth.
The article continues:
"Star Wars" is, at heart, a story about the rise and fall of an ancient religion.
When we meet the Jedis, in Episode I, they're mindfulness-meditating, axiom-spouting space monks who keep order in the galaxy and swing a swift lightsaber.
By Episode VIII -- "The Last Jedi" -- the once-great order is reduced to a lone soul, Luke Skywalker, serving a self-imposed penance on a remote island.
The newest practitioners of Jedi-ism, as I’ll call it, seem to be able to wield it without the discipline and training it used to call for. Is this a reflection of how Millennials are rejecting time-heavy learning from the old masters to freelance spirituality?
It sounds like an interesting idea, but I’m willing to wager the folks from the dark side aren’t so sloppy in learning the ways of the Force. No matter what the religious tradition, years of training are always needed to acquire any wisdom, whether ancient or new.
The article then switches to a discussion of how Buddhist-oriented the movie franchise is.
Throughout "Star Wars," the Jedi talk often about mindfulness and concentration, attachment and interdependence, all key Buddhist ideas. Two -- mindfulness and concentration -- are steps on the Eightfold Path, the Buddha's guide to spiritual liberation.
You could argue that "The Last Jedi," telegraphs its spiritual debts to Buddhism. When Rey is meditating, she touches the ground, mirroring an iconic image of the "earth-touching" Buddha.
There’s also some Taoism and a few Christian references thrown in. The article throws in some quotes from Pope Francis to dispel the notion that modern youth are forsaking all religion, then swings back to its original thesis that the series is really Buddhism Lite.
The reporter does link to an Atlantic magazine article that says similar to what Burke is saying, albeit in a more sophisticated manner. It also references an intriguing Weekly Standard essay that rightly condemns “The Last Jedi” for being an epistle of hopelessness and suggests its screenwriters reread their Tolkien narratives for lessons on how to turn the series around with one more movie to go.
What definitely bedevils “The Last Jedi” is the powerlessness of the main protagonists. Either they are –- like Luke Skywalker –- throwing away their light sabers or they’re –- like Princess Leia –- asking for help from allies who never appear. The whole despair motif didn't go over well with critics, as you can read here. Click here to see a tmatt "On Religion" column on that angle, as well.
The article throws out thoughts and possibilities but doesn’t really resolve the puzzle. I think Jeffrey Webb’s piece in Medium.com on “The Last Jedi” as being the first existentialist Star Wars is closer to the mark.
Existentialism reminds us that our lives are fundamentally small, our grandest successes lack any real cosmic import, and our names are no more enduring than a brief Jakku sandstorm. The methods existentialist artists use to make their arguments— irony, black humor, farce, absurdism — reinforce that bleak view of life. They subvert, deconstruct, tear down false idols.
Epics tell the opposite story. Epics build idols. Their forms and elements — sweeping narratives across time and space (Star Wars), behemoth armies whose victory or defeat will decide the fate of whole worlds (Lord of The Rings), legendary heroes and far-flung journeys (The Iliad and the Odyssey), otherworldly monsters (Beowulf), quests blending the human and the divine (Gilgamesh, Noah) — all of this is designed to elevate the existence of the characters, and thereby elevate all of us, too.
Back to Burke’s thesis: Is “The Last Jedi” really a Buddhist epic? My knowledge of Buddhism isn’t the best; still, I don’t think it is. It’s more about Sartre than Siddhartha. It’s not so much religious as it’s about religion not working.
Whatever the case, I appreciate CNN at least trying to put this famous movie series into a religious context, including some research with veteran scholars in this field. Would that more reporters had tried to do the same or had at least discerned the spiritual or nihilistic (take your pick) philosophy behind it all.