By this point, you’ve probably read all the takes you need on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It’s proven to be a highly divisive film: some people loved it, and some people hated it so much that they created bots to kill the Rotten Tomatoes rating. Then there was the faction of mischief makers who reacted by creating fictional recipes to roast fictional creatures, because truly, nothing is sacred.
Except, actually, something is sacred. In fact, Stars Wars: The Last Jedi is actually focused on the sacred at every turn — with a storyline often seems analogous to the journey of Christianity (and mainstream religions, at large) in America.
The downfall of evangelical Christianity has seemed increasingly imminent (and important) since white evangelicals threw their support behind president Trump, and it’s been interesting to wonder what the future will be for the religion in America in the post-“Christians acting against their best interests and Christ’s actual doctrine to support Trump” era. Since Roy Moore lost (and for years before), it seems America has been moving away from the evangelical, conservative Christianity that ruled the nation post-1960s. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, evangelicals have slipped from representing 23% of the population to representing 17% of the population from 2006 to 2016. And those numbers keep declining, rapidly.
The Force Awakens ends with Rey offering Luke’s lightsaber back to him and looking expectantly. We want our hero. We want him so badly. We’ve been waiting for him for decades. In The Last Jedi, we watch as Luke tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and keeps walking. That sets the tone for the entire movie: whatever your expectations are, you’d better curb them because The Last Jedi doesn’t give a damn what you think about it.
And so it goes for the modern American religionist, in general, and the Christian, in specific: Luke is disenchanted with the Force after he saw his failures manifested in Kylo Ren/Ben Solo turning to the Dark Side. He doesn’t care to “save” anyone or anything, regardless of Rey’s pure intentions. Young people right now are equally disenchanted with mainstream religion. At this point, powerful evangelical Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham are using their own power to influence “the dark side” — politics funded by corruption, wealth disparity, sexism, and racism. And as Luke Skywalker points out to Rey, the old Force of the Jedi were just as likely to turn to the dark side and abuse their powers, ultimately using them for evil.
In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker famously joined the Empire as Darth Vader, but the main thing that leads Luke Skywalker to hate the Jedi Order, and his exile on the remote planet Ahch-To, is his self-hatred after he failed in training his nephew, Ben Solo, and watched him become Kylo Ren. As a Christian, I’ve experienced the same feelings of disenchantment and disgust. I hate watching the failures of my religion. I see my country growing revolted by my faith. But now, after rewatching Star Wars, I’m starting to think that’s a good thing.
Many Star Wars fans complained about how Rey seemed to be an expert in the Force, despite the fact that she’d never received any training. But as Luke tells us, nobody owns the Force. It exists, and the idea that only a Jedi can control it is pure vanity, just like the idea that only religionists can possess morality and spirituality is equally vain. Trump’s lewd behavior and inexplicable Christian support for Roy Moore proves that the “morals” of evangelical Christianity were subjective all along. After Rey decides that she will pursue the journey to become a Jedi on her own after a fight with Luke Skywalker, he walks to the makeshift Jedi Temple that contained the sacred Jedi texts. He intends to burn it all down, and end the Jedi Order once and for all.
That’s when the ethereal ghost of Yoda appears, and offers us the most scathing critique of the Jedi Order, one feels particularly potent when applied to Christianity. Luke can’t force himself to burn down the temple, so Yoda has lightning strike it down and sets it ablaze himself. “So it is time for the Jedi Order to end,” says Luke, watching the thousand-year-old temple burn down. Yoda nods. “Time it is. For you to look past a pile of old books, hmm?”
Maybe this is the key lesson: Evangelical Christians have become obsessed with legalism, in maintaining the order of ancient texts to justify bigotry toward the LGBT community, harm to the economy, destruction of the environment, and of course, racism and sexism throughout history — especially in the United States, where religion has been used to justify slavery, burning women at the stake, bans on interracial marriage, and laws barring women from voting and holding down jobs. Perhaps it’s time to burn it all down. Kylo Ren may be the bad guy, but he was right when he said, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. Only then can you become what you were meant to be.”
The commonly held idea of evangelical Christians today is a vision of fundamentalists who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and biblical inerrancy. That notion — that nothing in the book is wrong — is a relatively new interpretation: one that didn’t exist until the 19th and 20th centuries. The American evangelical fundamentalists who believed this notion joined Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” in the 1960s, and supported him on issues of abortion and segregation. Eventually, they developed a stranglehold on American politics, which we still feel today. The original Jerry Falwell likely thought he was trying to better the world, in some wrong-headed roundabout way. At that, he and his cohorts certainly failed. In the original Star Wars movies, we are led to believe that the Jedi were once a powerful, incredible group of people who could grow to defeat the Empire and save the universe. In The Last Jedi those assumptions are turned upside down, and we see the flaws of the Jedi on full display in both Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren.
As the Jedi temple burns down, Yoda tells Luke that the sacred ancient texts of the Jedi that were burned in the temple “contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” The Bible has been used for too long in America by white evangelicals as a weapon to use against the oppressed. As Christians watch a new kind of morality rise, evangelicals are trying to cling to the past and fight to go back to where they were. But let us offer another solution: Christians can move forward, fighting the real Dark Side as they steal from the poor to give to the rich. They need to let the past die.
The future of Christianity might just be the extinction of entire sects, the shuttering of empty churches, and young people who learn to read the Bible as a spiritual guide, instead of as a historical texts that flies in the face of modern science and encourages both racism and sexism (certainly not how Jesus intended the Scripture to be used).
The Force exists whether or not the Jedi do. The fall of American evangelical Christianity could help usher in a new era of American spirituality, or even Christianity itself. Somewhere along the way, Christians forgot, like Rose said, how to win: “Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” The overarching values of a faith practice are separate from any church in the United States. No cleric can own those values.
Upon rewatching The Last Jedi, you notice: Rey had the ancient sacred Jedi texts with her on the Millennium Falcon. Yoda and Luke Skywalker didn’t even burn them down in the first place. Star Wars is setting Rey up to take the Jedi to places previously unseen, without the burdens of the past (in which Jedi could not marry, and women couldn’t join) holding them back. She’s in charge of the future of the order now, and the Force is awakening all over.
Christianity in America is like Star Wars in this way. From a past that included strict rules and encouraged horrors like colonialism, segregation, and centuries of sexual harassment, it hasn’t all been very pretty. As young people have lost their faith in religions (specifically evangelicalism), the old leaders are going to lose influence. But as The Last Jedi teaches us, faith doesn’t have to die just because religion does. Like Yoda said, “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”