Catholic Reflections on “The Last Jedi”
Last month’s release of Star Wars’ “The Last Jedi” created a wave of excitement and challenges for many of us in Catholic theological circles who have been deeply impacted by this movie franchise. Many of us who study Practical (sometimes called Pastoral) Theology recognize how aspects of contemporary culture (like music or movies) can sometimes communicate powerful religious and spiritual messages. Certainly Star Wars has been able to communicate this to many of us, I personally remember when the first movie was released in 1977 and how spiritually moved I was by the self-sacrificing death of Obi-Wan Kenobi and his ongoing influence on the young hero Luke Skywalker. This cinematic scene gave me a contemporary cultural context from which I could reflect on the idea of Christ as the one whose act of self-sacrifice is responsible for redeeming humanity and it was this scene that moved me to discern Catholic religious life.
“The Last Jedi” continues the conversation and there have been many interesting reviews so far (WARNING! Spoiler alerts). As someone who has religiously followed the Star Wars saga I could not help but notice that this movie made a strong statement in defense of a Force based mysticism over the institutionalization of the Jedi Order. For institutional Catholics this poses a deep challenge to institutional authority. For Catholics who are more open to a mystical expression of faith that appeals to the margins of society rather than the institutional center (and this includes me I suppose) this movie was very appealing. The British Jesuit magazine “Thinking Faith” described the appeal in this way:
We Jesuits can also learn a lot: Luke and Yoda both play an important demythologising the Jedi order – renewal will come from the edges, not the centre. The way in which female leadership gently pushes aside heroic leadership, and the overall themes of hope in an uncertain future, will capture the hearts and minds of so many young Jedis-to-be.
Bishop Robert Barron offers his own gentle critique of the recent Star Wars movie with his web article which can be found in his website “Word on Fire“. Bishop Barron reminds us that the mythic quality of the Star Wars story borrows from the contributions of Joseph Campbell who developed a mono-mythic synthesis of religious traditions. Bishop Barron praises Star Wars for offering the modern culture what he calls the philosophia perennis (perennial wisdom) but he is concerned that in this recent movie a secular ideology has perverted this once noble mythical venture.
…the mythic and archetypal dimensions are all but overwhelmed by an aggressively feminist ideology. The overriding preoccupation of the makers of the most recent Star Wars seems to be, not the hero’s spiritual journey, but the elevation of the all-conquering female.
Bishop Barron’s critique includes what he considers the general emasculation of the male characters juxtaposed with strong independent female characters. “Even Luke,” Bishop Barron complains, “has become embittered and afraid, bearing the stigma of a profound moral failure.”
Having seen this movie twice already I have to respectfully disagree with Bishop Barron’s assessment of the aggressive feminist ideology (although women certainly play a more dominant role in this saga then in any of the others) and especially the critique of Luke Skywalker. “The Last Jedi” leaves an uncertain future but whatever hope we have exist from the powerful self-sacrifice that Luke himself performs at the end of the movie and the wisdom of those who resist evil “not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!” Luke does struggle in this movie with his failure for not continuing the Jedi Order but even in this struggle Luke offers us yet another perennial wisdom that heretofore has not been made in the Star Wars story. The Jesuit magazine “America” captures this lesson well.
His journey in the film is not to once again forgive another but the much harder journey of facing his own past choices and trying to forgive himself. It is a struggle familiar to any who have been parent, teacher, mentor or friend (oh boy is it), and all the more powerful because of that resonance. And the advice of an “old friend” (wink wink) is key: Failure, too, is a lesson to be passed on.
This spring both our youth and social ministry would like to hold a viewing and continue the theological discussion over the lessons and challenges of Star Wars and “The Last Jedi.” As we develop this event we will update the parish community in our bulletin and website and we hope that many of you would want to join us for this conversation.