A guest post, by Suzannah Rowntree
(Warning: This review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi).
Since its release last month, the most recent Star Wars film has proven to be somewhat divisive. Personally, I loved The Last Jedi for the very same reason some conservatives hated it: the themes of progress and repentance.
The film lets us know early that it’s here to destroy our expectations. In 2015, at the end of The Force Awakens, famed Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker received his long-lost lightsaber from Rey, the young Force-sensitive girl hoping to find answers about her frightening new powers. The scene was reverent and myth-laden. But in Rian Johnson’s new installment, Luke quickly tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder, then strides off without a word to Rey.
Rey doesn’t give up easily, and Luke eventually agrees to train her. But his reason for doing so is completely new and rather shocking: he’s come to believe that the whole structure of the Jedi order is hopelessly corrupt. Now he’s determined to die the last of the Jedi, and he needs to warn Rey against repeating his own mistakes. No longer a confident young Jedi hero, Luke is now a despairing old skeptic, haunted by his past sins and temptations. Having tried and failed to achieve something good in the world, he has now retreated to live a hermit’s life in the most obscure place in the galaxy. Call it the Skywalker Option, complete with asceticism, meditation, freedom from technology and fresh unpasteurized organic milk.
The Daily Wire observed, “[Luke’s] bizarre life on the island with the fish-nuns and the alien sea cows comes off as pathetic and cowardly, not the austere life of a monk trying to attain further spiritual enlightenment.” Exactly! Monastic retreatism is nothing to celebrate, and it’s about time someone said so.
But Luke isn’t simply afraid: what he’s seen behind the Jedi Order is the truth. For centuries, the Jedi Knights claimed to be the sole guardians of the Force, the only ones able to keep the Light shining across the galaxy. But Luke has come to realize that the Force is too big to be confined in the Jedi Temple. It’s the birthright of every living thing. The elitist Jedi claim is both false and prideful, and Luke’s own celebrity status as a legendary Jedi is one of the very things preventing ordinary people from discovering their own connection with the Force.
Star Wars fans are appalled at this desecration of a venerated trope, and conservatives are offended by its implications for their own faith. With good reason. It’s hard for Christians not to see the Jedi Order as an analogy for the institutional church, and I hope they do. For centuries, the institutional church has claimed to be the guardians of the Holy Spirit and the Word. But what if the Holy Spirit doesn’t need to be mediated by a human institution? What if the Word is living and active? Is not the institutional church’s claim both false and prideful? What if our celebrity-pastor cults are the main thing preventing ordinary Christians from accessing the truth of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit for themselves?
Christian conservatives ought to be asking these questions and searching Scripture for answers. Instead, if they take it seriously at all, they seem to be criticizing the film as a progressivist tract. It’s not, actually. It doesn’t fall into the trap of asserting that that newer and younger is better simply by virtue of being newer and younger. If that was the message of The Last Jedi, then Luke and Leia would be wrong and young stars Rey and Kylo Ren would be right. That’s not what we see. Rather, Kylo Ren remains a steadfast villain throughout. Not even the power of a crush on Rey can redeem him. Throughout, he enunciates postmodern values: calling on Rey to forget the past, he refuses to confront his own shortcomings and insists on defining reality to revolve around himself. And when Leia says that her son is dead, the film doesn’t correct her. If Luke is a space hermit, then Kylo Ren is a space millennial. But his youth and his desire to destroy the past doesn’t make him either good or wise.
Here’s the thing, though: Kylo Ren isn’t the only space millennial in the film. There’s also our heroine, Rey.
Luke’s retreat from the battle between good and evil has grave consequences for his would-be pupil. Rey comes to beg Luke for help—help for the Resistance, which is being hunted to the edge of extinction by Kylo Ren and the First Order, and help understanding her own connection with the Force. Luke only grudgingly agrees to help with the second, and adamantly refuses to help with the first. Meanwhile, Rey finds herself sharing a mysterious connection with Kylo Ren. Unlike Luke, he doesn’t rebuff her questions. And when Luke finally refuses to help the Resistance, Rey leaves him and goes off to confront Kylo in the hope of converting him and forming an alliance with him.
This struck me. Rey is a dead ringer for many Christian millennials I know. They know there’s something wrong with the world. They know there’s no true justice for the oppressed in our society. They know that their teachers brush off their questions, or lie to them, or teach them a pietistic, truncated version of their faith that only holds out hope for the hereafter. And when these millennials become frustrated at the lack of answers in the church, then of course they go off in all their naivete to learn from the people who do promise answers.
And like Rey, they find that they can only ally with evil if they agree to become evil themselves.
So is The Last Jedi as progressive as they say? Yes . . . and no. There’s clearly an agenda behind this story. Much of the casting—especially the strong presence of females and racial minorities—is clearly being done as affirmative action. But where’s the problem with that? Of course nobody likes feeling patronized, but maybe we need to stop being so easily offended. The story is a good story that just happens to feature lots of ethnic diversity. Why shouldn’t it?
Meanwhile there are two major reasons why I think Christians ought to seriously consider what this film has to say.
First, as I’ve already mentioned, the film’s concept of progress is solidly ethical. The Last Jedi doesn’t embrace moral relativism, and it doesn’t insist that young people or women or ethnic minorities can do no wrong. The film is full of ethical judgements, like the cute scene in which a young janitor (of Asian extraction) meets up with a young war hero (of African extraction), and although initially overcome with hero-worship, unhesitatingly tazes him when she figures out he’s trying to desert. That’s just a small moment, but the film is full of similar scenes. Even the vocabulary used by the characters is unusually Christian. Look out for a stray “Godspeed” and references to prayer, but the most interesting line comes when Kylo Ren asks, “Have you come to forgive me? To save my soul?” Traditionally the language used in Star Wars has been more non-judgmental; characters speak of “turning” from the Dark Side to the Light or vice versa, but not of forgiveness or salvation. The Last Jedi, perhaps to a greater extent than any Star Wars film preceding it, judges its characters according to their actions as measured against an overruling concept of right and wrong, not according to their bloodline or their status as guardians of religious tradition. As such, it’s also more Christian and covenantal than any of the Star Wars films preceding it.
Second, Christians should never be wary of this kind of progressiveness. In today’s political climate, many Christians tend to associate conservatism with Biblical ethics, and progressivism with wickedness in high places. The problem with this categorization is that it overlooks the progressive nature of Biblical faith. Conservatism, by definition, means preserving old things because they are old. Anything more opposed to the optimistic, repentance-driven future of Christendom as portrayed in Scripture would be difficult to imagine. The Kingdom of God grows through time and history to cover the whole earth. The Church of God progresses from strength to strength as she repents and turns away from the sins of her past. Her mission is to do justice and love mercy, not to wail when a cheesy space opera tries to make a point about the evils of animal cruelty or war profiteering, or actively tries to pioneer high-profile acting jobs for people of Asian or African descent. Christians need to love justice and mercy in every area of life, especially the areas where they’ve been most silent in the recent past. And what sets us aside from the godless progressives should be our uncompromising Biblical ethics—not our apathy on matters of justice.
There’s much more that could be said about The Last Jedi. I won’t say it’s a perfect film. There were whole subplots that didn’t work, and while I loved the theme of hope, I thought the film contradicted itself thematically here (If hope is so important, then why is Vice-Admiral Holdo justified in driving her crew to mutiny by withholding hope from them?) But these flaws don’t detract from what’s good about the film. The Last Jedi is not just capable storytelling; it’s also thought-provoking and profound. For those reasons, I think it’s also the first Star Wars film since the Original Trilogy that has the potential to become a classic.
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her parents and siblings, writing and publishing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history. Visit her online at suzannahrowntree.site.