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Warning: spoilers ahead from Star Wars: The Last Jedi
My husband and I have a standing Star Wars date. On the Friday of its release, we both take the day off from work. Kiddo is in school, so we don’t have to pay for childcare. We get to see the film for the matinee price, and have popcorn for breakfast. It’s something we look forward to every year—the beginning of our holidays, starting with Star Wars Release Day.
Both my husband and I are clergy, and in the fifteen years since I graduated from seminary, we have experienced a major shift in understanding about our roles and the future of the church. As several other scholars have long since noted, Christendom is fast waning. The numbers of people attending church have steadily declined, and churches are closing their doors. Several other scholars and colleagues have noted that since the housing market crisis of 2007-2008, giving to churches has dropped significantly. Where 401k’s have finally recovered, people’s giving to the church has not climbed back.
When I was in seminary, from 1999-2002, I recognized that I was the last generation that would serve a full-time church. The future would be bivocational ministry, or some other model that did not require a three-year professional Master degree. Many churches cannot afford one full time pastor anymore, but a Master of Divinity degree requires a significant full-time salary to pay it off (and by significant, I mean at least equivalent to other professionals in the area). Little did I know that in my lifetime I would see so many churches drop their full-time pastors, or close altogether. My husband was called to help a church close, and to start a new ministry, but alas, like one out of every two new church starts, the new ministry closed after four years.
So here we were, my husband unemployed from the church for the last nine months, and me, finally returning to full-time ministry after five years of a part-time ministry, watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi. We’ve seen all the Star Wars movies. I was twenty-one when I stood in line for two hours to see The Phantom Menace with my hair styled like Princess Leia, only to be disappointed a few hours later. My husband, on the other hand, thinks the prequels are dismissed too readily by fans.
In The Last Jedi, Luke, in a shocking turn from his rash youth as the son of Annakin Skywalker, who is determined to find the good in his father, has become a reclusive hermit. That in itself isn’t surprising: Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi both did the same thing. But perhaps a little more like Yoda, Luke isn’t sure that there is hope in the Jedi anymore, and Luke was once the holdout for hope in the galaxy. We must remember it took Yoda some convincing—even from Obi Wan beyond the grave—before he took Luke on to finish his training. Yoda had gone into hiding and wasn’t convinced that anything good could still come from the Jedi.
When Rey comes to find Luke and hands him his light sabre—the same light sabre that was his father’s (supposedly recovered from his severed hand at the end of Empire) he tosses it away. “Let the past die,” he says repeatedly in different ways. When Rey insists, he reminds her of the history of the Jedi—one in which you must have watched the prequels to understand (points to my husband). The Jedi, begun as an old religion surrounding the Force, became an elite group with their own school. Only those with a high midi-chlorian count were considered worthy of becoming a Jedi. They enjoyed a special status in society, had the ear of most of the Republic Senate, and ultimately failed to live out their mission.
The future of the Jedi is not to revive the old ways, is not to go back to the past, but to look to the future. When Yoda appears to Luke, Luke was about to destroy the last Jedi temple with their ancient books, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Yoda destroys it with a lightning flash. The ancient books are now gone. Yoda chuckles. “Page turners, they were not.” So are many of the theological treatises I had to read in seminary. And to be honest, various parts of the Bible.
The truth is that the wisdom in those books lives on in Rey. Yoda tells this to Luke, and we see it in who Rey is. She is not tempted or turned by the Dark Side. She knows what is right. We witness the end of the Jedi Order with the temple destroyed, and in the end, Luke fades away to become one with the force, the way Obi Wan and Yoda did before him.
The old ways are dying. Christendom is dead. The numbers of people who claim no religious affiliation are on the rise. But is the wisdom gone? Are the teachings of Jesus dead? I don’t believe they are at all. We are seeing the rise of resistance training across the country. We are seeing people put into practice the teachings of nonviolent protest that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized. Every day, I see signs of people practicing communal responsibility. Despite the rise of Go-Fund-Me campaigns as a result of our inadequate national health care, it’s also a sign of communal responsibility for the well-being of others. While we have a long way to go as a society, every day I see signs of the practice of Matthew 25:31-46: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (vs. 40).
In The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones states, “Confronted with the psychic discomfort that results from a lack of cultural confidence and security, the greatest threat to White Christian America’s descendants is the siren song of nostalgia.” Certainly this was the same claim for the Jedi. They were no longer in power, and by the time of The Last Jedi, they hadn’t been in power for some time. And while there was hope in the Resistance that Luke would return and lead them to victory, I would say that the writers played a clever trick on us: we as fans hoped that more than the characters in the story. The Resistance simply wanted to survive by the time we got to that point in The Last Jedi.
When we do look back at the past (at least at the account that Acts gives us, along with some of Paul’s letters), we see fledgling groups, followers of Jesus, who actually lived out Jesus’ teachings among one another:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
What I love about this passage is that they had the goodwill of all the people. They didn’t go cut themselves off from society, or try to be an elite group; instead, they did what they could to help others, to take communal responsibility.
What we can learn from The Last Jedi is that we must let go of the past, and our cling to nostalgia. We need to let go of the days when the church was full, when you would simply open the doors and people would come in, when our Sunday School classrooms were bursting at the seams. Instead, as the church, we need to look at what we can do to help others around us. How can we participate fully in society and take communal responsibility for the well-being of others around us? And like the child at the end of the film, who already knows the ways of the Force because the force is in them, how can we find where the Spirit is already moving in the community? For God is already at work. God is already in the community. We do not need to bring Jesus to the people. Jesus’ teachings have been at work for two thousand years. All we need to do is cultivate the seeds of love and compassion found in Christ, that are already at work in the world around us.
The Force lives in all of us. The Spirit is alive and at work in the world around us. Trust me, everyone already knows about Jesus. But some don’t know that Christians can actually practice the teachings of Jesus, and many don’t know what Jesus really taught because we have cloaked his message with our own requirements. “The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda says to Luke. And perhaps that truth needs to be made known to us in the church. We have failed in Christendom. We have failed in the top-down approach. But now, we have the opportunity to let the Spirit do something new, in each of us, in our churches, and in our communities. We have the opportunity to flip the world upside down again, in which the church is at the bottom, not at the top—and in doing so, we could truly become foundational to our communities once again.