Last Jedi as religious fiction

My title may be a bit misleading. “Religious fiction” usually means a specific literary genre which is overtly Christian and conservatively evangelical. I suppose stuff like Touched by an Angel was religious fiction. I don’t mean it in that way, but I can’t really think of another phrase. My basic point is that The Last Jedi is, and reminds the audience that Star Wars has always been, about a speculative, magico-religious way of life. I’m talking about the Force, of course. TLJ isn’t just about Force-users; it’s about Force-believers. And it is totally necessary for this movie to investigate the ideas underlying this religion in Star Wars.

First, the obvious: Star Wars is about the Force. I knew a guy in undergrad who swore that the worst thing Lucas did was put the Force in Star Wars. At the time I couldn’t really articulate my objection, but I sure can now: without the Force, Star Wars doesn’t exist. Star Wars is not about spaceships and laser swords; it is about the way humans can interact with an animist universe to make those spaceships and laser swords extensions of themselves.

Lucas has gone on the record, in more than one place, saying that the first Star Wars film was inspired by his love of car racing, something he did a lot of when he was young in California. Apparently, Californians of a certain age all have at least one story of driving fast up or down the highways that go north-south in that state. Additionally, the kinetic feeling of Star Wars, as well as Lucas’ ode to cars, is probably due to his wife, who was often his editor. Lucas very specifically said, once, that he loved the feeling of racing because it made him feel at one with this machine that he built and maintained. Gear-shifting was pleasurable because he knew exactly how to do it, when to do it, and that the machine would respond the way it should.

If you read that and don’t feel like he’s kind of an animist, try again. Lucas is describing the feeling of becoming one with his machine. That’s what we saw in the first trilogy, after all. Luke extends his mind to fire more accurately than his targeting computer. Luke and Vader are both part machine, their mechanical hands wielding lightsabers like they’re toys. Even the Empire’s machines are like animals — though that reverses the trend, and is actually an important point for later. The Empire builds giant war machines that are purely machines; they require multiple crew members to run, after all. But they move like animals.

Let’s move now to TLJ. Here be the spoilers, if you still haven’t seen it and want to.


Here’s the second point for this issue: the film calls attention to one of the most successful pieces of memetic dialog in history: “may the Force be with you.” Plenty of people say it, in plenty of contexts. But what called my attention to it was when Leia and Holdo said goodbye. They stumbled over each other. The phrase is so common, now, that it’s just a way of saying goodbye.

Fun facts: “goodbye” is religious, since it was a contraction of “God be with you.” In Irish “hello” is “dia duit,” which is “God be with you.” The response is, basically, “God and Mary be with you” (note: if you speak Irish, feel free to correct me. That’s just what my textbooks say. Either way, the point stands, because it was a pretty standard greeting at some point). Leia and Holdo clearly feel this earnestly, but it’s also just a thing people say now. Leia makes some fun of that (in what turns out to be Fisher’s idea, unsurprisingly).

What’s the point? Well, shift around to Rose and Finn’s plot. They reference the Force as well, despite apparently being unable to access it. I mean, Leia is, now, a self-taught Jedi badass, of course she talks about it. But for Finn and Rose, it’s basically like Jehovah. They believe it’s there, and that it means well, but they don’t know. Shrug city, P.

And then there’s Rey. She shows up on Luke’s hideaway the same way he did on Dagobah, looking for a mystic teacher, a guru. Luke found one, because Lucas was firmly in the grip of his beautiful, pancosmic animism. Rey does not. Rian Johnson, remember, made stuff like Looper and Brick. Rian Johnson is not really in the grip of animism.

What’s great is that he gives us a better version of animism because of it.

See, here’s something interesting. In a very strange way, the religion in the modern world that is the most animistic isn’t really a religion at all. That religion is Shinto, which attributes life and, to some degree, personality, to everything in the land. Trees, stones, valleys, rivers, can all have spirits. And it doesn’t stop there. There’s a Shinto legend that if a craftsman uses a tool for 100 years it will gain a soul. But if a craftsman uses a tool for 90 years and discards it, the tool’s bitterness will curse it. You don’t want to use that tool afterwards.

Now, Lucas has been open about his love of Japanese culture. Vader is basically a space samurai. I’m not saying Lucas built a perfect animist religion, or that Johnson is revising it specifically to move closer to real world animism.

I’m saying Rian Johnson hates fucking Nazis, because who doesn’t?

Sharp left turn, you think? No way. Consider this: the Empire and the New Order are both atheistic regimes headed by overtly religious gurus. Palpatine and Snoke are powerful in the Force, which means they know it fucking exists. And yet, at every turn, both groups act as though it doesn’t. Tarkin mocks Vader for being the last of a dying breed, as though Vader couldn’t go out tomorrow and pick up a dozen kids who are Force sensitive. Hux et al treat Kylo Ren like a whiny baby for good reason — his tantrums are so common, by TLJ, that stormtroopers just sigh and get in the busted elevator. But that leads Hux, particularly, to keep forgetting Ren is a really strong Force guy. Remember the dillweed in ESB that Vader keeps Force-choking? Hux is that guy, but an actual character.

So the bad guys are nominally rational and atheistic in a world where atheists are demonstrably wrong. Han Solo gave us that arc in a single movie. “The Force is hooie” -> “well, shit, yeah, that there’s some Force.” By the end of RotJ, no one bats an eye at Luke going alone into the seat of the Empire’s power, presumably because he has, offscreen, become some kind of Force badass.

And that leads us to the final point. Luke capitulated the top form of the Jedi. He’s a total badass who becomes a teacher and culls out bad seeds so the universe can be balanced. Luke is the product of a prophecy. Everyone thought Anakin was going to balance the Force, but it was Luke.

And by vague-non-anthropomorphic-Force-god, he does. By burning it the fuck down.

See, Rey is Luke 2.0 in TFA because there’s a pattern. Luke knows not to follow it now. Fucking Yoka knew not to do that. Obi-Wan knew not to do that. Why do all the surviving good-guy Jedi keep wandering off into the wilderness to die? Because this is some bad shit! But they haven’t figured out the damn problem yet. By TLJ, Luke has figured it out. Or thinks he has. Really, he figures it out mid-TLJ, and here is the problem: Luke tells Rey that the Force is just the lifeforce of things. Who the hell are we to say it’s ours? Right? Well, the idea of a dark side and a light side is doing just that. Luke has that urge to kill Kylo because, well, that’s what Jedi do to dark side assholes. It’s seriously what Luke did all his adult life before that point. Luke knows, now, from his hermetic retreat, that life is both light and dark, life and death. He’s still afraid, though. He hasn’t gone all the way through the mystic revelation, because his fear cut him off from the universe. When Rey convinces him to open up again he gets it: the Jedi are perpetuating the Sith, because they’re creating a religion out of animism. You can’t do that. Animism posits only that things live, that they have spirit. There are good and bad spirits, sort of — really, there are spirits that will do you good or bad turns. I think one of the core tenets of some old forms of Shinto are that bad spirits just are “cursed” to hang around until they help people. The more people they help, the lighter their spirit becomes, until it can float free of this world.

That’s why Luke has to die that way. It’s shit, and I was sad, but he gets it. He releases himself back into the lifeforce, because that’s where we’re all going. He’s light as a feather.

And he does it joking, laughing, helping in the conflict between two ideals, because you can do both. You can aspire to Nirvana and say the Vietnam war is bad.

Why did I say, up there, that Rian Johnson hates Nazis? Well, we have a real world example of a regime set up to be a rational, non-theistic powerhouse with corrupt religious shitheads at its core… Yes, the Nazis. The Nazi party, in general, was not worshiping Thor and shit. That was specifically the SS, and it appear that those rites were really just ways to initiate people into the group. It could have been any pantheon, but, you know, the Freemasons were taken and parts of Germany sort of worshiped Thor once. Hitler wasn’t particularly religious in one way or another, but most of his policies were basically Christian. I mean, where do you think anti-Semitism comes from, anyway? The Nazis never stripped the cultural Christianity from their doctrines, even as they espoused a knock-off version of Nietzsche’s superman ideal to slip out of the whole “slave mentality” of Christianity (that’s Nietzsche’s phrase; the person who knocked off his philosophy for the Nazis was his sister, who hated him).

That’s just a nice diversion from the main point, really. Here’s the takeaway from that section: both the Resistance and the New Order are following the religion of the Force, one openly and one covertly. So despite how they struggle against one another, they keep circling around and never quite finishing each other off. Luke, and possibly Rey, realize that the universe doesn’t work that way. It has a fucking magical core to it, and the magical core doesn’t give a shit what we do with it. Why would it? The magic is life itself.

If anyone understands the idea that life itself is very, very neutral compared to humans, it’s the Rian Johnson who examined the grotesque possibilities of time travel and the nihilistic noir of high school cliques.

Lots of people have written about how TLJ “throws out” the old formulas and the history of the series, with the original cast exiting through the wings en masse and Luke throwing his lightsaber over his shoulder and so on. What it also throws out is the assumed connection between the morality of the good guys and their connection to the Force. After all, if that’s what makes them moral, then how the hell does Kylo Ren keep doing shit with the Force? He’s a fucking asshole.

Maybe, in the end, it’s more appropriate to say TLJ is irreligious fiction.


One thought on “Last Jedi as religious fiction

  1. Pingback: The Last Jedi as Hardboiled Fiction – Better Living through Symbolism

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