May the faith be with you: Star Wars and religion

How does Star Wars reflect various religious traditions and influences?
By Esther D. Kustanowitz  Published on 05/25/2018 at 4:10 PM EDT
Daisy Ridley as Rey in 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' prevnext Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm

Many may know the fourth of May as “Star Wars Day,” because you can say “May the Fourth Be With You.” But other fans count May 25–the date on which the original Star Wars: A New Hope was released–as Star Wars Day (officially declared in Los Angeles as “Star Wars Day” in 2007). Many people feel passionately about one over the other, and then there’s me, with my Star Wars Day agnosticism, or maybe universalism: I believe in celebrating Star Wars whenever possible: I got to meet Mark Hamill in late April, I did lots of Star Wars posting on May 4th, and this weekend’s celebration will include a screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story. And next week, I’ll be off to the Scum and Villainy Cantina, a Star Wars-themed bar in Hollywood, for belated Star Wars Day drinks in honor of the franchise.

Practitioners feeling passionately about their interpretations and practices, and sometimes demonizing anyone who deviates from their ideology: sounds like religion to me! In a May 4 piece on, Adam Rogers compared the two camps–May the 4thers and May 25thers–to the Council of Nicea, where Christian leaders debated the nature of  the relationship between Jesus and God. He cited the conflict over Star Wars Day, saying “I can’t think of anything more emblematic of a new religion coalescing than an argument about when to put a holiday.” And at the core of this new religion–if that’s what it is–is the concept of The Force, a core monotheistic belief that lends itself to ideological layering by members of various faiths.

Christians may see echoes of their faith in the Father (perhaps Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader as literal father or Obi-Wan Kenobi as spiritual father), the Son (Luke Skywalker) who feels called to the Heavens and who represents the galaxy’s last hope, and The Force completing the Trinity, as akin to the Holy Spirit. Jews who believe in one singular omniscient and omnipotent God may feel the Force running through them: the Force is not in one person alone, but flows through all people in the universe. For Muslims, God is both singular and everywhere, an all-knowing and all-powerful Creator. And among these three faiths, there is some overlap when it comes to God’s presence in our world and what that means in terms of shaping our behavior. Many children are taught that God is neither man nor woman, that God simply exists and is everywhere; God is spirit and spirituality. There is God in all of us, some believe, while others who may reject the idea of God may still believe in a basic responsibility that binds the galaxy – er, humanity – together.

The careful reader can also see biblical influence in character names. Luke, in a role as a hope for the future, could be seen as an apostle of Jedi-ism: his themes of doubt and denial of the Jedi way echo the hesitation of some New Testament characters in accepting Jesus. The Gamorrean guards, muscled green guards who work in Jabba the Hutt’s palace and on his sand barge, seem to be named after the biblical city of sin, Gemorrah. Gemorrah, along with the city of Sodom, was defined by its iniquity, as is Jabba’s criminal underworld. One might even describe Sodom and Gemorrah as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” a term that Obi-Wan Kenobi uses to describe the Mos Eisley spaceport where we first meet Jabba. And as for Darth Vader’s birth name, Anakin is linguistically and metaphorically–a giant in the Force who shifted the balance of the galaxy–evocative of the giants, the anakim, who were known to inhabit the land of Canaan in biblical times; those giants fell, as did the young Skywalker.

Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi is said to be loosely inspired by General Makabe Rokurōta, from Akira Kurosawa‘s film The Hidden Fortress (George Lucas was a Kurosawa fan). But checking back in with the Hebrew, Kenobi evokes “k’navi,” like a prophet. For Obi-Wan, his particular form of prophecy is more like heightened perception, as in when he feels disturbances in the Force. That the destruction of an entire planet leaves Obi-Wan visibly shaken is a powerful expression of human connectedness: could you imagine having such deep empathy that you feel the pain and sorrow of others? But does this kind of empathy really convey that Jedis possess the power of prophecy? To answer that question, we turn to our 800+-year-old Jedi Master on the Top Two list of favorite green Muppets, Yoda. Why would Yoda know? Because he’s been around a long time, and, as a Hebrew root of his name indicates, he knows stuff.  The Hebrew word for knowledge in Hebrew is “yeda,” science is “meida,” and when you know something, you say, “ani yodea” (if you’re male) or “ani yoda’at” (if you’re female). So let’s just assume that Yoda knows.

When Luke is trained on Dagobah, he sees his friends in trouble, and Yoda says, “it is the future you see.” Applying a Talmudic approach, we can extract that if the Force binds humanity together, and if Luke is being trained in the ways of the Force, perhaps that training includes accessing the entirety of time: the past is collective human memory, the future is prophecy. If Luke has this power, other Jedi in the past might have had it as well, being “like prophets,” k’navi. And because in some biblical texts, the letter yud that makes the “yuh” sound is often swapped out in favor of the letter J, even the term “Jedi” also could be argued to contain the Hebrew root for knowledge.

It’s also kind of cool that this year, May 25 comes the week after the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, in which Jews celebrate receiving and accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, and also falls during the Muslim month of Ramadan. On Shavuot, one tradition is to stay up all night engaged in study in preparation for recommitting to the Torah and its principles. During Ramadan, participating Muslims fast from just before sunrise until sunset, to teach them about spirituality, patience, discipline, compassion for others and humility. All of these practices seem eminently compatible with those of the Jedi. And, it seems, this religious relatability was all by design.

“I don’t see Star Wars as profoundly religious,” Lucas said in a 1999 interview in Time Magazine. “I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct–that there is a greater mystery out there.” He elaborated, “I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’–that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer, then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith.” 

Similarly, the goal of this piece isn’t to encourage readers to abandon the faiths that they find meaningful in embracing an emergent faith of “Jedi-ism.” (Although there was a “Jedi Census Phenomenon,” in which thousands of people in the UK recorded their religion as “Jedi” or “Jedi knight” on their census forms.) And it’s not about pushing the agenda or customs of a particular religious faith tradition.  

In the Time interview, Lucas recalls having asked his mother, “If there’s only one God, why are there so many religions?” Lucas said his conclusion is “that all the religions are true…[…] Religion is basically a container for faith. And faith in our culture, our world and on a larger issue, the mystical level–which is God, what one might describe as a supernatural, or the things that we can’t explain–is a very important part of what allows us to remain stable, remain balanced.”

Any religious overtones were completely over my head in 1977 (when Star Wars was released) or 1980 (when Empire Strikes Back was released), and even in 1983 (Return of the Jedi). But as an adult, I can take a pop culture analysis lesson from the my Jewish tradition of reading through the entire Torah (Jewish Bible) every year: a good story is worth revisiting. And I do believe that if we are open to growth and new perspectives on our classic narratives, we may just find that repeated visits to those stories–whether they are Biblical, Quranic or set in a galaxy far, far away–can yield insights, inspiration and even divinity.

If you’re in Los Angeles, consider joining me for “May the Faiths Be With You,” a Jewish/Christian/Muslim interfaith panel on Star Wars on June 21 at Temple Beth Am.

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