A reader wrote the other day to tell me that he hopes I’ll go see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, because it had some Benedict Option themes he hopes we can discuss on this blog. I saw the movie on Saturday, and the reader is correct. Let’s jump in.
WARNING: There will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, and intend to, stop reading now.
This is your last chance.
OK, let’s go. I’ll write as if everyone reading has seen the movie.
Early in the film, Rey arrives on the remote island Jedi hermitage (played by Skellig Michael, where Celtic Christian monks lived from circa the 5th century till the 11th century), to recruit aged Jedi master Luke Skywalker to join the beleaguered Resistance. He is the last Jedi, and lives in defeat and despair on the island, guarding the only artifacts left of the Jedi religion: sacred texts, and the last temple. Earlier, Luke had attempted to convert Kylo Ren, but lived to see him destroy the renascent Jedi order, and its temple. Luke believes himself to be a failure, and is more or less holed up, waiting for the end. The Jedi order was born on this island, and there it will die when Luke passes — or so Luke thinks.
Rey convinces him to teach her the ways of the Force anyway, so she can do battle.
What she’s also asking for are the means to act on her hope. If Luke can’t believe anymore, then he can at least transmit the old religion faithfully to someone younger who can — and she can use it to fight Evil. There’s an important moment at the beginning of her training in which Luke teaches her that the Force is all around us, and that she shouldn’t believe that only Jedis have access to it.
It hardly needs pointing out that the Jedi religion is a kind of Eastern nature religion, and is impersonal, not analogous to Christianity. Don’t assume that I’m making a one-to-one comparison. Still, there are interesting points of convergence here. For example, Luke’s line about the universalism of the Force is his warning against Jedi gnosticism — that is, the idea that connecting to the Force is a religion only a select elite have.
Another point of comparison: we see that Luke’s spiritual burnout came because he thought he could use the Force to subdue the galaxy for Good. It turns out, though, that the Force can be used equally for Evil, and that there is no guarantee that the Light will triumph over the Darkness. This yin-yang structure is not Christian, but I see in Luke’s condition contemporary Christianity in the post-Christian era. It’s not so much that Christianity can be used for evil — though it certainly can be perverted that way — as it is that Christianity as a force for political good has been routed and beaten back.
You can also see Luke’s plight as the same as the Church in post-Christian modernity. The world has been lost. Luke has retreated to the hermitage, where he will live out the old religion until it dies with him. There is room in the Jedi religion for monastic figures. Think of Obi Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. But the Jedi religion also has a warrior class, who learn from the contemplative monks (so to speak), and take that knowledge out into the world, acting on it. You can see why Luke felt he had to retreat to the island where the Jedi religion was born — to go back to the roots — but if he does not pass the faith on, somehow, it will die. He needs someone to take the — wait for it — Jedi Option. Bwahahahaha!
That’s Rey’s role. She is naturally drawn to the religion, but needs training — what Christians would call discipleship. Luke has lost the faith, at least temporarily, but Rey is eager to keep it alive — and to draw on it for the ongoing struggle against Evil. This is actually one of the more interesting points in the whole film. Luke is an example of how you can lose your faith if you lose touch with its transcendent dimension, and see worldly success as the totality of its measure. We want Rey to take up the torch that Luke is no longer able to carry — how else will the evil First Order be defeated? — but we can’t help worrying that she too will make the same mistake Luke made. However, I don’t know that the Star Wars universe can conceive of the Force as anything but a political faith, which is not true of Christianity.
Note well that Rey had to return to the very source of the Jedi religion both to learn it and to discover her destiny. Remember in the very first Star Wars film, some dismiss the Force as only so much “ancient religion,” one that has no real power against the technological capacity of the Death Star. If there’s one thing that the Star Wars mythology tells us, it’s that myth matters. In The Last Jedi, for example, the only reason the First Order suffers defeat at all is because Rey believes in that ancient religion. This faith gives her the power to resist, and the techniques with which to resist.
From a Ben Op point of view, I view this as analogous to young Christians today who are eager to dive deep into Christian tradition, but who have to resist the cynicism of their burnt-out elders, who, by refusing to pass on what they have been given, are responsible for denying to the young the hope they deserve, as well as the teachings that are rightfully theirs. Luke is the last living bearer of an ancient tradition, but his own egotism and refusal to be responsible for what he has been given puts the entire thing at risk — and, in turn, the fate of the galaxy.
Kylo Ren is a Jedi modernizer. He believes in the Force, and uses it himself for Evil. He doesn’t care about the Jedi, nor does he care about their evil rivals, the Sith. He invited Rey — who, recall, is uninitiated into either form of the Force religion — “to let old things die. Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the rebels, let it all die.” He doesn’t tell her to quit using the Force, but rather he wants to throw away all the old categories, and start anew. He says, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.”
Rey refuses, though her refusal seems more a matter of traditionalist instinct than anything else. But that’s important. She refuses to believe that she can exist as a practitioner of the Force outside its authoritative traditions. In fact, when she was on the holy island, she descended into a cave to face her greatest fear. She sees only an image of herself. The director Rian Johnson has said that the scene indicates that Rey’s greatest fear is that she only has herself to rely on. I wonder, though, if this might also be read as Rey’s greatest temptation: to rely only on herself. Isn’t this what Kylo Ren tempts her with? To rely only on her own desires, not tradition or anything outside of herself?
About those traditions. Luke Skywalker wants to burn the Jedi religion down — literally. He wants to destroy the Jedi Temple and set the sacred tree of the Jedis afire, also destroying the Jedi holy books. When he hesitates, Yoda appears and does it for him. Rey has already left with the sacred Jedi scriptures in her possession. Yoda tells Luke that the holy books contain “nothing that the girl Rey does not always possess.” It’s not clear whether Yoda means that Scripture is meaningless, because true religion is within, or whether this is his clever way of noting that Rey possesses the holy books.
If he means the former, then for Christianity, the problems with this should be obvious. If the religion of the Force is entirely a matter of inwardness, then what is the point of the Scriptures? But then, if that were the case, then why would Rey have saved them? Kylo Ren has had no formal training as a Jedi, but he uses the force based on his natural ability. And with his tempting words to Rey, he told her that she didn’t need tradition to be faithful to the Force.
The film’s final scenes reveal why it’s important to keep those Scriptures alive, and the Jedi tradition. After suffering a staggering military defeat, the entire leadership of the Resistance exists on the Millennium Falcon, a kind of Noah’s Ark. All they have are themselves, the Jedi Scriptures, and … hope.
“How do we build a rebellion from this?” Rey asks.
Leia responds: “We have everything we need.”
Then, in the last scene, we see children playing with toy figures, acting out a Luke Skywalker battle. We see that these kids are tyrannized by an adult monster figure, but they find hope by telling the myth of Luke Skywalker — a myth that, in the Star Wars universe, is true. A stable boy uses the Force to move his broom. We see that he may be tutored by the myth of Luke Skywalker, channeling his natural connection to the Force to the Light Side, and grow up to join the Resistance.
These final moments of The Last Jedi explain what Leia meant. In that ark, they carry with them the core teachings of the Jedi religion, and a burning desire to resist evil. In my first book, I quoted Balzac saying, “Hope is memory plus desire.” Neither Rey nor anybody else on that ark have living memory of the Jedi teachings. The “memory” is contained in those holy books. What they do have is memory of what it meant to be free, and knowledge of the events of the recent past, including the tale of Luke Skywalker using the Force to blow up the Death Star.
Leia also counsels the younger Resistance fighters that the key to victory is not to destroy what they hate, but rather to “save what we love.” [UPDATE: A reader points out that Rose is the character who said this — RD] This is the most important line in the movie, I think, at least seen through Benedict Option lies. Let me try, then, to sum up the Benedict Option themes in The Last Jedi.
The power of the world has all but defeated the Jedi faith and the warriors defending the Light. Luke Skywalker, the Last Jedi, has succumbed to despair, and has retreated to a hermitage to live out the final days of the Jedi religion. Rey, a young would-be disciple, is not willing to surrender, but she — and the Resistance — need what Luke Skywalker has: Jedi training. At the end, the Resistance has suffered another massive defeat, and is near extinction. But because they have hope, and have escaped both with their lives and the Sacred Books, the Resistance can continue. Indeed, as long as there are creatures like that little stable boy who understand themselves through stories like the Luke Skywalker myth, the fight will not die.
Again, The Last Jedi is by no means a Christian allegory, so do not mistake me for saying so. Nevertheless, what do these lessons mean for Benedict Option Christians? I find these:
- We cannot defeat the world by rushing at it directly, blasters firing. It is too strong at this point in history. Understand that we are fighting a long war. It was not cowardly for Leia, Rey, and the others to flee on the Millennium Falcon. It was the only way to save what they love.
- We will be tempted to instrumentalize Christianity and use it to gain worldly power. To “kill the past” to become what we are supposedly meant to be is an invitation to apostasy, and to join the dark side. Think of it like this: If the Force is available to all, then only an authoritative tradition (which includes Scripture) can tell those in the Star Wars universe the difference between Light and Darkness. Similarly with Christians, if Christianity is nothing but Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and we have to throw aside the past to achieve enlightenment and self-fulfillment, we will end up worshiping ourselves. This is the lesson of Ren in the cave.
- Go back to the roots of the faith for revival. I think this means the Church Fathers, contemplation, ancient disciplines. Understand that the faith needs its Lukes (contemplatives) and its Reys (actives) — but the actives will not know what to do without the contemplatives.
- Make sure you always fight first of all to save what you love, not to destroy what you hate. Saving what you love likely requires destroying
thesome things you hate. But it may also require letting some things you love die so that the more important things to love may live.
- It is not enough simply to know theology and sacred history. You have to be trained in what it means to live in holiness. This is not something you can get from a book alone.
- Do not underestimate the power of myth and storytelling. If Christianity is presented to the young as nothing more than a collection of rules and moralistic maxims, it will not live. Its transformative power within the imaginations of its followers comes more from the stories it tells about itself, and the lives changed by those stories.
I welcome your thoughts and criticism.
UPDATE: Thanks for pointing out my errors in the comments. All I can say for myself is that I spent the day posting through flu. I made a significant error in saying that Kylo Ren was not trained in the Jedi ways. In fact, as a reader pointed out, he was a student of Luke Skywalker. In that case, we can see him as an analogue of a modernist Christian, who knows just enough of the old religion to be dangerous, and who sees orthodoxy as a weight on the individual’s will to power and self-expression.
A theologian writes to say that Chapter 58 of the Rule of St. Benedict is important in light of this post. In particular, these lines:
1 Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry, 2 but, as the Apostle says, Test the spirits to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). 3 Therefore, if someone comes and keeps knocking at the door, and if at the end of four or five days he has shown himself patient in bearing his harsh treatment and difficulty of entry, and has persisted in his request, 4 then he should be allowed to enter and stay in the guest quarters for a few days. 5 After that, he should live in the novitiate, where the novices study, eat and sleep. 6 A senior chosen for his skill in winning souls should be appointed to look after them with careful attention. 7 The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God and whether he shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials. 8 The novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God.
This is the discipleship, this submission to the authoritative tradition, that Kylo Ren wants to cast off as an impediment to using the Force for self-realization.