“Stars Wars is back as it should be – best episode yet!”
So I wrote on Facebook Thursday night, December 14, after watching an early showing of the movie. Rave reviews were already appearing on the internet but not all the fanbase would be pleased when they viewed the movie. In the last week or so, there has even been a Petition created on Change.org to have the movie removed from the official Star Wars canon. Fans are upset on how Luke Skywalker has been portrayed. I happen to disagree with these polemicists, but I understand somewhat how they feel. This was not the Luke they expected; this was not Luke as he should be.
Such arguments about the storyline are not new within the fanbase. As an article in CinemaBlend points out, Star Wars lovers were not all happy about how The Empire Strikes Back turned out over 35 years ago. I will not argue about the merits of how Luke was written. My goal here is to review the movie as it is, and to explore how the film is applicable to people of faith. Whether you like how the screenwriters handled the story or not, I hope we can agree there are some ideas worth exploring. David Barr Kirtley opined recently in an interview for Wired:
This is arguably my favorite Star Wars movie. It has the most moral complexity of any of the movies, it has the most surprises of any of the movies, and is the most intellectual and self-aware, and gives you the most to think about afterward.
Some “afterward” thinking about the “moral complexity” of the movie would, I believe, be profitable. So, let’s get to it.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS. This review is meant for those who have seen the movie. Stop now if you haven’t seen it, and don’t want it to be spoiled. And, believe me, this is one movie where knowing too much will completely spoil it for you. The “surprises” are a huge part of what makes the movie so good. FAIR WARNING!
When Rey meets up with Master Skywalker, she expects he will help her understand her place “in all this.” The audience is waiting to know the same thing. We have expectations; Rey has expectations; the Resistance has expectations. How surprised she is to find the very definition of a jaded old man before her as he flippantly casts aside the lightsaber she has brought to him. To turn a phrase from It’s a Wonderful Life on it’s head: What a warped, frustrating old man! Everyone—audience, Rey, the Resistance, the hopeful spread throughout the galaxy—are expecting him to save the day.
But Luke wants no part in it.
Because of his own failures, and presumably upon reflecting on the failures of the Jedi Order as a whole, he has come to the conclusion the Jedi Order must come to an end. He rightly tells Rey she is wrong when she says The Force is “a power that Jedi have that lets them control people…” The power does not belong to the Jedi. As Seth Dickinson put it in a podcast for Wired:
I think Luke realized that there are very, very many bad ways to use the Force. One of them is you become a dark sider who wants to take over the galaxy. But another is you just get enough Force knowledge to wave your sword around and kill people who don’t have the Force, and you set yourself up as this monastic order of space cops, who rather than trying to understand the universe or achieve enlightenment, just become a tool of the state. Luke realized the Jedi order was basically these nebbishy, purposefully self-deceiving bureaucrats who refused to take the next necessary step in studying the Force, which is to leave the world and go off on your own and do nothing.* And I think that is why Luke is unwilling to act.
As I said in a previous Star Wars review, the Jedi had feet of clay. They had become lazy and self-assured, stepping into a role in the Clone Wars that they should have stayed out of. But after the Rebellion defeats the Empire, Luke believes that he is able to start a new Jedi Order by establishing a new temple. A meme, apparently originating on Tumblr, pretty well describes the Luke’s character arc from that time until Rey comes to Ahch-To.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait, an Episcopal Priest, posted this meme on her Facebook page on Christmas Day with the comment:
I said to somebody last night at church (before I saw this picture), “It is the glory of 25-year-olds to want to save the world through liturgy. It is the glory of 45-year-olds to know that you cannot save the world yourself, through liturgy or anything else.”
Luke already knew it wasn’t his job to save the word. He chides Rey, “What did you expect – Luke Skywalker to walk out with a laser sword and face down the entire First Order?” But he needed to realize that there was something he could do—that he must do—and leave the rest to the will of The Force. Luke does finally come through, giving up his life using up his energy to make it appear he was on the planet Crait, when he was actually still on Ahch-To.
Luke is like a certain type of Christian today who understands that the Church has made a mess of things, and the best thing to do is bow out and let the world go on its merry way without interference from those who believe. That Luke would want to destroy the original temple – along with the Jedi holy books – seems to reflect an attitude many have today about Church tradition, and the Bible itself. It’s time to let the old things go—including the Bible—some would say. (I am surprised that I have not heard any accusations coming out of the evangelical community that The Last Jedi is about destroying the Bible.) But is that the message the movie is trying to convey?
One has to watch very carefully to realize that the destruction of the sacred books is not what Yoda (or The Force) has in mind. Yoda tells Luke: “That library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” On the surface, one might think of something like the prophecy in Jeremiah that God would write His law on people’s hearts rather than on a tablet of stone. (See also 2 Corinthians 3:3.) But Yoda has played a trick on him. Yoda was being more literal than Luke realized, for Rey already has the books in her possession before the temple is destroyed. You have to be very quick to notice she stows them away in the Falcon. A better glimpse of them is seen when Finn opens a drawer to get a blanket for Rose, and the books are inside.
When Rey (it is assumed) takes over the mantle of the Jedi, changes are sure to be made. But that does not mean the sacred books need to be abandoned. The problem with the Church is not the writings which have been handed down to her, but her misunderstanding and misapplication of the texts. Jesus was constantly chiding the Pharisees—the religious leaders of the day—for their abuse of scripture. They had so surrounded what was written by their own traditions they had completely lost the spirit of the text. The problem wasn’t that they took the scriptures seriously, but that they did not take them seriously enough. Matthew 23:23 is just one example:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (NIV)
I mentioned above that Luke sacrificed his life for the Resistance. That was his part to play. Vice-Admiral Holdo gives up her life as she slams her ship into the Last Order ship so it cannot destroy what is left of the Resistance. But there are also “sacrifices” which are not beneficial to the cause. Poe Dameron and Finn both needed to learn the difference. Poe’s “heroism” results in the destruction of the Dreadnought, but also the decimation of the bombing fleet, and the loss of many lives. His involvement in a plan to disable the tracking device on the First Order ship actually ends up thwarting Vice-Admiral Holdo’s escape plan. However, he finally begins to understand when he orders a retreat on the attack of the battering ram cannon. Finally, when Luke “shows up,” he demonstrates his wisdom in realizing the old Jedi was giving them a chance to escape. General Leia’s smile of approval is given to show he has finally earned his place as a leader.
Finn’s problem was not reckless leadership, but a wrong purpose. After rampaging through the casino on Canto Bight, he relishes how he has wreaked havoc on the rich weapons dealers there. Rose’s pleasure, however, is in setting the fathier free. This adds meaning to what she says to Finn after he stops him from the suicide mission to destroy the battering ram cannon: “I saved you, Dummy. That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate – saving what we love.” Rose understood Finn’s motive. It was not to save those he loved, but to wreak as much havoc as he could on The First Order he so hates. She is about freeing and saving what she loves. He is about destroying what he hates. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” [1 Corinthians 13:3]
Too much of what we see in Christianity today is about fighting what we hate, rather than freeing and saving those we should love. We still haven’t learned the words of Jesus: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:13 NIV
Throughout the movie, it is mentioned the Resistance has friends among the outcasts, especially in outer regions of the galaxy. The stable boy on Canto Bight is already spreading the legend of Luke Skywalker and the battering ram cannon, and the boy is revealed as being able to use The Force. The Apostle Paul wrote this to the Corinthians: “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are…” [1 Corinthians 1:26-28 NIV]
So, what shape will the new Jedi Order take in Episode IX? Will it change the galaxy by spreading love and compassion instead of hate and destruction? Hopefully, in a couple years, we shall see.
*Dickinson is, of course, only partially right. Although Luke does say it is time for the Jedi “to end,” he is not on Ahch-To to “study The Force.” At least that’s not what he is doing by the time Rey shows up. He has walled himself up, separating himself from The Force.