As they often do in Star Wars movies, things look dire for the good guys at the start of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The remnants of the Resistance are on the run, but a First Order fleet has caught up with them, its looming Dreadnought warship casting a massive shadow over their humble transport vehicle. Although a force shield protects them for the moment, it can’t hold forever. Desperate plans are hatched, while a Resistance commander (Laura Dern) orders, “Maintain our current course. Steady on.”
Contemporary Christians might resonate with this scenario. Being a person of faith these days can feel a bit like being under siege. For the global church this is often literal, in the form of life-threatening persecution. In the West though, we tend to experience something more akin to cultural alienation. For some, this is related to the removal of religion from public life, a feeling that we’ve lost the “war on Christmas.” For others, the public and political figures representing Christianity in such culture wars seem so incompatible with the gospel that we’re not sure what the label “Christian” means anymore.
Whatever our vantage point, many Christians feel a bit like those Resistance fighters, hunkered down in a debilitated transport ship, devising last-ditch efforts but fearing the worst. Should we jump in the escape pods (the Benedict option)? Surrender and try to live with “faithful presence” under the rule of the First Order? Or just go down blasters blazing?
That last option is the one a rash rebel fighter takes near the end of The Last Jedi. (I’ll tread lightly, for fear of spoilers.) In the midst of a final-stand battle on a mineral planet, where scratching the salty surface reveals ominous, blood-red earth below, this Resistance soldier suicidally attempts to take out a massive First Order weapon. He’s prevented, and thereby rescued, by a fellow fighter who tells him, “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”
Steady on. Save what we love.
These directives also play out in the storyline involving Rey (Daisy Ridley), whom we first met in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and who now finds herself under the reluctant tutelage of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Distraught by the fact that his former apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has turned to the dark side, Luke thinks it would be best for the “Jedi religion,” as he calls it, to end. But Rey argues otherwise: “Something inside me has always been there, and now it’s awake.” Rey is there to be trained by Luke, and possibly save him from self-imposed irrelevance.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn’t about the victory of the faithful, but the kindling of faith. And those are two very different things. As beings made in God’s image, we were not commanded to conquer the world (after all, God is already sovereign over it), but rather to steward his creation. Stewardship can be difficult outside of the Garden of Eden, amidst the brokenness of sin. The temptation is to recreate that original paradise by exercising whatever power we wield—by taking back Christmas or seats in Congress, no matter the spiritual cost. The Last Jedi asks instead: might we, and the faith we espouse, be better served by steadily staying the course, by living in love?
Might we, and the faith we espouse, be better served by steadily staying the course, by living in love?
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is written and directed by Rian Johnson, a newcomer to the series, and one of his more potent contributions is a montage that offers an elegant explanation of the Force—that mysterious presence that lies at the heart of the Star Wars saga. While training Rey, Luke describes the Force as the tension that exists between light and dark, life and death. As he explains, we see alternating images that visually echo these themes. Luke presents the Force not as a power to be wielded (as Kylo Ren sees it), but a space to be inhabited. And to enter that space, a Jedi apprentice must give up control. (Recall Luke wearing those blinders while training in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, an image that The Last Jedi nods to near its end.)
The term “faithful presence” comes from James Davison Hunter’s influential To Change the World. More pertinent to The Last Jedi, however, is a critique of that book by Greg Forster, a visiting assistant professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University. Forster has written, “Of course the world is corrupt and falling apart. The gospel calls us to love it and serve it anyway. We must have what Tom Nelson calls hopeful realism—neither closing our eyes to the world’s evil nor forgetting that a higher power, one our eyes can’t see, is already at work, all around us and also within us." Living within this tension, with the faithful understanding that there is a power greater than us, is the calling for both the Jedi and the Christian.
Perhaps what Western Christians are being forced to learn is to give up control. That’s a scary proposition, but one for which we’ve been prepared. The biblical promise is that even if the world rejects us, God still holds us. He is bigger than our cultural status. He is beyond our creaturely attempts to preserve him. (As Luke tells Rey, “The Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi.”) Sometimes we can feel God’s hand as strongly as the force shield surrounding that Resistance ship at the beginning of The Last Jedi; at other times, it seems as if we’ve fallen into a pit without any way out, as Rey does during her training. Even when things seem their worst, however, we must remember: we are not called to save the galaxy, but keep the course.