The release of a new Star Wars film always generates renewed discussion of what we can call the ‘religious dimensions’ of the Star Wars franchise. On the one hand the idea of the ‘Force’ draws on the concept of animism, a theory which imagines the world and everything in it animated by a common ‘life-force’ (a similar idea was explored in James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar). (It is worth adding that in the late 19th century, anthropologists proposed that ‘animism’ was the original religion and later evolved into polytheism and then monotheism). The release of the new film has also prompted debate among commentators with regard to the extent to which the Force is a democratic or elitist concept. In some of the films in the franchise, the Force is all-pervasive and as such, theoretically available to anyone. Yet at other times, the Force seems to be something only available to particular individuals belonging to particular genealogies or family blood lines.
On the other hand, the monastic and warrior Jedi seem to derive from a romantic and Zen-inflected idea of the Japanese Samurai mixed with the idea of the medieval Paladin who wanders the Earth dispensing holy justice. George Lucas, the writer and director behind the original Star Wars films, was influenced by the work of Joseph Campbell and Campbell’s work on myth. Campbell’s work privileged the idea of the Hero’s Journey which, in the films, was exemplified by the character Luke Skywalker and his journey from farm boy to warrior and mystic Hero who rescues the Princess and saves the galaxy from the evil Empire. However, what interests us here is less the presence of religious, spiritual or mystical ideas in the films and more that this series of films has had such an impact on our culture that it has spawned its own religion.
Jediism has its own websites (e.g. Church of Jediism, Jedi Church and Temple of the Jedi Order) which detail beliefs, doctrines and even marriage vows. Jedi-ism emerged from an e-mail campaign that urged people to record their religion as Jedi on the UK Census of 2001.
Interestingly, it’s not the only contemporary new religion to take its inspiration from popular culture: Matrixism and the Church of the Sub-Genius are two new religions that like Jediism, draw extensively from popular culture. The question we want to ask is, are these religions real religions?
Scholars working on contemporary religions have described Jediism and other new religions as ‘invented’, ‘fake’ and ‘hyper-real’. However, to describe Jediism as a fake religion implies that we know a real religion when we see one. For anyone who has ever tried to define religion—admittedly not everyone’s first idea of how best to while away a few hours in speculative thought—this turns out to be rather harder than it first appears. Similarly, to describe Jediism as invented rather misses the point, as all religions are invented and we have the names of their founders to prove it. And it is precisely the difficulty that follows from trying to distinguish the real, genuine religions from potential imposters that invites the description of Jediism as hyper-real. The idea of the hyper-real—from the philosopher Jean Baudrillard—calls into question our ability to distinguish reality from simulation, which, according to Baudrillard, is a problem peculiar to technologically advanced societies such as our own.
So, if we decide that Jediism is not a religion because it’s fake or invented, or because it’s a sub- or pop-cultural fad or because it lacks authenticity or because it’s on the Internet and doesn’t have any buildings, then we should think again. We are accustomed to thinking and talking about religion in particular ways: they are supposed to have founders, texts, rituals and buildings. They are also supposed to be old and they are supposed to be philosophical explorations of the big questions—the meaning of life, death, the universe and everything. But the significance of Jediism—in our age of social media, celebrity and secularization—is precisely that it doesn’t fit any of our preconceptions. These days, the churches are empty and political parties are no longer able to mobilise mass support. The old narratives about good and evil and progress and prosperity, are losing their hold. So, why not turn to popular culture for stories to tell? Once upon a time, ordinary activities such as going to the shops or the Post Office connected people to their neighbours and their neighbourhoods. Now they are conducted on-line. No surprise then, that Jediism is moving with the times and using new technology. In short, Jediism is a symptom of our changing relationships with big institutions and their narratives, with technology and with the neighbourhoods and localities in which we live. Welcome to the world of new religions.
This article is part of our Star Wars collection. The articles in this special dedicated to Star Wars pay homage to the films and franchise while looking at out of this world themes. You can help Yoda sort out his syntax, decipher a moon from a fully operational deathstar, find out whether jediism is a religion and much more. Look now, you must.
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