Star Wars and religion struggle with the same issue: What do you do with tradition?

In the new movie “Solo,” the producers of “Star Wars” set out to explore the history of one of its most beloved characters. But while many fans will no doubt be thrilled by this nostalgic journey, "Star Wars," as a franchise, does not quite know what to do with the history it has inherited. While the current producers want to reinvent the series, past traditions cannot be completely erased.

Let us explain. Disney bought the “Star Wars” franchise from George Lucas in 2012 for $4 billion. Two years later, it announced that it would be “resetting” the “Star Wars” canon to free space for new storylines unencumbered by the previous 30 years of novels, comic books and video games that told us what had happened to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo after “Return of the Jedi.” With a single swipe of Mickey’s newly acquired lightsaber, the franchise was untethered from its previous tradition. For those of you who did not grow up flying the Millennium Falcon around your living room, this generated a lot of fear among hard-core fans.

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But the new "Star Wars" is struggling precisely with teaching new characters (and its audience as well) how to do what Luke was taught to do in the original trilogy: engage with the past not resentfully, but redemptively. Kylo Ren and Rey typify two approaches to tradition. Rey feels a deep need for the kind of formation that only rootedness in tradition can provide. But Kylo is angry at having been betrayed by these same traditions—angry enough at times to want to burn it all.

These new protagonists are exciting and charismatic, but thus far they have mainly engaged with the past nostalgically by rejecting, resisting or resenting it. This struggle is perhaps represented best in a line of dialogue from “The Last Jedi,” when Kylo Ren pleads with Rey, saying, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” But there is a problem with killing the past. Because it is only in knowing where we come from that we can begin to understand where we are going. The problem that the “Star Wars” reboots struggle with is not whether the characters can kill the past, but whether or not they can find something in the future worth dying for.

The heroes of the new trilogy (“The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi” and a concluding film due out next year), have inherited a world shaped by the failures of the previous generation. Despite saving the galaxy, Han and Leia—Kylo’s parents—were unable to rebuild a new republic out of the ashes of the Empire. Rey’s parents abandoned her for reasons the screenwriters have yet to explain.

In the most recent ‘Star Wars’ film, Luke Skywalker refuses to take up his responsibility to form the next generation.

Like the new “Star Wars” trilogy itself, these characters are struggling to forge identities in situations where they have been cut off from their pasts. And Luke, the mentor Kylo had and Rey needs—the very one who should have rooted them both in the traditions of the Jedi order—refuses to take up his responsibility to form the next generation, fearful that he is not equal to the task.

None of these tensions should be surprising. In the original trilogy, there was no lack of generational tension—as exemplified by Luke’s reaction upon discovering that Darth Vader is his father. But Luke had a number of mentors willing to form him in the traditions of the Jedi. Luke is able to redeem his father only because of the traditions in which Yoda, in particular, has formed him.

No such formation has been given to the protagonists of the new films. Failed by his uncle, Kylo Ren has embraced Darth Vader. It is only Rey, the heroine of the new trilogy as Luke was of the old, who seeks out tradition, even though it has not been offered to her.

It is in this failure of formation that we can see most clearly the problematic relationship the new "Star Wars" films have with the past—a failure most clearly visible in the character of Luke. No longer the young hero, Luke has seen how his own failures have led to a rebirth of the very thing he feared most about his own tradition, the Dark Side. In “The Last Jedi” we see that this failure has dominated him so fully that he cannot, at first, bring himself to train Rey. And even after he relents, Luke finds himself so afraid that she will follow Kylo Ren to the Dark Side that he decides to end the tradition of Jedi altogether by burning the sacred tree that holds the ancient Jedi texts.

Rey is asking not that her authentic self be ignored, but that it be formed.

It is just then, when he is overcome by his loathing for the Jedi tradition and the failures it represents, that his own teacher, the wise Master Yoda, appears to him. “I’m ending all of this,” Luke screams at Yoda, “the tree, the text, the Jedi. I’m going to burn it down.” But as he approaches the tree his nerve fails him and he falls back. It just when the viewer thinks the tree and the texts will be spared that Yoda—the Master Jedi himself—calls down lightning from the sky, burning the sacred tree and, so we are initially led to believe, the sacred Jedi texts it contains.

At first Luke takes this as confirmation that the tradition of the Jedi must indeed die, that he will be what the title of the movie suggests, the last Jedi. But when Yoda explains what he has done, the wisdom he imparts rings hollow. Inverted phrasing or not, this hardly seems to be the same Jedi master who trained the young Luke on the planet Dagobah.

“Yes, wisdom they held,” this new Yoda says in flippant explanation, “but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” In one ill-considered phrase, the writers of the new trilogy seem to contradict the necessity of the training and tradition Yoda shared with Luke. After all, how could the same Jedi master who pleaded with Luke to stay at Dagobah and complete his training suddenly dismiss the necessity of training, of formation? The wise Jedi master we knew would never have cast aside the importance of tradition. According to this strange new Yoda, there is no need to struggle to attain the collected wisdom of all the ages because “it’s already inside you.”

The most serious failure of past generations is to fail to pass down what they have been given. And yet it is precisely this failure that is placed into the mouth of the great teacher, the wisdom figure, and presented as wisdom. It is the transformation of Yoda from wisest of counselors to afternoon talk show host, from Thomas Merton to Dr. Phil.

Photo: CNS

To be fair, Yoda’s response does contain a kernel of truth. Our authentic selves do lie deep within us. But it is a lie to say that our authentic selves require no formation, no accompaniment from wise mentors, to be realized. As Rey herself—and virtually every millennial struggling to find their place within a larger tradition—knows, authenticity is not enough. It is dangerously false to conclude that what is inside of Rey matters more than any training or tradition that might help her cultivate that authentic self. Recent scholarship in the sociology and anthropology of religion is increasingly critical of this version of religion, one in which authenticity and belief are untethered from a rooted tradition and from the need for training.

As one of those scholars, Talal Asad, has asked, “Is the concept of religious training entirely vacuous?” The answer that the original "Star Wars" trilogy gave in that important scene on Dagobah was a resounding no. Luke was explicitly warned by Yoda not to cut short his training. Yoda knew that he was not yet ready to redeem his fallen father and reconcile with a broken past.

This training is precisely what Rey came to Luke seeking. In the climatic scene of “The Force Awakens,” we see her stand before the once-hidden master, holding out to him his own lightsaber in petition—wordlessly requesting the very training she knows she needs in order to become who she authentically is. In this scene Rey is an exemplar of an entire generation of young adults. Like so many millennials scavenging through the downed spaceships of mistrusted traditions, Rey is asking not that her authentic self be ignored, but that it be formed.

The Luke we want to celebrate is the Luke who was trained and attempted to train others even though he sometimes failed. And the screenwriters seem to understand their own failure. Because right after Yoda’s seeming dismissal of the entire Jedi tradition, he once again reminds Luke what it is to truly pass on tradition: “Passed on what you have learned,” Yoda whispers to Luke, “strength, power, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure. Yes, failure, most of all. The greatest teacher failure is.” With these words the strange new Yoda is gone and the wise master returns.

As true masters of tradition have always known, failures are a critical part of our shared history. And it is the same for traditions as it is for persons: Only in fidelity to our weaknesses are we truly strong. True authenticity recognizes our connection to past traditions and the need to be formed within them, flawed though they may be. “Star Wars” has been survived in the public imagination for so long because it wrestles with tradition in ways that speak to basic human desires. We hope Disney finds a way to keep this spirit alive for the next generation of viewers.

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Nick Morris
5 months ago

"“Yes, wisdom they held,” this new Yoda says in flippant explanation, “but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” In one ill-considered phrase, the writers of the new trilogy seem to contradict the necessity of the training and tradition Yoda shared with Luke."

Indeed, this would appear to be the case - at first. But don't forget that the sacred Jedi texts are later revealed to be safely stashed away on the Millennium Falcon. So what Yoda tells Luke is true...from a certain point of view. :)

Yoda understands that Luke isn't necessarily the right Jedi to train Rey, at least not under the circumstances. Luke's final destiny lies upon another path and Yoda tells him exactly what he needs to hear to inspire and instill hope within the hearts of the next generation of rebels - and possibly Jedi knights. I suspect Rey will finally receive the guidance she needs in the next chapter, possibly from Yoda (secure in the knowledge that the Jedi texts are in her possession) and force-ghost Luke or maybe from someone else altogether. Guess we'll have to wait and see. Great article!

Gonzalo del Real
5 months ago

Well.... yes... sort of. You make a good case for the failure of Yoda (my favourite Master and overall SW character) in the arc of the cannon to keep Luke on his path; at least based on the scenes and dialogue in ESB. However, we need to take the entire development of the character as seen through all the films. Let us not forget that Yoda, in RotJ, tell Luke: "No more training do you require. Already know you, that which you need." Even though he had left his training, failed in the cave and, similarly, in the real confrontation in ESB with Vader, Yoda tells him that he must confront Vader again. It isn't further training, it is (as we learn from the cave) a fight with himself, a final realization of who he is, where he comes from, and that possessions and "crude matter" are of little, if any import. Traditions are important; he does end up saving the texts, after all. But as important as traditions are (and this is coming from me as someone who truly loves the Mass and liturgical traditions, for example), it is God's love and our love for God that is truly most important. Similarly, it is the Force and the Force from within that is most important. Remember Yoda's first lesson in ESB: ""For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere! Yes, even between the land and the ship." The Force connects everything, and in TLJ, Luke is feeling completely disconnected. Yoda reminds him that the connection must be made and, as Yoda said to him right before he dies in RotJ, Luke does pass on what he has learned to Rey. The traditions of the Force and the Church can be found in the ancient texts and the catechism, respectively. But the most indelible and powerful thing is the experience of these through living the Force, or the love of God. Mass, being with others, community. There is a reason the Jedi Council mirrors the Apostles . For it is in community that traditions and the experience of the faith/force, truly matter and are explicitly visible.

Jackie St Hilaire
5 months ago

Many of us don't want to go through the process. We want instant solutions. As we mature (there is no age requirement) we come to the realization that:" The more we know, the more we don't know". Its humbling but also very liberating. The Dalai Lama is very comfortable with this teaching and realizes that we are all learning together and oftentimes the teacher, parent, grandparent is just one lesson ahead of the student. It's best to just jump right In with others and learn together.

Martin Cosentino
4 months 3 weeks ago

The "Star Wars" and tradition issue is being mirrored in the contemporary issues of science and faith. A tree grows out of the ground with its roots firmly embedded - this metaphor equally applies to making tradition the breeding ground for the future, and not 'burning the sacred tree, with the sacred Jedi texts. "

We are all confronted today with modern science and its challenge to traditions of faith and beliefs rooted thousands of years ago. Yet the very discovery of quantum physics has opened an amazing window into the inscrutable operations of the divine, which resides in each of us.
Yet, like Rey, it must be 'observed and developed' and there is no 'instant gratification' here, and the old saying of 'paying one's dues' still holds as strongly as ever.

"May the Force be with you" is the modern equivalent of " I came that you might have life, and that you might have it in abundance."

That was Jesus of Nazareth,. . . . .over 2,000 years ago!!

Theodore Seeber
4 months 3 weeks ago

Disney hates tradition. That is why every Disney movie lately contains gratuitous homosexuality and weak, idiotic fathers barely worthy of the name. The philosophy of this trilogy is that the family itself is outdated and wrong.

Michaelangelo Allocca
4 months 3 weeks ago

Wow. Project much? Han giving up everything, literally including his life itself, to try to save his son -- yeah, that's a perfect illustration of "weak, idiotic fathers barely worthy of the name," and "the family itself is outdated and wrong." I shudder to imagine what experiences in your life are responsible for all the bitterness that you so sweepingly spew across everything you see, but I'll pray that you get some help for it.

Michaelangelo Allocca
4 months 3 weeks ago

I agree with several of the other commenters here, both that Paddy and Eric have done a generally excellent job with this, but also in challenging their reading of Yoda's torching of the tree and accompanying words to Luke. I read that (as apparently others did, too) as a warning not to mistake idolatry for honoring tradition, consistent with the 'if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,' Zen wisdom. In other words, don't fetishize the books, or any one particular teacher: honor the tradition by recognizing its embodiment in the lives of those who study and teach it. Ironically, this sounds like an argument against "sola scriptura," and for the more traditionally Catholic view of wisdom/revelation being contained in lived experience as well.

Mark Preece
4 months 3 weeks ago

Like others here, I thought the tree burning was about Luke making idols of the books. (I think I remember that Yoda even teases him about never actually reading the books.) It's a cinematic analogy to all the times we remind people that "the church" does not refer primarily to a building. All the churches could spontaneously combust tomorrow and there would still be a Church, and God would still be calling us to be part of God's mission in the world.

When Luke and Yoda are sitting there watching the tree burn (I battle against a temptation to imagine Yoda toasting a marshmallow), it reminded me of the old saw about working like it all depends on us but praying like it all depends on God. Luke thinks he can end the Jedi religion and power of the Force working against the Dark Side by burning the books and refusing to train Rey. But in the end, he didn't have the power to end the work of the Force, or the Jedi religion, or even to write himself out of the story.

When Yoda says Rey already has everything she needs, I guess I mentally added "for the Force to use."

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