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.
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.
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.