The Last Jedi and the Death of Modern Evangelicalism
As a child of the 80’s, Star Wars is a part of my DNA (thank you epigenetics!). Though I was born after the original trilogy had its theatrical run, some of my earliest childhood memories are of my sister and I watching the films on bootlegged VHS’ in my uncle’s living room. And it was not just the films, but the toys and books and comics which kickstarted my devotion (obsession?) with the entire universe of Star Wars lore. A whole galaxy of captivating stories, heroic deeds, and lightsabers!
Over time I appreciated the depth of the original trilogy (OT) and its prequels going beyond just a grand narrative of the rise and fall of the Skywalker family. In many ways the films are also a tale of the failure and redemption of a religious tradition, the Jedi. In the final film of the OT, the Jedi were revived through the tireless efforts of Luke and the born-again sacrifice of Anakin Skywalker. Fans were left to assume that the Jedi overcame the oppressive Imperial government and were able to flourish again, taking their rightful place as the true faith in the galaxy. Disney’s new trilogy (NT), however, ruptures everything that we as fans thought we knew about the Force and the Jedi.
In The Last Jedi (TLJ), the religion of the Jedi is put under the microscope and found wanting. Despite being devotionally regarded as a force of good, the Jedi have been corrupted and exposed as frauds, their failure leading to the rise of new ever darker powers. To be fair, cracks had appeared much earlier in the prequel films (which might explain in part their negative reception). What makes TLJ so radical, however, is that it is not simply that the Jedi failed, but that they did so shamefully. The film presents us with a religious leader willing to commit heinous acts as a result of his own fear and weakness. The Jedi fail here not because a more powerful forces overwhelms them, but because of the inherent weaknesses of their own position.
The lessons of TLJ are frightening and exciting. The force has been unleashed from the shackles that bound it to the doctrines and rituals of ancient traditions. The protagonists of this new trilogy have learned the wisdom of “letting the past die” so that they can become what they have to be for their generation. No one knows what might happen next (Not even the director himself apparently), and although the Star Wars of the original trilogy (OT) is dead, Star Wars itself lives on. The death of things I once loved has made space for new heroes and stories to live. This is good news!
Evangelicalism, like Star Wars, is also a part of my very substance. Youth groups and bible studies, service trips and discipleship. The language and culture of the movement shaped who I am today. But unlike Star Wars, I never bothered to immerse myself into its expanded universe. I never studied its history or construction. I engaged naively in its politics, and happily spouted its slogans. And as a child of the 80’s I missed the earlier years when Evangelicalism began fusing itself with partisan politics through the work of the Moral Majority and others (highlighted poignantly in The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald). I was born in the thick of the Culture Wars and took its tenants for granted. For those willing to dig into its history, interesting parallels can be drawn between the narratives of Star Wars and the Culture Wars of the 80’s and 90’s. A naive but thoughtful protagonist coming to realize the extent of their ability to shape the principalities and powers of the world. Striking forth with the best of intentions, but ultimately dipping into the darker side of power in order to guarantee victory and the protection of what they love.
And yet here we are, with a movement whose sole purpose was to share the good news of a saved world, but is now left clinging desperately to accused unrepentant sex abusers as their saviors. A movement whose good intentions (to save lives) has lead them to forsake staggering amounts of actual living people. A movement that declares itself a follower of someone who so loved the world he was willing to die for it, yet whose adherents are so eager to forsake that very same world to ecological destruction (regardless of its cause!). Unfortunately, the list could go on and on. It turns out that the “solid rock” upon which Evangelicalism stood is nothing more than shifting sand, moving with the currents and tides of politics and money.
But, like the protagonists of The Last Jedi, perhaps it is time to “let the past die.” The heroes of the old faith have failed us, and because of that we too might fail. But as frightening as this uncertainty is, it is also exciting, perhaps even good news. The next generation is ours to shape, and hopefully for the better.
Modern Evangelicalism is dead. Long live Evangelicalism!