Unlike most other science fiction stories, Star Wars pulsates with a multi-faceted, inspiring depiction of religion: the Church of the Jedi Order. (Given the well-developed structure of the fictional Jedi Order, it’s not surprising that “Jediism” actually has morphed into a real-life religion.) Star Wars has traditionally painted the heroes and villains in stark black and white, but Rogue One adds some more grey shading to the Rebel cause. And as a religious person myself, I was blown away by this unexpectedly positive, big-screen iteration of religious faith. Because in this story, the rebels are fighting for the Church, and religious spirituality is on the side of the good.
If organized religion has a bit of a bad rap, it's earned it: From the Crusades to evangelism to ultra-orthodoxy, real-life religions have engaged in unrestrained violence, irksome promotional tactics, and an unwillingness to bend. As a result, “the Church” — metaphorically or literally — is often presented in fantasy and science fiction stories as the authority to rally against: in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the oppressive Magisterium emerges directly from the Catholic Church, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale plays out the theocratic dystopia of an Old Testament regime. In these narratives, we’re all rooting for the iconoclast, the non-conformist, the rebel. Star Wars, of course, has rebels — an entire Rebel alliance, made of individuals like Jyn Erso and Han Solo — and those rebels ally themselves with the Jedi Order.
The concept of the Jedi Order is seamlessly encapsulated by the definition expressed by sociologist Emile Durkheim over a century ago. Religion, as Durkheim explains, is a system of beliefs and practices which unite groups of people under a single moral community (a “Church”). Likewise, the Jedi Code aims to regulate the Jedi’s beliefs and practices, and the Code is enforced by the Jedi Council, a clergy-like group akin to Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, or the ancient Jewish Sanhedrin (which is, in fact, commonly translated as “council”) of the Second Temple period.
Speaking of temples, it’s no coincidence that the Jedi Council of the Star Wars Prequel era operates out of a structure called the Jedi Temple. We’ve come to learn about the existence of many other Temples through subsequent stories in the new Star Wars canon — the final scene of The Force Awakens introduced Ahch-To, where Luke Skywalker believes the first Jedi Temple was erected; Star Wars Rebels brought up (literally) the Temple on Lothal; and The Clone Wars threw a spotlight on Ilum, where Padawans go to retrieve kyber crystals with which to construct their lightsabers, and where Ahsoka Tano goes to construct her iconic white lightsabers in E. K. Johnston’s Rebels prequel novel Ahsoka. As Ahsoka remarks about Ilum in Clone Wars: “There is no place more sacred to a Jedi.”
"The strongest stars are made of kyber"
The idea of the “sacred” is “the very core of a religion,” according to Durkheim, and kyber crystals, which play a critical role in Rogue One as well as in James Luceno’s lead-in novel Catalyst, are an integral and fascinating element of Jedi lore. Per Durkheim’s definition, something is sacred if it is “set apart and forbidden,” and Orson Krennic laments, in Catalyst, that the Jedi Order has always kept a tight hold on the galaxy’s stores of kyber crystals. Kyber crystals are described as “living crystals” — they are a pure, physical embodiment of the Force itself. Now, with the Jedi Order violently disbanded and the Jedi themselves all but eliminated, Krennic and his Imperial band of non-believers have swooped in above planets like Jedha to seize the crystals and commit the ultimate blasphemy: desecrating the sacred crystals by using them to power the unparalleled killing machine known as the Death Star.
(Okay, sure, the kyber crystals are regularly used to power a Jedi’s lightsaber, which is also a weapon. But as a Jedi mentor says in this fabulous Star Wars fan film: “The most important thing about a lightsaber is that it is a sword that can be turned off.” That’s a beautiful concept, for what it’s worth.)
"Trust in the Force"
We may initially think of swashbuckling smugglers, plasma sword-wielding samurai, and rebellious princesses when Star Wars comes to mind, but the idea of the Force takes center stage as well, and the Force reflects the saga’s unabashedly spiritual core. As Obi-Wan Kenobi famously explains in A New Hope, ”the Force is what gives a Jedi his [or her] power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together." Obi-Wan’s description of the Force points to a pantheistic belief system, but it also, for the more monotheistically inclined, evokes the Kabbalistic notion of the “Shechinah,” or the Divine presence of God in our world.
Rogue One embraces these spiritual aspects of Star Wars lore in a way that deepens and expands our understanding of religion and its adherents. Prior to the film’s release, director Gareth Edwards profiled Jedha as a type of “Mecca or Jerusalem” within the Star Wars universe, and — intentionally or not — “Jedha” bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew letters that make up one of the Jewish names for God: “Yud” and “Hay.” (In Hebrew, “Y” often translates to “J”.) Edwards also pointed to the Jedi as “leaders of the spiritual belief system.”
If the Jedi are the leaders of the Church of the Force, there also must be followers. Jyn Erso’s mother, Lyra (Valene Kane), fosters a connection to the Force, and her admiration of the Jedi is examined in depth in the Rogue One prequel novel, Catalyst. In Rogue One, we see her reverently tie a kyber crystal around young Jyn’s neck in the beginning of the film, telling her to “trust in the Force.” This overtly religious act sustains our heroine throughout the remainder of the film.
Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, a sightless warrior-monk and a native of Jedha, is a prime example of literal blind faith. Even without the use of his eyes, Chirrut taps into the Force for martial power, and is able to sense certain auras around Jyn (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) during Rogue One. His oft-repeated mantra — “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me” — demonstrates his confidence in the sustaining succor of his connection to the Force.
Many other Force adherents, like Lor San Tekka from The Force Awakens, populate the Star Wars universe as well, but it is charming skeptic Han Solo who represents a more relatable approach to religious belief. In The Force Awakens, when Rey asks about the existence of the Jedi, Han admits that he used to think that the idea of “a magical power holding together good and evil” was simply “a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.” Now, Han speaks with the hushed awe of a convert.
"Crazy thing is…it’s true. All of it."
Firm religious belief is often considered “crazy,” and not without reason — belief itself is an irrational concept, a hope for something that is far from guaranteed. If “rebellions are built on hope,” then religions are built on faith, and Star Wars apotheosizes both. In Star Wars, the religious devotees are the good guys, and the stone-cold scientists that desecrate the holiness of the kyber crystals for devious purposes are, generally speaking, the villains. (Perhaps this is why there was so much push-back to the introduction of midichlorians in The Phantom Menace to explain Force sensitivity — it shoehorns the unknowable mysticism of the Force into laboratory test tubes.)
With the cynicism of our times, Star Wars presents the somewhat radical idea that faith is important. Action, of course, must accompany this faith — Rogue One, by celebrating the actions of the common people, makes this point in every scene. The fact that Jyn tosses out a prayer-like “May the Force be with us” before heading out to battle shows that faith (or hope) must work in conjunction with an active participation in making a difference.
Importantly, however, Rogue One also demonstrates that religion in Star Wars is far from perfect. Though Chirrut’s unwavering faith is admirable, he, like Saw Gerrera on the political spectrum, represents an extreme. Going back further in the Star Wars saga, the Jedi’s destruction during Revenge of the Sith occurs partly as a result of their own hubris and inflexibility, with the Code’s prohibition against attachment leading Anakin Skywalker down a dark path in order to undermine the Council and follow his heart. It’ll be interesting to see how Luke’s new Jedi Order will address the flaws of the former Order and adapt to fit within the new era.
Yet as Rogue One leads into A New Hope, the Jedi are all but extinct, sacred kyber crystals are being exploited by the Marxist-leaning Empire, and the Force itself is viewed with derision by the unenlightened. Chirrut and his fellow Jedha residents have to protect the local Jedi Temple from Imperial desecration. In A New Hope, when Admiral Motti disparages Darth Vader for his “sad devotion to that ancient religion,” we, too, should find his lack of faith disturbing. Because the Force is more than just a “bunch of mumbo-jumbo” — it’s the source of salvation for the entire galaxy.
Allyson Gronowitz is a pop culture journalist living in Los Angeles, still anxiously awaiting her Hogwarts letter. She is a film critic for Entertainment Voice, but spends most of her time defending the Star Wars prequels and writing about time travel on her site, The Fake Fangirl. She watches too much TV and would love to tell you all about it.