The Religion of ‘Star Wars’ According to the JAAR
Among the many periodicals that I receive annually, probably the one I am least likely to read thoroughly is the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, which I, like all members of the AAR (American Academy of Religion), receive as part of my membership to the scholarly organization. I will always look through each issue of the journal, occasionally finding some book reviews that are of interest to me and my field of study, but for the most part the articles that generally appear in this publication are not theological enough for me. They tend to be about various religious traditions other than Christianity, ethnographies, studies of comparative religion, themes in religious studies or cultural studies, and so on. They are undoubtedly excellent scholarly essays, for the JAAR is one of the leading refereed journals in the broad field of religion, but I’m much more likely to read through the entirety of the latest Theological Studies, Horizons, or Modern Theology when those arrive than I am the JAAR.
But not this time.
While most of the articles which appear in the September 2012 issue of the JAAR fall into the category of “unlikely to interest Dan” as described above, one article did capture my attention right away. It is “Whose Film Is It, Anyway? Canonicity and Authority in Star Wars Fandom,” by John C. Lyden (JAAR vol. 80, no. 3 [September 2012]: 775-786).
That’s right, an article in the prestigious JAAR about Star Wars! For those who do not know, I have always been, and still remain, a very big fan of the Star Wars series. My parents can tell stories of me as a little kid sitting in front of the TV watching A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi with endless fascination, an attraction that would later lead to my interest in collecting Star Wars memorabilia and safeguarding those things in what would come to be called among my family members as “the Star Wars collection,” a locked closet in the basement of my parents’ house. I have no idea what happened to the collection, but its fragmented parts surely remain scattered throughout the attic, basement, and other places where such things tend to migrate over time.
In school my friend Joe and I would develop these elaborate trivia quizzes designed to stump the other with the most esoteric details of the films and backstories. In what will likely be the only time I bother to go to a first-screening of a film, buying theatre tickets in advance, waiting in long lines, and sitting in absurdly crowded theaters, Joe and I saw all three of the Star Wars re-releases in the 90s on the respective days of their release.
The Star Wars series is a little bit older than I am, with the final installment of the initial trilogy released the same year I was born, and therefore I had the opportunity (if that is the right word) to “grow up” with the films. While I would never consider Star Wars a religion in the same way I view my faith in Christianity, I do recall having conversations with my Uncle Les and my cousins, who were also big fans of the films, about the eerie similarities that Star Wars bore to more traditional religions. How “The Force” sounded a lot like a sci-fi pneumatology, how the requirements to be a Jedi Knight mirrored the celibacy requirements of Roman- Catholic priests, how the Jedi Knight’s apparel looked strikingly similar to the Franciscan habit (now that remains a curious coincidence in my own life!), and so on.
For those, whether in jest, in fan enthusiasm, or in earnest devotion, who see in Star Wars even more religious overtones and implications, the original films can be understood as the “scriptures” of the Star Wars religion, at least this is the premise for Lyden’s essay in the latest issue of the JAAR. What Lyden examines is the discussion and debates surrounding questions of canonicity and whether or not the films can authentically be viewed as a “closed canon” (the argument made by some fans who are against George Lucas’s ongoing tweaking of the films in various releases) or an “open canon” (the implicit argument of Lucas and others).
Lyden makes it clear that the parallels between other religions, their respective scriptures, and questions of canonicity concerning them, and the apparent religiosity of the Star Wars saga with its own canonicity-like questions, aren’t quite equal.
One may contest whether the devotion of fans can literally be equated with religious devotion, or whether their reception of these texts is as crucial to the formation of their values and way of life as religious texts have been held to be by those who profess to shape their identities through them (781).
A point well put and a caveat well stated. However, Lyden goes on to suggest that the ongoing interpretation and reshaping of the “texts” of the Star Wars canon, namely the films themselves, continues to resemble that of other tradition or more widely-accepted religions.
One might also think that popular fandom does not resemble what we usually call religion because it engages in a continual process of revising and reinventing its texts – but religions do this as well, and increasingly so in the age of interactive media, which allows practitioners to be co-creators of their scriptures, and hence to share the authority with the “original” creators of the texts (783).
I’m not sure where I fall on the reception of the so-called “authenticity” of Star Wars as a religion, but I have no doubts that there indeed people for whom Star Wars is as meaningful and significant as any other religious tradition. I am certainly not one of those people. I still think that Star Wars is one of the greatest narrative and cinematic series of all time and that what makes it so, in part, is the way that George Lucas draws on perennial spiritual themes and human experiences to illustrate a narrative that speaks to many on a deep level.
Wherever you fall on this continuum of rating the Star Wars religiosity, I say to you: “May the Force be with you!”
To which you can (now) reply: “And with your spirit!”