The Rise of Skywalker and Spiritual Adoption

Claude Atcho

Editor’s note:This post includes spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

“Who is she?”

Kylo Ren’s question in the opening moments of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is ours, too. Ever since being introduced to Rey (Daisy Ridley) while she scavenged for parts and squeezed every last drop of water from her canteen in The Force Awakens, audiences have pondered the mystery of her familial identity, as well as the message it would convey about the mythology of Star Wars. Unsurprisingly, The Rise of Skywalker’s revelation about Rey’s identity has pleased some and caused others to lament. More surprising is that the movie’s examination of Rey’s identity helps us better understand the Christian experience of spiritual adoption.

It’s not long into The Rise of Skywalker before attentive Star Wars fans will be able to put the puzzle pieces of Rey’s identity together. When a riveting desert showdown between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) culminates in familiar lightning bolts erupting from Rey’s hands, exploding a transport ship she was trying to save, the signs are ominous. Later, Kylo Ren reveals what Rey seems to sense: her family lineage is that of the evil Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen electrocuting Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.

Some have decried the decision to make Rey the granddaughter of Palpatine, a descendent of notable lineage who has seemingly inherited her connection to the Force. Such critiques lament the elitism insinuated in the fact that the strongest users of the Force must be a “somebody,” rather than the egalitarian notion of the Force being available even to the “nobodies”—specifically, those not of Skywalker or Palpatine blood. But in addition to overlooking the burgeoning sensitivity to the Force experienced by Finn (John Boyega) in Rise of Skywalker, these critiques also miss the larger, more interesting moral implications.

In making Rey a somebody rather than a nobody, in placing her in the villainous line of Palpatine rather than leaving her as the child of anonymous scavengers, The Rise of Skywalker emphasizes the necessity of confronting the worst of our past, as well as our current capacity for evil. In the economy of Star Wars, to be a nobody is morally neutral. To be revealed as a Palpatine is a massive moral and existential burden, not easily overcome. What’s more, the film suggests that such a burden is not lifted simply by Rey’s heroic efforts, but primarily by something graciously external to her. She overcomes by embracing a new family and identity, an experience that echoes the Christian notion of spiritual adoption.

Rey's burden is lifted not by her own heroic efforts, but by something graciously given to her.

It’s fitting that Kylo Ren reveals Rey’s identity to her in the open landing bay of his Star Destroyer as it hovers within the atmosphere of a cold, dark planet. As he explains to Rey that she has Palpatine’s power because she is a Palpatine, the news sends Rey backpedalling closer to the landing bay’s door, her face quivering with confusion and fear. As she staggers closer to the edge, the camera shifts to show a deep and dark chasm below, conveying both a literal and thematic sense of gravity. This is devastating news that may push Rey over the edge, physically and existentially.

While Rey never succumbs to the dark side, she’s so rattled by the revelation of her Palpatine ancestry and the destructive violence of her powers that she heads to the isolated planet Ahch-To to enter self-imposed exile. This is Rey’s dark night of the soul. It’s here that Luke Skywalker’s ghost (Mark Hamill) appears—first to save the lightsaber Rey has thrown into a fire and then to urge her to face Palpatine head-on. Notably, Luke lifts Rey out of crisis by revealing good news: Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke’s sister and also a Jedi, was fully aware that Rey was a Palpatine, even before she started to train her. What shifts Rey from exile to action, from crisis to confidence, is simply the revelation of what has already been done for her: though she is a Palpatine, she had already been embraced like a Skywalker. This good news leaves Rey in wonder and inspires her toward the film’s climactic confrontation.

Rey is an active character, yet her story pivots on having news declared to her—the bad news of her identity as a Palpatine and the good news of Leia’s embrace of her, despite her familial identity. In step with the Gospel, it’s the reality of the bad news that makes the good news truly good. Without Rey’s understanding of her Palpatine lineage, her tutelage under Leia is simply a privilege; with an understanding of Rey’s lineage, Leia’s embrace of Rey is an act of wondrous grace, confidence, and adoption. In Leia, Rey has a “master” who knows the ominous truth of her ancestry, yet who receives and trains her still.

In this way, the film’s examination of Rey’s identity evokes the good news of God’s adoption of us in Christ. Though humanity’s spiritual lineage is of Adam, though our nature and choices are trapped under sin, still God in Christ desires to graciously embrace us with a new identity: that of redeemed sons and daughters. Like Rey, our stories—and the full realization of our purpose and identity—hinges on our reception of news, both the bad and the good. We must reckon with the bad news of sin’s tyranny over us because of our lineage in Adam in order to fully realize and receive, in slack-jawed wonder, God’s gracious adoption of us in Christ.

This spiritual adoption is the core of the Christian story. Theologian J.I. Packer notes that adoption “is the highest privilege that the gospel offers,” for “[t]o be right with God the Judge [justification] is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father [adoption] is greater.” As a result, “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity,” writes Packer, “find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father.”

Based on the film’s poignant epilogue, it’s evident Rey thinks much of being grafted into the Skywalker family. In what is clearly the film’s most resonant scene—unless you’re into Reylo—Rey returns to Tatooine, where we first met Luke Skywalker in 1977’s Star Wars. As she stands outside Luke’s former home, a woman passes by and asks her name. “Rey who?” the woman says to Rey’s initial answer. Rey turns skyward to ponder whether she will embrace her inherited name or fully receive her adopted identity. Comforted by a beatific vision of the ghosts of Luke and Leia lifting their countenance upon her, Rey turns to the woman and asserts her adopted identity with clear-eyed confidence: “Rey Skywalker.” Rey’s response is a reminder that our lineage matters, but our spiritual adoption matters more.

In the film’s final image, Rey marches, new lightsaber in hand, into the fabled Tatooine sunsets, ready for whatever adventures await. In receiving the name of Skywalker, Rey has received a name and a mantle, an identity and a vocation. There’s theological resonance here too. To be adopted into God’s family and kingdom means we receive a new identity and a new vocation—to be lovers of God and neighbor, stewards of God’s creation, proclaimers of the Gospel. Rey’s blood is Palpatine, but her identity and vocation is Skywalker. To remix Martin Luther, Rey is simultaneously Palpatine and Skywalker, just as believers are simul justus et peccator—simultaneously sinful and righteous, broken yet adopted by grace. The good news of our adoption in Christ leads us to marvel, as Rey does on Ahch-To and the apostle John does in Scripture: “See what kind of love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”

Think Christian Podcast: A Theology of Star Wars (The Rise of Skywalker, The Mandalorian)

Topics: Movies