The Last Jedi’s New Covenant
Editor’s note: Rampant spoilers ahead! (In case you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen The Last Jedi yet.)
It's probably no accident that some of the most intense moments in Star Wars: The Last Jedi involve things being split apart. Whether it's a courageous Resistance leader ramming a transport ship into an enemy Star Destroyer at light speed or a bewildered Supreme Leader Snoke getting, um, separated in the manner of his predecessor, Darth Maul, writer-director Rian Johnson repeatedly explores the idea of division—both its destructive power and its redemptive potential.
So perhaps it's appropriate that The Last Jedi has also had a decidedly schismatic effect on the franchise's loyal following. As of this writing, the movie is “certified fresh” with a score of 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the most critically acclaimed Star Wars pictures since The Empire Strikes Back. Yet its audience score is only 49 percent—the lowest for any of the saga’s eight films so far.
Even a cursory review of the blogosphere reveals why. Some loyalists protest that this latest installment “isn't Star Wars enough,” even as others praise it for taking the franchise in a promising new direction. Those who relished the nostalgia of The Force Awakens feel cheated by the underwhelming answers Johnson offers to certain burning questions that had fans speculating endlessly for two years.
I was one of the disappointed ones, too—at first. Like many, I hoped to learn that Rey (Daisy Ridley) was Luke’s estranged daughter, that Snoke was a reincarnated version of the old Sith master Darth Plagueis, or at least that Luke (Mark Hamill) had gone seeking the galaxy’s oldest Jedi temple to prepare for an epic showdown with his former pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). But now, after all that anticipatory angst, we learn that Rey is just some random orphan with irrelevant ancestry, that Luke went to Ahch-To to die, and that we'll probably never know who (or what) Snoke is because his part of the story is over.
Perhaps you left the theater feeling like I did—as though Johnson had just whacked you across the wrist for stupidly reaching out to touch the Force with your hand. If so, then you’re ready for Disney fan lesson number one: the canon of Star Wars lore doesn't belong to us any more than the Force belongs to the Jedi.
Breathe. Just breathe.
Lesson number two isn't much easier: sometimes old things have to die in order for new things to be born.
That's one of the more important takeaways from the fabulous Force montage during Rey’s abbreviated training on Ahch-To, during which we see the skeletal remains of a long-dead animal nourishing the rocky soil out of which new plants grow. In an instant, Rey comprehends the way death and decay fuel the cycle leading to new life in the island's complex, delicately balanced ecosystem, which is but a microcosm of the sacred tension binding the whole galaxy together.
The Last Jedi repeatedly explores the idea of division—both its destructive power and its redemptive potential.
For Christians, this part of the film might feel like a visual exposition of Ecclesiastes 3, in which Solomon poetically riffs on the balanced timing of all things in God's creation. There's a time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to keep and a time to throw away—all subject to a consummate divine plan to which we’re not entirely privy.
Perhaps that’s why Rey's vision also registers as a gentle summons for fans to expand their understanding of the Star Wars universe. Although it's tempting for us to cling to our own generational connections to the stories of the Skywalker clan, The Last Jedi reminds us that the Force was at work long before Qui-Gon Jinn discovered Anakin on Tatooine, and it remains at work even now, after Darth Vader's redemption and the Empire's destruction. If we're willing to let go of our sense of entitlement over the future of the franchise, we may discover that the most exciting chapters in the saga are the ones we haven't yet seen.
In a way, The Last Jedi can be seen as the turning point between two Star Wars testaments. The divided audience reaction to the movie evokes the way devout, first-century Jews responded when, after centuries of prophetic silence, their long-awaited Messiah stepped onto the pages of history with a surprising, controversial agenda. With all the bedraggled flair of Luke Skywalker abruptly tossing his father's lightsaber off a cliff, Jesus took his people's misguided messianic expectations and cast them aside, refusing to play the part his most zealous fans had outlined for him. Defying their hopes that he would take down the entire Roman empire, Jesus instead announced a new dispensation in God's dealings with the world—one that would begin with their Messiah literally putting to death the old ways of the Jewish religion.
That wasn't exactly a popular message, particularly for those with a lot at stake in the preservation of the old ways. But one of the great mysteries of the Bible is that Jesus' rejection by some was eternally decreed for the salvation of many. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” In the economy of God's salvation, death and division point the way to new life.
When Jesus died on the cross, rocks split open and the veil of the Jewish temple tore from top to bottom. Like the violent bolt of lightning Yoda unexpectedly calls down upon the ancient Jedi tree on Ahch-To, as well as the explosive severing of Anakin’s lightsaber during Rey’s duel with Kylo Ren, this epic event signaled the end of an era. No longer would circumcision or ritual purity determine who could approach the Most Holy God. Henceforth, all the “nobodies” of the world—Jews and Gentiles alike—would have unfettered access to God in Christ.
As ambassadors of this new covenant, we walk a fine line between reverence for the past and discernment of the present. Although we’re no longer beholden to the Law of Moses, it still has much to teach us about God’s character and how to live in relationship with him. What’s more, we ought never to set the New Testament against the Old as though the former renders the latter irrelevant. Yet at the same time, we never want to become so mired in our own traditions that we miss the “new thing” God might be doing right in front of us.
Star Wars is a far cry from biblical truth, but Disney’s now-apparent determination to “let old things die” offers Christians a peculiar opportunity to reflect on the Spirit's disruptive movement in salvation history. Regardless of how we feel about the direction this franchise is headed, we do well to remember that faithful fans—like true disciples—don’t try to dictate how the story should go. They simply follow wherever it leads.