I was born in 1976, too young to remember seeing A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back in the theater, but old enough to have had both the films firmly in my grasp when my father took me and my best friend, Kevin Cooney, to see Return of the Jedi for my 8th birthday. I’ll never forget the wonder, the magic, the sense of adventure and satisfaction that filled me. I demanded that we see it again, and sure enough, I convinced my grandmother (who thoroughly hated it) to take me a few weeks later. Thus began my lifelong fandom.
I’ll never claim to be the biggest Star Wars fan in the world; I don’t do cosplay; I don’t read the books; I don’t watch non-theatrical releases; my T-shirt collection is sparse; my toys are long since lost or broken. But Star Wars was my entire childhood; my brother, of blessed memory, was Han Solo. There was no question about roles when we played Star Wars. He was the cool, suave, impossible, handsome renegade and I was the cute, somewhat annoying whiner who was too smart for his own good. Even at the time, I was the most spiritual person in my atheist family. When my brother died in 2002 and I officiated his memorial service, I told the story about how we used to go riding on his Kawasaki KZ-650, and before he’d open up the throttle, he’d yell to me as I held on, “You’re all clear kid!”
Star Wars has shaped my life.
It Is Your Destiny
My favorite film has been and will always be The Empire Strikes back. I think part of the reason is that this was the only film in the original trilogy that I owned on VHS for about five years. I would watch it at least once a week, with particular attention paid to Luke in the Dagobah System. Upon arrival, he is the same impatient brat who was eager to leave Tatooine; certainly, watching Obi Wan being struck down has shaped him. He’s joined the Rebellion and he feels the nascent seeds of spirituality growing within him. He has tapped into the Force, and he is hooked. Like his father before him, Luke feels his own power but is conflicted as to why he desires it. Is it to be like the hero Annakin he has heard so little about from his Aunt and Uncle? Is it to destroy Darth Vader, his nemesis, and the Emperor? With Yoda’s tutelage, Luke begins the Dark Night of the Soul. He explores his own limits, his own preconceptions, his own ideas about what it means to be a Jedi. Before George Lucas nearly ruined the entire franchise with the midichlorians, Empire presents a hero on a spiritual journey. Learning that Vader and Anakin are one and the same is an assault on who Luke thinks he is; it causes him to question his identity and his role in the world. It creates, first and foremost, a spiritual crisis. After losing his hand–a trope throughout the films–Luke must lose other things as well: his anger, his confusion, his desires.
So when we first see Luke in Return of the Jedi, he is a changed man. His vocal cadence is slower, more confident. He is able to easily manipulate the mind of Bib Fortuna. He is in complete control of a seemingly impossible situation. We assume that his training has continued under Yoda, but we also sense that he has had to come to terms with himself; we can imagine many long walks, many sleepless nights as he wrestles with the legacy of his parentage. We speculate that he has felt rage, betrayal, confusion, and all the other emotions that come with devastating news.
But we should never forget that being a Jedi is a spiritual pursuit. The Force is not a weapon, but rather an energy that creates, pervades, and destroys all things, concepts that are equally applicable to Christianity and Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism, Islam and Taoism. A Jedi Knight is equal parts monk and warrior, teacher and minister.
The Force Awakens (and spoilers abound)
I was antsy upon sitting down to view The Force Awakens, in no small part because of the prequels. Most of us fans know this conversation, so I need not repeat it. My friend Derrick Weston, who encouraged me to write this piece as part of a larger project a group of us Star Wars geeks are unfolding, had messaged me and, without any spoilers, simply wrote, “JJ did it.” So while I was nervous, Derrick’s assurance let me know that I was in for a treat. The film unfolded and I found myself grinning from ear to ear, but in the back of my mind I was wondering, Where’s Luke? I perked up upon learning that Luke had been training new Jedis, only to have them destroyed by Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), who is seeking to complete what his grandfather (Annakin or Vader, I wonder) had started. Sadly, some jackass on a political thread had ruined the major plot points, so Han’s death did not surprise me, although I still gasped and felt a part of my childhood die as his body, like Darth Maul, Luke, and the Emperor before him, fell into a vast space toward an unknown bottom. Still, I wondered, where’s Luke?
And then it came. Rey’s arduous climb up the steps; the wonderful helicopter shots establishing the remoteness of place, a scene wholly unlike the CGI-rendered worlds that plagued the prequels. A solitary, hooded figure, wearing the robes of Obi Wan Kenobi, of Mace Windu, of Qui-Gon, of Yoda, of Annakin Skywalker. Turning around and pulling off the hood, there he was. Luke. Older. Bearded. His eyes–owed to masterful acting by Mark Hamill–betraying knowledge, confusion, surprise, trepidation, and peace. The lightsaber that had been passed from his father to Obi Wan to Luke to…now in the hand of Rey (who has an as yet unknown relationship to Luke), extended as an offering. For the second time, I gasped. Cue music and credits.
Its been three weeks since I’ve seen the film. I need to go back and watch it again; I know that there things that I’m missing, but luckily I am part of a group of smart people willing to spend their time having online discussions about this aspect or that aspect. It is fun to be part of such a community.
But today would have been my brother’s 47th birthday. He is on my mind and on my heart. And I am thinking about my journey and how it mirrors Luke’s. I was an atheist learning toward agnosticism when Stephen took his own life in 2002. I won’t write much about it; if you want to know the story (shameless plug), buy my book The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. Stephen’s death led to my conversion, which led to attending a church, which led to suggestions that I go to seminary, which led to a three year process toward ordination, which ended in my pastoring a small church in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. My own impatience and need to go out to conquer the world has required some truncating and training; I have been impetuous; I have wanted to get away from where I grew up and to join something big and exciting. I’ve wanted to pastor a big church and have thousands of people follow my blog and read my books. I’ve felt jealousy at colleagues who have achieved that.
Yet, I realize that I am ultimately looking to be Luke on that island. At least, what I am projecting upon him. A man who prepares for his calling; one who sees the world around him in trouble, but who has the wisdom to wait. To connect with the Force (or God) for direction. A man who no longer allows himself to be directed by passions and desires for greatness, but rather to serve. To protect. To love. To combat evil, but out of compassion and understanding.
After all these years, I still want to be Luke.