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The Last Jedi—A Case Study in Strengths that Become Weaknesses

Everything after this is a spoiler. You have been warned.

2015’s return to the Skywalker Saga, The Force Awakens, was released to generally glowing reviews. Although it was a fairly simple retread of the same beats we had seen before in the original 1977 Star Wars*, after the disappointing mess of Lucas gave us in the prequel films, it’s not surprising that there was a collective sigh of relief that J.J. Abrams could take the reins of the Star Wars franchise and give the world a new film in the old Lucas style. Whatever Abrams’ weaknesses as a director, he is a master at imitation, giving us the best non-Spielberg Spielberg film (Super 8) and the now the best non-Lucas Lucas film (The Force Awakens).

Having re-established the franchise on a firm footing and proven that Disney could give fans new releases with the same touches we loved in ’77, ’81, and ’83, the open question was where would Disney Wars go next? More of the same or a change of direction? “Burn it all down,” said Rian Johnson.

Abrams proved that Disney could give us the old magic we love; Johnson set out to prove that Disney could give us something new—something that we weren’t necessarily asking for. Say what you want about Episodes I-VII, they were not exercises in deep introspective cinema. There’s no gray in the Lucas palette. You have good guys and bad guys, light and dark, and you are either on one side or the other. It’s a simple fantasy story in space, with the rogues, clerics, princesses, and knights on one side and the highly mechanized forces of fascist empire on the other. Not much nuance there.

Johnson gives us a lot more gray—almost nothing but gray—as he sets out to step by step subvert every trope of the Star Wars universe. To whit:

1) The same daring, selfless missions that brought victory in Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, and even Rogue One are now at best Pyrrhic victories—the Deadnought bombing in the opening sequence—or foolish wastes of time—Finn and Rose’s attempt to shut off the tracker on a New Order ship. To really hammer the point home, we see Finn preparing to run his skimmer at full speed right down the maw of the First Order’s nifty laser battering ram, only to be forcibly knocked to safety by Rose. “We won’t win by destroying what we hate,” she says, “but by saving what we love.” The rebels have a new ethos. No more suicide missions—we’re going to try to save what we have left.

2) On a similar point, the tendency to disregard the orders or advice of your superiors that we saw previously when Jyn Erso ignored the Rebel council to retrieve the Death Star plans from Scarif, or when Luke left Dagobah to save his friends, is now taken to a foolish and devastating extreme in Poe Dameron’s mutiny against Admiral Holdo. This time, the old guard really does know best, and Poe’s insistence on going his own way endangered the rebels in general and Finn and Rose in particular.

3) There’s no one left who believes in the nobility and wisdom of the Jedi order. We thought that Luke retreated to the original Jedi temple to go deeper into the mystical ways of the Force and rebuild the order, but he doesn’t care about that at all. He’s never even bothered—in months and months alone!—to read the ancient Jedi texts. He’s cut himself off from the Force. And whereas Obi-Wan spoke reverently of the lightsaber—“An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age”—Luke tosses his away and dismissively calls it “a laser sword.” Even Yoda is ready to literally burn it all down, calling Luke’s bluff and destroying the sacred texts himself, saying there’s nothing in them that Rey doesn’t already have within her. Rey, we have already seen, doesn’t really understand what the Force is at all, and is begging for a teacher. This is a far different stance than Yoda took when Luke was in his early 20s and Yoda believed he was already too old to start gaining the wisdom and discipline it would take to become a true Jedi. Apparently Rey doesn’t need discipline and training. She’s ready just as she is. (And she’d better be, with the texts destroyed and the only person who can teach her dissolved away into serene nothingness.)

4) We’ve grown accustomed to people being marked out for a special destiny because of the circumstances of their birth, either to royalty (Amidala) or because of a miticlorian miracle conception (Anakin) or within a family which seems to have a genetic propensity to force sensitivity (Luke/Leia/Ben). The Force Awakens created a mystery about Rey’s parentage, around which fans have created myriad theories—She’s a Kenobi! A Palpatine! Yet another freaking Skywalker!—all of which were gloriously shot down with the revelation that her parents were poor junk traders who had no special gifts. They sold her off for some scraps and are now buried somewhere in the desert. She’s nobody in particular, from a nowhere planet–and we haven’t ever seen someone like her have such powerful control of the Force.

5) Finally, the extreme bifurcation between Light and Dark, Good Guys and Bad Guys we saw in previous movies is ended here as both Luke and Kylo Ren, in their own ways, want to break down the Jedi/Sith system. One of the chief strengths of The Last Jedi is how it used Kylo Ren, a petulant man-child in The Force Awakens, to begin to explore what it might look like to be strong in the Force but reject choosing a side. He has been conflicted, but now that he has struck down both Han and Snoke he seems ready to find his own path. Where that path will lead is unclear.

There are some fans who are deeply disappointed in Johnson’s insistent deconstruction of the usual Star Wars tropes, wanting more Abrams-style neo-Lucasism. They can hardly be faulted for wanting another trip to that particular well, and I can imagine being understandably upset at Johnson, the interloper who turned Star Wars into something darker and much more nuanced. If you came to The Last Jedi hoping for a few more chances to burst out into applause at the unlikely victory of our daring heroes—well, you probably hated this movie a lot.

That’s not my problem with The Last Jedi. The Star Wars universe was long overdue for this kind of deconstruction, and Johnson’s direction rescued the problematic Kylo Ren character and turned him into perhaps the most interesting person in the entire franchise. Breaking down the facile dichotomies are welcome turns as well. On paper, this seems like the necessary maturation of Star Wars, and I’m sure if I had been on the production staff I would have cheered Johnson every step of the way as he tore down the expectations that have been built over these last four decades. It’s a turn in the story that is both daring and essential. However, all this rampant subversionism came with a cost, which is that apparently Johnson doesn’t know how to do that and also make a movie that is interesting to watch and has consistently realistic characters.

There are three storylines overlapping in The Last Jedi: the Rey/Luke/Kylo Ren exploration of what the Force is and the nature of the Jedi/Sith orders, the Poe exploration of the limits of loveable rogue-ism, and the Finn/Rose exploration of yet-another-plan-to-infiltrate-an-enemy-ship-and-flip-a-switch-to-“off.” Of those, only the first really works. All things considered, if I can only have one of those three storylines work, that’s the one to pick—it’s at the center of the mythos and produces the most interesting questions and character arcs. On the strength of the Force arc, I’m giving a The Last Jedi a tentative thumbs up. But it’s really tentative because:

  • I can’t buy into mutinous Poe. Foolhardy, maybe. Addicted to high-stakes, high-adrenaline missions, sure. But mutinous—no. And if you are going to have a character commit mutiny, there need to be some consequences for that. He’s already been stripped of rank once. It’s time to throw Poe in the brig or kick him out of the rebel alliance altogether. There need to be more consequences for his actions than Holdo giving Leia a wry smile and saying “I love that rogue.” It’s good to subvert the repeated “million-to-one odds” missions. At some point, basic statistics are going to catch up to you, and C3PO’s going to be proven right. But this was a frustrating and unbelievable way to do it. It would be far better writing to have the bombing mission against the dreadnought go disastrously wrong. All the bombers get destroyed, the dreadnought is barely dented, and Poe loses one of his best friends. Leia dresses him down hard and busts him down another rank for insubordination before throwing him in the brig. There he gets plenty of time to himself to wrestle with the consequences of his hotheaded actions. Later in the movie, when the rebels are again in dire straits, Leia visits Poe in the brig and tells him it’s time to go on another risky mission to save the rebels. This time it’s Poe who refuses and insists on finding a smarter, lower-risk way. Introspection! Consequences! Stakes! Real character growth! Either way you go after that, something interesting is going to happen. Maybe Leia was right and we really need to roll the dice sometimes, but we have to be careful about when. Maybe Poe was right and it’s time to change tactics altogether. But Johnson gave us unrealistic character beats with no personal stakes or consequences—a dissatisfying move.
  • Everything about the Finn/Rose mission to Planet O’ Rich Gamblers bored me, and in a film generally dedicated to nuance, that was as un-nuanced as possible. Evil rich capitalist exploiters and child labor! Boo, hiss! That whole subpoint was an exercise in one futile action after another, all adding up to nothing. I could feel my heartrate slowing down everytime we cut back to Finn. There was nothing to make me care, and my extreme lack of caring wound up being retroactively justified when nothing they did made any difference anyway. Now, as a sort of avant garde approach to filmmaking—Wouldn’t it be interesting to have an entire third of the movie make no difference to anyone whatsoever?—I guess I can see the temptation, but Star Wars isn’t really the venue to explore the virtues of tedium. Nothing about the Finn line worked for me.

So, I’m giving the Force storyline a strong A, the Poe storyline a D, and I am expelling the Finn storyline from my class and putting it on academic probation.

Other assorted thoughts:

  • It is genuinely great to see more diversity in the Star Wars universe, and to have male and female heroes of various ethnicities to cheer for. Rose and her sister are welcome additions to the pantheon. And Laura Dern rocked it as Holdo—wonderful to see another middle-aged woman in a central role.
  • How much equipment does the First Order lug around with them? They just happen to have a laser door ram in case the rebels flee to someplace with a big reinforced door? Why not just blast it? They don’t care about casualties. What else are they carrying with them? Laser drill for underground lairs?
  • I’m not sure Rose’s philosophy is consistent. She thinks it’s wrong for Finn to sacrifice himself to try to save everyone, but then she hurts herself badly to try to save just Finn. She needs some Star Trek in her life. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
  • I really don’t get why Holdo doesn’t just explain to Poe what the plan is. She knows it looks futile from his perspective, and she knows what kind of nonsense he gets into when a situation seems hopeless. One quick “we’re not trying to escape this area; we’re trying to sneak to an abandoned base nearby” would have saved a lot of trouble and gotten Poe working with her instead of against her. Yes, that would have required a massive rewrite, but that rewrite needed to happen anyway.

* Look, it was Star Wars when I saw it, and I’m going to call it Star Wars here. You might know it as A New Hope. To each his own.

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Book Review: Almost Christian

Book Review: Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dean, a professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, wastes no time getting to the point of this bracing book. She opens chapter one by writing:

Let me save you some trouble. Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith— but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.

One more thing: we’re responsible.

Dean is not speaking idly. Drawing on serious and careful research, she shows that American Christianity is currently in crisis, although it may not be the crisis we think we have. Faced with ever bolder and more vocal atheism, many churches assume that our problem is that teens are rejecting faith due to pernicious outside influence. The reality is this: teens are not rejecting faith; they never truly had it to begin with. And the cause is not a determined hostile world; it is a weak and listless church. The sad irony of this moment is that, on the surface, American churches are devoting more resources to young people than ever before: dedicated youth ministers, consistent Bible class programs, vibrant summer camps, and global mission trips. It certainly seems as though we are doing all we can—no previous generation of young Christians has been given this level of supposedly spiritually formative resources. Yet we are reaping a harvest of mediocre faith that often doesn’t last more than a few months after high school graduation. What is going wrong?

The primary problem is that even young people who regularly attend worship tend to think of church as a valuable extracurricular activity, like their school’s band or sport teams—and churches haven’t given them much reason to think differently. While teens are inwardly longing for a purpose to which they can devote their lives, many churches fail them by offering “a kind of ‘diner theology’: a bargain religion, cheap but satisfying, whose gods require little in the way of fidelity or sacrifice.” The ski trips and youth hangouts offer fun for while, but they aren’t acquainting teenagers with a holy God who calls them to lives of radical service. Worse, the things that churches do to try to build faith often harm the spiritual formation process by replacing traditional structures that were more effective at creating disciples. Faith is formed best in multigenerational communities where young and old serve, pray, and study together, yet most American teens have almost no opportunity to bond with faithful adults: their Bible classes, camps, and mission trips are often filled with nothing but young people and one youth minister, with perhaps a few adults sponsors present. They have almost no opportunity to see how mature Christians integrate their faith and their life, and so they struggle to see how Christianity speaks to their world. Lacking both clear theology and faithful examples, the religious framework of many young people consists of what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton call “Therapeutic Moral Deism,” which says, in essence, that God wants people to be nice; the goal of life is to be happy and feel good; nice people go to heaven when they die; and God isn’t involved in my life except to help when I have a problem

If you have spoken about faith with many teenagers in the last decade or two, these beliefs probably sound familiar. They have taken root among American youth and shoved aside the core principles of authentic Christianity: that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, that his life modeled how we should live, that he died to cleanse our sins, that the work of the Spirit empowers us to continue in the divine work to which Jesus calls us. Rather than seeking daily to imitate the servant spirit of Christ through the Spirit’s power, teens are content to be “nice” and only call in God in a moment of crisis.

How does the church respond to this crisis? Dean calls for vigorous formative rituals: daily encounters with the divine through prayer and study, intergenerational work and reflection, a renewed sense of mission in the world, which makes demands of all church members, from oldest to youngest. Give teens a purpose and a calling and they will rise to the occasion. Show them through tangible behaviors what Christ has meant to us, and Christ will come to mean more to them.

Yet the most significant factor, by far, is not the sort of faith formation practices found in a teenager’s church, but those found in a teenager’s home. While there are always some young people who build a mature faith in spite of their parents’ indifference, and some who lose it in spite of their parents’ devotion, the number one predictor of enduring faith in a teenager is enduring faith in his or her parents. In her terms: “You get what you are.” The chief difference between an uncommitted teen and her parents is often that the lukewarm teen no longer feels the need to engage in the pretense of church attendance. “In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.”

Almost Christian is one of the most important books I have encountered. At turns disheartening, pragmatic, and hopeful, it lays out clearly the spiritual crisis before us and, in its own prophetic way, call for revival—not among the teenagers whose fate so deeply concerns us, but within the parents and church leaders whose own shortcomings are being reflected in our youth. This book is a clarion call. May it not fall on deaf ears.

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“It Doesn’t Matter Who is President, Jesus is Lord”

The wording varies from writer to writer, but the sentiment is the same: “No matter who is in the Oval Office, God is still on the throne of heaven.” “Regardless of who is president, what matters is that Jesus is Lord.” Amen; true enough.

And yet…

We need to be clear what we mean when we say this. I am afraid that for many people, the claim that “Jesus is Lord” leads them to the conclusion that “nothing bad can happen.” But Jesus was Lord when Hitler led the Holocaust. Christ was reigning when Stalin initiated the Great Purge. The Son held all authority in heaven and on earth when America stole the labor of black families and the lands and lives of native families. “Jesus is Lord” doesn’t mean “everything is okay.” It doesn’t mean “God approves of what is happening here.”

For others, “God is still on his throne” seems to mean “Things may be bad, but we don’t need to respond. God will take care of it in his way.” But God’s way has always been to enter into the hearts and hands of his people. When God chose to liberate the Israelite slaves, he called on Moses to find his courage and his voice. When God chose to rebuke the foul deeds of evil kings, he raised up the prophets. When God chose to stand against the abuses of institutional religion and the idolatries of empire, he raised up apostles, elders, deacons….and martyrs.

God will change the world. God will stand against evil. He will do it through your courage, your deeds, your voice, your service, and–if needed–your death.

Jesus is Lord…therefore we must not passively assume that everything that happens is good. We must learn to see right and wrong through his eyes. Jesus is Lord….therefore we must not quietly wait for God to set the world right. He has called us to take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus is Lord…therefore we take our orders from him, not Jerusalem, Rome, or Washington. Because he is Lord we are compelled to act, to speak, to move, to love. To answer the call of Christ is to kindle within yourself a love so pure that you will willingly give your life in service to your neighbors. It is to find within yourself a courage so deep that you will defy the king. Our tribe will not bend our knees to the golden statue, no matter how loud the music plays, how hot the furnace is stoked.

Because Jesus is Lord.

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I’m Still Alive

But traveling last week and tied up in a doctoral seminar this week.  Light or non-existent blogging for the next week.  Keep reading your Bibles without me–I’ll catch up.

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