Religion & Liberty Online

The Force in Rogue One: Religious Development or Diversity?

Chirrut Îmwe

The newest Star Wars film, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,’ has enjoyed a box office success of more than $700 million since its release and generally positive reviews from fans and critics alike. The film series has a mythic quality for many, offering stories of heroism, betrayal, virtue, pride, and even spirituality.

At First Things this week, Marc Barnes offers a decent analysis of the different developments of how the Force in particular — the main religious element of the films — is depicted throughout the different Star Wars movies. He’s particularly critical of the prequel trilogy for their “secularization of the Force,” offering a naturalistic explanation (the much-maligned “midi-chlorians”) and treating it like technology or magic.

By contrast, he praises the new films, especially Rogue One, for restoring religious reverence the Force: “If the prequels scooped the sacred from the Force by biologizing and technologizing it, Rogue One returns it by spiritualizing and refusing to use the Force.”

All this has merit, but I actually thought that Rogue One in particular represents a third depiction of the Force, in some ways equally contradictory to the original trilogy or Episode VII.

In the originals, the Force has a light side and a dark side. The goal of the Jedi is to become attuned to the light side and resist the dark. This struggle figures prominently in Episode VII as well, where the angsty emo-villian Kylo Ren shamefully senses some sympathy for the light within himself.

In Rogue One, by contrast, the Force mostly lacks this dualism. Barnes rightly notes,

Its main adherent is Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior-monk who believes in the power of the Force. Îmwe’s temple has been destroyed by an imperial power, and thus, deprived of any obvious geographical site of the sacred, he must carry the evidence of the Force that “binds the galaxy together” by his own prayer and upright action.

Indeed, comments Barnes, “We do not hear the iconic line, ‘Use the force,’ in Rogue One. We hear a reverent one: ‘Trust the force.'” For Barnes, this is a further development of a more reverent depiction of the Force. That may be true, but it is also contradictory.

Under the light/dark dualism of the original trilogy and Episode VII, no one should want to become “one with the Force,” as does Îmwe. No one would speak of “the will of the Force,” because if anything the Force has two wills: one light and good but the other dark and evil. Becoming “one with the Force” would not do away with the struggle of good vs. evil. To quote Han Solo, “That’s not how the Force works!”

So what? Should fans be outraged at such a jarring contradiction?

I think not.

We already know of two traditions of Force religion: the Jedi and the Sith. But shouldn’t we expect that an inter-galactic religion should have many divergent traditions? Global religions on Earth certainly do. And those differences matter. Think of how sociologist Max Weber argued that the “Protestant ethic” shaped the “spirit of capitalism.” Even those who have disagreed with Weber do not generally dispute that religious sub-traditions have important impacts on societies and economies — how much more so on galaxies?

Personally, I welcome the divergences from both the original’s and the prequel trilogy’s depictions of the Force. What would be great is for a future film to include a depiction of two traditions that are not fundamentally antagonistic, as are the Sith and the Jedi. Maybe it could feature someone with a more monistic view of the Force, like Îmwe, amicably challenging Rey, the heroine of the new trilogy, to consider another perspective on the Force than whatever she’ll likely learn from Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII.

I won’t hold my breath for that, but depicting such diversity would bring the Star Wars universe to life in new ways that resonate with our own world of religious diversity and disagreement, in addition to discord. Perhaps, in a time like ours when its importance is often overlooked, we might better see in a galaxy far, far away the value of religious liberty and tolerance for our own as well.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.