Our Vader who art in heaven… Cinema chains provoked outrage back in 2015 when they banned an advert made by the Church of England (CoE). The clip in question contained various people reciting lines from the Lord’s Prayer, which the church hoped to screen ahead of the new Star Wars film.
“The prospect of a multi-generational cultural event offered by Star Wars: The Force Awakens was too good an opportunity to miss and we are bewildered by the decision of the cinemas,” said the CoE’s director of communications, Reverend Arun Arora.
Digital City Media, which handles advertising for Cineworld, Odeon and Vue, claimed that they reject all political or religious ads on the basis that “some – unintentionally or otherwise – could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith”.
Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher, thought it was crazy that people could have been offended, saying they should instead “get a life”, while a comment on the matter was even squeezed out of our own Prime Minister, who declared the whole situation as being “ridiculous”.
David Cameron has a point – if cinemas want to shy away from political or religious content, they should stay well clear of Star Wars. “The films are absolutely political and religious, and have their origins in very specific political and religious questions,” says Chris Taylor, deputy editor of the tech news site Mashable, whose book explains How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.
“Politically speaking, it was a reaction to the Vietnam War – the Empire represents the US military, the rebels represent the Vietcong – but because it is clothed in space fantasy, with World War Two-style costuming, nobody noticed. Certainly the Americans didn’t notice the very subversive, left-wing political concept behind it all.
“As for the religious concept, the Force is all religions boiled down to the most simple concept that George Lucas could create.”
In the original film, Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
Those 28 words, which Alec Guinness delivers as if their corniness is a low point in his career, became the foundation that the entire mythology of the Star Wars universe is built upon.
“I don’t think George Lucas gets enough credit for coming up with the concept,” Taylor says. “Wars of religion have been fought for centuries to try to get to something like this, an ultimate description of religion – just a basic ethereal notion that there’s something else out there.”
So what are the origins of the Force? George Lucas’ first film, THX 1138, set in an emotionless future, contained a scene referring to a “force” that did not make the final cut. This in turn was an echo of an influential, if seldom seen, Canadian short called 21-87 (as a nod to the film, Princess Leia’s prison cell on the Death Star is number 2187). Over disconnected footage in 21-87, a voice speaks: “Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force.”
From an early age Lucas had questioned his religious upbringing. “He was raised a Methodist, mostly by his housekeeper, Tilly,” Taylor says. “He asked his mother at 10 years old, ‘Why are there so many religions but only one God?’ So he was obviously quite precocious in his religious thinking.”
Perhaps Lucas’ greatest achievement is to come up with a science-fiction based spirituality but not end up becoming like Scientology’s founder L Ron Hubbard, despite the fact that fellow film director Francis Ford Coppola had suggested they start their own religion.
“Coppola often had his tongue in his cheek but as Lucas often said, Francis is the kind of guy to find a parade and then jump out in front of it,” says Taylor. “If Lucas had said, ‘That’s not a bad idea’, Coppola would have been all over it and there would be real Jedi temples right now.”
Well, speaking of temples, one of the many churches that has sprung up from the Star Wars saga is the Temple of the Jedi Order. I dropped them an email and the mysterious Akkarin responded, saying he would be delighted to talk to The Big Issue. I am not sure what planet he comes from but wherever it is, the locals speak with an apologetically posh English accent.
What does it mean to be a Jedi?
“A Jedi is someone who pursues what is most meaningful for themselves within a broader context of recognising how other people also find meaning in other things,” answers Akkarin.
Following a religion derived from a science fiction film seems ludicrous but according to official statistics, there are more Jedi in the UK than any other country – certainly in this part of the galaxy. In the 2001 census more people identified themselves as Jedi than Jewish in Britain. It was listed as our fourth largest religion, ahead of Buddhism and Sikhism.
The total number (suspiciously concentrated in university towns such as Brighton, Cambridge and Oxford) was 390,127 – or 0.8 per cent of the population in England and Wales. In Scotland the figure was only 0.3 per cent, however a Freedom of Information Request in 2009 revealed that eight police officers from the Strathclyde force had entered Jedi in their diversity forms.
By the 2011 census, numbers of Jedi had declined by more than half but those numbers could climb again given the reawakening interest in all things Star Wars. While the vast majority of recorded Jedi were demonstrating that they did not take the census very seriously, a number of people like Akkarin take the messages from the films to heart and live by that philosophy.
“I don’t know of any Jedi who actually believes Star Wars is literally true,” Akkarin points out. “At the Temple of the Jedi Order we base our interpretation of Jediism not so much on the films but on the inspirations George Lucas drew upon. It has its Christian backgrounds but a lot of the ideas are inspired by Eastern religions such as Buddhism, in particular Zen and Daoism.”
Star Wars and a sense of belonging
Is the Force just another word for faith? “A connection between people is a good way of describing it. At the Temple we don’t offer a very strict definition of the Force, we leave it broad to allow people their own interpretation,” says Akkarin.
The Temple’s doctrine was originally adapted from a humanist website. Akkarin is keen to point out one of their teachings: “Jedi believe in the ethic of reciprocity, and how moral concepts are not absolute but vary by culture, religion and over time.
“If anything, the worst thing about the films is…”
Jar Jar Binks?
“Okay, the second worst thing about the films is the very black and white distinction between good and evil. That does not exist in the real world. I’m not going to call out other Jedi churches but some of them do have a stronger focus on being on the light side or the dark side.”
Other Jedi denominations include the Jedi Church and the Church of the Jedi but Akkarin was attracted to the Temple’s humanist doctrine. “I looked at it and went okay, this all sort of makes sense. Most people have the same kind of reaction. The Temple seemed like a place I could belong.”
The sense of belonging is important. Somebody who followed the spiritual philosophy of Star Wars may have been the victim of general mocking before the internet allowed those with similar views to connect and form communities. The Star Wars special editions were released in 1997, just as the world wide web was taking off. The forums fans formed to debate the unwelcome excess of CGI have evolved into networks that can debate more serious subjects, as well as speculation about the storyline of Star Wars VII.
Simon Brew, who founded the entertainment news site Den of Geek, has used their reach to tackle issues beyond its pop culture news remit. “After the suicide of Robin Williams I cancelled our lead feature and just put a post about what you could do if you’re feeling depressed,” Brew says. “I’d never seen a response like it. We followed it up last Christmas, putting a letter to readers about being lonely at that time of year. Again, the response… I know it sounds mawkish but I had to wipe tears out of my eyes reading the comments.”
Brew subsequently launched a Geeks Vs Loneliness campaign, publishing a post every Friday dealing with issues such as depression, bullying and anxiety. “We’ve kept it simple,” he says. “We worked out you don’t need fireworks and klaxons. It’s not a magic wand, sometimes you just need to be there.”
Apart from the advice found in the columns, readers leave comments offering mutual support. With Christmas being a time many people can feel especially isolated, Brew is planning to spread the message via a viral video, hoping to get figures from the world of geek such as Neil Gaiman and Brian Cox to recite lines from It Feels Like Christmas, a song from the festive masterpiece, The Muppet Christmas Carol.
“We know that 20,000 people read the letter last Christmas,” Brew says. “You come in for a bit of Star Wars then you see a post that might apply to you. Sometimes people seek out stuff when they’re nearer the end of their tether than the start. Community bothers me more than finding more readers, if people can feel they have a virtual safe space.”
Obviously every Star Wars fan is getting what they have long wished for this Christmas, a brand new film. But apart from that, how do Jedi celebrate Christmas?
“Most people would do what every other family would do even though they’re Jedi,” Akkarin says. They might just get more Star Wars toys too? “Quite possibly. Interestingly, in 2005 when we filed to become a company, the papers were submitted a few days before Christmas and we actually became officially recognised as a church on Christmas Day. On special days, like the anniversary day, we might hold a ceremony where you can sit down in front of your computer and be part of a live service.”
Despite the Temple’s origins being in science fiction, Akkarin emphasises that Jedi are humans like the rest of us. So who is he exactly?
“I am a student at Canterbury University,” says Akkarin, real name Michael Kitchen. “I’m 23 and I also have a part-time job as a sales assistant.”
What are you studying?
“Religious studies with philosophy.”
Do your classmates know you are a Jedi?
“Not really. I tend not to bring it up. It’s the sort of thing that could prove problematic.”
But from his description of Jediism, the Temple’s doctrine and Lucas’ liberal ideology, it seems many of us could be Jedi, we just don’t know it.
“May the Force be with you,” Kitchen says, signing off. “That is something we did adopt from the films.”
You can read our exclusive interview with Mark Hamill in this week’s Big Issue when he reveals how he had to hide an injury while filming The Last Jedi, and the serious script changes from The Force Awakens.