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Star Wars as a Religion?
Posted 10/03/2016 12:55PM

Dr. Walsh in Italy

LA's Independent Immersion Program set Dr. Robyn Faith Walsh ’98 on her path

by John Bishop

In generations to come, anthropologists and archeologists might look back on the “Star Wars” phenomenon — today evidenced in a worldwide gross take of over $2 billion for its latest installment, “The Force Awakens” — as the genesis of a religion.

“Many of today’s major religions began with central figures and stories that people found inspiring or otherwise useful,” wrote Dr. Robyn Faith Walsh ’98 in a February 2016 article for the Huffington Post. “From origin stories that offered explanations for the human condition, to the teachings of moral exemplars to help adherents distinguish virtue from vice … Star Wars appears to tick many of the boxes we might identify as part and parcel of a religion. Fast-forward a few hundred years from now, and who knows whether Luke Skywalker might replace Adam in the pantheon and iconography of popular practice?”

As a member of the LA II program (now the Independent Immersion Program), Robyn studied philosophy for two years at Lawrence Academy before matriculating at Wheaton College and Harvard University, and earning a Ph.D. at Brown — studies that she now says were integral to her career path. Although she recently gained renown for her popular article, “Is Star Wars a Religion?,” as an assistant professor of the New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Miami, Robyn teaches courses on the study of religion, Greco-Roman literature, and material culture — which means she has a job more akin to the main character in another widely-known Lucasfilm property.

“When people ask me what I do for a living, I often joke that I do ‘Indiana Jones stuff’ (although my husband notes that I’m a lot more like Jones’ colleague Marcus Brody who ‘once got lost in his own museum’),” says Robyn, who has taught at Wheaton and the College of the Holy Cross. “Because of my involvement in LA II, I was assigned to a classics professor advisor when I got to college. I took some of the classes she offered and found the field so interesting that it pretty much sealed my academic future. With my additional research interests in archaeology, it’s rare that I don’t find myself traveling abroad each year.”

As for the question of whether “Jediism” constitutes an actual religion, Robyn says her students’ findings were fascinating.

“Most of my posts are related to something that I’m doing in the classroom,” she says. “In one class, I asked the students to define religion. To test their definitions, I passed around random names of organizations, activities, interests, or groups and asked them if their definitions might be too broad or too narrow when applied to something we all agree is not necessarily ‘religious.’”

Star Wars ended up being the most contentious example for the class.

“Some students were adamant that ‘Jediism’ is a religion,” Robyn continues. “We did some digging and found out that there are people who view ‘Jedi’ as a form of religious practice.”

In her Huffington Post piece, Robyn asked, “Not yet convinced? Let’s go back in time to 2001. Several countries discovered during routine census-taking that a portion of their citizenry identified religiously as Jedis or Jedi Knights. In Australia, there have been at least 50,000 members of the Jedi order the last several censuses. New Zealand discovered there were more Jedis than Hindus or Buddhists in their midst.”

Outside the classroom, the discussion of Star Wars as religion has also produced some surprising connections to Robyn’s own serious academic work.

Yoda.“As someone who studies ancient Greek philosophy, I see a great deal of resonance between Jedi philosophy and the Stoics: The Stoics had some fairly sophisticated ideas about what we would call physics and how the physical world impacts our moral psychology. Their concept of ‘pneuma,’ for example, is very much like ‘the Force’: a pervasive and ethereal ‘stuff’ that binds the cosmos together. I even use a little picture of Yoda on my PowerPoint when I teach about it,” she explains. “The Stoics were a huge influence on Paul the Apostle, and when he talks about what is translated as ‘spirit’ in the New Testament, the word he uses in the original Greek is actually ‘pneuma.’

“So while others who are more versed in these things tell me that traditions like Buddhism may have been more of a reference point for the creators of Star Wars,” Robyn adds, “I think the correlations with ancient Greek texts and early Christianity are pretty interesting.”

And while Robyn — who holds a tongue-in-cheek ordination certificate from the Church of the Latter-Day Dude (surely a story for another time) — is not a Jedi, she does hold one certain tenet of the Star Wars universe dear.

“Because I’m currently writing a book, I’d say Yoda’s tenet to ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try’ is the most applicable to my life!” she admits, adding, as sage advice to current LA students, “The best thing I think you can do is to be fearless and try everything. If something interests you, pursue it, even if you aren’t perfect at it.

“You have a lot of freedom right now, especially at a place like LA,” Robyn concludes, “so take advantage of it as much as you can.”

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