As the 2020 election approaches, we will be posting two conversations on culture, politics, and ethics. Part 1 is a conversation with Alan Noble and Part 2 is a conversation with Matthew Arbo.
This episode is a conversation with Dr. Alan Noble of Oklahoma Baptist University. We discuss basketball fandom (3:45), the weirdness of the Shawnee, OK mall (7:30), overrating Flannery O’Connor and C. S. Lewis (16:45), how the intersection of technology and secularism impacts our worldview (21:25), the importance of liturgy (34:00), the future of evangelicalism in America (40:00), and more. Buy Alan’s books.
This isn’t blind fandom; I was ambivalent toward the movie the first time I saw it. I hated it the second time. Yeah, the fight scene with Rey and Ben in Snoke’s throne room is awesome, but Leia Poppins, Bitter Luke, and the Casino are not. But the third time around a few things clicked, and the more I watch it and pay attention, the more I love it. In fact, I’m to the point where I (cheekily) tweeted the other day, “If you hate The Last Jedi then you hate Star Wars.” Obviously, everyone from hardcore fans to casual viewers can think what they want about the movie. But here I want to try to argue that the hate for TLJ is unfounded.
From best I can tell, there are four main objections (in no particular order):
1. Vice Admiral Holdo – This objection actually consists of at least three subsets. Some fans object to Holdo’s general demeanor. I definitely felt this the first time around. It was weird seeing Jurassic Park lady in Star Wars, and something felt off about her acting. Another objection to Holdo is part of a broader objection to the movie’s supposed “feminist” streak. It goes something like this: “the men in the movie are all stupid and need to be rescued by women.” And the third Holdo objection is the infamous Holdo maneuver, which somehow is problematic for science or whatever (see also: bomb drops in space). This one comes up most often from the hardcore Star Wars fans.
2. Leia Poppins – This objection is self-explanatory. What’s up with Leia floating through space holding an invisible nanny umbrella? Besides just the fact that some viewers think it looks dumb, many also ask, “What’s the point?”
3. The Casino Sequence – The same main objection to Leia Poppins – “What’s the point?” – also occurs here, but this part of the movie also receives criticism regarding pacing and leftist propaganda re: American war mongering.
4. Luke – Lots of fans hate what the movie does with Luke’s story. This is probably the most important objection, as it has to do with a broader objection to the movie’s supposed treatment of the previous films and the franchise’s fans. Many viewers believe that Luke throwing his lightsaber when Rey hands it to him, Yoda’s dialogue with Luke before calling down lightning to burn the Jedi Temple / Tree, Rey being “no one” and Snoke dying without revealing his origin, and, most famously, Ben’s mantra to Rey about the past (“Let the past die; kill it, if you have to”) is somehow a collective middle finger to the entirety of the Star Wars franchise and its fans. Nothing is more infamous in this regard than the film’s treatment of Luke, which many interpret as making him nothing more than a bitter old man who dies alone.
So, what do I say to these objections?
First, I think it’s important to understand the film’s themes in order to answer these objections.
1. Deceit – The first theme that helped me appreciate the movie more than I did the first two times is deceit. Nearly every person in the movie lies or attempts to deceive someone else. This starts with Poe fooling Hux to take out the cannons and initiate the bomb drop on the Star Destroyer. Then Hux deceives the rebels by tracking them, Luke and Ben both lie (or at least twist the truth) to Rey regarding their confrontation at Luke’s temple, the thief double crosses Fin and Rose, and, climatically, Luke tricks Ben in the film’s final fight sequence. There are also attempts to hide the truth, even if it’s not lying, like Leia and Holdo hiding intel from Poe regarding the abandoned rebel base (which is itself an attempt to deceive the First Order). Another example is Yoda’s conversation with Luke after he lights the Jedi Temple on fire; his words are a double entendre. Luke thinks the texts are gone, and the way Yoda phrases it could confirm that. But the texts are actually with Rey, which Yoda may even be gesturing toward: “everything in them is now with her.” Literally everyone in this movie is lying!
Which is why, in the apex of the film, we shouldn’t believe anything that’s said in the throne room. Snoke wasn’t bringing Ben and Rey’s minds together; he’s lying just like everyone else. I know this not only because of the deceit theme but also because their minds are brought together again at the end of the film, as Rey is boarding the Falcon, after Snoke is cut in half. There are therefore only two explanations as to how this keeps happening to Ben and Rey: either someone else (Palpatine, presumably) is doing it, or Ben and Rey are really related. The Palpatine theory is possible but no one (maybe not even Rian Johnson) knew EP was slated for Episode IX. The more likely explanation is already there in TLJ – Ben and Rey are blood, just like the other pairs that mind melds in the movie, Luke and Leia and Leia and Ben. All of these are supposed to remind us of the OT melds between Luke and Vader and Luke and Leia. It should be obvious from that list that only Skywalkers mind meld (at least in films!).
This brings up the second big “non-reveal” in the throne room, what Ben manipulates Rey to say about her parents and then “confirm” with a bit of flourish. Again, there’s no reason to believe anything anyone says in this movie – especially not the guy who’s constantly trying to prove his commitment to the Dark Side and simultaneously convince Rey to join him. He’s already lied manipulatively once before in TLJ, when he tells Rey his version of what happened at Luke’s Jedi Temple. After I realized EVERYONE is lying, it took away what many consider the #1 reason they hate TLJ: Rian Johnson supposedly cutting all the threads JJ Abrams tried to set up in TFA, and especially through making Rey no one. It’s certainly still possible that Rey really *is* just a child of junk traders. One way to interpret Rey’s cave scene is that she doesn’t have parents who are important. That’s possible. But another way to interpret it is that Rey defines who she is, not anyone else. Who cares who her parents are? Her identity is rooted in her own actions, her own choices, not someone else’s. We should also note here that Rey, like Luke in ESB, may have left too early to try and turn her nemesis. And like Luke, that premature confrontation leads to a relational epiphany, but in reverse: whereas Vader tells the truth, Ben (in all likelihood) is lying. All of this took away most of my initial irritation and allowed me to watch the movie with fresh eyes. Doing so helped me see a number of other themes.
2. The Past – The second prominent theme I noticed is that TLJ is about how to relate to the past. This theme was brought to my attention by a post I read right after seeing the movie; unfortunately I can’t find it anymore. Here I’ll try to explain it in my own words. This theme intersects with all of the others, and so some of what I say here will have to be repeated elsewhere. How to relate to the past is primarily relayed through Ben’s and Luke’s storylines, and particularly their conception of what happened at Luke’s Jedi Temple. Both of them have a distorted view of reality at the beginning of the movie. On the one hand, Ben sees his uncle only in the worst light, refusing to acknowledge why Luke may have been scared of his growing inner darkness, an inner darkness which Ben only continues to confirm with every subsequent action (and especially his and the Knights’ massacre of the other padawans in the Temple; Vader, anyone?). Ben’s anger clearly has deep roots in this one event, as we see in his treatment of Luke’s hologram at the end of the movie. This anger toward his past is summed up in one of the most well known lines in the movie: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”
Luke, on the other hand, responds to this event with bitterness and isolation. Whereas Ben wants to destroy everyone and everything because of his shared past, Luke wants to isolate himself from everyone and everything – even the Force. All of what he says and does to Rey prior to her leaving, including throwing the light saber over his shoulder and the “lessons” he gives her, should be seen in this light. He’s speaking as someone who hasn’t yet confronted himself and his biggest mistake, and instead has chosen to isolate himself and drink his own bitterness for fuel. Luke swigging the blue milk is a visual of his heart – he’d rather remain alone and stew than confront the past truthfully and honestly.
One of the primary motifs of the movie is Ben vs. Luke, and in this case their juxtaposition is related not only to how they respond to the past but also how they respond to being confronted about the truth of the past. Neither Ben nor Luke sees the past appropriately at the beginning of the movie. Neither are willing to admit failure (more on this below). Rey confronts both of them with the truth. She is the only one among the trio to see clearly, at least prior to Luke coming to his senses. Ben responds by turning further into himself and to the Dark Side, giving in to his rage. This is no more clearly seen than when he fires “every gun” on Luke’s hologram in front of the abandoned rebel base. Luke, on the other hand, lays down the burdens of pride and bitterness and instead finally admits his mistake to Rey. He also is guided to see the truth about the past in his conversation with Yoda. Both of these confrontations, and really his confrontation of himself, free him from bitterness and allow him to become what he is at the end of the movie – The Last (and Greatest) Jedi. He is at “at peace” with himself and the world, free to do what’s right for the sake of others.
3. Failure – Ben and Luke’s relation to their past is predicated on avoiding and, only in Luke’s case, finally confronting their failures. Luke admits his failure to deal with Ben appropriately and finds freedom. Ben, on the other hand, refuses to admit that he was seduced by the Dark Side, by those who only wish to use him, by those who turned him against his family. And so he remains trapped in a prison of rage. But the seminal moment of failure for these two is not the only moment of failure in the film. Just like everyone lies in the movie, most everyone also fails. And to combine these two themes, sometimes those who fail try to spin it as success. Poe is the prime example of this at the beginning of the movie, failing to lead appropriately his mission. He still thinks it’s a success, but according to what measure? Hux also fails in the beginning, called out dramatically and forcefully in front of his crew by Snoke’s hologram. Snoke also throws Ben’s failure to capture or kill Rey at the end of TFA in Ben’s face at the beginning of TLJ. Poe fails again to understand the bigger picture in his confrontations with Holdo. Holdo probably should be charged with failure to lead well, since she simply dismisses Poe and doesn’t attempt to lead him to understanding, even if that doesn’t include passing on all the information she has. Poe fails again in his mutinous attempt to wrest command from Holdo. Rey fails to convince Luke to return with her. Snoke fails to understand his pupil’s motives and actions in the throne room. Ben fails to turn Rey in the throne room. Finn fails to destroy the battering ram. Hux fails to destroy the rebels and Ben fails to defeat Luke at the end of the movie.
And, most famously of all (at least for the TLJ haters), Finn and Rose fail in every possible way in their Canto Bight mission. “What’s the point of that sequence?” the haters crow. The point is pretty simple: every attempt to escape, defeat, or otherwise thwart the First Order in TLJ fails, and typically fails miserably. The casino sequence is yet another, and perhaps the most desperate and therefore outlandish, attempt to give the rebels a fighting chance. All the little sparks that are supposed to light the fire that will fuel the Rebellion are snuffed out, one by one. The casino sequence isn’t the very last spark (remember the dialogue in the cave) but it is nearly that.
There’s more to say about snuffing out sparks, but for now it’s important to realize that this theme of failure serves to again juxtapose the First Order and the rebels, and especially Ben and Luke. The First Order’s response to failure is denial coupled with violence. The rebels’ response to failure – once they own up to it – is hope (or belief?) and resilience.
We’ve already seen how Ben and Luke, when confronted with the truth about their failure, exhibit this juxtaposed set of responses. But others in the film do the same. Hux retreats further into fear and its symptom, projected strength, whereas Poe admits his mistake, gives up his hubris, and grows into the commander he should have been from the beginning. But in addition to these individual juxtapositions, this theme of failure serves to tell us something about goodness and hope and faith. Despite failure after failure, despite the fact that no one ever comes to their aid, the rebels literally never give up. In spite of overwhelming odds against them, and in spite of the literal and proverbial darkness that surrounds them, they refuse to let their spark be snuffed out.
4. Surprise – This brings us to the fourth theme, what I’ll call surprise. You might even call it eucatastrophe. Every time the rebels are between a rock and a hard place (again, think of the final sequence), something completely unexpected happens that saves them. Luke showing up to the abandoned rebel base is the obvious one here, but there are other surprises. Aside from the fact that many viewers hated them conceptually, I think this is one of the main reasons for both “Leia Poppins” and the Holdo Maneuver. Both are surprising saves in the midst of what seem like impossible circumstances. Leia’s use of the Force also adds an element of mysticism to it, while the Holdo Maneuver saves both the transports and Finn and Rose and, in some ways (psychologically), Rey as well.
5. Love – What distinguishes the rebels from the First Order, ultimately, is love. The rebels can confront the past and their failures and respond with repentance and faith and hope because they love each other. The First Order, on the other hand, only feels hate, for the rebels, for their fellow First Order members, for themselves. This theme of love v. hate is seen in reunions between characters (BB8 and Poe, Poe and Finn, Finn and Rey, Luke and Leia, etc.), relationships that develop (the infamous – but again, important once you recognize what it’s doing – relationship between Finn and Rose), and sacrifice (the Holdo Maneuver, Roses’s sister, Luke). Whereas the rebels exhibit abiding joy in reuniting with one another, deepen relationships with one another, and sacrifice themselves for one another, Hux, Ben, and Snoke turn on each other in hatred and violence. Once again this juxtaposition is seen in one rebel and one member of the First Order, this time Rey and Ben. Their mind meld connection is an opportunity to respond relationally to one another. Ben responds with attempts to manipulate Rey, whereas Rey responds with compassion and attempts to save Ben.
6. Balance – All of these play into, in one way or another, what I think is the major theme of the movie: balance. Themes of understanding the past, confronting our failures, hope, and love all serve to juxtapose the First Order and the rebels, and ultimately they serve to juxtapose those who are internally conflicted and those who are at peace with themselves and with others. Conflict leads to splits, while peace leads to balance. This is portrayed visually a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in the split lightsaber between Rey and Ben in the throne room. But Ben’s facial scar also reminds us every time we look at him that he’s internally conflicted (as Snoke loves to remind him). Snoke’s body is split in half. The Holdo Maneuver splits the First Order, who is already internally conflicted both as a group and as individuals. Ben tries to split Luke’s hologram in half. Rey and Luke, on the other hand, are at peace. Rey visually demonstrates this through balancing the rocks blocking the cave entrance at the end. But it is again Luke who is the focal point of this theme. He is so at peace with himself, so in tune with the Force, that he literally balances in midair over a rock at the end of the film. His assumption into the Force afterward is supposed to remind us of his first Master, Obi-Wan. Like Obi-Wan, Luke warns his wayward to disciple that to strike him down in anger will only make him stronger. And like both Obi-Wan and Yoda, Luke is so at peace that he is caught up into the Force. Luke at the end of the film is the Last and Greatest Jedi.
In light of these themes, here are some theses about TLJ and about the sequel trilogy (ST).
1. Luke Skywalker – This movie/trilogy is, in large part, about Luke. In The Force Awakens, the question is “Where is Luke?” The Last Jedi is clearly about Luke, and he’s the hero of the film. At the end, though, the question is “Where did he go?” In The Rise of Skywalker, I imagine one of the questions will be, “Where is he now?” This is still the Skywalker saga, and not just because Ben is a Skywalker.
2. The Future – FA pushes us past ANH/ESB/ROTJ recapitulation to expect something new (see my post on this from a few years ago). Of course, parts of TLJ recapitulate ESB, too (Hoth à abandoned rebel moon base). At least parts of TLJ recapitulate ROTJ (e.g. Ben killing Snoke to save Rey). If this is what’s going on, the PT is about how the context of the OT came about (the past), while the ST is about what how to understand the past in order to see what happens next (the future).
3. Balance – The fact that Snoke, Ben, and now Palpatine are still around after ROTJ means that Luke’s role to bring balance to the Force wasn’t actually complete at the end of ROTJ. Maybe Luke didn’t balance out the force because he didn’t kill Palpatine. The same thing happened in TLJ; Luke or Rey didn’t kill Snoke, Snoke’s disciple did. This just continues the cycle of violence endemic to the Dark Side. Even though Darth Vader turns back to the light at the end of ROTJ, maybe there’s something lacking in how he dealt with Palpatine, how Luke wasn’t involved, and what that means for bringing balance to the Force.
4. Continuity – I think TLJ is in continuity with the ST and with the entirety of the SW franchise. I mean, first of all, do we really think Disney would let Rian Johnson just wing it? Second, regarding killing off characters suddenly and the like, have y’all ever watched The Force Awakens? Han Solo, maybe the most beloved character in all of Star Wars besides Chewie, gets treated as a plot device. Luke Skywalker, hero of all Star Wars heroes, isn’t even in The Force Awakens.
5. Preaching – The last issue I want to deal with is the accusation that TLJ is just a progressive sermonic diatribe. Some of the crowing about TLJ and its preachiness isn’t reality. For instance, some people think Johnson took the opportunity to preach some kind of anti-male ideology via the film’s treatment of its male protagonists and their relation to women. Rey is better than Luke for most of the film, Finn is a bumbling idiot, and Poe is bossed around by Holdo and Leia. Well, for one thing, we’ve already seen that Luke’s, Finn’s, and Poe’s failures are all foils for their character development. Each of them respond heroically, not by might but by repentance. But there’s also the fact that at the end of the movie Leia turns to the rebel remnant and says “Follow him!” She literally turns over command to Poe. The issue at the beginning of the movie wasn’t that he is a man, it was that he hadn’t learned how to be a leader.
So, I think TLJ is a good movie. I think you can argue whether or not the particular ways Johnson executed some of these themes and theses isn’t the best (e.g. couldn’t Leia have used the Force to save herself in some other unexpected way?) But this movie isn’t dumping on Star Wars. It doesn’t mistreat Luke. And it doesn’t cut itself off from what TFA was doing. It’s a good movie.
In their recently released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink offer a view of biological sex and sexuality grounded in theological anthropology. They focus particularly on the connection between sex and the relational aspect of the imago dei, and do so in order to argue that our sexual nature (that is, that we are made as “male and female,” with a biological sex) is not limited to or only realized in marriage and procreation. While the family unit may be the “primary and prototypical manner in which this basic desire for bonding and solidarity is expressed” (285-86), it is nevertheless not the only way in which this fundamentally relational aspect of our humanity can be realized. van der Kooi and van den Brink differentiate, for the most part, between “sexual” and “sexuality,” the former denoting our human nature as “male and female,” the latter referring to sexual activities. A few choice quotes in this regard:
Sexuality is not everything, and those who are hardly, or not at all, involved in sexual activities can be excellent and complete human beings (281).
Our sexuality [here they mean sexual nature] is not a kind of secondary embellishment of what is at root asexual. An asexual human being is an abstraction. We do not have a genderless or bisexual core that relativizes our male or female state, but from the very first God created as thoroughly physical, sexual beings: male and female God created us (282).
Admittedly, there are intrinsic differences between men and women, and neither persons nor societies will function optimally when they are ignored. But…much of what we consider to be typically male or female is undoubtedly culturally determined (283).
…it is not correct to regard procreation as the only purpose of our sexuality. If that were the case, a major part of humanity (including Jesus of Nazareth) would not be fully fledged humans (284).
This seems to me to be a very balanced section on sexuality and sexual identity. On the one hand, the authors acknowledge the “fact of nature” (284) of our sexual nature as human beings, and therefore that God made us male and female. In doing so, they also acknowledge that heterosexual marriage leading to procreation is the “prototypical manner” (286) in which this sexual nature is expressed. They also importantly, though, leaven the lump, so to speak, and say with Jesus that marriage is relativized in the eschaton, with Paul that singleness is a gift from God, and with modern studies in theological anthropology that we cannot reduce “male and female” to unbiblical cultural norms. They are also careful to speak about ways in which our sexual nature can remain relational, since it is part of the imago dei, without requiring sexual activity.
Unfortunately, though, the authors punt at the end of the section on the issue of same-sex marriage. This is not uncommon for this book; on most of the major issues in theology, one is left asking for more of the authors’ own perspectives and arguments. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that it is intended to be an introductory textbook, but there are places where taking a stance seems to be required. In my mind this is one of them. I wish they had.
I watched the #PhilandoCastile dash cam video about an hour ago and am still horrified. This case appears to me to be a miscarriage of justice on every level, from the 50ish stops in 14 years to which Castile was subjected, to the actions of the officer, to the acquittal of the officer by the jury.
What is also puzzling to me is the continued insistence by some that Christians ought to concern themselves only with preaching the gospel and not with issues of systemic injustice in our societies. There are various reasons why I think some deny either that policing is a systemic issue to be addressed or that, more broadly, Christians should be engaged in confronting systemic injustice. Here I only want to briefly suggest that one of the reasons for this is a truncated canon.
My training is in biblical theology, and specifically in canonical criticism. I have been taught and have subsequently tried to teach others to read the Bible as a whole, as one book. And yet, evangelicalism continues to be what I would consider a mostly Pauline stream of Christianity. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Paul – I love Paul! I love the five solas of the Reformation, I love the explanation of the gospel of Christ followed by the ethical exhortations (indicative –> imperative), I love the rich imagery that Paul uses for God’s salvation of his people. Paul’s writings are just as inerrant and inspired as the rest of Scripture, and therefore just as important. But when we shrink our Bibles down to Paul, and specifically down to Romans and Galatians, we miss out on a lot of what the Bible has to say about justice.
The Mosaic Law, Israel’s prophets, and the wisdom literature all address justice in ancient Israel. And that material repeatedly connects justice with social issues, and particularly with the treatment of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Often (though, of course, not always), the marginalized are in that position for some ethnic reason, whether it is Israel being mistreated by a foreign nation or Israel mistreating foreigners and strangers in their midst.
When we come to the Gospels, Jesus also repeatedly speaks about how his followers ought to treat the same groups of people: the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized. And again, we see that “marginalized” has ethnic overtones. The same concern for the social implications of the gospel are found in Paul, albeit more so in Philemon than in Romans or Galatians. Still, his commands about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, and other such social relationships would have been radical compared to societal norms in his day. James is concerned that Christians treat the poor, orphans, and widows with the love they are due as God’s image bearers. And the book most avoided by expository preachers, Revelation, stands at the end of the canon with a hard word for the church. If Christians participate in or support the unjust systems of this world, they ride the Beast along with the Harlot.
The Bible shows that God confronts systemic injustice through his Word. Of course, the necessary caveat here is that what the Bible says is just for society is not always what society believes is just. With this caveat in mind, though, the point still stands: God cares about justice, and about the systemic injustices that occur in our societies. Perhaps if we moved beyond our (selective) Pauline canon within a canon we would see this a bit more clearly.
Second, for those who don’t know me, I teach Bible and Hermeneutics at Oklahoma Baptist University. One of my overarching emphases in all my classes is reading the Bible canonically. This means paying attention to the order and shape of the material, textual links between books, and following the arc of the story. As I watched and have continued to think about TFA, these principles seem to help understand exactly what Abrams is doing with Episode VII. (Which is not, contra Ross Douthat, just an homage piece with no originality.)
I’ll start with the similarities between TFA and the original trilogy, and these are (almost) legion.
TFA starts almost identically to A New Hope. The movie opens over a desert planet, Jakku, and the leader of the First Order is searching for Republic plans. Instead of plans to the rebel base, it’s a map to Luke Skywalker, but still, same. These plans are hidden in a droid, which is found by an inhabitant of said desert planet. It’s Rey, not Luke, but she’s a great pilot and skilled mechanically. She escapes the planet with the plans with Han and Chewie and heads to the Republic to hand them over. Once there, a super weapon destroys the planet on which the Republic government is settled. The first half of the movie, then, is definitely ANH rehashed, although I don’t think that’s a negative.
The reason I think this is intentional and not just lazy homage is because of what Abrams does next. Instead of continuing an ANH reboot with new characters, he jumps into Episode V in the next part of the film. While Rey’s character was portrayed as a new Luke in the first half, both Rey and Ren are portrayed as new Lukes in the second half. Rey reenacts Dagobah’s cave in Maz’ basement, while Ren reenacts the climax of Empire on the bridge with his father. But it’s Empire reversed. In V, Luke is confronted by his father on a long bridge, with no chance of escape, and given an ultimatum to turn to the dark side or die. Luke refuses, sealing his fate as a Jedi, not a Sith. Ren is the exact opposite. He is confronted by his father on a long bridge, with every reason and ability to walk away, and asked by his father to turn back to the light. Ren refuses, kills his father, sealing his fate as a Sith, not a Jedi. This is the climax of VII, and a reverse of V.
But there’s more. Abrams doesn’t stop with IV and a reverse V; he ends with VI recapitulated instead of returning to IV rehashed. As in Return of the Jedi, Han and Chewie plant charges in order to destroy base defenses so that the Republic can destroy the super weapon. And the scene where the weapon is destroyed is almost identical to the same scene in VI – the Millennium Falcon is the first out, followed by X-wings, and then the blast comes right behind. Go watch VI and then VII again and you’ll see.
In other words, Abrams has recapitulated the original trilogy in one film.
(Incidentally, I think this mitigates against the criticism that some of the film, especially character development, is rushed – yes it is, but for a reason.)
When you read the Bible and you see stories repeated over and over, you notice not only the similarities but also the differences. And I think this is where we really start to see where this new trilogy is going.
This film doesn’t end like VI. There is no celebration, and Rey finds Skywalker. This latter bit is unprecedented, really. This should tell us quite a bit about what is going to happen in the next two films.
Rey and Ren take up Luke’s mantle. Rey is light recapitulated, Ren dark. (This is why I think they’re twins, not cousins.) Before you say Luke has always been with the light, go back and watch VI again. Luke doesn’t go to the dark side, but he’s certainly not unambiguously light throughout, especially in his climactic battle with the Emperor and Darth Vader. Luke gives in to his anger and aggression but always ultimately pulls back from the brink each time. It’s still there, though. I think this is why Ren goes bad – Luke tries to train it out of him, but he’s not pure enough himself to do it. And whatever Ren subsequently did, it was bad enough that Luke never wanted to be seen again. (I think Joe Rigney’s comment on my earlier post are largely correct; go check it out.)
Finn is Force adept. He awakens during the battle on Jakku, but doesn’t yet realize it. That’s why he’s the only non-compliant Storm Trooper, EVER, and why he can wield a light saber long enough to at least not get killed. I’d imagine we will see more people wake up to the Force as the series continues, and go to Luke (or Leia?) for training.
Snoke, as many have pointed out, is probably Darth Pelagius, finally come back from the dead. He has to be destroyed, along with Ren, to balance the Force.
So again, Episode VII is fantastic. What makes Star Wars great is its simplicity. At its heart it explores the themes of good v. evil, redemption, temptation, and zero-to-hero through the lens of one family, the Skywalkers. This trilogy is going to give us the end of that story. Finally. And I can’t wait to see how it does it.
**SPOILER ALERT** – If you haven’t seen it, don’t read any further.
I loved it. As many have mentioned, JJ brought the magic back through set design, realistic (non-CGI) aliens and fight sequences, and taking this story where it needs to go.
The major criticism I keep hearing is that TFA is just a rehash of Episode IV. A few things there:
This makes sense, since both previous trilogies are interlocking ring sets. (See starwarsringtheory.com.) In other words, they all repeat one another, and the trilogies are structured similarly, and there are inclusios everywhere. And further, therefore, this isn’t actually a criticism. It’s how Star Wars works.
Again, it makes sense because what made the original trilogy great was its simplicity. Farm boy to hero. Love story. Good v. evil. A chance at redemption. Temptation. Father and Son. These elements were overshadowed in the prequels. They’re back, front and center, in Ep VII.
More particularly, I want to mention a few things about this being a repeat of Episode IV (and therefore also of Ep I). Certainly in many, many ways this is true. Particularly in its beginning and end – desert outpost, Millennium Falcon escape, learning about the Force on MF, finding one spot of weakness on the enemy’s apocalyptic weapon, new force adept hero traveling to find lone Jedi to train them – TFA is definitely framed by Episode IV. But if you stop there you’ve missed the most important way that Episode VII is connected to both the prequels and the original trilogy.
Episode VII is also in perhaps the most important ways drawing off of Ep V (and therefore also of Ep II). The penultimate climactic scene of Ep VII is a reverse of the same sequence in Ep V. Whereas Luke resists his father in Ep V, and in virtually the same visual manner (THE BRIDGE) as in TFA, Ren does not. Luke seems to seal his fate to the light (although temptation is still to come) in that climactic scene by resisting but losing to his father; Ren seems to seal his fate to the dark side in Ep VII by resisting and defeating his father. Notice also that Rey experiences the same type of Force training as Luke does in Ep IV and V, but especially V as typified in the hallucinogenic cave scene on Dagobah. The same occurs for Rey in the basement of Maz’ bar.
In other words, TFA isn’t just a 30 years later reboot of ANH; it’s TESB reversed and ensconced within an ANH reboot. The main point is Kylo Ren’s continued march down the path of the Dark Side, in contradistinction to Luke’s continued march towards the light in TESB.
I think Abrams structured this movie this way for a reason. This movie is Ep V in reverse via Kylo/his dad because *this trilogy won’t be the same as the first two.* It’s going to end with the Force actually being balanced, something that apparently didn’t happen even at the end of VI, presumably because Snoke was out there somewhere unbeknownst to Luke etc. So this movie starts by rehashing V, VIII will rehash III/VI, and IX will be something we’ve never seen before. I think.
Some other criticisms addressed:
Finn’s character shifts in personality so quickly after his defection because he’s awakened to the Force, too, just not as quickly as Rey. Kylo doesn’t just notice he’s not shooting anyone in the skirmish on Jakku; he notices that Finn’s awakened to the Force in that opening sequence. That explains his truncated abilities with the light saber twice later in the movie. We’ll see him become more fully and consciously Force adept in the next film, I’m guessing.
Rey is not another Luke. She’s more powerful than him and anyone else so far, apparently. Which I think is awesome. Also, it explains her almost immediate success throughout.
Again, therefore, this is not just a rehash. Kylo *isn’t* Darth Vader. He hasn’t finished his training, he’s erratic, he’s overcome with emotion and not just using it in battle. He clearly has different, and maybe better, abilities than DV. He’s not DV. Rey isn’t Luke (see #4.2); Finn isn’t just a new Han (see #4.1).
Finally, and maybe most importantly, I think 4.2 and 4.3 explain who Rey is. She’s Ren’s sister (twin?). These two will balance the Force through being polar opposites. Again, think about it. Rey follows Luke’s path in IV and V, while Ren does exactly the opposite of Luke in V.
One final thought – it occurred to me as the credits were rolling that this is the first Star Wars film I’ve seen in theaters where I didn’t know what was going to happen. RotJ came out when I was a newborn, and we always knew where the prequels were headed, even if it we didn’t know exactly how they’d take us there. I’m in brand new territory here.
So, I think TFA is brilliant. I want to see it as many times as possible in theaters.
I continue to hear and read comments like “race isn’t a gospel issue.” This could not be further from the truth.
Race is a gospel issue because our world, though one in Adam, is divided by ethnicity, nationality, tribal distinctions, and social classes. We are one people in our common parentage, but we are not one in the way we treat each other. We are not one when we plunder one another, fight one another, oppress one another, and destroy one another. Someone might say at this point, “yes but this is a matter of simply recognizing the image of God in each other. That’s not a gospel issue.” What gives you the eyes to see and ears to hear the image of God in your fellow man clearly and truly *other than* the gospel? Christ is the new and better Adam, and only by seeing his life can we see and understand true life and all the lives around us. Common grace is given by God, to be sure, but until our eyes are opened by the power of the Holy Spirit and the light of the gospel we only see one another through a glass darkly. Sin clouds our minds and our thoughts about one another. Race is a gospel issue because only by the light of the gospel can we truly understand our diversity and unity in Adam and, for those who are believers, in Christ.
Race is a gospel issue because the Old Testament says it is. God *makes a race* out of Abraham and Israel, his chosen people. Israel does not exist as an ethnic group or nationality *until God makes them*! God has chosen to redeem the world through one particular ethnicity, indeed through one man from that particular ethnicity, and through that one man to bless the nations. God, through one race, draws all races to himself. Every tribe, tongue, and nation. The good news of the gospel is through one race and for all races, so that at the coming of our Lord Jesus every knee from every race should bow and every tongue from every ethnicity should confess that Christ is King.
Race is a gospel issue because the New Testament says it is. Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the good news of his death and resurrection to *all nations,* to the *ends of the earth.* The gospel is for all people, which in the New Testament would be read as saying it is for all kinds of people, that is, all races, ethnicities, classes, etc. The book of Acts narrates this in dramatic form, with the gospel going first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians all explain the gospel *so that their readers will understand how both Jew and Gentile can be part of the one people of God.* Paul’s majestic explanation of the heighth and breadth and length and depth of Christ’s atoning work is set in the context of racial unity in the church! Galatians tells us that male, female, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free are one in Christ – these are socio-economic and racial distinctions. The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to the unity of a once disparate group of people. Ephesians 2:15 tells us the same – we are one new man in Christ Jesus. That’s one new man made from different racial groups. The gospel speaks to race. In fact, if race wasn’t affected by the gospel, most of us [Gentiles] would still be without God and without hope in the world (Eph. 2:12). Philemon’s uniqueness in the canon is, in part, the fact that it applies the gospel specifically to social and perhaps racial divides between believers. 1 Peter 2:9-10, again speaking to us Gentiles, tells us that we who were once not a people are now his people. Why? Because the gospel transcends and subverts racial divides.
Last night and this morning I have been mostly encouraged by the reactions I’ve seen to the Eric Garner case, and specifically by those from friends who are not people of color. I am especially grateful for the responses by leaders in my own denomination, including Russ Moore, Danny Akin, and Al Mohler, as well as by other evangelicals. I am perplexed and discouraged, though, by those who still want to argue that there’s “nothing to see here.” I have heard and seen people argue, for instance, that Garner had broken the law and was resisting arrest (and therefore police were justified in their actions), that the officers did nothing wrong in their handling of the situation, and/or that race wasn’t a factor.
This is troubling to me for a number of reasons. First, in watching the video (if you haven’t watched it we have nothing to talk about until you do), two things are readily apparent. In the first place, if we all have the right facts, Mr. Garner is being questioned about selling loose cigarettes illegally. If this is true, why are there at least 7 armed police officers at the scene, a scene which involves an unarmed man and a crime that has more to do with retailers smuggling thousands upon thousands of illegal cigarettes into the state than it does with a man selling a few loose sticks on the street? Granted, if Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, then there are consequences. But we need to ask ourselves whether or not one man selling a few loose cigarettes warrants the presence of 7 armed police officers. More importantly, in the video it is apparent that Mr. Garner is pleading for the officers to let him go his own way. Again, if there was evidence at the scene that Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, then he theoretically should be arrested. But I would ask you this: how many of you have, when caught for speeding or (if you’re going really fast) reckless driving, haven’t plead with an officer to let you go? How many of you, in requesting that the officer let you go, haven’t done so with gusto or emotion or even anger? Maybe you’re angry or sad or emotional because “everyone else gets way with it,” or maybe it’s because you know the ticket you’ll receive will break your family’s bank, or maybe it’s because you genuinely felt you weren’t doing anything wrong. Whatever the reason, calling that “resisting arrest”, as I’ve seen some people do in Garner’s case, is, in my mind, unfathomable. Garner was talking. Garner was pleading. Whether he did anything illegal or not, it’s highly questionable to me to call his pleading “resisting arrest.” And when the officer comes from behind, seemingly unbeknownst to Mr. Garner, it’s unprovoked and without warning. What is clear from the video, then, is that there appears to be an excessive amount of police presence (which would get anyone amped up) and that Mr. Garner was in pleading, not “resisting arrest.”
A second reason I am troubled by some reactions I’ve seen is because they assume that, in this instance, the police officers are completely justified in the way they handled the situation. This relates to the previous point, but there is more to it. Not only was Garner not resisting arrest or threatening the officers at hand, he was subdued using an illegal take down, one that has been outlawed since 1993 in NYC. We cannot with any certainty judge Officer Pantaleo’s motives, but by the video it appears we can say that his take down method was illegal and has been illegal for over 20 years. Furthermore, the coroner ruled it a homicide. Why, then, is there no grand jury indictment?
This brings me to the final issue, which is probably the largest in most people’s minds. I’ve thankfully heard many call for more conversation on race and social injustice in our country, but I have also seen and heard some say that race isn’t an issue in this case (or in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, etc.). There are two problems for me here. The first specifically concerns Eric Garner, and it is that Officer Pantaleo, an eight-year veteran of the NYPD, had previously been sued on two separate occasions for racially motivated actions while on duty. To say that race wasn’t an issue ignores Officer Pantaleo’s past and also the presence of 7 armed officers in the face of a minor crime by an unarmed man. (It also ignores the fact that a militarized police force showed up at peaceful protests in Ferguson.)
A second problem with the argument that denies the race element is that, whatever you think about specific cases, our African-American brothers and sisters, who bear the image of God and, if they are believers, are united with us by the Holy Spirit in Christ, are telling us that there is something wrong. How can we possibly ignore their cries of oppression and injustice? This is exactly what God calls us to do as the church – help the poor and oppressed as we seek to share Christ with the nations! This does not mean we have to buy into every narrative that the media or populist leaders give us, but it does mean, especially in the context of the body of Christ, that we need to *listen*. The gospel calls us “one new man in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:15), and this applies not only to Jews and Gentiles but to black and white, Hispanic and Asian, etc. We who have not had the same experiences in our upbringing should not be so ready to dismiss the cries of our brothers and sisters who have a (many times radically) different life experience than ours, and we should also not ignore the fact that the gospel speaks to issues of race and ethnicity.
May God give us the grace to be quick listen and slow to speak, so that when we do speak we speak with love, truth, and grace.