Dr. Robyn Faith Walsh Takes Star Wars to Class
Just about a year ago, in the wake of the phenomenal success of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Robyn Faith Walsh, a professor of the New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Miami, posted a seemingly benign missive on Facebook:
A dissenting view: Star Wars, aka ‘Girls’ in Space, is a cinematic pleasure machine that substitutes tropes for feather tips. Its plot lines are recycled and its new contributions not terribly ambitious, embodied in a character shaped like a “B” or an “8” being named “BB-8.”
“As soon as I hit the ‘enter’ key, I braced for impact,” she wrote in her Huffington Post blog entry, Is Star Wars a Religion?. “I knew my position was anathema. Short of politics or religion, it’s rare to see so clear a line between orthodoxy and heresy in the public sphere. As a professor of Religious Studies, this naturally raised a question I often pose to my students: how do you know when something is a religion?”
The rest, is, er, history.
“I can’t believe it’s already been a year!” she said from Rome, Italy, where she is now teaching in Miami’s URome program at the American University. “I had a sense that it would be a popular topic because so many of my students were asking me questions about Star Wars.
“I decided to write the piece after one of my classes tried to define religion and found themselves debating whether Star Wars ‘counts.’ But you’d be surprised how many times it comes up in other contexts!”
Many fans wouldn’t be that surprised to encounter the saga (very) often in their daily lives, but for an academic, when a pop culture phenomenon has such a hold on students (and society in general), you tend to take notice.
If you’re a teacher — trying to make your subject more accessible — you might just use those familiar references in the classroom.
“When I teach about certain Greco-Roman philosophical concepts, parallels emerge,” explained Walsh, who earned her Ph.D. at Brown University, and has taught at Wheaton College and Holy Cross. “The most obvious one I’ve talked about is ‘pneuma’ — what we tend to translate in English as ‘spirit’ — which was understood to be an invisible, binding force in the cosmos.
“At this point, when I’m explaining the philosophical thought behind “pneuma” in class, I put a picture of Yoda on the screen and throw in some quotes about the Force from Obi Wan Kenobi. It helps make the seemingly unfamiliar, familiar.”
And, that familiarity might be more important than people might imagine. According to Dr. Walsh, recent studies suggest that humans might be “hardwired” to accept fictional stories as ‘real’ in some measure.
“This idea isn’t new but it is experiencing a resurgence in fields like literary theory, psychology, and cognitive science,” she explained. “One recent study at Durham University, for instance, found that people routinely make mental references to fictional stories and characters that they find influential or relatable. Subjects reported trying to imagine what a fictional character might say in a certain real-life situation or ‘hearing’ the voice of a fictional character while reading.
“The study was focused on literary characters like Harry Potter or Clarissa Dalloway, but I think it easily applies to other kinds of storytelling, like movies. I’d like to explore how this research might apply both to religions that are based primarily on texts, like the New Testament, or in the case of new or emerging religious movements – of which, some people might include Star Wars.”
Emerging religious movements; so Star Wars is a religion?
Star Wars as a Religion
“Star Wars does tick many of the boxes we tend to cite if we are determining if something is a religion; for example: shared stories, practices, figureheads, hierarchy,” said Dr. Walsh. “Add to this the fact that there are people out there seriously claiming to be Jedi, and you could conceivably argue that Star Wars is a ‘new religious movement’ that is only a few decades old and still finding its feet.
“However, personally, I think that it falls short of being a religion. At this stage, the groups forming around the movement are not cohesive. It is also not clearly derivative of an already-established tradition, so the parameters for things like which stories and practices are ‘orthodox’ are not terribly clear.
“And,” she added, “it’s uniquely difficult to ‘start’ a religion when your founding father is a guy from Modesto, California.”
With those factors in mind, and after performing some research, Dr. Walsh’s students are often incredulous to find Star Wars references in census data.
“My students usually seem more mystified than anything that there are people out there who claim that Jediism is a religion,” mused Walsh. “Yet, when you really sit down and compare, how much stranger is the idea that certain events took place ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ than many other claims religions make about unseen beings, miraculous events, eternal life, etc?”
The Source Material
Asked to explain her thoughts on the more recent source material (and perhaps clarify her thoughts on The Force Awakens), Walsh said, “Well, I called it ‘Girls in Space’ in a status update. But I want to be clear that I wasn’t saying that as some kind of comment on gender in the film.
I’ve watched the HBO series Girls on and off over the years and I’m familiar with Adam Driver’s character on that show.
“I was excited that he was cast as Kylo Ren,” she said. “I thought this was an amazing opportunity for him to show his acting range. I expected his character to be self-possessed and intimidating.”
Instead, she found Ben Solo’s alter ego brooding and awkward.
“Did you see Driver on SNL playing Kylo Ren in ‘Undercover Boss’? I thought that was pretty spot on for the maturity and depth of that character,” said Walsh. “Because he looms so large in the film, it was difficult for me to separate the presence of his character from my overall impression of the movie.
“Driver has a similar presence in Girls, hence my joke.”
However, Walsh’s more specific critique of Episode VII centers on the death of Han Solo, and what the professor perceived as a bit of laziness in the script.
“I get the impression lots of people end up having daddy issues on sky bridges and metal ramps. I wanted more innovation,” she said. “I was shocked that people had such a high tolerance for what I perceived to be recycled story lines and features.
“But I suppose one shouldn’t underestimate the power of nostalgia. Some have pointed out to me that the film was intended to act as an homage. In that case, I suspect the filmmakers would claim that the repetition of themes and characters symbolized respect and was a strategic effort to reintroduce the franchise to its audience via familiarity.”
Again that word, familiarity…
“Hollywood also likes formulas that work and, by ‘work,’ I mean are guaranteed to make money,” added Walsh. “We talk about this a lot in my courses on Biblical film and popular culture.
“If Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), or Risen (2016) had better box office performance and critical reception, I’m willing to wager there would have been a mad rush of Biblical and Biblical-inspired films like in the heyday of Charlton Heston with The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959).”
However, digging a little deeper in the metaphorical dirt, Rogue One provided a little more depth for Walsh, who seemed to have mined a little more classroom fodder from the prequel to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Regarding Rogue One
“I did like Rogue One very much,” agreed Dr. Walsh. “I really appreciate the addition of strong female leads in the last two films and I thought that it was compelling as a ‘stand alone’ film.
“And I love how it developed to fill in gaps in the original narrative. The texts of the New Testament/early Christianity developed in a similar fashion, actually.
“They were often written to fill in missing details,” she said.
For the professor, the most intriguing details in Rogue One were found on Jedha.
“I did find the addition of the ‘Holy City’ very interesting,” she said. “In my mind, it seemed like an allusion to Judea and Jerusalem, in part because of the alliteration. So-called religious sites are usually established in conjunction with some kind of major event and/or origin story. So, for example, if kyber crystals have this rich history with the Jedi, it’s not terribly surprising that there would be a revered site/city in the physical territory where the crystals are located.
“I also thought of Jerusalem because…Jedha looked an awful lot like how ‘holy cities’ tend to be portrayed in films and popular imagination. A desert setting, ancient structures, open markets. It’s a short cut to make Jedha look like ancient Jerusalem — or, at least, what people think ancient Jerusalem looked like — and it visually conveys ‘holiness’ without wasting more time on explanation and dialogue. It’s also not hard to imagine the occupying ‘Empire’ in Star Wars mirroring the Roman Empire in the case of, say, first-century Jerusalem.
“In terms of ‘other’ religious figures that are emerging in the franchise, I can’t help but think of ancient Judea again,” added Dr. Walsh. “First of all, there were many sects within Judaism in the first century with overlapping interests. This is obviously true in contemporary religious systems as well.
“Second, and without getting into a long explanation, we know that there were many people in the first-century claiming ‘son of God’ status other than Jesus, if that is indeed what Jesus claimed. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were claiming to be a messiah – although that seems to be how people think of the term now. Put simply, anyone who had a special ability of some kind was thought to be a ‘son of a God.’
“For example, there was one man named Honi who was called the ‘circle drawer’ because he could draw a circle in the sand and it would rain in that exact spot. Not a bad skill when you live in an arid climate.
“Religious competition is an interesting topic and one I would like to see the filmmakers explore in more depth as the franchise moves forward,” she said.
Punching Nazis, Academically Speaking
In the meantime, and as we wait for Episode VII (which could very well include references to more orthodox sects of Force-users coming into contact/conflict with a new order), Dr. Walsh is doing her Dr. Jones thing.
“I just published a piece in the Jewish Studies Quarterly about a mosaic in Elche, Spain. The mosaic was thought to be part of an ancient Christian basilica, but there is a decorative motif in the mosaic that looks an awful lot to me like a menorah,” she explained.
“Between this decorative motif and the wording of the inscriptions in the mosaic, I argued in the article that the site was probably, at one time, a Jewish synagogue.
“And when I began looking into the excavation history of the site in more detail, I found out that the archaeological work was sponsored, at one time, by the German Reich. So, in true Indiana Jones fashion, I’ve been spending some of my research time punching Nazis, academically speaking.”
Finally, as we all prepare for what Lucasfilm might bring us in December, Dr. Walsh has assigned some homework for those in fandom who’d like to explore the galaxy far, far away through some reading from our own planet.
“I really recommend that people read some more Greek and Roman philosophy!” she said, hopefully. “Check out what people like Aristotle or Philo of Alexandria say about the physical composition of the universe and all of the substances they thought composed and influenced the daily lives of human beings.
“For an introduction, try something like Christopher Gill’s The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (2009).
If you’re really ambitious, pick up Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals.”
As for further reading in the Star Wars universe, Dr. Walsh was pleasantly surprised to learn more about the debate between those who love the Extended Universe and the Lucasfilm story group’s Canon releases.
“It sounds like Star Wars is developing an orthodoxy,” said Walsh. “Of course, that doesn’t have to mean much. People will still write the stories that they want to hear, whether or not they are sanctioned by authorities.
“The question is whether those apocryphal stories will still be around one hundred or one thousand years from now,” she said, adding. “All the more reason that watching Star Wars evolve has been incredibly exciting.”
John Bishop previously interviewed Dr. Walsh for Academy Journal…