Jan 24, 2017

'The Last Jedi'? In Real Life, Jedi Can Be a Religion

Star Wars
The New York Times
JANUARY 23, 2017

The makers of the “Star Wars” franchise on Monday announced the name of the films’ next installment — “The Last Jedi” — just as “Rogue One” hit $1 billion in global box office. Onscreen, it’s a great time to be a Jedi.

But Jedi is also a real-life religion that drew headlines last month when the Charity Commission for England and Wales ruled that it would not grant religious status to the Temple of the Jedi Order, a Jedi church. So, what is Jediism, and who is in the temple? We caught up with some practicing Jedi to find out.

What is Jediism?

Several Jedi communities exist around the world. Some call themselves religions, though others shy away from the word.

Interest in the religious potential in “Star Wars” first bubbled up online in the early 1990s, Michael Kitchen, one of several directors of the Temple of the Jedi Order, said in a recent interview.

The religion exploded into the mainstream in 2001, when fans in several countries listed Jediism as a religion on their local census. Hundreds of thousands did so. For many, it was a joke. But the phenomenon led others who were serious about Jediism to start considering the possibility of full religious status.

John Henry Phelan, of Texas, founded the Temple of the Jedi Order in 2005. The temple uses the movie’s plot and terminology as a gateway into world religions. It draws on the writings of Joseph Campbell, a scholar who examined the underlying structure of myths in religions and whose ideas inspired the filmmaker George Lucas.

“We are absolutely looking to achieve the outcomes of any other religion,” Andy Young, 40, a Jedi in England, said. “A better life, and a better death.”

Are there other Jedi religious groups?

The Temple of the Jedi Order isn’t the only Jedi religion. Others exist, and relations among them aren’t always warm. Daniel M. Jones, of Wales, founded the Church of Jediism in 2008 and plans to publish a book of Jedi scripture soon. Mr. Jones stressed that his church had entirely different practices than those developed by the temple, which he described as a fundamentally Christian organization.

Who practices Jediism?

The number of worldwide practitioners is unclear. In a 2014 interview with the BBC, Beth Singler, a Cambridge University researcher, estimated the number of serious adherents to Jediism in England at roughly 2,000.

How do you join the Temple of the Jedi Order?

Anyone can make an account online and then begin the initiate program to join the religion. The eight-step program includes lessons on the value of myth, world religions and tips on interacting in a forum-based community. After completing the program, initiates begin to work one-on-one with a mentor.

What does Jediism have to do with “Star Wars”?

“‘Star Wars’ is a bit like the diving board to a diver,” Mr. Young said, explaining that he saw the movies as a cultural touchstone that could be a “way for people who might otherwise have rejected religion to say, ‘Actually, this is something I could be interested in.’” Mr. Young became interested in Jediism when he read an article that linked the Force as outlined in “Star Wars” to the Tao in Taoism.

“We do have a lot of people coming in who want to learn how to move objects psychologically or whatever,” Mr. Young said. “They tend to not really hang around too long.”

Do all Jedi love “Star Wars”?

Many Jedi are “Star Wars” aficionados and come to the religion through a love for the film franchise. But some have never seen the films, said Brenna West, a temple spokeswoman. Ms. West herself is a big “Star Wars” fan — mostly. “The prequels were just awful,” she said. “I try to pretend they don’t exist.”

What do Jedi think of the Charity Commission’s decision?

“What the application to the Charity Commission really highlighted is that we all have to spend more time getting to grips with what it is that we’re trying to communicate,” Mr. Kitchen said. Both he and Mr. Young said that the temple might reapply for charity status.

How do the Jedi feel about Carrie Fisher’s death?

Ms. West said that members of the temple did not view Ms. Fisher as a religious icon but that many did admire her. “She did undertake a journey, both as Princess Leia and in real life,” Ms. West said. “That’s really what Jediism is all about.”


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