The spirituality, myth, and impact of Star Wars and specifically Yoda, has transcended the typically euro-centric pop culture Sci-Fi realm of influence and is one of few examples of a pop cultural phenomenon to truly reach America across generations and beyond sub-cultural distinctions.

The phenomenon of Star Wars has over a period of more than three decades been a pop culture behemoth. It has encroached into common parlance, crossovers into subcultures, been personalized and hacked into millions of expressions of Dick Hebdige’s ‘style’, can be found in artifacts spanning work, home, and recreational spheres, and been a major influence upon contemporary American religious imagination. Star Wars appearance in 1977 can be seen as helping pave the way for America to embrace again mysterious, mystical, and trans-rationalist experiences and narratives which came arguably to a media height in the 1990’s with The X Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation. With the introduction of the wise Jedi master Yoda in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, the fictional universe ratcheted up the spirituality of Luke’s quest and touched a deep psychological and spiritual chord in American religious landscape; and his impact has been enough to establish Yoda himself as a religious figure in his own right.

Yoda and the Star Wars universe qualify as a religion by way of three approaches of speaking of religion: the functionalist, substantive, and aesthetic. First, the functionalist approach describes the social benefit of unifying and drawing people together. It is a way of speaking of its ability to create communitas. This can be temporary or periodic group generating where there is a shared ultimate concern. Most often unstructured, these groups and affiliations are highly democratic and often fluid; examples including Burning Man, diet culture, clubbing, and sports events. Star Wars Live Action Role Playing (starwarslarp.org/generalrules.aspx) is perhaps the most accessible testimony to the ability of Star Wars to draw community. Secondly the hermeneutic dimension of religion, which consists of myth, programs, structures, technology, and iconography, is also met in the Star Wars universe. Lastly the transcendent or ‘aesthetic’ dimension, whereby the experiential and sensual lead to one’s existential condition being affirmed and ultimate concern being nourished, is clearly present also.

Yoda as a spiritual figure in emerging from cinema’s archetypal storehouse replete with monastic life, broken syntax, and clothing qualifies him as what Jane Naomi Iwamura has called the archetypal ‘oriental monk’ in American culture. Along with Mr. Miyagi and Deepak Chopra, Yoda fills the imagination of an ancient wisdom that the Occident largely has overlooked. The ‘oriental monk’ fills an ambiguous role in the American psyche. Extreme options can include an adoration that erases American imperialism in East Asia, or akin to Edward Said’s critique to Orientalism, co-opting and justifying patronizing attitudes or covert hegemonic agendas. The possibilities of these extreme positions cannot be passed off lightly lest they be allowed to oppress in subtle ways. In spite of these two extreme positions possibilities, Yoda most likely acts as a connection point for subaltern faiths and expresses a counter-cultural stance that stands in opposition of hegemonic powers of Western white male patriarchy

Most importantly to contemporary American Christian contexts is the aesthetic and theological undercurrents embodied in Yoda’s character. He is the perfect outsider. Hailing from an unknown planet and of an unknown species, he is uncategorizable, seemingly a wander in a vast universe without homeworld or kin. His character and place in the universe is queer, upsetting ideas of classical strength and leadership. The attraction to Yoda as a spiritual guide and mentor speaks volumes to an American mainstream culture that largely depends on clear categorizable essences and ‘normative’ body configurations. Through this, Yoda acts as a spiritual challenge to ‘acceptable’ leadership expressions and faith paths and upsets power as usual.

Advertisements