Great and Little Jediism 7 January 2018

“I am one with the Force, the Force is with me”

Opinion is split – this is either the most stupid line of the Star Wars series (a series which includes lines such as “I hate sand”), or one of the best. Everyone I’ve asked has been polarised on it. Some love it, since it represents an honest, authentic and ordinary expression of faith in the life of someone who would go on to become another casualty of war. One Christian colleague said it had echoes of Chaplain Francis Gleeson, a chaplain of the trenches during World War 1. The chant of the Chirrut Imwe (that’s the character’s name – did anyone know that? I just knew him as “blind Force guy”) was faith on the edge. Powerful stuff.

For others, the chant just sounded stupid. “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me” has no poetry about it. It’s almost jarring. But then, English isn’t a very chant-y language. Muslims might chant “subhan’Allah”, meaning Glory to God, on their prayer beads. Catholics recite the Ave Maria on their rosaries. But I struggle to think of English language chants, with the exception perhaps of the odd Mindfulness mantra (which might not even count).

So, sublime or stupid, religion in Rogue One was a bit divisive.

But there was something else insightful that many people noted about the movie. There were no Jedi monks in this film. No Jedi Council. No Sith Lords. There are still friendly atheists and sceptics – Han Solo in the original triology, and Baze Malbus (that’s the guy with the huge machine gun) in Rogue One. But for the first time, we get an insight into the rank-and-file believers – especially through the aforementioned Chirrut and female lead, Jyn Erso.

Great and Little Traditions

Before looking at these two characters, it’s worth pausing to reflect on a certain division within religions globally that has interested anthropologists and comes out in Rogue One.

Anthropologists of relgion argued there were two general expressions of religion. First, there is the doctrinal, disciplined, often scripturally-focused religion found in urban and educated centres of civilisation. You might call this orthodoxy.

But if you travelled away from the centre, away from the cities and the educated elite, you would find a different practice of these religions. They might be syncretic, mixing old animism with orthodoxy; they might be mystical, dealing with superstition and magic. They would be less concerned with scripture and more interested in divine charisma. You might be tempted to call these heterodox, or even heretical. If you did, you’d be guilty of privileging the urban elite in their view of religion, which is why anthropologists have resolved to – in most cases – refer to these differences as the “Great” and the “Little”. There are lots of problems with this division – it’s obviously a tad bit simplistic. But it’s still been a popular idea in the anthropology of religion because it points us towards significant differences in religious practice.

Great and Little Jediism

So what about Rogue One? In the movie, we got a glimpse of what religion might look like for the believers in the Force unable to wield it as awesomely as say, Darth Vader (that final scene! How great was that!).

So what we see of Jediism in the prequel trilogy (Episodes 4, 5 and 6) certainly fits into the idea of a Great Tradition. One aspect of the Great Tradition is that it is urban. And, as you might expect, the Jedi Council was headquartered at the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, the planet which is an entire city from continent to continent. This is the Jedi equivalent of the Vatican in Rome at the heart of the Roman Empire.

The urban relationship is significant in the Great Tradition of religions because it points to another aspect of these religions. They tend to be, partially at least, complicit in existing political power structures. Just as Anglican Bishops have a role in the House of Lords, and Al-Azhar has the ear of the Egypt’s dictator-cum-president Sisi, the Jedi Council is often found advising and supporting the Supreme Chancellor and the Galactic Senate. Karen Armstrong calls these “imperial religions”, supporting those in power.

By contrast, Little Traditions are on the periphery in every sense. They have no access to power in the same way. They tend to be ruled, rather than rule. And in Jyn Erso, we see a character who certainly is on the periphery. Rebel Alliance or Galactic Empire – “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,” she says. This describes quite perfectly the position of many subjects of empires throughout history, for whom the prince in power was an academic concern, far removed from their daily life.

Great Traditions also tend to be concerned with orthodoxy, establishing a rigorous rulebook of who is in and who is out. The rulebook is usually based on scripture, and so Great Traditions have plenty of literate scholars whose job it is to interpret the traditions. They produce seminaries to train these scholars. There is plenty of this in the prequel trilogy of Star Wars too. Obi Wan visits the Jedi Archives, and we see the extensive training and scholarship young Jedis undergo in preparation for becoming Jedi Knights. In real-world religions, a similar relationship with literacy is seen. Most of the world’s earliest universities were extensions of libraries and were guided by the scholarship of Great Tradition religions. The world’s first university of al-Quaraouiyine in Morocco was founded by Fatima al-Fihri as an act of religious devotion, in Baghdad the Dar al-Hikma library was maintained by large donations from various Caliphs through the eras, and in the West, the oldest and most prestigious universities all began life as seminaries – nearly every Oxford and Cambridge college was establised as a place to educate priests.

Little Traditions, by contrast, are more focused on religious charisma. This might be expressed through relics, devotion at shrines, and more idiosyncratic forms of worship – by which I mean expressions of religion unique to the village or area. So in places like Palestine, some Muslims and Christians revere the saint Mar Jiryis, a dragon-slaying hero who transcends religious boundaries. In India, you can find Hindus visiting the graves of celebrated Muslims, in search of the divine blessings associated with them. Some Christians in Haiti still incorporate Voudouism into their worship, despite protestations from church officials. We don’t see much of this in Rogue One, but we do see hints. Jedha is a reverential shrine and sacred landscape of the type one expects to find prominent in Little Traditons. Jyn Erso’s clutching of her pendant and the blind-Force-guy’s chant is similar – a pure expression of faith unadulterated by the need to refer to official doctrine. Their belief in the Force and relationship to it is not dictated by a Jedi Council or ancient scripture.

Real World Too

Now maybe you’re reading this and thinking of lots of exceptions to this Great Tradition-Little Tradition distinction, and you’d be right to name them. It’s a very partial, and at times inaccurate, division. But it can help us add colour and shade to how we view real-world religions, recognising that no religion is a monolith. All religions are locked in a battle over the periphery and the centre, over orthodoxy and heresy, and some of the aspects of religions we take for granted (scripturalism, for example) are irrelevant to others. Understanding this helps us towards religious literacy, whether or not we agree. And in the case of Rogue One, the Little Tradition of Jediism has added colour and life to the Star Wars universe.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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