These Aren’t the Religions You’re Looking For: Jedi Church, Postmodern Spirituality and the Christian Response

After I noted recently the UK Census trends on religion, and (rather in jest) pointed out that there were more self-declared Jedi in England and Wales than self-identified Pagans and Atheists, I heard from my good friend, John W. Morehead, who heads the evangelical chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.  John’s an excellent scholar of religions, especially emerging religious movements, and he offered to write on the census data and what evangelicals can learn from it.  Here is his guest post:

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Reassessing the UK Census

By John W. Morehead

Recently the results of census data related to religious identification in the UK captured international attention. Many media sources, such as The Telegraph and The Huffington Post, focused on a more exotic aspect of the data, those who identify with Jediism, a spirituality arising out of the Star Wars mythology. While the secular media enjoyed the seemingly bizarre aspects of the census, Evangelicals raised concerns about the direction of spirituality in the UK and the broader western world. But the focus on sensationalism is misguided. The census needs to be interpreted more carefully in order for Evangelicals to understand our changing times.

According to the Office for National Statistics in the UK, 59 percent of the population in England and Wales identified themselves as Christian, 25 percent as “No religion,’ followed by very small percentages representing Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism. Those identified as “Jedi Knight” ranked fifth on the survey, and Spiritualist, Pagan, Atheist, and various Pagan spiritualities are represented as well. Significant shifts are present in this data, with Christianity dropping from 71 percent of the population in 2001 to 59 percent in 2011. In addition, there has been a rise in those reporting no religious affiliation, moving from almost 15 percent to 25 percent. The number of Muslims also saw an increase, as did the number of those identifying as Pagans.

Given this data, it is curious as to why the media chose to focus on those identifying with Jediism, particularly since this self-identification has decreased, and there are critical questions about whether this represents a spiritual self-identification for many, or an attempt at toying with the census results.  The emphasis on the exotic spirituality of Jediism to the neglect of other elements of the survey and its broader context obscures the significance of the changing religious landscape, not only in the UK, but in the West as well.

Recently, Timothy Dairymple asked in connection with this census, “What do Christians say to those who claim they have no need for faith?” Stepping back and looking at the census data, and putting it in its broader cultural and religious context, the following insights are worthy of reflection by Evangelicals.

We live in a post-Christendom context. At times Evangelical writers speak of a “post-Christian America,” but this is inaccurate. Statistics in the US indicate that while there has been a drop in mainline Protestant churches, and Evangelical churches face their own challenges and membership losses, Christianity remains numerically high as a total percentage of population. Even so, the church as an institution has lost credibility in the culture, and the Christian story is but one of many in our pluralistic environment competing in the spiritual marketplace of ideas.

The West has taken a subjective turn. For some time now, there has been a shift in the West away from preferences for institutionalized forms of religion and toward personalized, subjective, and eclectic expressions of spirituality.  As I noted in an essay for the Lausanne World Pulse, “Robert Wuthnow has referred to this as a shift from a ‘spirituality of dwelling’ in institutions such as churches to a ‘spirituality of seeking,’ involving an individualized spiritual quest.”

The “Nones” aren’t just atheists. Although there seems to has been an increase in the number of people identifying as atheists or skeptics, the category of “No religious affiliation,” or “The Nones” in a Pew Survey, this demographic segment also includes a significant number of people who believe in God or some kind of Higher Power. It is better to understand this significant and growing group (in the UK and US) as comprising primarily those who take exception to institutionalized forms of religion rather than those who espouse atheism, which relates to the points discussed above. In addition, as Elizabeth Drescher has observed in Religion Dispatches, the “Nones are fast becoming a vast tableau for the projected desires and anxieties of those of varying affiliations,” and this may contribute to a misunderstanding of them by Evangelicals.

Paganism and alternative spiritualities are significant. Although they represent a small percentage of the religious population of the UK and the US, the presence and growth of Paganism and various alternative spiritualities should not be casually dismissed.  If serious questions remain about the statistics related to Jediism in the UK survey, then various Pagan spiritualities are seventh on the list, and they are growing. This should not result in the sensationalism and paranoia often voiced by Evangelicals over the size and growth of Wicca and other Pagan spiritualities, but they should be recognized. In addition, the growth of various Transformational Festivals in the West, such as Burning Man in the US and Rainbow Serpent in Australia, are expressions of what Gordon Lynch has called a progressive spirituality with connections to the religious left. If this progressive spirituality, and various forms of Paganism is connected to a subculture that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson have called the Cultural Creatives, then a group that represented less than 5 percent of the population in the 1960s counterculture now represents 26 percent of the adult population in the US, comprising some 50 million people.

Pop culture mythologies reflect serious expressions of the sacred. When the presence of spiritualities like Jediism are mentioned, Evangelicals may snicker. How can Christianity not be taken seriously, but Star Wars is as a foundation for spirituality? In recent years there has been an attempt to re-enchant our understanding of the world. In response to secularization, and given dissatisfaction with institutional religion, popular culture now serves as a reservoir for mythic ideas that inform a quest for the sacred. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find literature, television, and film touching on religion and spirituality, but also providing inspiration for new forms of spirituality. One way this has taken place is through what Adam Possamai has labeled hyper-real or fiction-based religions expressed in forms like Jediism and Matrixism. Rather than casually dismissing the phenomenon, Evangelicals would do well to raise their awareness of pop culture spirituality and its connection to the postmodern sacred.

Consider creative forms of engaging a changing culture. The items mentioned above indicate that times are changing. Evangelicals can fight it, they can continue to engage the culture of the past, or they can accept things as they are and consider formulating new and creative ways of moving forward. Here our past might inform the present. I have often found it interesting that while Evangelicals often point to C. S. Lewis, and at times J. R. R. Tolkien, as important figures who drew upon the imagination through storytelling to communicate their faith, Evangelicals tend to distrust the imagination, and we keep genres like fantasy and science fiction at bay, unless it is explicitly Christian. But given the increasing interest in mythos as a compliment to logos in the culture, it would seem that now is the time for Evangelicalism to embrace its storytellers and its artists (not to mention its scholars) in the use of a “baptized imagination” that presents the Christian story in creative ways and engages the sacred concerns of the culture.

One example of this is found in Australia. Avril Hannah-Jones is the Pastor of Romsey Uniting Church outside of Melbourne. She is a fan of fantasy and science fiction, particularly the work of Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. One day while sitting in the audience of a television program called Adam Hills in Gordon Street Tonight she jokingly mentioned her interest in fantasy. The program then created an ad for The Church of Latter-Day Geeks, and this resulted in the formation of a special worship service that incorporated fantasy and related costuming by church members. The service was well received by the congregation, and also gained the attention of the media, even if it was deemed controversial by conservative Christians and church officials. Hannah-Jones repeated the service again later, and with similarly positive results. Whether one agrees with the creation of a church service that invokes fantasy, Hannah-Jones should be commended for her willingness to lead her congregation in such a way that engages her culture on its own terms, and by drawing upon the inspiration of some of Christianity’s finest fantasists.

In the 1970s George Lucas debuted what would become a pop culture phenomenon that still captivates the imagination decades later. In our time it has even inspired spirituality. But let’s not become so blinded by clashing light sabers that we miss the importance of the broader spiritual developments that surround the Jedi Knights.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • kenneth

    If you really want to get a handle on why things like the “Jedi religion” hold such currency these days, you need to learn to appreciate the incredible power of myth to engage deep truths and inspire people to pursue them. That power to convey truth does not hinge on historical or literal claims, and does not stake its claims there.

    Very few people, outside of schizophrenics and perhaps some of of the odder sci-fi fans, truly believe they’re Jedi. Most of them outwardly mean it as a tongue in cheek joke to the census agency. And yet….that myth speaks to them for the same reason pagan myths speak powerfully across the ages and long after their institutions were exterminated. Myths give people access to deep truths about how to live well, how to die well, honor, friendship, evil, fate etc. They teach people how to think.

    Literalist religion tells people what to think, and stakes it claims on contradictory and sometimes demonstrably false facts. It demands people will themselves to accept even absurd doctrine as a test of their piety. Even worse, institutional religion demands that you accept the authority of others to interpret what you should think. All of these authority figures are at least as lost as their flocks, and a great many (often the most fiercely dogmatic) turn out to have the morals of a pit viper.

    Gus diZerega, who I think you know fairly well, has addressed this conceptual difference. This is but one of his posts touching on the matter.

    The phenomenon of of these new/old alternative spiritualities is not that mysterious. People are, for the first time in centuries, acknowledging other paths and tools to spiritual truths, and asserting their own competence to discern those truths.
    http://blog.beliefnet.com/apagansblog/2011/02/mythos-logos-the-bible-and-abortion.html

  • http://www.religious-diplomacy.org/evangelichapter John W. Morehead

    Kenneth, thanks for sharing your comments. I agree that myth is tremendously important, and of course, you see this referenced above in my comments about mythos and logos, as well as my mention of genre as a mythic contribution in pop culture. I have tried to connect the dots in other venues for Evangelicals between myth and sacred story as important not only for relating to other religious traditions, but also for gaining new understandings of our own through sacred narrative as opposed to our tendencies toward systematic theology. I do know Gus well and have worked with him in dialogical ventures. I look forward to reading his essay.


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