Fighting the Good Fight: Maz Kanata and Yoda

Being somewhat slow on the uptake where new films are concerned, I’ve only just seen The Force Awakens.

Today’s blog post (and the first in a while; I’ve been low on inspiration for blogging) concerns this excellent film, and some of the theological implications of it as compared with some of the other films.

In particular, I want to compare and contrast the character of Maz with that of Yoda.

Maz Kanata is a new character introduced in this film, and she’s fairly obviously intended to fill much of Yoda’s role – the wise counsel and mentor figure. Obviously, Yoda died in Return of the Jedi and they can’t bring him back, and someone needs to step into the shoes of such a powerful and iconic character.

Maz Kanata: a sort of bald wrinkly owl

She’s even somewhat physically similar – short of stature and wrinkly with age. There are some differences, though; she’s not a member of Yoda’s species (unless they have some very severe sexual dimorphism, which isn’t totally out of the question). Whereas Yoda looks rather goblinesque, Maz gives the impression of a bald, wrinkly owl.

It seems appropriate. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and her symbol was the owl.

Yoda: a bit goblinesque?

It’s the character differences between Maz and Yoda that I want to focus on, though, because they’re really interesting and instructive.

We meet Maz operating a bar on Takodana. It’s an interesting place to meet a wise counsel and presumably instructress in the Force, but then, so’s Dagobah. This, in itself, is a really interesting difference. Master Yoda has always had a secretive hermitish streak in him, even in the prequel trilogy. Remember his switch from limping around with a cane to somersaulting in the air with a lightsaber? He interacts with the other members of the Jedi Council, but you’re always left with the impression that he’s fundamentally alone, that he holds them at arm’s length and keeps himself apart.

Maz, by contrast, is social. She runs a bar, which is about as far from hermitage as it’s possible to get. What we’re almost seeing, in fact, is TNG’s Guinan for the Star Wars universe. There’s a tradition of the wise old barkeep with his fount of common-sense wisdom, and Maz is firmly in that tradition.

For humans at least, social interaction is a vital part of what makes us human. Solitude is important (as a true introvert I should know), but interaction is equally vital. “It is not good for man to be alone”; the first thing recorded in Scripture as being “not good”. Maz’ social nature seems, in some ways, more fundamentally healthy than Yoda’s hermitism.

Like Yoda, Maz is obviously sensitive to the Force, and though we haven’t seen any direct evidence of it, every other time someone is revealed as being Force-sensitive in the Star Wars universe, it carries with it at least the potential for Force usage.

Leia has obviously not chosen to pursue study of the Force under her brother’s tutelage, but the implications of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are clear: she’s at least a potential Force user, able to reach Luke’s mind and direct the Falcon to him in ESB and revealed as his sister in RotJ and blessed with as strong a measure of “the Force is with you” luck as he was in A New Hope. So, by the measure of everything we have been shown, Maz ought to be able to use the Force as well, at least in potential. She certainly seems to be foreseeing when she tells Rey that “the belonging you seek is ahead, not behind”. She may be, by her own testimony, “no Jedi”, but that in itself is an interesting statement with several possible meanings.

Maz’ main Force speech also contrasts favourably with Yoda’s. I’ve examined Yoda’s speech in detail on this blog before (in The Dark Side of the Force), and concluded that, much as I love Yoda as a character, he’s not really very Christian in either his philosophy or his approach.

Yoda’s speech is all about avoiding the Dark Side as manifested in “anger, fear, aggression”. By Yoda’s lights, it’s wrong to feel angry about injustice, wrong to be proactive in opposing evil. Remember, “a true Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack”.

Maz’ great Force speech, on the other hand, is practically bombastic. It’s all about resisting the Dark Side, actually fighting evil, standing up for what is right. The fact that she looks so much like a wrinkly owl is again appropriate, because Athena was also the goddess of battle strategy.

Maz gently takes Finn to task for his incipient cowardice: “I see in your eyes someone who wants to run away”, but she leaves the choice of what to do entirely up to him.

Finn himself is really interesting, too, from a theological standpoint, but maybe I’ll talk about him in another post.

Maz seems to have far more compassion on display than Yoda, too. Compare Yoda’s harsh insistence that Luke stay and complete his training even though he knows that his friends are suffering with Maz’ gentle treatment of both Finn and Rey. Maybe I’m being too hard on Yoda, but he does strike me as being more concerned with “completing Luke’s training” than with any suffering his friends might be undergoing. And yet when Luke returns to Dagobah, all he’s told is that he needs no more training.

Be that as it may, “compassionate” isn’t a normal descriptor of Master Yoda.

Maz is far more Christian in outlook than Yoda will ever be, and perhaps this is what’s behind her statement that she is “no Jedi”.

The Jedi philosophy is one of balance between Light and Dark. According to their religion, they are as uninterested in the triumph of Light as they are in the triumph of Dark. It’s seldom stated that openly, but this is the philosophy underlying the whole Jedi Order.

In Maz, the filmmakers seem to have woken up and remembered what the prequel trilogy completely glossed over: that the Jedi are Jedi Knights. Knighthood implies a fiercely protective, proactive warrior nature that was abundantly contradicted by the prequel movies. In Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan says that the Jedi are “keepers of the peace, not soldiers”, and the entire portrayal of the Jedi Order in the Old Republic is more in the nature of the Shaolin Monks than the Knights Hospitaller. Their headquarters is a “temple”, and they avoid the word “knight” as assiduously as if it were carrying Bubonic Plague.

We have no way of knowing how quickly Maz’ species ages, but she certainly looks old enough to remember the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire, and she could easily be old enough to have been around and active at the time of the Old Republic.  (Wookiepedia in fact says she’s over a thousand years old).  Maybe she’s “no Jedi” for philosophical reasons, not those of ability. Her presentation of the stark reality of choice to Finn suggest that she’d be uncomfortable with the coercive influence of the Force on “the weak-minded”, and her proactive stance is a very uncomfortable fit with the Zen-like Jedi philosophy.

I know The Phantom Menace implied that there was some sort of Force-potential testing on at least the Core Worlds, and implied further that any child showing such potential was virtually conscripted nto the Jedi Order, but this is one of many problems with that film. There must be those who slip through the cracks, else why Anakin? At any rate, though the implication is that the Jedi Order represent all of the Galaxy’s Light Side users of the Force, there are practical reasons why this cannot possibly be the case. Maz seems like an example.

We haven’t seen her use any of the overt aspects of the Force, like lifting heavy objects, but she seems to be able to foresee, which is itself a Force ability, as Yoda demonstrates in The Empire Strikes Back. She has, however, evidently recovered Luke’s lightsaber either from the bowels of Cloud City or the surface of Bespin, and I’m unsure as to which possibility is more impressive. Clearly, the Force is with her.

Oh, I’m not saying Maz is definitively a Christian character. Her speech to Rey about “following the light within” sounds a lot like the sort of “follow your heart” crap that the Disney corporation usually peddles. But equally, you can choose to selectively interpret, and see it as a reference to the Holy Spirit, or a particular instruction to Rey, who already knows deep down what she must do.

At any rate, Maz certainly seems a far more Christian character than Yoda is: compassionate as well as wise, social and relational rather than secretive and a hermit, proactive in resisiting evil rather than aloof and desirous of a mere “balance” of Light and Dark.

I like her, and I hope she’s in the next film!


On Christian Denominations

I’ve never really had much attachment to the idea of Christian denominations. If you think it matters, I attended a Baptist church growing up, but I wouldn’t consider myself to have any strong sense of identity as a Baptist. For that matter, I don’t remember our church having much of a sense of being Baptist – there was never a very strong sense of distinction between us and most other churches that taught the Bible and trusted Jesus.

The matter of denominational label just wasn’t important. The important thing was whether you believed and taught the Bible as authoritative, in which case you were an evangelical and One Of Us, or you didn’t, in which case you were a dodgy liberal and One Of Them.

In my late teens and early twenties at university, the only time I would use a denominational label for myself was when pushed, in order to show that I was part of a respectable mainstream church and not a sect.

I was at least 12 before I first encountered the (Calvinist) idea that Christ died solely for the Elect, and to this day I could not tell you a single thing that John Calvin said about anything. We didn’t place much stock in human founding figures; the origins of the Baptist denomination are a little more obscure.

Cut to the present day in which I live and go to church in America, last bastion of denominational thinking.

I simply do not get the stock placed in one’s denominational allegiance. And I’m using the word “allegiance” deliberately; it always seems like you’re expected to maintain an allegiance to whatever denomination you’re in. I have learnt, for example, that when one of my work colleagues asks “What religion are you?”, they are looking for an answer along the lines of Baptist/Methodist/Lutheran, not, as I instinctively interpret the question, along the lines of Christian/Muslim/Buddhist. It’s all very strange.

Most of the differences between the denominations seem like either peripheral issues of practice (like form of church government or mode of worship), minor issues of theology (like the issue of whether one can genuinely believe and then fall away), or purely semantic, with different denominations misinterpreting one another’s standard terminology. Unless you’re a member of a non-mainstream group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we all believe the same essential body of truth about God, humankind, sin, salvation, Jesus and the Bible. These are the core matters of faith. Everything else is like the question of whether it’s ok to eat food sacrificed to idols (in Romans 14 and elsewhere). They are things that can be left to individual conscience and preferences.

But the American church, at least in the denominational forms I’ve seen here, seems all too often to extend the circle of “core doctrines” further and further out, with many denominations, if not every denomination, seemingly focused on the things that set them apart from every other denomination.

I get it that denominational labels can often be a fairly good shorthand for certain positions on church government and theology. But the result of numerous theological discussions between me and my wife has been a realisation that the only thing separating her distinctly Methodist-flavoured doctrine from the Baptist-flavoured generic evangelicalism I grew up with were the question of whether one can genuinely fall away, and the terminology we used for everything else. I learned that when a Wesleyan talks about having “received sanctification”, they don’t mean what I would naturally expect, ie that they think they’ve been placed forever beyond sin, beyond error and beyond temptation, but that they have come to a place of maturity in their walk with God in which they are not bound to sin as if they have no choice, but instead they love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. I learned that when I said that full sanctification is impossible this side of Glory, they understood it to mean that one was condemned to keep on repeating the same old sins and that there was never any hope for freedom from them or for walking in victory, when what I meant was simply that we weren’t going to be placed beyond error and beyond temptation in this life. We both use the same word, “sanctification”, but we mean slightly different things by it.

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I’m fairly certain that an awful lot of other denominational differences are probably similarly semantic in nature. The experience of learning to speak one another’s theological language has left me wondering what all the fuss is about over what label we put on our church and our theology.

As for me, “Christian” or “follower of Jesus” is all the denominational label I feel I need. I always feel it ought to be good enough for any of us, but then, I really don’t get denominational thinking at all, so maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.

Why do we insist on dividing and separating the one Body of Christ into ever smaller and finer segments, based on how we answer abstruse theological questions? I couldn’t care less what label is on the tin; if we have the same functioning set of basic beliefs, we ought to be able to work together.