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!

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The Dark Side of the Force

I watched the original Star Wars trilogy again recently. I was introducing my kids to it, trying to wait until the younger ones were old enough to vaguely grasp what’s going on. And beginning with the original trilogy because The Phantom Menace isn’t actually all that good as a film (particularly not compared to A New Hope), and because I’m a purist like that.

Lots has been said already about the Star Wars conception of “the Force” and how, despite what we’d like to believe sometimes, the Force isn’t a direct equivalent of God.

The Force isn’t God, because the Force is an impersonal energy field that is created by living things, whereas God is a personal Creator of all that is. The Force is dualistic, with good and evil both a part of it, whereas God is good, solely and purely.

I know all this, and it isn’t what I want to talk about.

Being fully aware that the Force isn’t God, the original trilogy can serve as a metaphor or parable of sorts, describing a great spiritual conflict of good and evil like the one we find ourselves in here on Planet Earth. So long as you treat it as a metaphorical story and not a direct allegory, you can still find glimpses of truth in it. It’s become a part of our modern cultural lore, and we can use it to communicate certain truths at need, just like we can use other stories.

No, what I wanted to talk about was Yoda’s speech about being a Jedi; the one that comes in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

You know the one: “A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware anger, fear, aggression; the Dark Side are they. Easily they flow; swift to join you in a fight. But once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

I’m willing, with certain caveats in line with what I’ve already said, to interpret the Force as being a dim reflection of the Godhead, and the Jedi as the Miles Christi, the soldier of Christ in the spiritual battle in which we find ourselves. So “a Christian’s strength flows from the Lord”.

Thus far so good. This is a truth which we hold to be self-evident, and is in line with Scriptural teaching that “without Him we can do nothing”.

But it’s after that that we begin to run into troubles.

Anger, fear and aggression are deemed to be irreversibly corrupt products of darkness and evil, along with hatred.

This we need to be more careful with. Certainly hating one’s fellow man is no Christian thing to do. Jesus died for him as much as He died for me; He loves the most hardened ISIS fanatic as much as He loves me.

Not that the hardened ISIS fanatic is doing His will, you understand, but that even his evil deeds do not change the love of the Lord for him.

But the Bible instructs us to “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good”. If hatred is intrinsically evil in and of itself, we’re in a bit of a quandary. Or in other words, it’s ok to hate the devil, so long as we recognise those who have made themselves his footsoldiers on earth as dupes as much in need of salvation as we. Hating the devil is fulfilling the will of God, and in line with His character. Hating sin is Godly, so long as we love the sinner.

We’re typically not very good at that, but it’s nevertheless a mistake to follow half-remembered Star Wars lore and make this sort of hatred wrong.

When the Emperor tempts Luke to give in to his hatred and strike him down, we have to be careful how we let ourselves interpret it. Luke, hate the evil that the Emperor represents, but the Emperor himself is a human being made in the image of God, and worthy of your compassion, not your hate.

Similarly, anger, fear and aggression.

I’ve talked about anger before on this blog, pointing out that God Himself is “slow to anger”, not incapable of it. He’s capable of feeling anger and acting righteously at all points. We sometimes aren’t, yet it’s not anger itself that’s the problem, but what we do with it. Anger is a normal, healthy and good response to a situation in which a wrong has been done. Luke does not sin by becoming angry at the Emperor’s manipulations and contempt. But he does have to be careful what he does with that anger.

The Jedi response is apparently to get rid of your anger somehow. Either by stuffing it down and sitting on the lid, or by the Buddhist means of killing your sense of self. If you can destroy your own capacity to feel these dark emotions, then the anger and hate goes away, because we can’t feel them any more. This is the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, as closely as I can make out, and it’s wrong and unhealthy. God made us with the capacity to feel angry about injustices and to hate sin. If we destroy our own ability to feel anger or hate, we cripple ourselves for the spiritual battle the Lord has called us to. We open ourselves not to “positive emotions” like peace and happiness, but to feeling nothing at all. This is unhealthy, and opposed to God’s design.

Fear is a dark power when it masters us, causing us to do all sorts of crazy, unhelpful and sinful stuff. But even fear is not evil itself. The proper purpose of fear is to alert us to danger and ready us to flee or fight. If we cripple this capacity in ourselves we are not behaving in a healthy manner, and are in danger of extreme foolhardiness.

We’re instructed to fear the Lord, because He’s dangerous. He’s described as a lion, a consuming fire, surrounded by whirlwinds. He made the great white shark and called it good. He is, as CS Lewis rightly pointed out, not remotely safe.

But He’s good. He truly loves us and wants the best for us, but that shouldn’t lure us into deciding that He’s a sort of supernatural teddy bear.

He loves us and wants the best for us, yes; but He’s all-knowing and really does know what that best looks like. More, He has nothing invested in perpetuating our comfortable sins, He wants to set us free from all that and isn’t really so interested in how much it’s going to hurt us to give up the destructive sins we love. Just like it isn’t loving to buy a drink for an alcoholic, so the Lord would not be truly Love if He allowed us to continue in our comfortable sins.

Fearing the Lord is the antidote to this. If we truly recognise how very unsafe He is, it will restrain us from pursuing such things.

Aggression is a trickier one. This is allied to Yoda’s statement that “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence; never for attack”.

It’s seductive because it sounds so reasonable. We don’t want to be hurting other people or attacking them. We don’t want to be the aggressor in a conflict.

But what if we are attacking evil? According to a strict interpretation of Yoda’s words, this is wrong because it’s aggression, which is the Dark Side. So by these lights, the right thing to do is to stand by until you are attacked. Evil can flourish so long as it doesn’t actually make a direct assault.

To be fair, the Star Wars universe never goes this far down this particular pathway, but we must remember that Yoda’s counsel to Luke was to sacrifice his friends, even let them die if necessary, and continue his training.

Now, I’m all in favour of being fully trained, but knowing that an evil is occurring and deliberately standing by and doing nothing is a grievous wrong.

And this is what’s wrong with the Jedi. They’re supposed to be the guardians of right and order, but the Old Republic is riddled with smugglers, gangsters, criminals, oppressors and exploiters, all proceeding about their business apparently unmolested by Jedi interference.

The spiritual Christian soldier sung of in the old hymn is supposed to be an aggressive attacker of the enemy’s domain. Jesus’ words were that “I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it”. The picture is of an active church aggressively assaulting the domain of the devil, taking ground in the spiritual realm and rescuing the prisoners of darkness, not of the gates of hell assaulting a beleaguered church. Passivity is a Jedi ideal, not a Christian one.

The Biblical ideal is that ultimate Good will emerge victorious and that evil will ultimately be done away with. The problem with the Jedi is that their theology is as uninterested in the ultimate triumph of the light side of the Force as it is in the ultimate triumph of the dark side. They are keepers of the balance, seeking a world in which good and evil cancel one another out somehow, not a world in which good reigns supreme.

And I know which world I’d rather live in.

Anger, fear and aggression are not the enemy, any more than earthly nations or political groups are the enemy, or individual Muslims for whom Christ died are the enemy, or homosexuals are the enemy.

We do have to be careful what we do with our anger, fear and aggression, and careful not to let them control us, but it’s a mistake to paint them as intrinsically evil. It’s when we’re controlled by anger, fear and aggression that we begin to paint human beings as the enemy, and this is wrong, but properly-disciplined anger at injustice is Godly and righteous. Fear of the Lord is wise and leads, paradoxically, to freedom from other fears, and aggression directed at a Godly end and channeled through righteous means is a powerful force for good in the world.

The last line of Yoda’s speech is “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”.

This is another line that sounds almost Christian. Once you start down the path of sin, it will have mastery over you and you canot be rid of it by your own strength.

But the problem is that we have all “started down the dark path”, and Yoda’s words and actions lead to no hope or possibility of redemption.

Turning Vader back to the light side is prtrayed as Luke’s idea, not Yoda’s. Obi-Wan counsels Luke to abandon this hope that even Darth Vader can be saved.

This is wrong and unbiblical. No-one is beyond redemption. God “so loved us, even when we were dead in sins and trespasses, that He made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up and seated us together with Him in the heavenly places”. Paul the Apostle started out as the ISIS or Taliban of his day. Surely there was no hope that he would be brought to faith.

And yet God did it anyway. Saul the persecutor and militant fanatic became Paul the fanatic for Christ, as committed to seeing the Good News about Jesus proclaimed as he had been to seeing it extinguished. Who knows whether the leaders of ISIS might not be potential Pauls in the making?

The other thing is that in Darth Vader’s turning back to the light, there’s nothing said about any price to be paid for his previous life of evil. The past is apparently gone, all that matters is that he’s now on the right side. There are no consequences for his previous evil deeds.

This could only play in a semi-Christianised culture where we’ve accepted the idea that we don’t have to earn our way back into God’s good graces, but it’s only partly true. The thing is, there was a price to pay, a terrible one. One that we could not begin to pay. But it’s a price that God did pay. It doesn’t make it any less real; sin and evil is still sin and evil, and God is just in what He says the punishment is. But with Him there is forgiveness.

So I guess the point of this is that we shouldn’t strive to be like the Jedi in all things. Star Wars can serve as a parable of the spiritual battle, up to a point, but there are things we need to be aware of as believers seeking to have the mind of Christ. Yoda is one of the good guys, and has a certain amount of wisdom, but he doesn’t speak with the voice of God, and sometimes even what Yoda has to say can be unhelpful.