The live action Star Wars shows Andor and The Mandalorian have introduced religion in ways that are more sophisticated than a mere merry band of do-gooder space wizards fighting in an entirely predictable dualism pitting good against evil. These shows present religions within the Star Wars universe as legitimate social and spiritual realities that merit the attention and appreciation of both the shows’ characters and the audience itself. Religion is given a welcome complexity and dynamism worthy of religion’s real-world countless textures and contributions.
We’re not sure, of course, where the writers and producers are going with the religious strands they’ve woven into Andor and The Mandalorian. Despite an encouraging start, the shows could shift and employ the typical, cynical Hollywood trope framing religion as a degenerate and manipulative power that does more harm than good. Or, they can continue along the path they’ve started down: offering a robust presentation of religion as an ecosystem of traditions, stories, rituals, and beliefs that provides meaning, purpose, and community, and which, when received as a life-guiding gift, is a powerful force both for those within and beyond the community of faith. I am hoping for more of the later than the former, and I am cautiously optimistic that will indeed be the case.
Let’s take a look at a few examples, starting with Andor.
In Andor we meet Leida Mothma, the teenage daughter of rebel organizer Senator Mon Mothma. Leida, in what is perhaps a kind of rebellion from her mother’s sophisticated senatorial life, dives deep into the “old way” traditions and beliefs of Chandrila, her home world, even while she and her family lives far away on the glamorous galactic capital word of Coruscant. Mon, especially, scoffs at the “old ways” of Chandrila, and Leida’s embrace of the Chandrilan traditions baffles her.
Even more aghast by Leida’s embrace of the “old ways” is Mon’s cousin Vel, the rebel agent who is like an aunt to Leida. Mon and Vel watch Leida attending a class where all the learners are reciting an ode to the “old ways” of Chandrilla. The two adults, whose rebel activities are kept secret from Leida and even from Mon’s husband, don’t understand the appeal of the “old ways,” especially for a sophisticated teenager with the universe at her disposal. Mon and Vel are of a generation and a class that has, to a large degree, deconstructed and abandoned their traditional “old ways” upbringing. However, in shedding the traditions of the past, Mon has perhaps failed to provide anything of similar gravitas for her daughter to embrace. Unable to bring Leida into her other life as a rebel organizer, Mon fears she is losing her daughter to a traditionalism that conflicts with the values central to her leadership of a nascent rebellion.
Nemik is a rebel foot soldier and true believer in the underlying cause of the rebellion. He is writing a manifesto for the rebellion. It is not entirely clear if his writings yet have an audience, but it is clear that with his writing Nemik is finding purpose by proposing a philosophical framework that rejects the brute force of the Empire and urges concerted collective action by the Rebellion. Not explicitly religious, nonetheless Nemik’s deep and abiding commitment to the rebellion has a fervor and hopeful quality emblematic of religious mystics and reformers. His writings – the first scripture, perhaps, of the Rebellion – are passed on to Cassian, signifying a transfer of moral leadership for this righteous movement.
Nemik loses his life while escaping from Aldhani, where a stunning triennial celestial phenomenon known as The Eye – regarded as sacred by the local Dhani population – provides cover for the Rebel crew to pull off a massive heist. The occupying imperial officers maintain a particular disdain for the local population, which they consider primitive. Yet, these officers end up on the losing end of a Rebel attack, their condescension toward the Dhani people paving the way for their unexpected defeat.
Just like the empires of our world, the Galactic Empire manipulates local religious practice for their political and military benefit. Through a variety of subtle social and economic incentives, the Empire drastically reduces the size of a once major religious pilgrimage to a sacred valley to view The Eye. Weakening their religious rituals and making smaller their gatherings, the Dhani population becomes easier for the Empire to control.
Masterfully, the writers of Andor depict the Dhani pilgrims as earnest in their religious practice, while simultaneously keenly aware of the Empire’s insincere gestures and manipulation. It would have been easy to depict the pilgrims as superstitious simpletons performing a primitive ritual – a trope known well in Hollywood. Instead, they give us earnest believers of an weakened religion clinging to a meaningful tradition as an act of resistance to an evil and oppressive regime.
The Eye serves as occasion for the Empire to renew their lease on the land through a ceremony consisting of exchanging goat hides. This lease, both parties all but acknowledge, is nothing more than window dressing on a massive military occupation. An elder of the Dhani pilgrims greets a junior imperial officer who has made the effort to learn their language, saying “May The Eye stay open long enough to find some good in you.” With these words the elder expresses both condemnation of and hope for the junior officer through the lens of his religious faith. Later, to a senior officer who loathes the Dhani and does not speak the language, this same elder warns, “Our ghosts have strong hands and long memories.” As soon as the senior officer departs, the elder takes the ceremonial goat hide he received from the imperial officer and tosses it in a fire.
A small contingent of the Dhani continue to practice their faith in the face of great opposition from an Empire equipped to wipe them out. At this point in their story they show no inclination toward violent resistance, but instead stand against the Empire through continued religious adherence. As we will see my next blogpost on The Mandalorian, a common Creed does not guarantee a common way of life. Instead, different ways of interpreting Mandalorian stories and Creed, shaped in part by distinct histories and personal experiences, leads to (at least) three different religious pathways for the people of Mandalore.
Next post: Religion in The Mandalorian, with special attention given to the religious elements of the first two episodes of Season 3 (along with relevant backstory from Star Wars: The Clone Wars). Next post will be out before the next episode of The Mandalorian is released!
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