In the last few weeks, a story has emerged about the toxic behavior of certain segments of the Star Wars fandom.
It was revealed that Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, had removed herself from Instagram. According to reports circulating on the web, she left due to a flood of sexist and racist bullying from a small but vocal segment of Star Wars fans.
Other people pointed out that Daisy Ridley, who portrays Rey in the latest Star Wars movies, has removed herself from social media for similar reasons.
The backlash was almost immediate. Legions of fans who recognized the toxicity of this minority’s behavior denounced them and their attitudes. Folks rallied to hashtags and memes trumpeting their support for the beleaguered creators who had to endure the online bullying and abusive language.
Now I think this probably needs to be said upfront: I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was a kid. An obsessive one, even. I consumed almost all of the novelizations up through The New Jedi Order series. I played numerous video games. I thrilled at the interconnectedness of the old EU. I dreamed of being able to write a novel set a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
And at the same time, I personally have enjoyed all of the new Star Wars movies since Disney purchased Lucasfilm. I loved the fan service in both Rogue One and especially in Solo. I think that The Last Jedi is a brilliant meditation on the concept of failure that subverted many of the tropes that had been established by the previous films of the franchise. And The Force Awakens is all right too.
That said, I understand that not everyone shares my opinion. I can see why folks who were invested in their theories about Rey’s parentage didn’t appreciate Kylo Ren’s revelation. After watching The Last Jedi the first time, I too was upset that we never learned Snoke’s backstory (although I’ve come to realize that was never all that important to the overall story to begin with). And the Canto Bight sequence didn’t totally fit for me either.
While I understand why people don’t like those movies, I’m not about to lecture them about why I think they’re wrong. I’ll explain my reasoning if people ask, but I won’t argue with them. If they don’t like it, that’s fine.
So there’s no way that I would ever condone the frankly toxic and sinful behavior of the minority of fanboys with over-inflated beliefs about how important they are to protecting the honor of a fictional world filled with space wizards. But at the same time, as I read the stories and saw the behavior unfold on-line, I realized that I recognized it. I’d seen it before. There’s a Biblical parallel that I think explains why people are behaving the way they are.
To do so, we need to dive into the days of the early church and a sticky question that plagued the leaders of the Way: what do we do with all these Gentiles?
The road to the council of Jerusalem
Nowadays, it’s easy to overlook the fact that in the earliest days of the Church, Christianity was essentially a Jewish thing. After all, Jesus was Jewish. So were all of His apostles. The earliest converts to the faith were all Jewish. The crowds at Pentecost were there for a Jewish holy festival. With very few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of the earliest Christians were Jews first and, as such, they viewed their relationship with God through the lens of their Jewish identity.
And that was fine! It was good and right for them to do so. The Christian faith was an outgrowth, continuation, and fulfillment of Judaism.
Theirs is the adoption to sonship; there is the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
Amen indeed! But then, several years after the birth of the Church, things started to change. Non-Jews started to trickle into the Church. The first “official” non-Jewish convert was the Roman centurion Cornelius (whose conversion is so important that Luke essentially tells the story in Acts 10 and then again in Acts 11). But then, with the sending of Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey through parts of Asia Minor, that trickle turned into a flood. Suddenly folks who weren’t Jewish, who didn’t have the common Jewish heritage of the original Christians wanted to identify themselves as belonging to the Messiah.
And this tripped up many of the “veteran Christians.” How could someone who wasn’t Jewish become Christian? They didn’t keep kosher, they didn’t observe the Sabbath, they weren’t even circumcised, for crying out loud! How could they truly say that they understood and appreciated this whole Jesus business as much as a Jewish Christian did?
Well, some of the Jewish Christians thought they had it figured out: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). You Gentiles can certainly become Christian. But before you can do that, you have to become a good Jew first. These folks, who have become known as the Judaizers, often would follow Paul and teach the people he brought to the faith that they weren’t really Christian unless they first became circumcised. They claimed that Paul wasn’t a real apostle, that he was an also-ran who didn’t have the proper authority to teach people what Christianity was all about.
For Paul, this was too much. In his mind, there was no reason for people to be forced to obey the Mosaic Law. After all, none of the Jewish believers could keep it perfectly either. Why would they force others to attempt what they couldn’t accomplish? Was it circumcision that saved or Jesus’ death and resurrection? And don’t even get him started on the whole “fake apostle” business! If you want to see Paul’s passion for this subject, just read the book of Galatians. He gets so worked up about it all that, at one point, he wishes that the Judaizers would just finish the job and castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12)!
Eventually, this debate would grow so contentious that the Church’s leadership would gather in Jerusalem to discuss the matter, which we can read about in Acts 15. The Judaizers were given their chance to explain their side. Peter reminded everyone of what happened with Cornelius. And Paul and Barnabas were able to talk about what they had seen among the Gentiles as well. Eventually, James, the brother of Jesus Himself, weighed in against the Judaizers. The council decided that Gentiles wouldn’t have to become Jewish before they came to faith in Christ.
So why did my mind drift in this direction when it comes to the current crisis in Star Wars fandom? Well, because I’m a theology nerd, of course. But more than that! The story of the Judaizers is an example of what happens when folks appoint themselves gatekeepers for a community. It happened with some of the Jewish Christians in the earliest days of the Church. And it’s happening again with Star Wars.
Watchers at the gate
In some ways, it’s not surprising that we see such vehemence arise in Star Wars fandom. When George Lucas first crafted the stories set in that universe, he tapped into the power of the monomyth, relying on the work of Joseph Campbell. By doing so, he didn’t just create a story, he created a new mythology, something that could and has tapped into the part of the human psyche that responds to myths and legends. That’s a smart idea. It means that his stories, characters, and themes have resonated deeply with people for decades. That’s why the franchise has such strong staying power.
But there’s a flipside to that as well: that yearning for deeper meaning and mythology is right next door to the part of the human mind that responds to myth and religion with fanaticism. And oftentimes, that fanaticism expresses itself by turning people into gatekeepers. They believe that they have to protect their precious mythology and beliefs from those who don’t appreciate or understand it the way they do. These newcomers are so different from them and don’t fit their ideas of what a true believer looks like, sounds like, acts like, believes like. Threatened with outsiders and newcomers, the temptation is to circle the holy wagons and dictate who can and can’t come in.
I think this helps explain what we’re seeing in the Star Wars fandom. The precious orthodoxy of certain fanboys’ vision has been threatened by girls and minorities (never mind that there have been female and minority fans from the beginning), so they respond with gatekeeping behavior. The newbies don’t “do Star Wars” the right way? Then those heretics have to be stricken from the canon and treated as anathema.
Now all that said, I’m not saying that people have to be absolutely thrilled all the time with the new movies. If you don’t like the movies, that’s fine. If you didn’t like Rose Tico or you think Rey is an overpowered Mary Sue, that’s okay. It’s even fine if you’re still in mourning for the passing of certain stories, characters, and concepts into Legends status. I didn’t like that either. (Although let’s remember, Disney de-canonizing the old EU is not the same thing as Thanos snapping his fingers. I still have those Legends books on my shelf and can read them anytime.)
But if you’re tempted to resort to toxic behavior, then you’ve gone too far. There’s a huge gap between criticism and abuse. It’s one thing to say you didn’t like a fictional story. It’s quite another to decide that gives you license to spew so much hate and bile at another person that they have to retreat from any interaction with fans. And that’s especially true if you claim to be a Christ-follower. That kind of hatred and vitriol over a fictional story is just childish and antithetical to the faith.
So what’s the solution here? I honestly don’t know. More civility in our discussions and interactions, definitely. Calling out toxic behavior when we witness it, certainly. But beyond that? Who can say?
All I know for certain is I can’t wait to see what’s coming up in Star Wars. In many ways, I’m still a kid at heart when it comes to lightsabers, TIE Fighters, and all the rest. I’d just hope that my fanaticism will be tempered with respect and civility.
After all, that’s what the Jedi would want. And so would Jesus.