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By Brian Keepers
The second installment of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Last Jedi, was released on DVD last Tuesday. As you would expect with a Star Wars film, there was enormous buzz when it hit the theaters last December. Directed by Rian Johnson (a surprise choice according to many), this has been the most controversial of the entire franchise. It was met with mixed reviews among die-hard fans. Critics overall gave it high marks (91% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it received the lowest audience score of all the films (47%), worse even than the disastrous prequels.
Why am I rehashing this the day after Easter? Isn’t this old news? Some of us couldn’t care less about this. Well, I’m bringing it up because I find it rather serendipitous that the DVD release happened on Holy Week. I watched it again following our Maundy Thursday service (after seeing it multiple times in the theater). Here’s what I find so fitting.
Many devoted Star Wars fans hated this film because it had twists and revelations that went against their deeply held beliefs about certain characters and expectations for how the plot should unfold. They complained that it didn’t “feel” like a Star Wars film and that Johnson “ruined” Star Wars for them, especially the character of Luke Skywalker. For many of us, Luke Skywalker was a childhood hero of mythic proportions—the incorruptible great knight of the galaxy who was destined to save the day. Even Mark Hamill, the actor who played Skywalker in all the films, made it public that he fundamentally disagreed with Johnson’s take on the character in The Last Jedi.
I have a neighbor who is my age and also grew up on Star Wars. He was livid when he saw The Last Jedi. “I absolutely hated it!” he fumed. “I was so upset that I didn’t sleep for days. It made the prequels look like masterpieces.” What? Really? When I asked him why he was so upset, he explained: “You need to understand that since The Force Awakens [the first film in the new trilogy], I’ve read all the fan theories and speculations about characters in the new movie and where the trilogy was going. Over the last two years, I’ve played out in my mind exactly how this story was supposed to go. And it didn’t go anything like I imagined it!”
I get it. When characters you love and a storyline you’ve scripted in your own imagination fail to play out the way you expect, it is deeply upsetting.
I wonder if this is what so many among the 1st century Jewish community, and especially the disciples, felt like when Jesus showed up and his story played out. Especially when we get to the final week of his life, culminating in a scandalous cross and a borrowed tomb. None of it ended up going the way they must have imagined it. The Messiah came to conquer, not be conquered. To lead a revolution and overthrow Rome, not suffer and die on a Roman cross.
And it’s not just the cross that threw them. It’s the empty tomb. Perhaps this was most shocking of all. Yes, many in the Jewish community believed in a day of resurrection, but this would happen at the end of time, when all God’s people would be raised at once. No one in their wildest imagination would have anticipated one man, Jesus, being resurrected in the middle of time. Of course what it meant, as scholars like Tom Wright have pointed out, is that this hoped-for future had come crashing to meet them in the present. That day of new creation wasn’t far off in the distance; on the first Easter, when Jesus emerged from the tomb as the Risen One, new creation was bursting forth!
But none of this went the way it was supposed to go. No wonder Mark ends his Gospel with the women running out of the cemetery, dresses hiked up to their knees and scared out of their wits. Perhaps we could charge our storytellers, the quartet of Gospel writers, with “ruining” the story.
The truth is, the gospel is by nature subversive. Easter is subversive. Not just for those who had worked out the story in their minds then, but also for us now. And if we don’t continually find ourselves surprised, confused, even a bit upset, we may have to wonder: are we really encountering the risen Jesus or do we insist holding onto a character and plot that feel comfortable and familiar and nicely within our control?
I actually really liked The Last Jedi. It’s certainly not flawless. There are plenty of plot holes and it runs too long. But I love the risks that Johnson took with a much beloved franchise. It took courage, maybe some would say audacity, to upset the apple cart the way he has.
But then, these are the kind of storytellers we need. Not those who confirm what we already believe and coddle us with our expectations; no, we need storytellers who dare to surprise us, bewilder us, even turn everything upside down and leave us shaking our heads and asking, “What just happened?”
That’s Easter for you.
Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.