The Rise of Skywalker: Healing, adoption and a new identityWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the final chapter of an epic saga that has spanned nine movies over more than four decades. And that’s not counting the various standalone films, TV shows, books, cartoons and video games that are also part of the sprawling franchise.
It could be argued that Star Wars is the most influential work of popular culture in the past 50 years. It has shifted the orbit of the film industry to centre on action-adventure blockbusters filled with special effects. Its imagery and ideas have become ubiquitous and its characters, household names. It would be hard to find too many people who’ve never heard the phrase, “May the force be with you.”
Not everyone is a fan, of course. Christians in particular have expressed concern over the pantheistic dualism behind the stories: An impersonal force that infuses the entire universe, with a light and dark side in perpetual conflict.
But with The Rise of Skywalker, the saga has veered into some decidedly biblical territory – and not just in a “find the Gospel behind every positive moment” kind of way.
[Spoiler alert: this article discusses themes, plot and characters from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. If you’re planning to see the film and haven’t yet, you might wish to do so before reading further.]
The quest for community
“Be with me. Be with me.” Those are the first words whispered by Rey, the movie’s heroine, as she meditates and seeks to commune with her fellow Jedi who have gone before her. Up to this point, the films have traced her journey from a lonely orphan, apparently abandoned by her parents on a desert planet, to her rise as the last Jedi, and the galaxy’s greatest hope against the evil Sith.
Now, on the brink of that final conflict, Rey is achingly aware that she can’t do it alone. She needs the strength and counsel of her predecessors, that “great cloud of witnesses” who are with her in spirit. More than that, she needs the support and encouragement of her friends. She tries to deny it at first, to spare them from the difficult journey ahead, but they’ll have none of it. They’re with her to the end.
Along the way, Rey is reminded more than once that her enemy will try to convince her that she is alone, to cut her off from all support and all hope. It’s reminiscent of the spiritual attacks Christians often face, tempted by the enemy to feel isolated, cut off from their brothers and sisters in Christ, in order to drive them to despair.
Rey’s struggle illustrates a core biblical truth: We were all of us wired for community. We need each other. We need to belong. This is especially so for followers of Jesus, as members of the body of faith. Each member needs all of the others. Rey may be the vanguard, the hero, but she needs her friends and mentors if she is to triumph over evil.
Overcoming evil with good
When Rey finally confronts Emperor Palpatine, the supreme lord of the Sith, she finds herself on her own, facing him in a dark cavern, surrounded by legions of his followers. The Emperor tempts her to lash out in hatred and strike him down, thereby becoming his heir and the new ruler of the Sith. If she does, then the Emperor and all his minions will come and live through her, a new community of darkness to rule the galaxy. The minions hiss and moan and urge her to do it.
But Rey stands her ground and refuses to give in to hatred. “Be with me,” she whispers once again, imploring her Jedi forebears for their aid. As she does, they join her in spirit, supporting and encouraging her. The Emperor, enraged, attacks her directly now, but with her newfound strength she overcomes and destroys him.
The whole scene resonates with biblical injunctions: Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. Bear one another’s burdens. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. It’s also a refreshing change from the typical cinematic trope of the vindictive hero, dishing out retribution and gloating over their fallen foe. Instead, Rey wins the day by resisting temptation and remaining true to her principles.
The cost of healing and redemption
Healing and redemption are intertwined throughout Scripture. The Lord Jesus presents himself as the divine physician who saves his people from their sins. His great acts of physical healing point to his even greater acts of spiritual healing and redemption. But that healing and redemption comes at a high cost, purchased by the Lord with his own life which he sacrificed on the Cross.
This theme of costly redemption and healing forms one of the major narrative backbones of The Rise of Skywalker. Early in the film, Rey and her companions are trapped underground with a giant snakelike creature that seeks to devour them. Realizing the creature is wounded, Rey touches and heals it, using some of her own life force. The grateful beast uncoils and retreats, leaving the heroes in peace.
Later, Rey has one of her many lightsaber battles with Kylo Ren, the prodigal son of Leia Organa and Han Solo. Kylo pressures Rey to join him on the dark side, but she tells him they can only be united if he returns to his true self. During their duel, Rey mortally wounds Kylo but then heals him, using even more of her life force. At the same time, Kylo’s mother Leia, herself a Jedi, reaches out across galactic space to draw her wayward son back to the light, which costs Leia her own life.
And in Rey’s final showdown with the Emperor, she makes the ultimate sacrifice to rid the galaxy of the evil Sith lord. Expending all her life force to destroy the Emperor, she herself dies in the process. But Kylo Ren, the prodigal redeemed and in his right mind at last, clambers over to Rey’s body and revives her, sacrificing his life for hers and bringing the cycle of healing and redemption full circle.
Adoption and a new identity
Throughout this film and the previous two in the series, Rey has been searching for her identity. Who were her parents and why had they abandoned her? In the last movie, Kylo Ren finally told her that she was nobody, just an obscure orphan girl from a backwater planet. Her parents were nothing special, just junk traders, and they hadn’t left her behind for some noble reason. They’d simply traded her to the locals for drinking money.
As it turns out, however, Kylo was lying, and he confesses the truth to Rey during this final chapter of the story. She’s the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, and her parents left her on that planet in order to hide her from her evil grandfather and shield her from his plans for her. She is in reality his heir, and she is shattered at the thought that it might be her destiny, because of her lineage, to follow in his footsteps.
But then she discovers another wonderful truth that liberates her and inspires her resolve. She learns that her mentor, Leia, had known all along that Rey was a Palpatine. And yet Leia had welcomed and embraced her anyway. She had trained Rey to become a Jedi and follow the path of light. In effect, Leia and her brother Luke – the Skywalkers – had become Rey’s new family and her spiritual parents.
It’s a poignant echo of the Gospel doctrine of adoption. Rey may be a Palpatine by birth, but she has been grafted into the Skywalker family. She has a new identity and a new nature. Even in the same way, fallen human beings who share Adam’s sinful lineage are adopted by God into his family through faith in his Son Jesus. They receive a new nature and a new identity as his sons and daughters.
In the film’s closing scene, Rey returns to Tatooine, the home planet of Luke Skywalker from the very first Star Wars movie. An elderly woman passes by and asks her name, following up with “Rey who?” to her customary answer. Rey pauses for a moment as she sees a vision of the ghosts of Luke and Leia, smiling down on her.
“Rey Skywalker,” she answers with a confident smile. They’re her final words in the story, as she embraces her adopted identity and strides off, new lightsaber in hand, her little droid BB-8 at her side, into the twin sunsets of Tatooine.
When doing film and theology, it’s tempting to over-interpret, to look for – and surprise, to find – shards of Gospel truth behind every positive story point, every gesture of kindness and sacrifice. And that’s valid to a point. After all, everyone lives in God’s world, whether they recognize it or not. Every story reflects some facet of how God has wired things, if only faintly and indirectly.
But sometimes it’s far more than that. To be sure, the Star Wars saga is built around the dualistic pantheistic force, and the idea of a perpetual balance between good and evil. But no one really wants to live in a world like that. As women and men made in God’s image, we want – we need – stories of good resisting and overcoming evil. We yearn for the uplifting thrill of the grand heroic gesture. At its best, Star Wars has provided those things, which is likely the secret of its enduring success.
Even beyond that, The Rise of Skywalker wades into some deep theological waters. It wraps up the Skywalker saga – and the story of Rey – with a final chapter that reverberates with Gospel themes: the need to belong and have purpose; overcoming evil with good; healing and redemption purchased at great cost; and spiritual adoption leading to a new identity.
Not everyone will enjoy movies like Star Wars, nor should they be expected to. But for followers of Jesus who like this kind of thing, The Rise of Skywalker offers generous food for thought and reason for delight.
[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement of the movie, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is appropriate for you or your family.]
Sources and further reading
Claude Atcho, “The Rise of Skywalker and spiritual adoption,” Think Christian, January 6, 2020.
David Atwell, “Truth, names, and The Rise of Skywalker,” Reel World Theology, December 28, 2019.
Darrel Manson, “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker,” Screen Fish, December 18, 2019.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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