Faith Today's summer intern reflects on a fandom
If you’re around downtown Toronto in late August, you’ll see a rare occurrence – thousands of young people willingly up and about on a Sunday morning. Stranger still, they’ll be dressed as their favourite superheroes, movie characters and TV stars, or wearing T-shirts declaring their favourite sci-fi shows, ready to take in the final day of a Fan Expo Canada weekend (August 25-28).
In June I went to southern California for a similar event – a convention specifically for Star Wars fans. The sense of a great convocation was palpable, as the event had been delayed from 2020. Its very name expressed what we all felt: “Star Wars Celebration.” More than 65,000 of us descended on the Anaheim Convention Center, eager to experience Lucasfilm’s marquee event once again. I met friends from all over the U.S. and as far as Australia, folks I had only talked with online.
The merchandise floor was crowded, the lineups were long and the panel rooms were full, including the 3,000-seat arena. Sunday morning was just as busy as the other days, and had just as high a percentage of folks aged 30 or younger.
Christians might be tempted to look on this group with a sense of loss, suspicion, worry or simply intellectual disagreement. Are they unchurched, dechurched, deconstructing or, like me, just playing hooky from a usual church commitment?
A surprising cause for hope
When I look back at what I saw at Star Wars Celebration, I see a surprising cause for hope. I recall the joy of connecting with friends in person. And I see the immense popularity of a new set of stories explicitly about spiritual growth and commitment.
My mind goes to one of the most powerful lines from the Anglican Book of Alternative Services. “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” The line comes from one of our ordination services, but really applies to all Christians everywhere. It reminds us that if we want our neighbours to connect the Good News of Christ with their real lives and circumstances, and if we want our church communities to understand our neighbours more deeply, then we should become involved in their real lives and circumstances. We need to learn what they care about and long for, where they find meaning and purpose. And the best way to do that is by becoming their friends, joining in communities with mutual interests.
You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. – Anglican Book of Alternative Services
Your outside connection doesn’t have to be with the rabble in Darth Vader and Jedi costumes. But for me, having spent seven-plus years as part of this fandom community, it’s a natural fit. In Anaheim I experienced a profound connection with the people I met and hung out with. I had the privilege of hearing them express their needs, concerns and hopes, and the opportunity to express my own.
Those conversations are fertile ground for a deeper engagement with the gospel story, which gets me thinking about the story of Star Wars itself.
The story and its reception
Star Wars has always struck a nerve, at least for fans, in our longing for more, our longing to be empowered by something bigger than ourselves. George Lucas’ original message was that young people long for something to guide us from beyond ourselves to contribute to the greater good.
Our reception of Lucas’ message was poignantly on display in reactions to newer Star Wars stories, 45 years later. Most of these stories feature younger characters who are challenged to receive the traditions passed down by their elders and adapt them to the needs of the present.
In the recent films, Rey finds herself following the promise of a renewed Jedi order. On TV, Grogu and Omega end up teaching their older counterparts to respond with patience and compassion. In the High Republic publishing initiative, a diverse cast of younger Jedi are empowered to be themselves as they learn to work together and contribute their gifts, strategic talents and youthful courage in the face of a collective crisis that their elders couldn't predict.
The stories often hinge on the choices of these younger characters, on insights gained from listening and taking risks. It's an idealistic perspective, but one that is easy to gravitate to after the challenges of the last two years and the last 50 years, and how they have led many to conclude that our individualist, consumerist and materialist status quo is dangerously unsustainable.
The films, TV shows and other media express the same promise of youth that we see in biblical characters such as the boy-king Josiah and the "too young" prophet Jeremiah. They illustrate the way God repeatedly calls young people to respond to crisis and decay, summons them to an adventurous creativity that looks at problems and systems from more personal and interdependent perspectives.
These Star Wars characters call us to see anew that our personal choices for good or ill can impact us all. And what I saw from appreciative fans was how hungry young people are to contribute meaningfully to the renewal of society. They are not far from taking part in God’s restoring work begun and completed in Jesus.
Such young people need to be welcomed and empowered. They’re concerned about the bleak economic and relational prospects of our materialist status quo, and above all they hope that listening with compassion will bring about healing and reconciliation.
May we learn to listen with their creativity and compassion as well.
Matthew Neugebauer of Toronto is co-host of the Eye on Canon Podcast and is a summer intern at Faith Today. Photos courtesy Matthew Neugebauer.