The Jedi are in the dark. They're lost in silent meditation. Many of them are squeezing their eyes tightly shut, as if in deep concentration. They are reaching out with their feelings, attempting to make telepathic contact with the psychic energy of the universe, to link brainwaves through that great cosmic consciousness they call the Force.
But 10 minutes into this meditative exploration, one of the Jedi starts making snorting noises, then begins loudly snoring. A few minutes after that, the quiet is pierced by a whirring-zipping-beeping ringtone that is instantly recognizable—it's R2-D2. The Jedi, some splayed on sofas, others on the floor, rustle in the blacked-out basement, trying to locate the source of the transmission.
Jedi Master Angelus, who is leading this spiritual exercise, silences the 4G droid they're looking for. "That was me," Angelus, a 33-year-old acting instructor from Chicago whose real name is Gabriel Calderon, admits sheepishly afterward. "I just . . . forgot to turn off my cell."
Being a Jedi, it seems, is not as easy as it looks in the movies. But these folks in the basement are giving it their best shot. A small army of them—15 grown men, three grown women—have congregated in the remote town of Norris, Tennessee (population 1,493), for the 11th annual gathering of people who practice Jediism as a real, honest-to-goodness religion. Yes, they're followers of the faith from Star Wars that helped Luke Skywalker pilot X-wing fighters with his eyes closed and Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, choke people from across a room. The Force. The Dark Side. The divine wisdom of a 900-year-old backward-speaking puppet. These pilgrims believe in it all.
Over a long weekend in late July, they have crammed into a rental property called the Rabbit Run Retreat to partake of a smorgasbord of Jedi activities. Along with the mind-melding in the basement, there's a martial-arts class in which they learn an underarm pinch that makes Vader's neck squeeze look like a foot massage, a two-hour PowerPoint presentation on the history of "locutions" (the hearing of otherworldly voices), and Renaissance Faire–style wooden swordplay before the retreat culminates on Sunday evening with a backyard knighting ceremony during which the Jedi wave toy lightsabers.
"No, we don't worship Yoda," says Tennessee-born Ally Thompson, a pretty, chatty 28-year-old Padawan (and Iraq-war vet) who is to be knighted at the ceremony. "And telekinesis is not something that we necessarily do—at least not like in the movies. But I won't deny that the Force is very present in our teachings. Some people call it magic. Some call it Ashe. The scientific community calls it energy. But it's everywhere. You can find it in the Bible. When Moses parted the Red Sea—how did he do that? With energy. With the Force."
Just to be clear, none of the Jedi at the Rabbit Run Retreat has levitated as much as a Cheez Doodle, let alone a droid. Not all of them try to be telepathic. One tall, mysterious fellow in jeans and a T-shirt just watches from the sidelines with his arms folded, keeping his Jedi powers to himself (as it happens, he's a macher in Jedi circles—we'll be hearing more from him later). But many Jedi do believe in telepathy and telekinesis and lots of other mystical ideas from the Star Wars movies, including shamanic journeys, or vision quests, like the one Luke takes in The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda sends him into a cave to confront a phantom Darth Vader. Which is how, on a Saturday night in Tennessee, they've ended up on a basement floor, beaming their thoughts out into the galaxy—only to have their call returned via Sprint.
"That scene in the cave when Luke sees his own face under Vader's mask—to me that was very moving, very revelatory," Calderon says, explaining his motivation for the group's attempted shamanic journey. "That's what I was trying to emulate with the meditation. How we all have darkness in ourselves, and when we fight it, we end up fighting ourselves."
Go ahead and snicker. But here's the thing about the Jedi: Hang out with them for a couple of days and you start to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, they're onto something. Sure, they sometimes dress as if they were attending Comic-Con, but much of what they preach is actually pretty sensible. Never mind the one guy who won't go near the TV in the living room because he believes his body gives off vibrations that cause electronics to explode (we'll be steering clear of him)—every faith has its eccentric zealots, odd beliefs, and outlandish customs. Millions of people believe in virgins giving birth. And elephant-headed deities. And burning bushes. What makes Jediism any sillier?
So it's based on a movie. Christianity is based on a book.
Although the Jedi are both populous and pious, Star Wars isn't the first science-fiction story to inspire a religion. Turns out, people have been mixing up aliens and angels for years. "The Jedi are on the coattails of a long tradition of using science fiction as a kind of theology," says Carole Cusack, a professor at the University of Sydney and the author of Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith. "There was the Church of All Worlds, which was founded in 1962 and based on Robert A. Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land. And there've been a whole lot of groups that have been based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien."
Other types of films have inspired full-blown faiths (see "From Script to Scripture," next page), but sci-fi, Cusack points out, frequently tugs at the same metaphysical strings that religion does. "The genre often deals with issues about what it means to be human," she says. "It tries to explain the place of human beings in the world and to work out ethical principles. In that way, it has always looked a lot like Scripture." That's especially true of the Star Wars saga. George Lucas mashed up so many Christian archetypes (like Luke, Jesus also had a hard time accepting His father) and so much 1970s California New Age philosophy (there'd be no Force without the Human Potential Movement) that it's no surprise that people have had powerful spiritual responses to it. What is surprising, though, is how many people. Turns out, the folks in Tennessee are only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands upon thousands of Jedi there are.
The U.S. census doesn't yet count the Jedi in our midst, but other countries do. In England and Wales, 175,000 people declared themselves to be Jedi in the 2011 census, making it the seventh-largest faith in the U.K., behind Buddhism but ahead of Paganism, Wicca, Rastafarianism, and Scientology. In the Czech Republic's 2011 census, 15,000 people stated their religion as Jedi, while 9,000 proclaimed it in Canada and 65,000 in Australia. Even the Jedi at the Rabbit Run Retreat concede that the vast majority of those responses are probably jokes. But still, if just one percent are sincere, that's a lot of people using the Force.
"I'd say there are as many as 5,000 Jedi in the United States," says John Henry Phelan, on the phone from the Beaumont, Texas, headquarters (okay, his den) of the Temple of the Jedi Order, the most trafficked Jediism website in the U.S. "I'm talking about serious, committed Jedi—not people who sign up on a website because they're curious or bored." Phelan says the number of converts is growing all the time and could soon explode with J.J. Abrams' planned 2015 revival of the Star Wars franchise. (Of course, it could end up rewriting the Jedi mythology, a possibility that worries some Jedi, especially since the franchise, now at Disney, is no longer controlled by Lucas—sort of like on the eighth day, God selling all of creation to Sony.) In any case, Phelan remains bullish. "I think we're heading to a point where we're going to see a physical Jedi temple sometime in the next 10 years," he says. "Probably something like a monastery, where Jedi monks will live and where other Jedi can visit. I'd be surprised if that didn't happen."
Until then, the Jedi will continue to conduct most of their business—meditation exercises, theological discussions—in the chat rooms of Jedi websites, meeting only at inter-site gatherings like the one in Tennessee. At this point in its evolution, Jediism isn't so much an empire as it is a galactic senate of quibbling online voices. The half-dozen or so major Jedi websites quarrel over everything from semantics (is Jediism a religion, or is it more of a nontheistic philosophy?) to the criteria for being promoted from a Padawan to a Knight and a Knight to a Master (they're still working on standardized testing) to hot-button social issues. Phelan's Temple of the Jedi Order, for instance, recently caused a minor disturbance in the Force when it came out in favor of gay marriage. "It's a human-rights issue," he says. "It's a moral question. And that's what Jediism is all about."
Here at the Rabbit Run Retreat, Jedi of all denominations and from all over the country are in attendance, but nobody is getting into heated debates. Thompson (she was born Alethea, but everyone calls her Ally, except here, where she is also known by her Jedi name, Setanaoko) belongs to the southern-based Heartland Jedi. But there's also a Jedi from Maryland (Moonshadow) and another from Long Island (Raphael Ben Raven) and even a self-described Sith from Southern California, a 41-year-old software engineer named Miles Robinson (he doesn't bother with a Jedi name) who claims to use the Dark Side to help the young executives he mentors reach their full potential. "I'm not welcome in certain chat rooms," he says, lighting a cigarette. "But the people here at this gathering have been very welcoming to me. We're all Jedi. We just approach the Force in different ways. The Jedi of the Light Side focus on the interconnectedness of all things and trying to make the universe a better place. The Siths' approach is to focus inwardly, on the self, on the individual . . ."