The Jedi aren't the only ones whose religion was born in a movie theater, not in a manger.
In the Beginning: "Dudely Lama" Oliver Benjamin, a journalist based in Thailand, started the faith in 2005 as a paean to the protagonist of the Coen brothers' classic, which explored blissful living through bowling.
Basic Beliefs: The Church of the Latter Day Dude combines Taoism and other Eastern philosophies with Lebowski's slacker ideals. Dudeists see their ethos as a prescription for the uptight, high-stress mode of living. Recommended reading: Dude De Ching, a slackeresque retelling of Tao Te Ching.
Religious Rewards: Long baths and bowling are encouraged. And there's the obvious, man: White Russians.
True Believers: There are 150,000 ordained Dudeist priests.
Degree of Devotion: Moderate—being any more zealous would violate their beliefs.
In the Beginning: Founded in 2004 with an anonymous Geo-Cities Web page, the faith is also known as the Path of the One.
Basic Beliefs: While the Matrix trilogy provides the core mystic-meets-humanist tenets, some can also be traced back to the Baha'í faith and the 1912 book The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Like Morpheus, followers believe in the messianic prophecy of the One, and though they don't believe we all have plugs in our necks, they subscribe to "the semi-subjective multi-layered nature of reality."
Religious Rewards: Psychedelic drugs are encouraged in worship. Yes, take the red pill.
True Believers: Approximately 2,000, although some Matrixist sites have claimed as many as 16,000.
Degree of Devotion: High. To be a fan after seeing the two sequels, it'd have to be.
In the Beginning: Created in 1996 by the Reverend Steve Galindo as a joke, the Church of Ed Wood got serious as fans began to literally worship the legendary campy filmmaker.
Basic Beliefs: Followers look to Wood's films as a guide to reaching their potential in life. There are no strict rules, but general live-and-let-live principles include the acceptance of self and others, the importance of following one's dreams, and the belief that sin is real only if it harms others.
Religious Rewards: Woodmas parties. Each October 10, the faithful throw parties and concerts to celebrate Wood's birth. Drinking and cross-dressing are customary.
True Believers: Approximately 3,500 baptized followers.
Degree of Devotion: Low to moderate.
There is one Jedi at the gathering, though, who seems to float above all the factions. The tall, quiet man in jeans and a T-shirt. His name is Kevin Trout, but he is better known—in fact, he's famous—by his nom de Jedi, Opie Macleod. By day, he's a 33-year-old surveillance technician at a security company in Santa Clarita, California (he's the guy who monitors the ceiling cameras watching you at McDonald's). But in his off hours, he has written five self-published books, including a scholarly 2007 volume titled The History of the Jedi Community. Trout figures prominently in that history and is as close to an actual Obi-Wan as real-life Jediism has. He's been involved almost since the beginning, when Jediism first sprang to life on the Internet message boards of the late 1990s. And right now, he just happens to be at the Rabbit Run Retreat. It's like bumping into Moses at a bar mitzvah.
"How did it all begin?" he says, running a hand through his prematurely graying hair. "That's like asking 'When does a fire start?' You need oxygen, you need fuel, you need ignition. There's not really one thing you can point to as the beginning. With Jediism, you needed a way for people to connect"—the Internet—"and you needed something to reignite the imagination, which was the rerelease of the first three Star Wars movies in 1997, then the release of Episode I in 1999 . . ."
The early years of the faith were particularly fraught with power struggles and sectarian disputes over doctrine (just like a real religion!), and Trout frequently found himself caught in the middle. In the early 2000s, he says, the "political stuff" left him "disillusioned" and he abandoned the faith for a while (but not before deleting his Jediism websites' entire archives just to "teach an important Jedi lesson" to the bickering followers). Even worse than the internal strife for many, though, was the prejudice they encountered from the outside world. Ancient Christians would be thrown to the lions but once; Jedi must endure an endless stream of Yoda jokes.
"Yeah," Trout says with a sigh, "there's a stigma to being a Jedi. But most Jedi prefer that to the baggage other religions carry around from their history. You know, like the Crusades."
Regardless of their rank, real-life Jedi are not required by Scripture to be celibate. But many of them manage that on their own. Being a Jedi doesn't tend to make a guy a chick magnet. "That is 100 percent correct," confirms Trout, who is currently single. He married a fellow Jedi when he was 24, but they divorced after she left the religion. Relationships outside the faith, he has learned, can be tricky. "When I'm just starting to see a girl, I don't tell her I'm a Jedi," he confesses. "I'm very vague about it. I tell her that I work a lot on my personal well-being."
Still, for Trout and the rest of the Jedi, merciless mockery and romantic challenges are small prices to pay for spiritual enlightenment. "I'm a Jedi," he says simply. "It's how I wake up every morning, it's how I go to sleep at night, it's what I do during my day, it's what I do with my time off, it's what I do when I'm at work, it's how I approach any situation that comes up in my life, even when I'm just stuck in traffic." Make that especially when he's stuck in traffic. "There have been times when I've found myself on the freeway behind some horrible driver," he admits, chuckling, "and I'll do the Jedi hand trick: 'Take the next exit, that is the exit you're looking for . . .'"
Of course, a successful religion needs more than, say, an energy field created by all living things that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. It needs an ethical belief system. And Jediism has the Jedi Code, its Ten Commandments. Except in this case, there are only four. And they're more like guidelines. Individual Jedi groups may adhere to additional "maxims" or "teachings." But every Jedi, no matter what website he or she subscribes to, knows the Code by heart. It's the cornerstone of their shared faith.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no death, there is the Force.
None of these noble truths appear in the Star Wars movies. You can watch all six films (it'll take you a mere 13 hours 22 minutes) and never hear a word about them. Instead, the tablets on which these words were handed down is a long-out-of-print tome titled Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, a fantasy guide published in 1987 by a now-defunct company called West End Games. Without this holy book, Jediism probably never would have happened, and not just because it contains the Code. "I have held the book in my hands," says historian Matthew Kapell, the author of Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise, and Critics. "The Code is in a glossary in the back, in a 'stuff you need to know' section. But what's important about the book, from an anthropological point of view, is that it's participatory. It's the first Star Wars role-playing game. Before the book, you could only see the movies. Afterward, you could participate in its fictional world. And you can't have a religion without participation."
Like so many religious documents, this one is unsigned. We may never know who penned those four cryptic maxims (a fifth, "There is no chaos, there is harmony," was added to a later edition, but not all Jedi recognize this new-testament appendage). The significance of their words, though, is crystal-clear to those who've memorized them. "The Code distills the Jedi philosophy into a mantra that people can use to help make moral decisions," Trout explains. "The first line—'There is no emotion, there is peace'—is about emotional intelligence, about being at peace with your emotions. The second—'There is no ignorance, there is knowledge'—means that you should consider that everybody has something to teach. The third. . ."
The Code can be distilled even further, into one simple, bracelet-ready question: What Would Obi-Wan Do?
Jedi tend to focus on the Force, but what their religion really teaches is how to be the hero of your own life. It's about identifying the elements that make characters like old Ben Kenobi so gallant (sacrifice, honor, chivalry) and codifying them into quasi-scriptural tenets that can be applied to real-world experiences so that you can be gallant too (unless you're a Sith, in which case you apply them to getting ahead at the office). Like the movie Jedi, real-life Jedi believe we live in an interconnected, interdependent universe filled with equal parts light and dark—and that all of us have the power to choose between the two. But more practically, they also believe in Obi-Wan-ish values like peace, tolerance, justice, and especially service. Community volunteerism isn't just encouraged by the Jedi; it's a pillar of the faith.