The Church of the Jedi

In the years after the first Star Wars trilogy, a group of dedicated followers built their own religion: Jediism. Facing persecution and ridicule, tens of thousands of faithful believe in the power of the Force and adhere to the Jedi Code, much as Obi-Wan and Yoda did. Away put your prejudices, because seriously devoted they are.

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Page 2: Photographs courtesy of Everett Collection (3).
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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 . . ."
The Jedi aren't the only ones whose religion was born in a movie theater, not in a manger.__
__The Big Lebowski:
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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.
__The Matrix Trilogy:
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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.
__The Films of Ed Wood:
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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.
—Laura Bolt
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 emotion, there is peace.
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.
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"There are a lot of religions out there," explains Andy Spaulding, a 30-year-old Jedi Knight—and Kentucky National Guardsman—who has been given the task of officiating at Thompson's knighting ceremony. "But most of those other religions are all about attaining spiritual enlightenment in order to save yourself, to stay out of hell, or whatever. With Jediism, though, our religious observance is found through service to the community. Service is sort of what we do for prayer." Some Jedi put on lightsaber shows for kids at their local libraries; others organize food drives for soup kitchens. Spaulding and Thompson volunteer at the same search-and-rescue organization.
Early on, Thompson's Jedi devotion to service led her to enlist in the army. Ironically, she was never even a fan of the Star Wars movies—"Totally not into them," she says, shrugging—but when she was 16, after turns as a Baptist, a Catholic, and a Wiccan, she came across Jediism online and was immediately drawn to it. Especially the part about helping her community. She was so inspired by Jediism's call to volunteerism, she enlisted in 2003, at 17, and served 14 months in Kirkuk, Iraq, as a guard at a holding facility for suspected terrorists. Before being deployed overseas, she says, she had to go off base to get her dog tags stamped. The army refused to imprint them with Jedi as her religion.
• • •
It's Sunday evening, the last night of the retreat, and the Jedi are waiting for a safety pin. Bullfrogs are bellowing in the nearby woods. Fireflies are lighting up the yard like paparazzi flashbulbs. The Jedi mill about in itchy-looking Obi-Wan robes and Han Solo band-collar tunics, waiting for Thompson's knighting ceremony to begin. They're growing bored and impatient. One has started swatting at fireflies with a plastic lightsaber. But Thompson is in the kitchen searching through drawers, dealing with the sort of last-minute fashion emergency that never befell Princess Leia or even Princess Amidala.
"Look at my robe!" she says, poking a finger through a big hole in the moth-eaten hooded cloak she pulled out of storage for tonight's event. "I guess I can do the ceremony without it, but I really wanted to wear it. I don't get to wear it that often. And it is a special occasion."
The Force is with her, however, and within 30 minutes, she's found a pin and repaired the hole. She is ready to become a Jedi Knight.
The Jedi, including the smoking Sith, form a semicircle and watch with wide, respectful eyes as the ceremony finally begins. Even Trout leaves his comfort zone at the sidelines and joins the group, smiling munificently like Alec Guinness at the end of Return of the Jedi.
It lasts just a few moments. Spaulding calls Thompson to a lectern on the lawn, where she recites a brief oath—"I am a Jedi, a guardian of peace . . . I use my training to defend and protect, never to assault"—and takes a small bow when she's finished. It's done. She is a Jedi Knight.
"You know, my teammates in Iraq used to joke with me," Thompson says afterward, a halo of fireflies bathing her face in an otherworldly glow. "They'd ask me to use the Force to turn on a light. So I'd go over and flip the switch on. They'd be like, 'But you didn't use the Force!' I was like, 'Yes, I did.' To me, the Force is energy. When the chemicals in my brain sent a message to my finger, I was using the Force. I was turning on the light with my mind."

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