In books and movies, Jedi are concerned with the fate of the cosmos, but here on Earth, they—just like the rest of us—obsess about the weather. The day is a mid-August, mid-Atlantic scorcher, and in a backyard just outside Baltimore, the attendees of the 2017 National Gathering of Jedi are speeding through lightsaber and hand-to-hand combat training so they can get out of the sun.
Two of the 20 or so are pirouetting and parrying in their full traditional, earth-toned robes. The others, in blue jeans and cargo pants, could easily blend in with the neighbors beyond the picket fence. Dressed the part or not, all the Jedi—those who believe, either religiously or as a way of life, that the Force of Star Wars lore exists here on Earth—are here to learn how to live as real-world inheritors of a religious tradition born in a special-effects-heavy movie franchise.
The leader of this particular session demonstrates a weapon disarm: With one hand, he yanks his sparring partner's wrist toward him, and with the other, he pushes his palm against the blunt side of the knife his opponent holds, dislodging it. With the blade on the ground by his feet, he pauses. For the first time in his workshop, the training goes beyond the martial tradition of the Star Wars franchise, and this isn’t lost on him. "This disarm wouldn't work for Jedi in the movies," he says. "Knives have blunt sides to grip; lightsabers don't—I would have lost a hand."
Disambiguating real-world practices from the traditions that the Star Wars franchise established is not so much a passing curiosity as one of the central reasons the group of Jedi has assembled here for the weekend. Belief in the Force here on Earth is ultimately simple enough, a matter of faith that requires no greater suspension of disbelief than praying to any other life-force or deity. However, the practical extension of that belief, as demonstrated in the Star Wars canon—namely, that one can use the Force to exert mental influence on the external world—poses a larger problem: The cosmos, absent green screens, doesn't so easily succumb to the will.
And so, for those following the Gospel of Lucas, life can often seem a battle of approximations. Lightsabers here on Earth aren't in fact shafts of light, but an alloy of plastic and LEDs. Jedi on Earth have downgraded telekinesis for noetic sciences and a belief that collective thought can influence external change. And, as their possession of DVD box sets, plastic lightsabers, and Star Wars kitsch indicates, they, unlike their fictional counterparts, haven't quite subscribed to an ascetic's denial of worldly attachments.
But even though there's dress-up, a lightsaber-skills workshop, and viewings of Clone Wars episodes (and even the Disney movie Moana, whose titular character they deem "so Jedi"), the core of the weekend retreat isn't about imitation but about using the fiction as a lesson for how to morally conduct life's mundane, but consequential, routines: paying energy bills on time, intervening in a scuffle. The Jedi here—a tour guide in a "Jedi in the streets, Sith in the sheets" T, a cop, a skin-care specialist, a former servicewoman, a graduate student singing instructor, etc.—are self-evidently not rebel warriors. Their immediate concerns are gas prices and sales taxes, not galactic peace. However, they aren't merely fanboys and fangirls: When Netflix is closed, the Jedi spend much of their time meditating, or training, to achieve total self-control and accord with the Force, which they believe animates all of existence. They devote themselves to service and charity, and deeply consider the implications of all their actions—from attending to a car accident, to delivering an eczema cream to a client—on the cosmic balance of the universe.
It's easy to dismiss Jedi as practitioners of a puerile philosophy divorced from reality: After all, science fiction's fundamental conceit is being located in an alternate world. Its chief appeal is escapism, and its core audience, at least initially, was teen boys. And so, proving that they are, in fact, grounded—that they navigate this world and interact with all of its distractions just the same—is often a Jedi's primary challenge.
Many I spoke to had a story of facing ridicule for their beliefs. Gabriel Calderon, who attended the Gathering with his husband, described the experience of telling others he was a Jedi as "a second coming out." The dismissive attitude extends to the legal arena, where efforts by various Jedi orders to be recognized as a religion and to be offered protected-status in anti-discrimination law have failed repeatedly, with few successes.
But beneath the surface—once the lightsabers are stowed away in their protective cases and the business of spiritual belief begins—Jediism is quite paradigmatic of trends in modern religious practice. Jedi have a strong argument that their fictional, pop-culture-inspired canon, with its aliens and futuristic technology, has given rise to a religion worthy of recognition here in reality.
In 1987, West End Games, a now-defunct board-game company, acquired the licensing rights to Star Wars and released a role-playing game associated with the movie franchise. The game was a cash-grab, with penny-saving production costs: Players were instructed to "cannibalize" the necessary dice from elsewhere. For those who role-played as a Jedi, fighting against "the massive organs of commerce" as the game put it, West End supplied a moral code. "There is no emotion; there is peace," the game booklet read. "There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. There is no passion; there is serenity. There is no death; there is the Force."
By the release of the prequels in 1999, Star Wars role-playing—guided by this code—had gained a zealous following. A 2001 email campaign across many English-speaking nations asked for recipients without a "dominant religion" to self-identify as Jedi "because you love 'Star Wars'" or "just to annoy people." The campaign went viral, leading more than 550,000 people worldwide to describe themselves as Jedi on their countries' censuses (in the United Kingdom, more people listed their religion as Jedi than Jewish or Buddhist).
Largely dismissed as a satirical joke by the United Kingdom and Australian governments, census organizations speculated that those who listed Jedi as their religion intended to make a variety of statements, from the personal to the political: to engage in sophomoric humor; to express concern that governments were infringing on privacy by asking citizens their religion (notably the United States census has not done so since the 1950s); to demonstrate the faults in appealing to the popularity of a religion to derive its legitimacy; etc.
One explanation the organizations did not take particularly seriously was that there were, in fact, a sizable number of legitimate Jedi. By the early 2000s, a few in the role-playing community had begun a formal shift from role-play to real practice. Because they did not own naming rights to Star Wars' extensive list of trademarked terms—Lucasfilm has sued groups that profit off of using the word "Jedi" in the past—they rebranded.
Some called themselves Jediists and chose to practice being a Jedi as a religion; others, "Realists," chose to practice as a way of life. This distinction is "actually immaterial" according to Become the Force, a religious confessional book by Daniel M. Jones, who founded the U.K.-based Church of Jediism. In terms of practice, he's correct: Some view the force as literal, some metaphorical, but the core activities of meditation and training remain the same. That said, the terminological distinction is important to many Jedi who either observe a different faith concurrently, or consider themselves atheists, and thus prefer not to call Jediism a religion.
Most Jedi beliefs are multi-cultural appropriations of older religious traditions. Leading a workshop on "Force Theory" at the Gathering, one Jedi called it equivalent of the Buddhist "Qi." Another Jedi has translated the Tao Te Ching from Chinese into the language of Sci-Fi. The "Jedi Creed" is an adaptation of the Prayer of St. Francis Assisi where "Jedi" is substituted for every reference to the "divine master." Other sect-specific beliefs, like those of the Temple of the Jedi Order, are tailored to their contemporary sociological climate: opposition to the death penalty and torture, and support for gay marriage and separation of church and state.
In the early 2010s, one Jedi named Alethea Thompson—who told me she finds the Star Wars movie series "rehashed and kind of boring"—exhaustively enumerated the greatest common denominator values accepted by all Jedi orders in the U.S. The resulting book, co-written with many members of the Jedi community, noted that all groups follow a Jedi Code—in some cases, a recitation of the West End text. Other common creeds range from the concrete—no Jedi can define the Force for another—to the nebulous—"overcome attachments." There is a distinct focus on self-improvement. (In an early draft of the book, a martial criteria was struck because two Jedi Orders told Thompson they did not wish to limit membership based on physical ability.)
Today, according to national censuses, more than 250,000 people worldwide claim Jediism, making it the most popular "alternative" religion in many English-speaking countries, beating out deliberately satirical movements like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but also Wicca, Scientology, and other religions without a box on the census. But this number still includes plenty of non-earnest followers. Based on Web activity, sociologists estimate that thousands claim Jediism earnestly. Beth Singler, a researcher at the University of Cambridge Faraday Institute, has found that Jediism has roughly the same number of genuine followers in the U.K. as does Scientology. In the U.S., Thompson estimates there are 5,000 practitioners, while Calderon places the number closer to 10,000. The Temple of the Jedi Order, one of the larger groups, has 16,000 registered users on its site, 2,000 of whom have formally applied for membership.
The nebulousness of the core dogma, and an acceptance of practitioners who continue to identify with other religious traditions, allows Jediism to indoctrinate many who encounter it even in passing: One attendee of the Gathering told me he entered the movement after giving a martial arts expo to a group of practicing Jedi. Others became Jediists by actively seeking out safe spaces where science-fiction nerds could socialize free of stigma and could learn the basics of self-improvement. Many grew up Christian, came into conflict with their faith, and found the community through its association with a large cultural touchstone. Calderon, who remains a practicing Christian, began dressing as Star Wars characters every year for Halloween, and formally became a Jedi while in Protestant seminary. "People wouldn't be looking for the Jedi if they didn't feel something was missing," he told me. "For myself, being of all these different communities—Latino, gay, Chicagoan—sometimes competing identities, the Jedi was able to incorporate them all together."
A final group of Jedi stumbled into the movement online: John Henry Phelan, a 57-year-old retired retail salesman from Beaumont, Texas, discovered the religion in the mid-2000s after googling how to build a lightsaber and finding the best answer on a Jediist forum.
By serendipity, the Jedi religion attracted the man who would become perhaps its most important convert.
In the early 1960s, John Henry Phelan attended small schools, one Catholic, that were hardwired into the myths of the Old South: Teachers frequently praised their ancestors who had fought for the Confederacy. He had always been one to question the nuns who taught him. In his first-grade Sunday school classroom, he asked a teacher if Adam and Eve were white or black, and was unsatisfied when he was told it was a question they'd go over the next year in second grade.
Later, as a teen, he split from the church over its stance on birth control and the fact that women were not allowed to be priests—two doctrinal issues he felt operated at an impractical level of theological abstraction. When he was 17, and beginning to practice Zen Buddhism, the first Star Wars movie came out, and Phelan snuck a tape recorder into the theater. Replaying the audio repeatedly, he became an obsessive.
Thirty years later, when he first encountered Jedi Web forums, he didn't hesitate to join them. But Phelan's training in a structured, traditional religion allowed him to intuit what his Jedi predecessors had not: Online forums quickly dissipate, their records becoming as inaccessible as buried texts, so to persist long-term, a religion needed to be formally established.
To this end, Phelan created his own Jedi group, Temple of the Jedi Order (which operates solely online, though Phelan hopes to open a monastery soon), and immediately began the process of formal establishment. In 2005, he called on his online paralegal degree training to file for the temple's non-profit status in Texas. He dated the requisite paperwork December 25th, hoping to make his religion's holiest day—the date of its formal establishment—align with a national holiday that all of its followers would already have off from work. As the temple persisted over the years, unlike many of its peer Jedi sites, Phelan eventually decided to file for national tax-exempt status. In October of 2015, he submitted paperwork to the Internal Revenue Service for 501(c)(3) status ("501-C3PO status" as he calls it) as a tax-exempt ministry. He figured his case was strong: Temple of the Jedi order had sincere practitioners, and, considering the First Amendment sacrosanct, the IRS demands little more than that of tax-exempt religious organizations (as of May of 2016, it recognizes over 310,000 congregations nationwide). Phelan's confidence was, in fact, appropriate: Shortly after he filed, the IRS granted the temple 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.
Phelan's success, however, was not replicated by Jedi groups overseas, in the U.K., New Zealand, or Australia. He applied for tax-exempt status with the U.K. Charity Commission—which does demand evidence of religious purpose—using the adapted West End Games moral code, among other documents, as proof that Jediism was a religious order. In December of 2016, the Commission released a list of reasons why it did not consider Jediism a religion, and thus determined Temple of the Jedi Order did not deserve tax-exemption. The argument followed three major lines. First, Jediism had no cogency of belief, as evidenced, in part, by a lack of worldwide authority, and by the fact it "aggregates" moral codes from other traditions. Second, Jediism could be observed as a "way of life" and thus could be a secular belief system. And third, Jedi faith was conducted online, and there was lack of sufficient evidence that following the Web-based services constituted religious practice.
Part of the difficulty with arguing Jediism is or isn't a religion is that definitions of religion typically reflect more on the belief systems of those who set the definitions than they do on the groups they are meant to describe. According to Victoria Harrison at the University of Glasgow, 19th century Protestant religious scholars attempted to define religion as belief in an object or a being, or as serving the purpose of providing atonement, but such descriptions were myopic and collapsed when acknowledging the existence of any number of Eastern religions. In contrast, some theologians, including Friedrich Schleiermacher—who believed many people incorrectly considered themselves non-religious—attempted to define religion as belief that creates an attitude of dependence on some external thing. But these definitions are too broad: They capture environmentalism and other non-religious movements.
As such, the use of "family resemblance"—likeness to other self-apparent religions—to define religion has taken a foothold in academia and the legal arena. But, insofar as new religions differ markedly from those in the past, identifying something as a religion based on similarity to other easily identified religions may impose its own set of inherently conservative biases.
One common argument against the validity of Jediism is that, unlike traditional religions, it recognizes a canon it understands to be fictional. But throughout the 20th century, scientific advances that directly contradicted religious texts led to a demythologizing of Judeo-Christian religious books too. Many, including church leaders, came to understand the Bible's cosmology and myths not as literal, but as fable. Today, fewer Christian Americans—30 percent—believe that the Bible is the literal word of God than ever before. Once traditional religion takes some of its stories as fictional, its parallels to pop-culture inspired religions, like Jediism, become quite pronounced: Belief in the moral force of fictional stories about saints is similar to belief in the moral force of stories about superheroes and masters of telekinesis. In fact, new religious movements scholar Carole Cusack argues in her book Invented Religions that pop-culture heroes have assumed the role saints played in medieval Christianity. Their narrative arcs are even similar. "In a striking parallel to religious initiation," she writes, heroes in comics and Sci-Fi "derived their supernatural powers from traumatic experiences in which they were exposed to the terrifying powers of little-understood and dangerous science."
While pop-culture inspiration has traditionally been a hindrance to seeking legal recognition as a church, it is notably not a discriminatory factor in Australia or the U.K., which, as of December of 2013, recognizes Scientology as a religion. Jediism's concurrent lack of recognition in both countries is particularly confusing, given that it possesses few of the criticisms that attend Scientology: It openly recognizes its canon as fictional, has no costs for membership, and has faced no allegations of surveillance of its members and detractors.
Further, the features of Jediism the U.K. Charity commission used to deny it religious status are, in fact, features quite emblematic of contemporary religious practice. Jediism "aggregates" the beliefs of many different belief systems, but mixing and matching beliefs is a byproduct of multiculturalism that Christianity, for one, has also endured. According to a Pew survey, 30 percent of American Christians who attend church weekly attend services outside their main faith at least occasionally; 22 percent believe in reincarnation.
Similarly, the lack of clear and distinct religious authorities and spaces in Jediism reflects the fact that, since the 1960s, inner spiritualism has risen at the expense of all established religion. While over three-quarters of Americans identify as religious according to Pew, only 30 percent of them attend services regularly, and only 55 percent even belong to a church, according to Gallup. In the spaces where independent practice flourishes, like Web forums, traditional religious authority has withered. One study of Christian forums found that 74 percent of argumentative appeals to authority are directly to characters in the Bible, and only 7 percent to pastors and clergy.
For Jediism, the online forums don't merely disrupt authority, but also serve an essential function in organizing. Adam Possamai, a sociologist who has studied Jediism in Australia, told me that Jedi face a general stigma in openly admitting their beliefs, but that the anonymity of the Web eases their anxieties. It also allows Jedi to find like-minded thinkers at low costs and to engage in group religious practice even when in physical isolation.
Phelan is especially sick of being disregarded on account of his online practice, because in Beaumont, Texas, he is the lone existing Jedi and thus likely could not maintain a physical religious space even if he wanted to.
"If I find a recipe online, and cook a meal, no one says it's a 'keyboard meal,'" he told me. "So why do people say I just practice a 'keyboard religion'?"
Back in person, at the Gathering, most attendees—though not all—are Realists who don't consider themselves religious. However, even to those who aren't religious, belief in the Force dictates a certain set of best moral practices. The principles extend to even the most banal, Earthly endeavors. And so, Alex, the leader of a workshop on "Living as a Jedi in the Real World," has a captive audience.
He is wearing a military-surplus, mandarin-collar jacket—much like one modeled in Rogue One—and begins his talk by focusing on how Jedi can maintain peace on Earth. While willingness to enforce justice is displayed by lightsaber hilts in the movies, Alex notes that, in the real world, he often fastens a social-justice safety pin to his lapel. Sometimes, though, there aren't such clean compromises on canon: Jedi on Earth must pay rent, Alex observes, and can't take up the wholesale rejection of property from the fictional tradition. Jedi in the real world might also want to have attachments, like, say, kids. Beyond the home, Alex mentions some jobs are naturally predisposed to the Jedi commitment to service, like health care and package delivery. Non-service careers, in contrast, can be conducted in ways that incorporate Jedi morals: a book printer discusses working overtime or on reduced rates to fit a client's needs. As the discussion goes on, the problems of the real world become progressively more specific. How do you get a broken fridge fixed the Jedi way? YouTubing solutions and doing it yourself.
Toward the end of his talk, Alex reminds his audience that the canon cannot always serve as the ultimate standard-bearer of Jedi morality. "The movie and show storylines are sometimes written because someone tells the writers to get to a point where they can introduce a new 10-blade saber they can sell toys of," he says.
To navigate the finer points of living that the canon misses, Jediists structure their orders hierarchically. "Knights" take on "Padawans" and train them in a variety of fields: charity, martial arts, comparative religious study, meditation, and energy training—using the mind to change the external world, and when the world won't transform, to improve the self. Once Padawans demonstrate command of the Jedi virtues, they are sworn in as Knights. All throughout the process, Jedi hash out doctrinal questions on a number of online forums. Though one universal Jedi virtue is "overcoming aggression," the forums, like many on the Web, are sparring grounds. At Gatherings, attendees are often surprised when someone they've come to like in person reveals his or her online handle.
Some Jedi sects are the product of explicit schism. Phelan's Temple of the Jedi Order and the Temple of the Jedi Force, for example, split over a dispute about the appropriate size of its council, which manages the temple and is the ultimate arbiter of disputes. Other groups possess more temperate theological discord: Membership as a Jedi in the Force Academy, another order, for example, requires drug abstinence.
Without a long historical tradition to turn to, disputes often aren't cleanly resolved. "Christians have fictional texts too, and you believe the guy can walk on water or cannot," one Jedi at the Gathering notes. "But either way, when there's a dispute there's church history to turn to." On the forums, one side will appeal to canon, and their opponents will argue that that part of canon should be considered apocrypha. In a January of 2017 thread, for example, one poster argued "hate can be just as effective as love when used correctly," and, in response, another commented that hatred was against his Jedi beliefs, citing the Jedi creed inspired by the Prayer of St. Francis Assisi. The original commenter responded: "I personally reject that code. ... First, it is simply a reworked Christian code." (Other mini-debates in the thread centered around whether it was "un Jedi" to have not participated in the Standing Rock protests.) Ultimately, the forum moderator is magistrate: Debates, frequently lead to e-excommunications, i.e. username banning.
There are attempts to herd all the groups together. Gabriel Calderon is trying to organize all the disparate orders under the "Jedi Federation" umbrella, which currently includes 800 or so people, including many from Temple of the Jedi Order, who observe a minimum threshold of core practices. But Jedi are still awaiting their first Council of Nicea, in which their primary disputes can be formally resolved.
At midday on Saturday, before the Gathering will take attendees outside for saber work, the Jedi collect in the living room for energy training. Some squeeze onto couches; others sit on the carpet. At Calderon's guidance, we all assume a position with two feet on the floor, and begin a routine of inhaling the Force from the ground and exhaling out our tension. As Calderon will later note, the expression "May the Force be with you" does not, strictly speaking, make sense: The Force is a cosmological constant, like air is an atmospheric one, and so it is always with us. Calderon guides everyone to position their palms as if holding a ball and to direct our attention to feeling the Force in between our hands. Once we can sense energy between our palms and have molded it into a sphere, he instructs us to find a partner to pass the energy to. Even with their eyes closed, some Jedi claim to know when they've been passed the energy; from an observational standpoint, they are correct, at least a few times.
Connor, a practicing United Methodist who believes in the Force on top of his Christian beliefs, steps in to lead us through energy work on a grander scale. He asks us to cultivate the Force in our gut, and once we can feel it kicking there, to begin a process of Force expansion—first through the rest of our bodies, then through the room and the house. Soon, the growth becomes exponential: through the whole city of Baltimore, through Maryland, through the country, the globe. Finally, we're bloating like we're each individual Big Bangs: through the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. We hold in this state for a minute, as maximal beings. Like writing on a balloon, we have been blown up past the point of clarity.
And then, on Connor's word, we rapidly contract back into our bodies, and open our eyes back in suburbia. We're advised to drink water; energy work is dehydrating and leaves some with headaches. After a brief pit stop, we begin to deconstruct the experience. One Jedi comments that she had difficulty visualizing the expansion: She could feel the Force in her gut, knew her body well enough to let it fill out her form, and knew the house well enough from her weekend there to expand throughout the architectural frame, but then she got lost. What did Baltimore look like? Another Jedi mentions struggling with his Force bouncing off of all of ours, a chorus of collisions, like lightsaber against lightsaber—but on a cosmic scale.
This is the moment my doubt creeps in. Sure, other traditions have their magic. Jesus, for one, walked on water. But the Bible hasn't asked me to perform such a miracle.
Perhaps anticipating skepticism, the session on living as a Jedi in the real world begins. We gather around the table for quotidian stuff: pleasing clients, applying skincare products, raising kids. As if corralled by the Force itself, the Jedi return from galaxies far away to the here and now.