Professor Ken Derry sits in a bright room on the fourth floor of UTM’s New North Building. His office—a new spot he recently moved in to—hosts two large shelves fully stacked with books.
“That pile there, those are books some of my colleagues have written.” Derry, a Professor of Religion at the University of Toronto, tells me.
One of those colleagues is John C. Lyden, Derry’s co-editor on The Myth Awakens: Canon, Conservatism, and Fan Reception of Star Wars.
Lyden, a Professor of Liberal Arts at Grand View University, and Derry are members of the American Academy of Religion. Within the Academy, Lyden, Derry, and a group of colleagues-turned-friends, are part of a religion and film group. A little while after a trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, the team put out a call for papers within the group focused on the 2015 movie and trailer.
“We received three papers, and they were great,” Derry says. “We received a lot of great feedback within the academy, and we had some people saying, ‘you should all make a book.’ Based off three papers!”
This call for papers conceptualized the book, which got other essay writers, religious scholars and eventually a publisher interested. The Myth Awakens was published in September of 2018. The book’s nine chapters are comprised of nine essays by nine contributors with an introduction written by Derry.
The chapters focus on race and gender, music, memory, political context and how those topics can change how people receive the Star Wars films.
The essays in the book focus on these spaces of Star Wars existence. One essay “Memory, History, and Forgetting in Star Wars Fandom” explores the notion of memory in the retelling of stories.
“[The essay] …focuses on the use of memory and the ways in which, if you want to instruct a canon, you have to do things to the memory—you have to change things, you have to forget things,” Derry says.
One thread of the study of religion focuses on the question of who creates religious stories, who tells them, and what people accept as authentic in religion.
“An example is the Christmas story—the Christmas story that we celebrate is in fact not the Christmas story that’s in the Bible. It’s sort of a mix of two stories, but then some parts of those stories are taken out because they don’t fit. [According to the Bible] Jesus is born in two different places, so we take one, but have to forget the other. It’s a rejigging of the memory,” Derry explains.
Across the 40 years of Star Wars’ existence, George Lucas has tweaked and changed the histories of the Star Wars Universe. In the expanded Universe, Han Solo and Princess Leia have three children. In the Force Awakens the couple have one.
“The other two children are completely erased,” Derry says.
“There’s a lot of parallels between how Star Wars has been manipulated and controlled by creators and owners, and the ways in which religious stories are played with and manipulated and controlled by sacred leaders and interpreters and owners. And parallels between how all of this is received,” Derry says.
People have grasped onto parts of the stories’ history, which has sparked intense debates drenched in racism, misogyny, and death threats, while stipulating the authenticity of histories within the Star Wars Universe.
The essays themselves were written in response to fan reception of the trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Fan reception to the trailer was negative at times.
“[The traditional Star Wars Universe]…is a very white, very male dominated Universe…put that forward…and then The Force Awakens suddenly switched that up,” Derry tells me.
Negative reception to the film was soaked in racist notions of conservativism. Some fans clung onto notions of the heroes in Star Wars being white male figures. When the Force Awakens introduced multiple black characters, female Jedi’s, and Storm Troopers of colour, the “sacred text” of many Star Wars fans was dramatically altered.
“There was this hashtag started called #WhiteGenocide. Based on a trailer, based on the fact that the hero wasn’t a white guy,” Derry says.
Chapter Five of the book, “Racism Awakens,” focuses on these racist responses to the movie trailer. From a scholarly religious perspective, the chapter focuses on conservativism, and just how much story tellers can “play” with “sacred texts” before people get upset.
“So how much flexibility do you have before people get upset? And that’s what we saw with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you change the focus from a white blonde guy to a white woman and a black man some people get very upset. So it allows us to think about those abstract questions [about religion],” says Derry.
The book is a first of its kind. Derry’s essay is based off the fact that many people had written about religion and Star Wars, but no religious scholars had written about this.
“ The Gospel according to Star Wars, The Dharma of Star Wars, The Evolution of Religious Iconography in Star Wars just to name a few [books about religion and Star Wars]. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot, but none of these are written by religious scholars,” Derry says.
“If something is popular or important to people, then that alone makes it worth studying. This has had such a huge impact on people, then it deserves some scrutiny.” Derry says. “This is the biggest pop culture phenomenon in the last 40 years, and we have not talked about it. From a religious perspective, there’s an advantage of looking at things that aren’t explicitly religious.”
One of these advantages is that lower stakes are involved in critiquing popular culture over religious texts.
“The idea of religion itself is very constructed. Religion isn’t a thing,” Derry says.
“We kind of see some things that people are doing over here and it’s similar to things that people are doing over here and we just call it religion. But religion isn’t a thing. So there’s no more reason to think of Christianity as “religion” than to think of Star Wars as religion. So depending on the definition you’re using, Star Wars definitely qualifies as religion.”
“By turning our attention to something people don’t generally consider as religion—like Star Wars—it allows us to rethink what we mean by religion and how it functions in our lives. It becomes an interesting way to think about these issues and ideas in religious studies through this lens of Star Wars.”
As an academic, Professor Ken Derry’s published pieces have considered religion through the context of other written and visual works such as The Wizard of Oz, and Netflix series Luke Cage.
His introduction to The Myth Awakens looks at the use of “play” in Academia.
“Play matters because you take yourself less seriously, you do less harm. It allows you to put humanity back into Academic study,” Derry says.
“Pop culture is generally looked at dismissively—I think that’s why there’s a need to do it—because it does matter. So many people consume popular culture, but it’s looked at as so unimportant in Academia.”
Derry speaks extensively about the notion of conservativism in response to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer from a religious perspective.
Conservativism in the study of religion focuses on how people cling to sacred stories and their histories, and Canonism focuses on how we choose the sacred stories we cling to, and what people consider legitimate aspects of their religions and sacred texts.
In all of this, people are involved—those who tell the stories, and those who receive them. In a way, notions of conservativism, legitimacy, and canon lend significance to certain aspects of stories that may be no truer than any other story. The storytellers and creators of these histories become gate keepers in a way, with an authority to write and rewrite narratives that people base aspects of their lives on. In academia, these notions of conservativism, and these gatekeepers might dictate what is seen as academically relevant the same way George Lucas or some Star Wars fans might inform what aspects of the Star Wars history must remain unchanged and unchallenged.
In studying the parallels between religious study and popular culture, we are able to tackle larger abstract ideas through more easily digestible topics.
“What would you want people to take away from this book?” I ask Derry.
“The book was written to be accessible to a lot of people. I hope it sparks thoughts in people about Star Wars and religion. The essays in the collection, some of them contradict each other, it isn’t about agreeing. Part of the point is that you could have different opinions on topics depending how you look at them,” Derry says.
“For academics—to see that there’s value to studying popular culture—whether they’re doing it or not, to judge the work by the work itself, not by the subject matter. Work isn’t important just because it’s about something ‘important’.”