Church of Jedi Takes Advantage of Turmoil

Nick Street’s recent essay on Battlestar Galactica viewed the show as a harbinger of the future of religion whose fans’ immersion in media and technology becomes a sort of spiritual practice in itself. One of the strangest religion stories in recent memory also involves a science fictional religion: the Church of Jediism, whose co-founder Barney Jones, a.k.a. Master Jonba Hehol, was recently attacked by an inebriated critic in a makeshift Darth Vader costume. There’s not much detail in most of the press coverage of the odd event, which was generally treated as a simple news-of-the-weird item. But the Vader attack opens a window into an international new religious movement that, like Battlestar Galactica, may show us the shape of faith to come.

Of course, neither BSG nor Star Wars is the first science-fictional religion to gain prominence. The hedonistic Martian religion described by Robert A. Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land was a direct influence on late-60s communes, and Scientology was launched with an article in an issue of Astounding Science Fiction. But the Jedi church is in many ways a more striking movement because it basically started by accident, when 390,000 people listed “Jedi” as their religion on the United Kingdom’s 2001 census. Among those thousands were brothers Barney and Michael Jones, who took their census statement seriously. According to the Church of Jediism’s official Web site, Daniel (Master Morda Hehol) dedicated himself to the Jedi way in 2003, and started an actual ministry with his brother Barney in 2007. The group claims 30 members in the UK, but has links to similar organizations in New Zealand and the United States.

The Darth Vader attack occurred while some of these members were filming a lightsaber battle in their backyard. Arwel Wynne Hughes, wearing a garbage-bag cape and swinging a metal crutch (lightsaber), leaped into the yard shouting “Darth Vader! Darth Vader!” He struck Barney on the head and punched his cousin, Michael Jones, on the leg. In a court appearance, Hughes claimed not to remember much about the incident, owing to the box of wine he had drunk beforehand. A Welsh court sentenced Hughes to two months in prison (suspended) and a fine. But the facts of the case obscure the real story, which is the impact this coverage has had on the Church of Jediism itself.

In the wake of the attack, Time magazine and NPR interviewed Daniel. Despite the interviewers’ thinly-veiled mockery, this level of coverage offers an unprecedented legitimacy to the group, and they know it. (“I don’t know if [George] Lucas even knows about it, to be honest with you,” Daniel says, but: “I’m sure he will after this.”) The interview is an example of denizens of the Long Tail subverting traditional media for their own ends. Regardless of Time’s mockery, the Joneses know that the interview will reach thousands of like-minded seekers, many of whom may find in the Church of Jediism a spirituality they can understand. There has always been a spiritual element to science-fiction fandom that appeals to many of those who, like 16.1% of respondents to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey, have no religious affiliation. In the NPR interview, Daniel Jones explains that he belonged to “none of the above” prior to founding the Church: he had no faith beyond “just being myself, I suppose. Atheist is the best way to describe it.” The Church of Jediism shows that many members of the growing unaffiliated contingent find greater spiritual satisfaction in pop culture than in traditional religion.

You would expect the group’s leaders to welcome the increased attention, but Barney Jones—Hughes’ primary victim—has reportedly stepped down as the Church’s leader. A WalesOnline report is vague about whether he has left the faith entirely or simply wants to avoid the limelight, but the Vader attack has clearly caused him to reconsider his role as a spiritual leader. The impact of the incident on the fledgling faith is mixed: it will likely gain new members, but at the cost of one of its founders.

Time will tell what place Master Jonba Hehol’s sacrifice will take in the mythology of the Church of Jediism. But this small story gives us a taste of the future of religion, in which groups that know how to use pop culture and the media to build myth will guide speak most clearly to our spirits.