Church Pop Culture by Daniel Blackaby April 26, 2023
Spirituality and Religion in The Mandalorian
Let’s be honest, most people are drawn to Star Wars for its fun action and world building, not for deep themes and probing philosophical questions. Rian Johnson’s highly controversial The Last Jedi (2017) was criticized—in part—due to its attempt to be intellectual and socially conscious rather than escapist fun. That’s not to say Star Wars stories can’t have intellectual depth. The first season of Andor is arguably the most mature Star Wars storytelling to date and some of the best material to come out of a galaxy far, far away in decades. But as the franchise’s first live-action TV show, The Mandalorian’s main draw was its return to the classic Cambellian storytelling (and also the irresistible cuteness of “Baby Yoda”). As the show has progressed, however, it has begun to venture into some surprisingly nuanced and intriguing themes.
The recently completed third season was a mixed bag containing fun moments, an overwhelming number of unconnected subplots, and the burden of establishing other stories in the cinematic universe rather than developing its own. Yet one of the most compelling aspects of the season was its overt religious subtext.
Showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni clearly leaned into the religious motif, with episodes titled “The Apostate,” “The Convert,” and “The Spies” (which, given the context of the episode, seems to be an allusion to the twelve Israelite spies in the Old Testament). The season’s main storyline, the scattered Mandalorians retaking their home world after years spent wandering, echoes the Israelites being led into the long-awaited Promised Land. Perhaps even more interesting is the way the show explores religion and spirituality thematically.
Religious rites and tenets have been a part of the show since the beginning, such as the practice of Mandalorians not removing their helmets in public. The now-iconic mantra, “This is the way,” indicates a specific code of belief and behavior Mandalorians should follow. As the show has progressed, it has explored the role of the Mandalorian creeds more deeply. In season two, Din Djarin (aka, The Mandalorian) encountered former ruler of Mandalore, Bo Katan. The contrast between the two characters reveals that not all Mandalorians share a reverence for the creeds.
Considering how Hollywood often portrays religion, it would not have been surprising for the show to establish the Mandalorian as a cultist or religious fanatic and then unfold a story of how the more free-living Mandolorians enlighten him. After all, for audiences steeped in the Star Wars lore, the Mandalorian’s faction is hinted to have once been connected to a group formerly known as “Death Watch,” which essentially was a fanatical group of zealots. Yet, refreshingly, the show has done the opposite. Djarin’s unwavering devotion has repeatedly been presented as something positive, an inspiration to the less traditionally rooted Mandalorians.
In one episode, the Mandalorian is chided by Bo Katan for undergoing a “baptism” to atone for his transgressions to the code. He respond to her by asking, “Without our creeds, what are we?” As becomes clear by the end of the season, being a Mandalorian is more than just bloodlines or birthplace. It is about a worldview and a way of life.
Both Din Djarin or Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) are “foundlings,” adopted into the Mandalorian culture. At one point, when their legitimacy is called into question, one of the leaders—known as the “Armorer”—declares that they have adopted the creeds and are every bit as Mandalorian as the others. There is a sense that without the creeds, the Mandalorians do not exist; the specific code and value system gives them their identity.
Being a Mandalorian is about following “the way,” but there is disagreement over what “way” that is. The scattered Mandalorians are divided into two factions: a fundamentalist group and a more modern/lax group. While the factions disagree on some elements of the creed, such as the permissibility of removing their helmets, they are united on others, such as the importance of the “Darksaber” and the established rules for legitimate ownership of the relic.
In some ways, the two factions evoke the Jerusalem Council in the Bible (Acts 15). In the Early Church, Jews and Gentiles were brought together in the new Christian movement, and there were cultural disagreements about what was required. While those cultural disagreements were not easy to reconcile, the way forward was to emphasize the essential beliefs they both held—namely, salvation through Jesus Christ.
The Mandolorian‘s depiction of factions finding unity can perhaps be interpreted in different ways. In a negative sense, when the fundamentalist leader tells Bo Katan to remove her helmet, live in “both worlds,” and bring the tribes together, there is a sense of religious compromise that in order to grow and survive, they must forsake cherished creeds. But in a more positive sense, there is also an understanding that helmets are an important cultural rite for some, but the creed of what it means to be a Mandalorian is more than the armor they wear. In order for the Mandalorians to survive and flourish as a people, they must allow liberty in some of the cultural disagreements and focus instead on the primary essence of their people.
The event that inspires both factions to reevaluate their priorities is the appearance of the legendary Mythosaur, an exalted creature long thought to have gone extinct. Bo Katan is skeptical and dismissive toward Din Djarin’s traditional and “outdated” convictions. She mocks his baptism in the “living waters” and the existence of the Mythosaur as a childish story. Yet, when she looks the creature in the eye, her beliefs are shaken, and she is ultimately driven to reconsider the creeds.
On the other hand, The Armorer is also shaken when she hears of Bo’s encounter. She is initially skeptical but comes to accept the truth of the story. Unlike Bo, the reemergence of the creature leads The Armorer to relax her hold on the creeds. She asks Bo to remove her helmet in order to unite the factions. In a sense, the Armorer is akin to the New Testament pharisees, maintaining a strict religious code but lacking conviction or an understanding for the heart of her belief system. The Mythosaur reminds her of who Mandalorians once were and who they could again become.
The Mandalorian doesn’t always probe its themes with great depth, and such exploration is typically interrupted by plenty of pew-pew-pew and exploding spaceships (this is Star Wars, after all). At the same time, it is both surprising and refreshing to find such an honest examination of religion and spirituality in a hit Hollywood show. Unlike the antagonistic portrayal of religion in many Hollywood stories or the ultra-sanitized and simplistic presentation of religion in many faith-based films, The Mandalorian should be commended for its honest, nuanced depiction.
The show doesn’t spoon-feed audiences with heavy-handed answers. Din Djarin’s adherence to the strict creed is neither condemned nor fully endorsed; neither is Bo Katan’s more liberal rejection of it glorified or denounced. Rather, despite being escapist fantasy in a galaxy far, far away, the show simply allows its characters to explore religion and spirituality for themselves. Religion and spirituality are a central part of the human story, and it is refreshing to find this reality treated with honest respect in Hollywood, especially in such an unexpected corner of the galaxy as Star Wars.