Zealots do not ordinarily fare well in popular American entertainment. The High Sparrow of Game of Thrones was routinely shown to be cruel, power hungry, and devious. His true believer identity turned out merely to be a front, the pathway he has chosen to best aid his own pursuit of power. And so religious belief ends up looking like just another Machiavelian tool.
Meanwhile other popular stories depict sincere true believers as dupes, easy marks for the powerful. Consider the portrayal of Pastor Mason Young in the first two seasons of Ozark. His piety seems sincere, and yet his childlike faith makes him precisely that: a child. And so his performed religiosity and the followers it attracts all becomes a useful lever in the hands of one of the local crime families, which use his church to distribute drugs without the pastor even knowing.
Nearly any popular portrayal of a zealous religious believer in popular media in recent years ends up fitting one of these two types: Eli in There Will Be Blood is the cynic. Preacher Billy in season four of Justified is the dupe. It sometimes feels a long way from Karl Malden’s Fr. Barry, the heroic priest in On the Waterfront who possesses both sincere faith and deep courage, which inspires him to give a moving speech midway through the film denouncing the evil at the heart of the film’s story.
And that is what makes the most recent episode of the popular Star Wars series The Mandalorian so interesting. The lead character Din Djarin, played by Pedro Pascal, is a member of the Mandalorian society, a group perhaps best understood as the Spartans of the Star Wars universe—defined by uncompromising creedal beliefs and a pervasive militarism. Yet by the time The Mandalorian takes place, that culture is in tatters and the overwhelming majority of its members no longer believe the creed. Amongst them is Bo-Katan Kryze, the deposed ruler of the Mandalorians. She routinely takes her helmet off—a violation of the Mandalorian creed—and views much of Mandalorian religion with an air of ironic detachment and, at times, even scorn.
Djarin, however, belongs to a group that Kryze perceives as a “cult.” They affirm their belief in the creed constantly and truly do seek to live out what it teaches. In the most recent episode, the second of the show’s third season, Djarin has to travel to the bombed out and possibly poisoned homeworld of the Mandalorians to bathe in the waters of the Mines of Mandalore as an act of contrition for removing his helmet. Even as they approach the edge of the waters, which Kryze guides Djarin to, Kryze still maintains her ironic detachment from the historic beliefs of her people.
I took the creed. I was showered with gifts. The rituals were all just theatre for our subjects. They loved watching the princess recite the Mandalorian tenets as her father watched proudly. Such a heartwarming spectacle.
She then goes on to read a plaque posted by the waters, saying she needs to give Djarin “the full experience.” The plague tells of a fantastical creature said to live in the mines called a mythosaur and it tells the story of how the first Mandalorian tamed this beast, thereby marking it as a sacred place in Mandalorian religion. To the end, Kryze maintains her distance from the faith, fully exemplifying the religious cynic. Djarin, however, neither a cynic nor a dupe, challenges her:
Without the creed, what are we? Our people are scattered like stars in the galaxy. The creed is how we survived.
And so Djarin takes off his armor and walks forward toward his baptism, reciting the Mandalorian creed.
I swear on my name and the names of the ancestors that I shall walk the way of the Mandalore and the words of the creed shall be forever forged in my heart.
Then Djarin is suddenly pulled under the water. Kryze dives in after him, finding him at the bottom of the water. She lifts him up and swims toward the surface and then sees something as she rises: a huge creature, eyes open, looking at her—the mythosaur. She resurfaces in shock as the episode ends. This, perhaps, is the most surprising thing of all: It’s not just that The Mandalorian showed us a character who is a sincere, wise, and competent religious zealot, but the final scene suggests something more: the zealots might be right.
It is by now old hat to argue that the grand secularization theories of the modern west turned out mostly to be false—religious faith is booming across the global south as well as in pockets of central Asia and eastern Asia. In America, New York City has likewise seen a sharp uptick in orthodox Protestant believers over the past 30 years. Moreover, even those who do not adopt what might be regarded as traditional religious beliefs, often trade in older religions for newer, remixed ones that come with their own pieties, dogmas, and mandates, as laid out in Tara Isabella Burton’s essential Strange Rites.
What this recent episode of The Mandalorian suggests is that perhaps our popular storytelling is catching up to these cultural realities. Religious cynicism is boring, the “OK boomer” of religious dispositions. In a world shot through with anxiety and loneliness, where our societies sometimes seem to have no space for actual humans, perhaps old-school religion and sincere zeal has a certain appeal. Instead of perceiving religious faith as being either a mask for more nefarious motives or a kind of infantilizing force that makes people naive and foolish, perhaps it might be better to see it as so many of our ancestors did: as a guiding presence in our life that directs us toward the good life, for both our own happiness and the happiness of our neighbors.
The English mystery writer and playwright Dorothy Sayers once said that when it comes to Christianity “the dogma is the drama.” Without sincere belief in the hard truths of the faith, the faith loses its life, its capacity to grant meaning and even to thrill at times. If we now find ourselves searching again for meaning amidst the dystopian tendencies of the modern west, then perhaps the faith of the zealot can teach us something.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).