The Last Jedi is filled with provocative moments, but one scene is especially inflammatory—literally. Rey has just flown away to try and turn Kylo Ren back from the Dark Side. For exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who insists the Order is so morally compromised that it should end with him, this is the last straw. He brandishes a torch, intending to burn down the tree housing the ancient Jedi texts. The ghost of his own master, Yoda, appears, but doesn’t stop him. Instead, when Luke hesitates, Yoda himself calls down lightning to strike the tree—and laughs about it! As the tree burns, Luke concludes, “So, it is time for the Jedi Order to end.” But Yoda replies, “Time it is—for you to look past a pile of old books. … Wisdom they held, but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.”
I’m working on a PhD in literature. It bothers me that Yoda treats old books so flippantly. What’s more, I’m a Sola Scriptura Protestant. My alarm bells go off at the suggestion that people don’t need a sacred text to guide them or already possess what wisdom they need. I recall someone commenting that The Last Jedi’s jab at books and received wisdom went against everything he believed in. If this scene were the film’s final word on the subject, I would have to agree.
But the Jedi texts were not destroyed. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot at the end of the film reveals that Rey took them aboard the Millennium Falcon. This puts Yoda’s words in a new light: it was only from a certain point of view that “[the] library contained nothing that [she] does not already possess.” That should lower the blood pressure of the booklovers and Bible-thumpers, but why the misdirection? Why does Yoda let Luke think the books were destroyed? If Rey still finds value in the books, why does he tell Luke “to look past” them?
Yoda’s lesson for “young Skywalker” is that, even before trying to set the books on fire, he was not using them rightly. The film’s ridicule is directed not at those who value old books but at those who value them inordinately or not at all. The wise reader, according to The Last Jedi, neither rejects old books nor venerates them but approaches them with a teachable and discerning spirit.
Yoda reminds Luke of what he told him in Return of the Jedi: “Pass on what you have learned.” But Luke has refused even to be taught. When he blusters at Yoda’s pyrotechnics (“The sacred Jedi texts!”), Yoda calls his bluff: “Oh! Read them, have you? … Page-turners they were not.” Just as in The Empire Strikes Back, he chides Luke for “looking to the horizon.” He is too impatient to open a dusty tome, let alone open himself up to what it may have to teach.
At the same time, Luke has burdened the books with a significance they cannot carry. He speaks of “The tree, the texts, the Jedi” as three equivalent things, as though destroying the two would also end the third. But the Jedi exist because the Force exists, not because of anything they wrote about it. Like the librarian in Attack of the Clones who claimed that “If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist,” Luke needs “to look past a pile of old books” because he has confused them with realities they can only describe. As Yoda puts it, the books hold wisdom; they are not wisdom itself.
To be sure, Yoda’s strategy for making Luke recognize these errors risks that his student—and we, the audience—will be angered rather than admonished, missing the point of the lesson. But if we are willing, with Luke, to look past the initial insult of the gambit, we will find that, although the strategy involves destruction, the purpose is constructive.
Yes, some people, like Luke at the beginning of this scene, do want to destroy. When they realize the traditions they received are in many ways horribly broken, they think the right response is to “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” But that’s Kylo Ren talking. That’s the thinking of the film’s villain. The film’s heroes are Rey, who claims the books, and Luke, who changes his mind and defiantly declares, “I will not be the last Jedi.”
But the film is equally critical of an opposite error: covering up the cracks in a tradition rather than acknowledging what’s broken. This is what Luke says ruined his attempt to revive the Jedi Order. He “romanticized” it, buying into a Golden Age myth of the Jedi and failing to account for the arrogance that brought about the Order’s downfall. He kept a bunch of impressive-looking books on the mantle, but they were for show, not deep reading. If Luke had studied his ‘classics’ more closely, he might have realized that embracing the past wholesale is just as foolish as completely denouncing it.
The Last Jedi suggests a better way: to learn from the past and learn from all of it, both the triumphs and failures. In fact, Yoda says we should learn from “failure most of all.” This way is modeled by Rey, who knows about Luke’s failures but still wants him as a mentor. This is not a compromise between the two extremes; it moves in an entirely different direction. Neither the people who burn books nor those who let them collect dust have teachable spirits, or the patience to carefully distinguish between the better and worse legacies of their forebears. They incinerate or cling to everything, no questions asked. Alan Jacobs, describing all three approaches to old texts in his book Breaking Bread with the Dead, notes that “Wisdom lies in discernment, and utopianism [the kill-the-past approach] and nostalgia [the romanticize-the-past approach] alike are ways of abandoning discernment.” The way of wisdom does not destroy what’s broken; neither does it leave the mess as is. Before she was a Jedi, Rey was a scavenger. Her disposition is to sort through the fragments of the past, looking for the pieces with which to build for a better future.
Reinforcing this argument for wise reading, the Jedi texts turn out to be essential in The Rise of Skywalker, the next and final film of the Skywalker Saga. Explicitly, the books help Rey find the Sith planet of Exegol and end the centuries-long struggle between the Sith and the Jedi. But we can also infer that they teach Rey forgotten practices, including how to commune with past Jedi. The opening crawl begins with the words, “The dead speak!” Immediately, these words refer to the revenant Emperor Palpatine, but later they take on a positive, richer meaning, recalling the title of Jacobs’ book. Dead Jedi do speak to Rey, first through the page, then audibly in her most desperate hour. As she aligns herself with their tradition (“I am all the Jedi!”) and defeats Palpatine with the strength given her by that tradition, past and present are reconciled, opening new possibilities for the future.
Indeed, the only way forward is to first move backward, and this time-travel is only possible through reading. But, again, the goal of reading cannot be a nostalgic return to a bygone era. Rather, reading is a corrective lens for the present’s shallow vision. As C. S. Lewis said in “Learning in War-Time,” “[W]e need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet we need something to set against the present.”
Lewis said this to encourage university students at the start of World War II, because he knew the idea of studying the past while the future hung in the balance seemed preposterous. Shouldn’t they be enlisting? The idea also seems preposterous to Resistance leader Poe Dameron, who criticizes Rey for staying on base while others fight. At the same moment Rey is meditating to contact the past, Poe is lightspeed-skipping in the Falcon, jumping around the galaxy without coordinates. Impulsive like Luke, all Poe sees is the unstable, ever-changing horizon. But if it weren’t for Rey’s reading and the journey she and Poe take into the past—traveling to planets haunted by ghosts, memories, and unfinished business—Poe’s military victories would have been short-lived.
Old books, far from being kindling and a punchline, turn out to be unsung heroes in the Star Wars galaxy. Still, it would be wrong to entirely defang the tree-burning scene. Those of us who promote the power of reading should let it bite us a little. If we bristle at Yoda’s jest, we may need to confront in ourselves the same illusion Luke had, that books are the key, whether for spiritual growth, the survival of a culture, or the renewal of the church. I am not referring here to our faith in the power of the Word of God (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Hebrews 4:12), but to the temptation to elevate other books, the words of men, to near-sacred status. C. S. Lewis is not the fourteenth apostle, and he was quick to remind his hearers that “The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest.” I believe God is using my reading outside the Bible and my scholarly vocation to sanctify me, but many believers don’t have my library or college credits yet know more about holiness and neighbor-love than I do. Reading is important, but it won’t be enough. As seen in The Rise of Skywalker, it can enrich our perspective and free us from the tyranny of the now, but The Last Jedi shows that these benefits will depend on whether we are teachable and discerning, and what we treasure more: Is it the books, or the Truth glimpsed through the books? A surefire way to find out is for someone to light a match near our bookshelf shrines.
Robert Brown studies American literature at Baylor University. On the side, he writes about theology and culture and especially film. His writing and other projects can be found at robertbrownpresents.com.