Daniel Fleetwood was born in 1983. This was the same year as the premiere of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He was born into a world where Star Wars had always existed, and he had always been a fan. Imagine his incredible sadness when he discovered that his spindle cell sarcoma would kill him before the December 18th premiere or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Fleetwood is dead now, however he did not die unfulfilled. You see, a few weeks before his death, his wife began a facebook and twitter campaign, #ForceForDaniel. The goal was to convince Disney, Lucasfilm, and Badrobot to allow Fleetwood to view the film early, before he died. The campaign gained the backing of Star Wars heavyweight Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) as well as a newcomer, John Boyager who plays Finn the Stormtrooper in thenew film. Disney et al were moved by the appeal and the Fleetwoods were able to enjoy an early cut of the film in the comfort of their own home. Fleetwood died two days later. In the words of his wife, “he is now one with God and one with the Force.”
As I watched this unfold over the internet, I kept returning to the same religious ritual again and again; that of Catholicism’s Last Rite. Indeed, the end of life has long been the domain of religion. Where doctors fall short, prayers are offered as a supplement. Temporal concerns begin to fall to the wayside as the dying and their loved ones bring their thoughts to eternity. Sins are confessed, regrets addressed, and when the time has come, prayers are recited, songs intoned, the mirrors are covered. The person now passed is memorialized in a church, and buried or cremated in the way prescribed by Gods, priests, and shamans.
However, in the case of Daniel Fleetwood, the Catholic Church did not send a priest. Instead, Disney sent a DVD (and a non-disclosure agreement). He won’t be buried under any sort of cross, but instead inside an urn shaped like a lightsaber.
And yet, the net affect seems to be the same. Without any reference to Jesus (Christianity is the dominate faith of his native Texas) Fleetwood is being eulogized in the media using the mechanism of long established religions.
He’s being wished the historically Christian “rest in peace,” and the Jedi “may the force be with you, always” in the same tweet.
There are no images of him looking down from Heaven or surrounded by doves. Instead, he’s another floating force-being with alongside Yoda, Obiwan, and Anakin Skywalker.
It was not his faith in God that sustained him well past when Doctors said he would die. According to his wife, it was his love of Star Wars. So it follows that he has not gone home to Jesus, he is now “one with the force.”
Star Wars wasn’t only Fleetwood’s religion in death. It seemed to fill that same role in life as well. For example, I’d like to bring your attention to his hearth. Where your grandmother might have either the sacred heart of Jesus (if she’s catholic) Sallman’s Head of Christ (if she’s protestant)or perhaps Ganesha (if she’s Hindu), the Fleetwood family had Star Wars Memorabilia.
That’s where the Fleetwoods looked for inspiration. That’s how the connected themselves to a community of millions of fans. And, in fact, as a member of the “Temple of the Order of the Jedi,” this is where he got his morals.
Star Wars seemed to be the single greatest force of “meaning-making” in Daniel Fleetwood’s life. For the sociologist Clifford Geertz, this is more than enough to call his fanatical love of Star Wars “religion.” Geertz defines religion as “a system of symbols which establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
This definition works well until the last qualifier “clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” Star Wars has always been sold, and assumedly received as, a fiction. It’s not meant to be a history revealed to George Lucas like the great scriptures of old. If I may dare speak for Fleetwood, I don’t think he ever believed Luke Skywalker literally existed.
Geertz is fine but contemporary scholar of religion Jeffrey Kripal, based out of Rice, goes much farther to help us imagine Science Fiction and “the fantastic” as religion. Kripal boldly reintroduces “the sacred” back into the academic study of religion, where so many theorists have shied away from it. If Star Wars was Fleetwood’s religion, we don’t need to understand that to mean that Fleetwood believed that Luke, Leia, Darth Vader, and Flinn the Stormtrooper literally existed a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. We must instead read it “fantastically.” Read that way, it’s neither literal nor merely made up. Instead it is “an act of imagination in touch with some deeper stream of physical and cultural reality.”
Is there a “force” that flows through all of us, underpinning reality, that can be conquered by adept Jedis and Siths for good and for evil? I wouldn’t dream of answering that question. I’ll merely observe that through the joint imaginations of George Lucas and fan Daniel Fleetwood, something sustained him well past when he was meant to die. It put him in touch with something outside of himself, something both meaningful and powerful that should be understood as real.
And so I say to Daniel Fleetwood: Vis Vobiscum in aeternam. May the Force be with you, always.