On September 30, 2016, Alex Bird joined Jack Hitt onstage at the Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of the ongoing series “Amateur Hour,” in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions. Bird, who lives in Kingston, New York, works to restore cognitive and social skills in survivors of brain injuries. He is ranked as a knight and deacon at the Temple of the Jedi Order, where he has three apprentices. The conversation that follows was recorded live and has been edited for brevity and meaning.
Jack Hitt: As I was growing up in the Episcopal Church, there were things that we did: You said grace at a meal, you said your prayers before bed and sometimes when you got up. As a Jedi knight, what do you do during the day? How do you practice the religion? What happens?
Alex Bird: I am a knight in the Temple of the Jedi Order, generally truncated to TotJO. It’s a very new endeavor, and we’re in a place where we’re still creating the text from which we operate. The phrase borrowed directly from the movie—and everyone is familiar with it: “May the Force be with you”—is used, as are a dozen variations of it. But we try very hard to take it a step further. I and the people I practice with take the movie as a starting point. We say, “Here is a myth. Here is a series of images that turned us on when we were kids. Rather than following them all in the fantasy direction, let’s see how fantasy-oriented our lives can become.”
Does that mean you meditate? Do you pray?
I do! I meditate, and I teach meditation as part and parcel of my work.
Just general meditation or Jedi meditation?
In Revenge of the Sith, we see Samuel L. Jackson, i.e. Mace Windu, sitting on a terribly uncomfortable-looking couch in his boots, which I’ve always interpreted as him meditating. But what was the content of that practice? We don’t know. But we can look at real-world analogues. The bulk of my practice personally lies in that vein of Vipassana meditation, something closer to Zen meditation for the men and women I serve. I think it’s more accessible to them.
Is there a group with whom you meditate?
Well, I’ll back up a bit. We chose a myth. If you grew up in a religion, so did you—or, rather, a myth was presented to you, a story that speaks to a culture in a specific time and a specific place, generally with a finite set of motifs. Creation, destruction, or hero’s journey. Every one of us was handed a myth, and these are things that before TV, before movies, when we were young, our elders would have sat us down and said, “Here’s where the world came from. This is a story about a villain. Don’t act out these behaviors. This is the story of a hero. This is the way you should behave.” And there will be a set of images that accompany it. These stories help you make decisions about how you want to live your life, but the language of the story also predicates your relationship with whatever it is you hold sacred, your notion of the transcendent. And if you are a Christian or a believer of one kind or another, it involves God.
I am an ordained minister, and I’m also an atheist, and that’s okay, because I have my own sense of what is transcendent. For me, it’s not supernatural. It could be as simple as something beautiful. Soon, it will get cold and I’ll go outside, breathe, and the moisture will leave my mouth. It will crystallize into fog: To me, a beautiful and transcendent thing about the world. But also, simple physics. But it’s beautiful and it speaks to me, and so, not supernatural, but still, sacred and beautiful. So the imagery that you use within your founding myth predicates your relationship with the sacred. If, going back to my Catholic upbringing, if the Lord is my shepherd, and his rod and his staff protect me, then what is my relationship to the sacred? That of the sheep—and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. I’m just unpacking the prayer. So I didn’t grow up in an era where I’m sitting around a fire as a child with my elders.
So you’re suggesting that the realities behind the old myths are no longer accessible to us?
Right, so where do I encounter my mythology? I encounter it on television and in books, same way everybody else does, except that my mythology is quite young. But it’s about context: Here is a story in a language in a place and a time, and it speaks to me more than a story about a man who, we shall say, lived nearly 2,000 years ago and spoke a language that I do not speak in the context of a culture that I cannot pretend to understand. None of us can pretend that we actually have a handle on the culture in which Jesus Christ lived. A myth has got to speak to you.
But your myth doesn’t reach back to any time that’s actually real.
That’s true. I mean that it has to speak my language. It has to be relatable. And there are elements of classical religion that of course are relatable because we’re human beings and we haven’t evolved really that much over 2,000 years. But at the same time, there’s a way to look at that type of religion and say, “elements of what I might find sacred are kept in certain rooms and certain days of the week.” All of a sudden, for many of us, it becomes a foreign language. It doesn’t mean anything. Or at least it lacks personal resonance. So what happens? We kind of made a funny leap. We said, “That’s our myth,” and everybody said, “That’s silly.” And some of us said, “That is a myth that speaks our language.” Is it true? No, of course not. Yoda’s a puppet, we all know he’s a puppet. But we’ve come to another conclusion and it is this: that myths are true, all myths are true. Not literally true; they’re truths about us, they’re stories about us, they’re always stories about people. The analogue must come back to the practical conduct of the individual, but the myth must be stated in a way that means something to you, or it’s just another story.
So how is this a myth that’s stated in such a way that means something? How do you get past the movie fun?
Sometimes we don’t. I’m not past the movie fun twenty-four hours a day. I have a person in the temple who comes to me and says, “Alex, I tried to explain that I’m a Jedi to my boyfriend and he said, ‘That’s silly.’” And I said, “Well, they’re probably right.” You have to understand: When you choose as your guiding story a movie with lasers and Wookiees—and they’re not even good movies—
Can we all agree on that? I love them but they’re not actually good movies.
Are you talking about the first three?
Alec Guinness hated them all.
But that’s because Guinness was upset that his entire movie career had become a footnote to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Come on, the first three are pretty good. The second set of three, not so much.
I love them but I don’t think they’re the best.
You’re saying you’re not satisfied with the myth that you more or less believe in? That makes you a Protestant Jedi.
No, what I’m saying is that you chose as your guiding mythology this movie, so if people don’t immediately take that seriously, you’ve got to own that. When I explain that I’m a Jedi knight, I have to do it smiling because I know how it sounds. I don’t get to pretend that I’ve got 2,000-plus years of automatic respectability. I have in fact no legitimacy and there’s value in that. I can come back to this, I don’t sell it. We are adamantly not a missionary group. That’s not anyone’s goal. We never sell it. We live it. So maybe someone comes up and says, “You treated that person really well. You put in time that someone else might not have. Why is that?” Oh, because I do this training. I’m a Jedi.
Are you training other Jedi? Other disciples?
I am, but we don’t use that word. I have students.
What do you call someone who’s not yet a knight but en route?
So you join, you’re a member, you do a certain amount of work. It’s basically just getting everybody on the same page. We refer to it as the Initiate Program. You do the IP, you’re an initiate.
Like the Jesuits used to say: Give me the boy and I will show you the Jedi.
We don’t actually let young people train. Swords are dangerous. But we also take what we’re doing reasonably seriously. Not super seriously—we still make jokes about ourselves.
How long does the Initiate Program last?
It’s a certain body of work. You complete it over a bunch of nights. Mostly written lessons, because we’re an online temple.
Is it a liturgy?
It’s a variety of sources. We deal with some theoretical work, what would you do in this sort of situation. But we’re reading Alain de Botton, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Alan Watts. To a degree, you really don’t want people to summarize too much. You’d like them to synthesize and bring it into their lives. Once someone has completed this body of work—
How long does that take?
I did it in about four months. I’ve seen people do it over the course of two years. It depends on whether you have a day job or how much you sleep.
So it’s readings—and you have to write essays that then get graded?
It’s all pass/fail. Did you cover the subject matter adequately and do you understand why we did this?
And is any of the scripture and any of the liturgical homework the movies?
No. We take the fiction from the movies. And from there, again, we go back to the question, What is the foundation beneath these symbols? These symbols speak to us. When I sat down and watched the movies there was a part of my head that was like, “Yeah!” I was watching this stuff and Yoda’s syntax is reversed, and I went, “That guy’s got a plan!” But think about it. He’s on the screen for about, what, thirty minutes? That’s not much of a skeleton on which to hang much of anything, so what we’re going back to is something much deeper. Every myth digs into the same set of questions: Why am I here? What is my place in all this? What is my appropriate relationship with other human beings, with my environment? Some mythologies are better suited to speak to us in our culture and in our time. Others speak to these issues in ways that are quite racist or quite sexist, and while they’re still addressing those essential questions, they’re doing it in a way that doesn’t grab me.
Now how do initiates react? They’re lured in the tent by the movies and they get there and instead of a lightsaber, you hand them Alan Watts and a bunch of homework and tell them they have to write essays. How many then flee the tent?
Oh, 80, 90 percent. Right before the last movie came on, a bunch of people showed up, and they said, “Oh, I read the front part of your webpage and I read the one or two things that are on there and I agree with everything you guys say, and I’m gonna be here for life.” Most of them didn’t come back. But some people stay, and they stay because, by definition, seekers need.
I think we all want the same thing. I want a series of stories and a series of examples that tell me, “What is my appropriate relationship with the sacred?” We chose, for instance, the knight as the guiding architect. Choosing a knight instead of a sheep is a very different way of relating to the sacred. It leads to a very different element of service and a much more active element of service. Many of the people within the Jedi community are active-duty military; we have a ton of first responders and cops. We have a lot of people who work in medicine. But we also have a lot of people who work in professions that are less obviously service-oriented but it becomes their way. For example, someone who sells clothing could put more attention into their work, make sure they’re not milking customers for money that they could be spending elsewhere, they can make sure the customer feels good when they leave. There must be some practical service element to Jediism.
Are you all hammering out a kind of Nicene Creed?
Yes and no. We’re getting there, but we are deciding among ourselves what is a fair expectation. I’ll give you an example that came up in a conversation we were having. An African-American man was shot by a police officer, and the community responded, and in and among that response there was an element of violence. Was that the entire community’s response? Of course not. But a car did get burned, and we were discussing that. Someone had just read an article that claimed that the violence of the response invalidated the protest. And I said, “Okay, but think about it through the lens of your work as a Jedi: Do I have the right to tell a person how they should address their own emotions? Especially in the context of that level of struggle.” And what I decided was: As a Jedi, I feel incumbent to exert control over myself, that I will have emotions but I will choose my behavior, and I will choose behavior that I consider responsible. If I were talking to another person who had made a similar commitment, I would say, “You really can’t behave that way.” But not everybody makes that choice. Am I allowed to hope that people will be peaceful? Of course, I don’t want anybody to get hurt. But am I allowed to decide what is valid about your dialogue because of how you express it? Unless you’ve chosen to speak the same language I do, maybe I don’t. This is the kind of stuff we talk about—through the lens of what is appropriate empathy, appropriate justice, appropriate equity.
Am I hearing that the Jedi wouldn’t cast judgment on someone who burned a car?
Well, what you’re hearing is that we had a conversation about it. But again, we have Jedis who are police and first responders who probably have a very different opinion. We are not a monolith. We are as diverse as any other community and so there will be Jedi who will say, “That is absolutely unacceptable,” and other Jedi who will say, “I’m going to make an effort to try to understand that.” It’s a community that is a great deal about commitment but also a great deal about consent.
Are your meetings full of passionate intensity, or is everybody extremely Zen?
There’s actually a lot of diversity in that, too.
When you say diversity, are there strong differences about what Jediism should be?
Do you have tax exempt status?
We do. We’re a temple.
And you can marry people. You are a knight.
Yes, a knight. You can be a senior knight, you can be a master. There aren’t many of those.
In America, then, you are a religion. So, what is the religion’s relationship with the cosplay guys? I know there are guys who gather, they have lightsabers, they wear the robes, they train and fight.
I wish I had a whiteboard so I could put up a Venn diagram. I mean it’s a multi-gajillion-dollar industry, right? The number of fans outnumber the Jedi a million to one, that’s fine. The people who are cosplayers are primarily fans, and they’re interested, and I’ve got no problem with these people. I’m a fan, too. I don’t get to pretend I’m not. Very rarely will you find a person who is a Jedi who is not a fan because why would you gravitate toward a symbol that you didn’t dig?
So why not stick with the original? “May the Force be with you” is ripped straight from the prayer book: “The Lord be with you.” Why not be a Roman Catholic?
Because there are elements of the history to which I am averse. Because my specific relationship to the transcendent didn’t speak to me.
So why not be a Zen Buddhist?
I was a Buddhist. I served out my novitiate as a Buddhist monk in India and then for a time in Myanmar. And I came back to the United States and what I found was that operating as a Buddhist in the United States was profoundly difficult for me because my practice was entirely out of context. My practice became weird—like I was speaking a foreign language. And the neat thing about being a Jedi is that if I say I’m a Jedi, you might laugh, but you know what I’m talking about. I’m not speaking a foreign language. You might regard it as something kind of silly, but we’re all kind of familiar with the symbol.
There are Jedi who are Buddhists, though. And a dear friend of mine is a devout evangelical Christian who is a Jedi. We have Jedi who are atheists—I’m one—we have Jedi who are pagans. We don’t as a community really rule that out. There’s a term that we use: orthoprax. You’re all familiar with orthodox, “correct belief.” We invest more in orthopraxy, “good action.” It doesn’t matter how you arrive at that. If you love the people around you, great. If you arrive at compassionate decisions, great. If you seek some meaningful element of justice in your life, great. The means by which you seek those actions are not most important.
So, then, what is the Force?
I can’t tell you. It’s not that I can’t tell you, it’s that I’m not going to tell you. I kind of hold it as axiomatic that discovered insights are more valuable than received insights. Which is not to say that I’m finding anything new, only that I’m the one finding it. So if we say, “What about the Force?” Well, then we all have to agree on what that means.
Do you all agree?
No, and that’s kind of the whole point. I’ve instructed the people whom I work with in the clergy, “Don’t answer that question.” And it’s not because your answer’s not as good as my answer. It’s because if I put out the official word on what the Force is, that deprives others of the opportunity to create their own relationship with it.
Is there going to be a bible? Will you ever create a sense of knowable dogma?
We chose this story and we could have chosen another story. There are some who say that a religion is growing up around the movie The Big Lebowski. And the Dude is a good example because he speaks to a specific group of people in a specific time. But I don’t know that in fifty years anyone’s going to look at those movies and go, “That’s the thing.” Joseph Campbell said that in modern society, the role of creating new myths is left to the poet. We are not a society that values poets. That is sad but it is true. But we have other people to fill that role. So is Dudeism a little tongue in cheek? It’s actually utterly tongue in cheek. But I allow my Jedi path to be kind of tongue in cheek because it becomes an inherent humility practice. So one of the things I actually find quite valuable about the Jedi path is its relative lack of legitimacy because then I get to be just another bozo on the bus and be very conscious about that. Does it mean that what I do is a joke? No, but it relieves me of the burden of a little bit of my self-importance—and true humility is the basis of every great spiritual tradition.