The tricky thing about writing about The Force Awakens is that most everyone has agreed on one important rule: NO SPOILERS. I fully support the spoiler ban and allowed myself to watch only the film’s theatrical trailers in the months leading up to its release, avoiding most other press and gossip in the interest of watching the film as unaware as possible. I find it easier to go along from the ride when you have no sense of what’s coming in a film, especially with a storyteller who relies as much on foreshadowing and misdirection as J.J. Abrams does.
Based on the trailers, though, I already had countless questions when I walked into the theater: Who were all of these new faces? How, if at all, were they connected to each other or to the heroes of the previous films? At the very least, who was the protagonist: Was it the pilot played by Oscar Isaac, the desert scavenger played by Daisy Ridley, or the frantic storm trooper played by John Boyega? And what was the deal with the Adam Driver’s sloppy-red-lightsaber-wielding man in black? The film’s marketing cleverly played with our expectations about who might take up the Jedi mantle, who might bear Skywalker blood, or who might swing a lightsaber. Much of the fun I had watching the movie involved trying to predict just how every character would fit into the story of this film and the larger story of this new trilogy of films, including the leading cast as well as the colorful menagerie of minor characters.
Ah, yes, the background characters: The Star Wars franchise is famous for its seemingly never-ending supply of iconic background characters—your IG-88, your Bossk, your Ki-Adi-Mundi—or maybe it’s infamous for them, if you take the cynical interpretation that more memorable faces (no matter how insignificant to the story) means more action figures sold. (In fifth grade, my friends and I got a lot of mileage out of juvenile humor related to Ponda Baba, whom we affectionately referred to as “Buttface.”) The Force Awakens absolutely delivers in the form of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it creatures and costumes parading around the margins. If you follow news out of Hollywood, you may be aware that, in addition to creating Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, Disney (who now owns the Star Wars franchise) has announced plans to release three spinoff films based on existing characters in the Star Wars universe. If you take the cynical interpretation here, you might suspect Disney knows people (myself included) won’t hesitate to buy tickets for any film with Star Wars in the title, no matter how tenuously connected it is to the characters we know and love. (The first film, coming out next year, will chronicle the exploits of a team who couldn’t be minor-er characters in the original trilogy: the small band of Rebels who steal the plans for the Death Star before the events of A New Hope, and who are only referenced in passing in that film.) The less cynical interpretation, though, is that the Star Wars universe is complex and rich enough that every person you see has a story worth telling, so we might as well investigate some of the other stories.
I distinctly remember the first time I perceived myself, with sudden clarity, as merely a sort of background character in someone else’s story. My brother and his wife were expecting their first child, and as I tried out the new title “Uncle Brent,” it hit me: My niece would be the first-person narrator of her own story in the same way I am the first-person narrator of my own. I saw myself through her eyes. I thought of my own aunts and uncles, some of whom I’m closer with than others, and I realized I’d be one of many adults in this young child’s life, less important to her than her parents or some of her teachers, but probably more important than many of the other adults she would meet. The epiphany was bittersweet. The world felt bigger, and I felt much smaller. I was one of countless uncles, countless sons, countless brothers. For the vast majority of people, I was a background character, if they were aware of me at all.
We are, each of us, part of the story God is telling throughout history: A story of creation and destruction, of birth and death, of—ultimately—redemption and hope. I think, perhaps, each of us will go through certain seasons in our relationships with God that could be the stuff of movies: seasons of intense, rapid maturity and spiritual growth, spells of intense suffering or grief that unite us to the sufferings of Christ, or even pivotal moments in which we practice remarkable selfishness or cruelty, or grace or mercy. These seasons tend to make the best testimonies or, okay, blog posts. We’re Han Solo swooping in to save the day above the Death Star, or we’re Luke Skywalker watching Yoda use the Force to levitate a sunken spaceship, and we’re exhilarated to feature so prominently in the story God is telling. God’s work feels immediate and palpable.
I also suspect many of us will go through seasons in which we exist merely as background characters in the story God is telling—seasons in which God’s primary work takes place in the lives of others: We’re merely another nameless pilot in the Rebel Alliance flying behind Luke Skywalker, or maybe we’re simply moisture farmers on Tatooine, entirely unaware of the world-changing events happening on the other side of the planet. To exist in the first-person as a background character can be boring or humbling, and it can even be distressing if we interpret it to mean that God has forgotten or moved on from us. There’s incredible liberty and opportunity in the background, though: Freed from the pressure to achieve or impress, content with a less tumultuous experience of God, we can seek to extend as much grace and mercy as we can imagine in our circumstances. We can open our homes for meals or for longer-term guests. We can pray actively and consistently for people and movements outside of ourselves. We can listen to, or walk with, or even carry friends whose own worlds are collapsing. We can rejoice in the work God is doing, even if it doesn’t feel so immediate or palpable to us, because we trust that God is up to something much bigger than ourselves and our immediate circumstances.
By the time the credits roll on The Force Awakens, we’ve learned just enough about the new characters to begin puzzling together where they fit and where the story will go from here, but much still remains tantalizingly unclear. I’ve often envisioned a scenario in which, in the life that is coming, God decides to lay God’s cards on the table and inform us just exactly how God worked in the world to bring about God’s purposes. I suspect we’d be entirely surprised. “I thought that moment was so much more significant than it was,” we’ll say on some points, and on others we’ll say, “I had no idea how much that person’s influence mattered.” In the meantime, we each have a role to play, and there are no small parts in the kingdom of God.