Tuesday, December 20, 2016

'The Force Awakens' and a lifetime's regret

I wrote this earlier this year after screening "The Force Awakens."

His eyes had a way of avoiding mine, even as he told me what he thought were hard truths.

He sat there under a cloudy sky embarrassed by the can of beer in his hand, his eyes aged by tobacco and regret. My wife and I were there trying to convince him and his daughter to come to church, a place it seems that haunted him, yet a place that he longed for.

“I need to get her back up there,” he said, his voice on the edge of breaking. “She needs rehab.” She was not there, but in his words were a lifetime’s worth of regret, denial, and anger. Then he looked down at the beer, and an easy, familiar bravado took hold as he began telling us how he figured it was all right, different from the drugs she took. His doctor, he announced, had told the man he’d rather have him drink beer than Dr. Pepper. We didn’t care. The judgments he assumed where in our minds were more exacting in his own, perhaps wrapped up in self-deceptions long rehearsed and recited.

Regret, Proverbs tells us, crushes the spirit.

For some reason, this moment, still fresh in our minds, came back to us when my wife and I recounted the pivotal moment in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

“This will begin to put things right,” announces Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) in the film’s first line of dialogue. While this is sometimes read as a subtle promise to undo the damage supposedly done by the series’ prequel trilogy, it also announces that the galaxy is still out of balance. Darth Vader may have been redeemed at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” but the conflict he left behind still rages on in the hearts of those engulfed by it. 

Face to Face with The Force

The major characters in this newest chapter all deal with the pain of running away from decisions suddenly pressed upon them. Rey (Daisy Ridley) would rather not take on the droid BB-8 or his secret mission, yet she cannot bring herself to trade it in for several weeks’ worth of food. And for all the parallels found between her and the young Luke Skywalker of Episode IV (desert planet, droid on a mission, secret information) she differs from Luke in that he desperately wanted to leave his home on Tatooine, unaware of what awaited him. Rey wants to stay on Jakku for reasons only hinted at.

FN 2187, a stormtrooper on his first assignment, is sent there as part of a search and destroy mission in search of the droid. But unlike the mindless drones of the previous episodes, Finn (John Boyega) asserts his own independence at the first sign of death, eventually leading him away from the evil First Order. Why is he doing this? “Because it’s the right thing to do,” he tells Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

Finn and Rey later fall into the hands of the legendary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who we learn is no longer with Leia (Carrie Fisher) or the Resistance. “You’ve been running away from this fight for too long,” Solo later learns from the 1,000-year-old Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).

Why has he been running? Because of the tragedy of his son Ben, who is now the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the apprentice of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). When Solo lost his son, it split the union between himself and Leia, sending them both back into their familiar roles as pirate and patriot. It also set in motion the search that is the heart of “The Force Awakens” – for the vanished Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

As the film’s opening crawl tells us, the First Order will stop at nothing to find Skywalker, the last Jedi, who had set out to reestablish his religion until his nephew was pulled to the Dark Side.

Both Lors San Tekka and Maz Kanata seem to agree on one thing – where in the past the Jedi and Sith operated in a world of their own apart from the politics of the galaxy, now is the time for all creatures to make a stand in the light, or the darkness. All are being pulled toward order, or resistance. “There has been an awakening,” Snoke announces, and we get the sense that something much deeper has stirred.

At moments throughout the film, characters are forced to choose their allegiances. This is in keeping with the series, where the players have often been told they cannot escape their destinies, seemingly written out for them in some lost Jedi scripture. They are told that they “know” the truth, and that they need only search their feelings to discover it is already within them.

Finn embraces BB-8’s mission, but almost flees to the Outer Rim systems to avoid the clutches of the First Order. Rey wants to return to Jakku and resists the pull of the Force, when she is called to by a light saber that belonged to both Luke and Anakin Skywalker.

A reluctant messenger is a familiar story in the Bible, as is the overwhelming nature of Providential design. In Genesis 15, God seals His covenant with Abram, and reveals covenant heirs’ future in a dream, the promise sealed in a vision of a burning torch. When Rey touches the light saber, she sees the past (and future?), hearing the voice of Luke, the breaths of Vader, and the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi, along with scenes from her life and the life of Kylo Ren. “These are the first steps…” she is told.  The scene also tells us, the audience, that it is Rey whom the Force is exerting its will through, and the Force will not be denied. 

A Certain Point of View

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” says the prophet Jeremiah (17:9 NIV) “Who can know it?” A few verses later, he discloses the fate of those who run from God. “Those who depart from Me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.” Time and again in Scripture, God confronts reluctant souls in the comfortable wreckage of their lives and hurls them into seeming peril at the speed of His will. Those who reject Him in search of peace chase phantoms.

Deceit. One of the great unacknowledged themes of all seven Star Wars episodes is the simple ease with which our seemingly righteous heroes can delude themselves and others in the name of good. In the prequels, it is the Jedi Order’s reluctance to acknowledge its inability to properly see the threat of the Sith that brings about its doom. Later, Ben Kenobi tells Luke a lie – that his father was killed by Darth Vader – in order to speed him into his training as a Jedi. Even Finn finds it necessary to pose as a member of the Resistance in order to seek safety.

But like Ben’s lie, Kylo Ren now sees himself as a new creation, having killed the weak Ben Solo. The destiny he has been fleeing has been his temptation – toward the light.

Han’s reluctance to step back into the fight, and his son’s rejection of the light, meet like so many others in Star Wars - on a bridge over a great abyss.  Perhaps like my friend with the beer, it was his child that turned Han Solo from a skeptic to a believer in the ways of the Force. For Solo, it is the decisions of his son that he has been running from. 

Tempted by the Light

In the midst of presenting the Ten Commandments, God announces that He visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me.” (Exodus 20:5.) Sin has consequences, and when we see Kylo Ren speaking to the melted helmet of Darth Vader, we realize that we are still dealing with the awful effects of the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the Chosen One who apparently brought a kind of balance to the Force with his death, but an all-too-fleeting kind.

Kylo Ren wants to believe he has the strength of Vader, a presence Han believes dominates him. But it is on that bridge, when father and son speak face to face, that Ben confesses he wants to be “free of this pain.” Han says he’ll do anything to help his son, and his son’s solution is to embrace the darkness, and so he kills Han. “It’s too late,” he explains, echoing his grandfather’s words to Luke.

Anakin never had a father, and Luke was repelled and then drawn in by his dark and defeated patriarch only at Anakin’s death. But what should we make of Ben Solo, who derides his “weak and foolish” father a moment before impaling him on a light saber? A few other questions arise which may not find their answer just yet but in future episodes. Such as, who is being deceived? Is it Leia, who still believed there was good in her son? Is it Kylo Ren, who believes he has traded his father’s life for a certainty within the Dark Side of the Force? Has he finally succeeded in killing Solo’s son, or can he be “brought home?”

“As long as there’s light, we’ve got a chance!” Poe announces during the attack on Starkiller Base that is the climax of the film’s action. Evil is again temporarily frustrated with the destruction of the latest ultimate weapon, and the search for the most reluctant of all characters can at last be completed.

In a distant, secret corner of the galaxy, Rey finds Luke Skywalker waiting on her as she climbs to meet him, holding out the weapon that was his birthright. He alone can train her. With a look of reluctance, he is confronted by the birthright he cannot run away from, the destiny he cannot reject, the truth that was always within him.

Even while he was a baby, the parents of Christ were told that He would be a sign to reveal the thoughts of many hearts (Luke 2:35). Everyone must make a choice. The man my wife and I spoke to that overcast day wasn’t unacquainted with the church we invited him to, nor with the truth proclaimed inside. But decisions lead to other decisions, and choices lead to responsibilities. All have consequences.

Yet the light is insistent, tempting us and plaguing us even behind the masks, both of darkness and light, which we don to chase it away, smashing all our illusions in the process.

The Light’s always been there, the film assures us. It will guide you.

I also wrote about Star Wars here and here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Read the first chapter here

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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