“Thirty seconds. Take her, Jacen. Kiss Tahiri for me.”
I still remember where I was when I read this line and the memorable paragraphs that came after it. It was early spring, a time commonly associated with birth and change. I was sitting in my parents’ family van, devouring yet another Star Wars Expanded Universe novel (nowadays known as a “Legends” novel), waiting for them to finish up their visit to wherever we had gone. I stayed in the van because I didn’t want to stop reading, as the plot had escalated to such an intense fervor that it was of the utmost importance to experience the chapter in one sitting.
Written by Troy Denning, Star by Star is the ninth installment of the New Jedi Order series. It’s also one of the longest Star Wars novels, weighing in at a hefty 600+ pages. Contrary to what so many of my fellow classmates at school believed about reading books, length didn’t matter - these novels couldn’t last long enough for me. That previous Christmas, I had received all of the New Jedi Order novels that had been released in paperback as a gift from my parents, and it only took me a season to devour the books, cover to cover. I was never more in love with the Star Wars universe as I was at that time of my life, and in that fictional era I found some of the most compelling storytelling and characters that the universe had to offer.
One of these main characters was Anakin Solo, the son of Han and Leia Solo. (Yes, this was before Disney changed things with their attempt at a Star Wars trilogy.) Anakin was a teen around my age at the time I read the books, and I saw a lot of myself in him, sharing both emotions and ideas with his character. I was very much looking forward to the legacy that they were setting up for Anakin. Long before this particular story had ever happened, Anakin Solo’s birth had been prophesied as early as 1000 years before the events of the movie A New Hope, and the series was obviously building up to him leading the Jedi Order against the alien invasion that had brought the entire galaxy back into a brutal war.
But something else happened to Anakin in Star by Star on pages 456 & 457. It was a scene that will forever be etched into my mind’s eye, a scene that turned everything upside down and inside out for me and my understanding not just of Star Wars, but of life itself.
Anakin Solo, fighting a valiant battle against the enemy, told his brother, Jacen, to take his sister, Jaina, to safety. He also told him to give his best friend and significant other, Tahiri Veila, a kiss for him. Anakin knew he wasn’t coming back, his time was imminent. He died in a glorious beacon of light, succeeding in what he set out to do in his final moments by sacrificing himself to save his family, friends, and the rest of his comrades.
Up to that point in my young life, I hadn’t read a scene of that kind of scale before. It was the first time I shed tears while reading a novel. In the wake of national events that had shaken the world I grew up in (the September 11 attacks), the loss of a character like Anakin Solo, my favorite literary character, compounded the uncertainty of what my future held. Heroes die. Yes, even teenage heroes, even heroes who essentially had an ironclad future, locked down by prophetic statements. Nothing was safe.
On top of that realization, I had such a reaction to the scene that I knew something special had happened. I wanted to understand how the author, Troy Denning, had made me weep. I wanted to know how he had made me start seriously contemplating my own future, and what would I have done in Anakin’s situation. I wanted to know why I was emotionally torn apart by Anakin’s sacrifice. I knew that in order to find those answers, I probably had to become a writer. I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be, but at that moment, I understood the power that storytelling could have. I wanted to learn more about that power, and to be perfectly honest, I wanted to harness that power.
Storytelling, with the right ingredients, has the ability to change lives. I can confidently state that I’m living proof of this, but I can also state with similar confidence that anyone reading knows of a story that changed their life too, for better or even worse. As for me, I went to university to learn the power of storytelling, submitting myself to the teachings of professors who I hoped would help me unlock this mystery box of mine. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing, and while most would tell me that’s a worthy achievement, I left knowing that four years of professional education still left me with many questions unanswered. While I was there, I learned many whos, whats, whens, and even a good amount of whys. But to this day, I regret that my university experience left the realm of hows unexplored and unanswered. In a very pluralistic and relativistic university atmosphere, I left with a diploma but without any grounding Truth in the arts.
Even though I left disappointed and regretful about my educational experience (and my existing student loans still remind me of this), Someone had, unbeknownst to me, begun setting the stage for discovering the hows. I met a lot of good people on campus and in my classes who I hung out with, learned from, and exchanged ideas with on a regular basis. Interestingly enough, most of these friends were professing Christians at the time. At that point of my life, I would’ve accurately been called a “cultural” Christian, accepting that there’s a higher Being and adopting a lot of the traditions that went along with a more Americanized Christianity. But as far as my comprehension level regarding my faith went, I wouldn’t have been able to explain much of any of the 5Ws & 1H of the Christian faith, much less justify why I believed it.
One of my friends, a Renaissance man of the arts by the name of Ryan, had begun developing a historical retelling of the story of Jesus and His disciples to perform as a stage “passion” play. I watched him write it over the course of many weeks, and offered feedback on the early scripts I was shown, though my knowledge of the Scriptures was not as comprehensive as Ryan’s was. Soon enough, he spearheaded the production of “Christ and His Companions” at his church and put on a presentation that served as another life changing moment for me. The talent this cast had, combined with Ryan’s powerful direction and vision, was almost too much to behold. The story was incredibly retold and showcased, and I felt a connection to the people in the Gospels like I had never felt before.
Once again, I saw a character perform not just good, but the ultimate Good. Once again, I saw a leader give last instructions to His family and followers. Once again, I saw a character sacrifice Himself, taking up His cross to deal with the sins of the world once and for all to bring about ultimate redemption and peace. And once again, I was shedding tears. Just as Troy Denning had shown me all those years prior, and just as J.R.R. Tolkien showed me with his work The Lord of the Rings some time later (which brought me a similar reaction as I had with Star by Star), Ryan showed me the same. But this time was different. This time, Ryan directly answered how this kind of story affects us all while he portrayed Jesus, the Lord of all creation, onstage, as he cited:
“Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends.”
Ryan’s passion play production made the audience feel like they were a part of the scenes. Actors and actresses moved about the sanctuary as we sat in the pews, observing everything the production had to offer. A good deal of the audience members were openly emotional during many scenes, and not just ones relating to the crucifixion. For myself, I sat in the front row, completely enthralled that someone my age could, with the help of his friends and the Church body of believers, produce something so powerful, so meaningful, and so personal. But I soon remembered that this is an artistic reenactment of historical events. These scenes actually took place in some shape and form, and we have reliable documents that have been transmitted over the course of two-thousand years that describe most of these scenes in great detail. This wasn’t truly Ryan’s story. This is God’s story, and He means to share it with everyone.
Because God shares His story with us in so many ways, we’re deeply engrossed in it, even if we aren’t aware of that fact. We borrow so much from God’s story in everything we create, the echoes of His works constantly reverberating through our hands and minds. We want to copy perfection, and why wouldn’t we? While John 15:13 was just one Truth that helped me understand what makes some stories so special and meaningful, Scripture holds the keys to all of the other Truths that I had to find. Some Truths I’m still discovering even today.
God knows how our individual stories will end, just as God knows how the greatest story of all will conclude. He even tells us through His Word what will happen before the curtain falls on Earth as we know it. But it’s obvious that our stories aren’t over just yet. There’s plenty more in store. Through our five senses and the mind that God has gifted us, He has made sure we will never be without the constant echoes of His story and truth. Our creations prove that we can’t stop ourselves calling back to our own Creator.
In his work Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs writes,
“An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom that did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”
What I saw exhibited by Anakin Solo in his final moments was incredibly beautiful because his actions repeated eternal Truth. John 15:13 is engraved onto our hearts, and as God continues to purify us by the Spirit as we live our lives on earth, scenes of heroic sacrifice should hit home harder every time we witness them. As I log more years into my own life journal, seeing the Rohirrim charge at Pelennor Fields in Peter Jackson’s vision of The Lord of the Rings, watching Stacker Pentecost and Chuck Hansen arm their Jaeger’s self-destruct mechanism to take out attacking Kaiju in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, staring at Lee Abbott tell his daughter he has always loved her right before saving his entire family in John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, the feeling never gets old. Through tear-filled eyes, I experience the power of these characters’ actions, remembering that these are but reflections of what our own Creator did for us. How much more powerful is the sacrifice that Christ made for all who believe in Him? Is there any other event in history that can even come close?
As Christians, we of all people should recognize not only the influence that an act of selfless sacrifice has on us, but also how a story’s power, fiction or nonfiction, has the ability to fundamentally change who we are and how we decide to live our lives. An author’s job is to harness the power of storytelling, but the mindful author realizes that they are never truly working alone. Someone else has already spoken, and that Someone else is still building plenty of characters for His story, too.