Why are we attracted to stories that we don’t quite get?
The Cutting Edge of Ahsoka
Even though I am a longtime Star Wars fan, the 2023 Disney+ series Ahsoka was my first experience of being at the edge of a Star Wars fandom.
Ahsoka is a live-action sequel to the animated series Rebels. Focusing on the intriguing and complicated character of Ahsoka Tano, the former Jedi Padawan of Anakin Skywalker (who would become Darth Vader), the series brought to live-action the beloved characters from Rebels and its predecessor Clone Wars series, which ran on the Disney TV Channel before streaming online.
Because it was a sequel but wasn’t marketed that way, the Ahsoka series firmly divided my social media networks into two camps:
- those who watched years of Rebels and Clone Wars were thrilled to see how the characters they knew had turned out.
- And the ones who had not watched the series but tuned in anyway were completely lost!
I was oddly in the latter, having not seen much of the animated series—but I am a Star Wars fanboy, so I got a watchlist and binged Rebels and parts of Clone Wars to get to know the characters and satisfy my curiosity about the storyline. After doing so, I found I enjoyed the Ahsoka series—but certain scenes didn’t capture my emotions the same way as those who grew up watching that series year after year.
It was my first experience not being part of the “in” group to whom a Star Wars series was tailored. And I wonder if my experience is similar to those in biblical times who wanted to be part of a faith community but found themselves outside of it.
Paul and the Jewish Sympathizers
In seminary, I was taught that the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus was like three concentric circles. Closest to the center—the Temple—were the Jewish people, and in the outer circle were the Gentiles who were decidedly not Jewish. There are many stories about that vast Jew/Gentile divide in scripture.
But there is a middle group between them called Jewish sympathizers, or Hellenistic Jews, who were people that were attracted to the Jewish faith, but were culturally Greek, or did not want to take on some of the restrictions of holy living in the Jewish faith. They were the circle outside the temple, but closer in than the Gentiles. Imagine they were in the temple courtyard to learn more, but not in the Temple itself to worship and be purified.
Scriptures written at the time of Jesus—including Paul’s letters to the early Christian churches—were well aware of this middle group of sympathizers, of people who were attracted to the Jewish faith, but were not immersed in it the same way as those in the center. The early disciples of Jesus Christ eventually welcomed them and gave them different ways to participate in the Jesus movement than those in the inner circle (see Acts 6 and Acts 9).
The Jewish Sympathizers wanted to be part of a story, but they hadn’t done what was necessary to truly commit to it.
Standing close by
I was thinking about these sympathizers when I started to think about my experience of Ahsoka. I didn’t grow up with the animated predecessor series, and in fact—as some of my friends will tell you—I turned my nose up at them, seeing them as more for teens than for adults. I was completely wrong, and I thoroughly enjoyed the animated series once I started watching them this year.
Those of us who have an affection for Star Wars, but haven’t done what is necessary to really be immersed in the culture—such as watching and reading particular Star Wars content—didn’t have the same experience of Ahsoka as those who are at the center and grew up alongside the evolution of the story from Rebels and Clone Wars. People like me are Star Wars sympathizers: attracted to the story, but don’t know exactly what is happening in them.
I pride myself on being a geek and a Star Wars expert, so it was a humbling experience to not be in the inner group of Star Wars geeks. I got a better experience of what it meant to be in that sympathizers group—not someone who grew up with a storyline, but not someone outside of it either.
A new age of religious sympathizers
I think the divisive Ahsoka experience is an increasingly common one in religious circles, and faith communities like churches would be wise to respond.
For previous generations, Christianity had been the ubiquitous experience in America: you were either in or out, for better or worse. But in recent decades, the rise of the demographic “Nones” (who do not identify with any organized faith) means more and more people grow up aware of religious traditions but don’t identify with them. As the Nones grow in number each year, we have an interesting growing middle ground: fewer people who have actively rejected a religion (often because of the failures of its adherents) and more people who may not have grown up with a deep involvement with a faith at all.
This growing group of blank slates and informed curious onlookers alike have a chance to have an Ahsoka experience of faith: a curiosity that can draw you in, but one that requires investment to participate.
As a pastor, this is a wonderful opportunity to connect with those folks, to spark curiosity and correct bad narratives, by:
- show them the stories they have been missing (that don’t make the outrage minimum for social media reporting)
- Point out the local expressions of those stories that are transforming the world.
- Introduce people to ancient texts and messages and languages that are so different from the world around them, but don’t quite make sense.
- In other words, to show them that to make sense of their story, they can choose to first invest time and attention in the storyline of the People of God. Some will and some won’t.
And yet curiosity isn’t about exposure—plenty of Nones have studied a faith and found it wanting—but it is about curiosity. There was something about Judaism that drew in the sympathizers. There was something about Ahsoka Tano that drew in live-action fans to watch hours of animated content. And there can be something about your local faith community that can draw people in again—or that you can go out and be a part of beyond your community’s walls.
My hope is that, for the first time in recent history, there’s a better chance at reintroducing your faith tradition (Jesus and Christianity is mine) to a people of curiosity rather than concrete perceptions. May we find ways to invite curiosity, and make the faith work the investment to move from sympathizers to disciples.
Thanks for reading, commenting, subscribing, and sharing on social media.