Jul 1, 2014
John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars has proven to be wildly popular among young adults in the English speaking world, and the recently released film adaptation of the book has garnered both impressive reviews and a massive audience. A one-time divinity school student and Christian minister, Green is not reluctant to explore the “big” questions, though he doesn’t claim to provide anything like definitive answers. In this, he both reflects and helps to shape the inchoate, eclectic spirituality that holds sway in the teen and 20-something set today. After watching the film however, I began to wonder whether his Christian sensibility doesn’t assert itself perhaps even more clearly and strongly than he realizes.
The story is narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager suffering from a debilitating and most likely terminal form of cancer. At her mother’s prompting, Hazel attends a support group for young cancer patients that takes place at the local Episcopal Church. The group is presided over by a well-meaning but nerdy youth minister who commences each meeting by rolling out a tapestry of Jesus displaying his Sacred Heart. “We are gathering, literally, in the heart of Jesus,” he eagerly tells the skeptical and desultory gaggle of teens. At one of these sessions, Hazel rises to share her utterly bleak, even nihilistic philosophy of life: “There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. [...] There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that's what everyone else does.” The only response that the hapless leader can muster to that outburst is, “good advice for everyone.” It would be hard to imagine a more damning commentary on the state of much of so-called Christian ministry today!
At one of these meetings, Hazel meets a handsome, charming cancer-survivor named Augustus Waters, and the two fall almost immediately in love. Though they both consider the support group fairly lame, there is no denying that they were brought together over the heart of Christ. Kind, encouraging, funny, and utterly devoted, Augustus (Gus) draws Hazel out of herself and lures her into a more active engagement with life. They both love a novel called An Imperial Affliction, written by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten. After establishing e-mail contact with Van Houten, they arrange, through a kind of “Make-A-Wish” foundation, to fly to Amsterdam to commune with their literary hero. Just before the encounter, Gus and Hazel engage in some serious conversation about God and the afterlife. Gus says that he believes in God and in some sort of life after death; otherwise, he argues, “What is the point?” Still clinging to her bleak materialism, Hazel retorts, “What if there is no point?”
The next day, the young couple, filled with enthusiasm, comes to Van Houten’s home only to find that their hero is a depressed alcoholic who has no interest in talking to them. When they press him for answers about mysteries in his novel, he comments on the meaninglessness of life, effectively mirroring Hazel’s nihilism back to her. Just after this awful conversation, the two teenagers make their way to the Anne Frank house, where Hazel manages, despite her cumbersome oxygen tank and her weakened lungs, to climb to the attic where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis. In that room, evocative of both horrific, meaningless violence and real spiritual hope, Hazel and Gus passionately kiss for the first time. It is as though their love, which began in the heart of Jesus, asserted itself strongly even in the face of darkness.