By Very Rev. Robert Barron
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.
But we are not allowed to dwell on this hopeful moment, for Gus reveals, just before they return home, that his cancer has reasserted itself and that his condition is terminal. Not long after they return, Gus dies, at the age of eighteen, and Hazel sinks into profound sadness: “Each minute,” she says, “is worse than the previous one.” At the funeral, even as Christian prayers are uttered, Hazel just goes through the motions, pretending to find comfort, precisely for the sake of her family and friends. But some days after the funeral, she discovers that Augustus had written a note to her just before his death. It closes with the words, “Okay, Hazel Grace?” To which the young woman responds, while gazing up into the sky, “Okay.” With that word, the film ends.
Pretty grim stuff? Yes…but. Does nihilism have the last word? I don’t know. The question that haunts the entire movie is how can there be meaning in the universe when two wonderful young kids are dying of cancer? As any Philosophy 101 student knows, our attempts to justify the existence of evil through abstract argumentation are a fairly useless exercise. However, a kind of answer can be found precisely where Hazel and Gus met, that is to say, in the sacred heart of Jesus. The central claim of Christianity is that God became one of us and that he shared our condition utterly, accepting even death, death on a cross. God entered into our suffering and thereby transformed it into a place of springs, a place of grace. I don’t think it is the least bit accidental that Waters (Gus’s last name) and Grace (Hazel’s middle name) met in the sacred heart of Christ and thereby, despite their shared suffering, managed to give life to one another. And is this why I think Hazel effectively repudiates her nihilism and materialism as she responds across the barrier of death to Gus’s “Okay.” I’m convinced that Hazel senses, by the end of the story, the central truth of Christian faith that real love is more powerful than death.
Is this film a satisfying presentation of Christianity? Hardly. But for those who are struggling to find their way to meaning and faith, it’s not an entirely bad place to start.
Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism” and “Catholicism: The New Evangelization.” Learn more at www.WordonFire.org