A month ago Building Faith published a pre-review of the young adult novel-turned hit movie The Fault in Our Stars. Author Lisa Brown, communications director and children’s minister at St Paul’s, where parts of the movie were filmed, was insistent that formation leaders could use this very real, very popular movie to connect to the lives of its millions of fans. We asked Lisa for a post-viewing report.
Most of the responses I’ve received from the wide spectrum of teens and adults (including clergy) who have seen The Fault in Our Stars have been overwhelmingly positive. However, yesterday I received an email voicing a deeply felt criticism. The writer’s accusation was that although the church building looks beautiful, the people of the church are portrayed as insulting and damaging caricatures, who offer no pastoral care or spiritual guidance. My critic was of the opinion that The Fault in Our Stars movie is a horrible affront to the church and in no way suitable for reaching out to teens.
My reader’s response puzzled me. I am sensitive to the way Hollywood portrays people of faith. When a character quotes scripture, I dread that it’s a cue for hypocrisy or pathological evil; I often turn the channel. Even recognizing the flatness of the institution of church in The Fault in Our Stars, I never wanted to turn away.
What I believed when reading the book and what I still believe after having seen the movie, is that this story remains an incredible teaching tool.
The Fault in Our Stars is a cultural zeitgeist.
John Green is everywhere. His work is devoured by young people, both those whom we serve and the many who have no church affiliation. To not capitalize on his conscientious decision to set the support group in a church – rather than a hospital – is an opportunity lost.
John Green writes for teenagers in an authentic voice, channeling generational beliefs.
Perhaps we as adults don’t like seeing our institution through their eyes. For every teenager who is connected to a parish, attends worship, and does mission work, there are legions of teens that don’t. As doomsday articles report, families no longer feel societal pressure to be part of a faith community; millennials are leaving the church. It is statistically likely that the characters of Hazel and Gus never set foot inside a church, before becoming a part of the cancer support group. Perhaps for them, the portrayals of the incompetent support group leader or the priest who only shows up at the funeral are the world they know. Furthermore, to a child dying of cancer any platitudes offered by even the most conscientious person might ring false. We in the church are not immune to offering easy answers, a Sunday school coloring book version of Jesus.
The Fault in Our Stars depicts the undeniable craving we have to connect to one another and to God.
– a craving that will never be satisfied in the secular world. Yes, Hazel and Gus endure an embarrassingly ineffectual support group leader who sings bad Jesus songs, but they also find each other. They find love and that little glimpse of infinity that overcomes the dark reality of despair. And they find it in a church. When death is imminent and they name what is beautiful in each other, they do so in a sacred place. In a church.
For real life kids who have never been in church and assume it to be a place of judgment and damnation, this movie introduces an intriguing “what if?” The support group leader is ineffectual, but he does care. The group may not offer answers to difficult questions, but it allows them the space to explore those questions. Isn’t that a key value to who we are as the Episcopal Church?
And for the teens who are members of a faith community? Ours laughed at the support group leader, but embraced his malapropism, proudly telling their non-church friends, “We are the literal heart of Jesus.”
At its heart, this is a movie for young people and the adults who love them and care for them.
To realize the true impact of The Fault in our Stars, we should ask those who feel most deeply connected to it. Here are a few responses of the St Paul’s teens who attended our special Opening Night Gala:
“It was incredibly cool because John Green tweeted a picture of Ansel Elgort and Nat Woolfe at the piano in the (church) corner and said that the most beautiful time he had during the movie was filming late at night in that spot…”
“… ‘oblivion is inevitable’; however, God exists forever, so if you make a difference, oblivion won’t exist, since God will always remember what you did. This made me happy, especially since before the movie, I had barely even thought about it…”
“…one of the great things the movie shows about the Episcopal church is that you can find many meaningful aspects of your life at and through the church. You can learn what’s important… Hazel and Gus find out what’s most important to them, without coincidence, at the church.”
Lisa Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Director of Children’s Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, PA, which was a primary filming location for the movie The Fault in Our Stars. Now that the movie has opened in theaters everywhere, she’ll be getting back to a full summer schedule of Vacation Bible Schools and program planning.