Finding meaning in life and death Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Jul. 17, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

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 definitive answers. He both reflects and helps to shape the inchoate, eclectic spirituality that holds sway in the teen and 20-something set today.

Asserting a Christian sensibility

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 at the local Episcopal church.

The group is presided over by a well-meaning 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 gaggle of teens.

Hazel shares bleak philosophy

At one of the 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."

The only response that the hapless leader can muster is, "good advice for everyone."

Falling in love

At one of the 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 Sacred Heart of Christ.

Kind, encouraging, funny, and devoted, Augustus (Gus) draws Hazel out of herself and 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 contact with Van Houten, they fly to Amsterdam to commune with their literary hero.

God and afterlife

Just before the encounter, Gus and Hazel engage in some serious conversation about God and the afterlife. Gus says he believes in God and in some sort of life after death; otherwise, he argues, "What is the point?" Hazel retorts, "What if there is no point?"

The 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, mirroring Hazel's nihilism.

Hope in the face of darkness

The two teenagers go to the Anne Frank House, where Hazel manages, despite her oxygen tank and weakened lungs, to climb to the attic where Anne 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. Their love, which began in the heart of Jesus, asserted itself in the face of darkness.

But we are not allowed to dwell on this hopeful moment, for Gus reveals that his cancer has reasserted itself and his condition is terminal. Not long after they return, Gus dies, at the age of 18, and Hazel sinks into profound sadness.

At the funeral, Hazel goes through the motions, pretending to find comfort for the sake of her family and friends. Some days later, she discovers that Augustus had written a note to her before his death. It closes with the words, "Okay, Hazel Grace?" To which she responds, while gazing up into the sky, "Okay." With that word, the film ends.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

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 in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The central claim of Christianity is that God became one of us and he shared our condition utterly, accepting even death, death on a cross. God entered into our suffering and transformed it into a place of grace.

It is not accidental that Waters (Gus’ 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.

This is why I think Hazel effectively repudiates her nihilism and materialism as she responds across the barrier of death to Gus' "Okay." I'm convinced that Hazel senses 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 struggling to find their way to meaning and faith, it's not an entirely bad place to start.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org