Monday, February 18, 2019

The Fault in Our Stars – a Christian Mom’s review

Christian Review of The Fault in Our Stars

Plot Summary & 
Christian Review of 
A Fault in Our Stars 
by John Green.

Spoiler Alert!

I got this book in a grab bag of kids’ books from my thrift store. Since I was unfamiliar with it, I thought I’d read it before deciding when and if it would be appropriate reading for my young daughter. I have since discovered that the book was also made into a movie – which I have not seen and am not reviewing here.

The main characters in The Fault in Our Stars are a teenage girl, Hazel Grace, and her boyfriend, Augustus Waters. At the beginning of the story, Hazel is terminal, but Augustus is in remission. By the end of the book, his cancer has recurred, and he has died, and she does not have very long left to live. Their friend, Isaac, is also suffering from cancer, and in the course of the story is blinded by the disease, and his girlfriend callously dumps him for being blind. Much of the story’s action centers around the support group they all attend in their Episcopal Church basement. The characters are all nominally Christian, but their faith seems to be a very thin veneer over their lives, one that is more cultural than deep and profound.

The book focuses largely on Hazel’s obsession with a book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten. (The book itself is a literary device of the author of The Fault in Our Stars – you can’t really go get it from your library).  An Imperial Affliction is a book about a girl with cancer, which abruptly ends with the main character’s death, leaving many unanswered questions. Hazel is obsessed with finding out how the book’s author envisioned what would happen to the characters after the end of the book. She shares this obsession with Augustus who then uses his “wish” (granted by a cancer charity) to transport them to meet the book’s author in Amsterdam. There they find that the book’s author is a huge disappointment, but they fall in love with each other. They return to America for the final stages of Augustus’ illness, and his death.

John Green is a very skilled writer, and presents the story eloquently. I found it a very compelling read, full of thought-provoking phrases, concepts, and symbolism. It might be a very helpful book to read to understand the psychological struggles of young people going through this experience – and experiencing this great trial with only a superficial Christian faith, or none at all.

I have very conflicted feelings about this book. The book examines the very real emotions and doubts that children and their parents deal with when suffering such a tragic, terminal illness. Throughout the book, witnessing the existential crises of the young characters, I was really pulling for them to find meaning, Truth, and, yes, God, in their struggles. And they themselves were looking for these things diligently.

In the course of the book, the characters swore a lot, referred to sex crudely, drank illegally, and had sex on their second date. There was no concern over whether risking pregnancy while terminally ill was fair to the baby they could conceive if their protection failed. There was no concept – at all – not even a passing thought– that sex should be in the context of marriage (other than a flippant remark in another context that Christian girls should "save it for marriage"). To the author’s credit, the sex scene was not titillating or graphic.

I suppose that many folks believe that books for young people must have this sort of content to be “authentic” or “real.” But, the fact is that many authentic young peoples’ lives are not filled with these things, and filling Young Adult genre books with these things actually serves the function of encouraging young people to make these things “normal” in their lives, too.  What reader of fiction has not gone out and tried a new food or a new experience after reading about it in a book?

I can understand a person who is confused about life and angry about being ill, might engage in all the above behaviors in the course of a search, so I was not overly concerned about this as an adult reader. But, since as a family we do not have the habit of swearing, or of thinking of sex as a thing that should happen on a second date, I would be greatly concerned at my daughter reading such things and deciding such behaviors were "okay."

The book’s characters theorized about whether eternity existed, some believing in an afterlife, some not. They were affiliated with a Church, and went to a cancer support group in its basement.  Augustus’s funeral was at a Church. But, they seemed to not worry much about whether God existed, much less to reach out for any personal relationship with Him (except with the symbolic representations of him). Sadly not a single adult in the book provided the children with the support or guidance that might help them understand life’s ultimate meaning.

A concept that runs throughout the book is "hamartia" - which many Christians will recognize as the Biblical Greek word for sin - but in this book it is translated as a fatal or tragic flaw, often outside a person's control. Cancer is referred to as an hamartia.

The book has a couple of men who symbolize God (according toFAQs on the author’s website) – one a character in An Imperial Affliction known as "Dutch Tulip Man"– and the other the author of that book, Peter Van Houten, . These men were SO exceedingly unlike the God of the Bible that I didn’t even realize their symbolism until I read the author’s explanation after finishing the book. The young people diligently search the book to find the meaning of life and death, with Hazel even referring to it has her “Bible.” The symbols depict God as either impotent, or worse, wounded, despondent, angry, alcoholic, pathetic, and largely malicious toward creation.  At the beginning of the book, Hazel believes that if she could just connect with the author of the book, she could die happy. By the end of the book, Hazel has completely and angrily rejected this man who is the book’s symbol for God, and instead has effectively made her beloved, dying boyfriend into her “god.”

The parents in the book were excellent, caring parents in every secular meaning of the word. They truly loved their children, did everything they could to help them and to communicate love to them,  and care for their psychological health. But other that the occasional vague feel-good reference to God, the parents were as spiritually rootless as the children, and so were unable to help in the ways that truly would have mattered the most.

At the end of the book, the characters sort out their own answer to the meaning of life, death, and suffering – which the book depicts (among other things) as eulogies that the teens write for each other, in advance of death. The book’s conclusion seems to border on nihilism – that the most we can hope for in a well-lived life is to not injure each other too much. No eternal purpose in life is really envisioned, as the existence of Eternity itself seems to be a matter of opinion among the characters. The final lesson seems to be that it is up to each person to figure out what the meaning of life is for them – and there are no right or wrong answers. No thought is given to the Revealed Truth that Christianity offers us. Instead, sentimental opinions about human kindness are offered to replace it.

Whether to let a young person read this? Tough question. If they tend toward depression and despondency, this book’s nihilism might tip them over the edge. The book’s endorsement of swearing, vulgarity, and premarital sex might encourage them to also take these things casually. Since those things were done by sympathetic main characters, it is very easy to see these actions as okay, or even right “in their circumstances” –which is of course, an extremely dangerous conclusion. The book might pull the teen toward Atheism and/or Nihilism. But, if you are a parent whose child is drawn to this book, you might read it at the same time they do, and use its text to open up great discussions with them on these very issues, and help them find the very real answers that God offers us on these questions. A good parent read-along might be (in addition to the Bible, of course) TheProblem of Pain by C.S. Lewis. I don’t think it would be wise to allow any young person to read The Fault in Our Stars without any parental guidance or assistance. Indeed, a lot of adults might even be spiritually damaged by reading this if they lack a strong Christian faith.

All human beings struggle with the questions of life’s ultimate meaning, the reality of a God who Loves us, the purpose of suffering, the reality of life after death. For many people, the teen years are a time when this struggle is most pronounced (others deal with this question at other stages of life). And, of course, a terminal disease amplifies these questions for all of us.

This author's gifts give him a HUGE potential to reach out to young people and help them find the Ultimate Truth. He is an extremely skilled writer, and has a great way with kids (my own daughter LOVES his Youtube Crash CourseHistory videos – and begs to watch them despite the swearing. Sadly, I can’t always permit it – because of the swearing and occasional political commentary in some episodes.) He has the potential to do a lot of good in this life with his gifts. I can only conclude that it is possible that he himself has not yet developed the kind of deep spiritual life that provides the Saints with heartfelt, unshakable answers to life’s most difficult questions. Not “easy answers” but the kind of certainty of God’s Love that allowed these Saints to embrace martyrdom without hesitation.  I pray that John Green might progress in his own spiritual journey, to a certainty of the Goodness and Love of God, and His Resurrection so that we might share in His Eternal Life. And, with that experiential knowledge of God, might use his great gifts to reach out to young people and help them.

This post is being shared on:
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  1. I have heard of the book and the movie, but haven't seen or read them. This looks like a pretty through break down of it.

  2. Thanks so much for this review. Visiting today from the abounding grace link up.

  3. I read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn't mind if my 15 yo read it because it would provide a source of great discussion. She's a christian but obviously at a different level than I. When I read this book, we had a family friend who was around the same age as Hazel in the book who had leukemia and ultimately died. He was a Christian also. Life is complicated and we don't have all the answers. As I read. I wondered if similar thoughts ran through my friends head, because he knew death imminent. I think God knows all the thoughts we deal with and He's not ashamed or embarrassed by them. This book was well written and forces one to think about the complexities of human nature without taking anything away from Christianity.
    Your neighbor at a linkup

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful book review! You've answered several questions I had (including whether or not this is the same John Green from Crash Course ;) ). Some of my older students read this book, and really liked it (but told me I wouldn't like it--probably because of the language). Stopping by from Susan Mead's link up!

  5. I haven't read this one ... would need to be in the mood. Cheers from Carole's Chatter

  6. I read the book and really enjoyed it for myself but am amazed at how many "young adult" novels do have careless sex tossed about in them. I know that many teens do have sex and some quite young teens at that but it can make it hard for me to know what books are appropriate for my young tweens/ teens. Thanks for sharing with us at Encouraging Hearts and Home.

  7. If life is meaningless, then I can certainly see how this author could write this book and reach these conclusions. It's amazing where you can land if you start off on the wrong launch pad.


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