In my department’s hallway, there is a placard that asks, “What can I do with my Religious Studies degree?” I now have a compelling answer: write a devastating book like The Fault in Our Stars and watch it be transformed into a wildly successful film.
Fantasy careers aside, we religious studies folks should pay serious attention to both the film and the book, which was penned by former Kenyon College Religious Studies and English major John Green.
The tale’s first-person narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, sums it up: “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.” Green wends tragicomic paths through the romance of Hazel and her beau, Augustus Waters. Along the way, they confront questions about life, the universe, and everything.
Long before he was a bestselling author, Green briefly served as a hospital chaplain and considered a career in Christian ministry. “’I found myself really unfulfilled by the answers that are traditionally offered to questions of why some people suffer and why others suffer so little,” he says. ”I still go to church sometimes but I would not feel comfortable leading the services,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
In other interviews, he has likened himself to Patrick, the well-meaning but ultimately tone deaf support group leader who encourages kids with cancer to express their feelings in the “literal heart of Jesus” at the center of an Episcopal Church.
In the movie Patrick is played by comedian Mike Birbiglia, who channels Kenneth from 30 Rock, smiling in the face of all obstacles. As he earnestly strums a guitar at the start of group, Patrick-as-Christian-song-leader provides a moment of absurdist comic relief. Hazel and Augustus share a cynical distaste for Patrick’s affirmations and therapeutic interventions. Theirs is a post-Twelve Steps worldview, one that trades “one day at a time” for the terror and glory of infinitude (Green has also mentioned an affinity for Kierkegaard).
And then, there’s Anne Frank: it seems we twenty-first century humans cannot escape her infinitely mediated ghost. One of the most noted scenes in both the book and film is the pair’s visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam—the city that is also home to Hazel’s favorite author, the fictional Peter van Houten.
As part of the official tour of the memorial museum, Hazel, attached to a nose tube and lugging an oxygen tank, must climb many narrow flights of stairs to reach the famous “annex.” The film provides tight, wrenching shots of her claustrophobic struggle—the stairs that briefly lengthened Anne’s days could shorten Hazel’s life. Yet, for the moment, Hazel triumphs. She collapses at the top of the stairs and recovers to view the Frank family’s hidden refuge. Ultimately, overcome by the emotion of their journey, she and Augustus share their first kiss there. The surrounding tourists applaud this performance of young love.
When I read this scene for the first time, the literary scholar in me kicked in: “Oh no,” I thought. “It’s ‘redemptive’ Anne Frank again.” When I watched it in the movie theater, my first thought was of the line from Seinfeld: “You were making out during Schindler’s List?!”
Reviewers and countless other critics have already clashed on this scene. I actually think the “should they or shouldn’t they?” question is as boring as John Green thinks the question of hell is. But I will say this: sex has always been a part of the secret annex. As we know from the initial editing and subsequent critical edition of her diary, sexuality was part of Frank’s life—just as it is part of the lives of teenagers with cancer.
The success of The Fault in Our Stars is enmeshed with the sparklingly vast, multi-faceted nature of contemporary religious life. When Hazel cracks jokes about angels and harps, her father counters that he does not believe in those, but,
I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it—or my observation of it—is temporary?
Here it is, a cosmology for our times: a passive yet hopeful plea to a vast, personified universe. In the book, Hazel’s father credits this inspiration to a college professor. In interviews, Green credits it to a YouTuber named Vi Hart. As Mary-Jane Rubenstein recently observed, the metaphors used by scientists, theologians, and philosophers are intimately connected, even as each camp still claims its own methodological turf for exploring the “multiverse.”
Augustus doesn’t want the universe to be noticed—he wants to be noticed by the universe, to lead an extraordinary life. Ultimately, though, he tells Hazel, “I don’t care if The New York Times writes an obituary for me. I just want you to write one.” And so she writes him a eulogy, reading it to him at cancer group (on his “Last Good Day” in the Literal Heart of Jesus) speaking of infinities in not-so-endless numbered days.
We may all want to be noticed by the universe. This is why we yelp into our virtualsuperaddressee of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. We are all writing our own eulogies and those of our friends, day by day, good words and bad words and sublime and despairing logics (and the Kardashians, alas) all spun together. And it is here that we address the dead in plaintive tones.
In the book, a grieving Hazel reads the memorial posts on Augustus’ “wall page.” She is both horrified by and empathetic towards the endless tributes. Giving in to temptation, she replies to one post, but is never answered, “lost in the blizzard of new posts,” and realizes that Van Houten was right: “Writing does not resurrect. It buries.”
For Green, children and art trump writing. Hazel and Gus, who, like the author, are residents of Indianapolis, visit the “Funky Bones” sculpture, where children frolic upon enormous dry bones. On this, Green reflects: “To dance on the dead is not to dishonor them.”
Green’s notion of religion goes well beyond institutional spaces: “I don’t think ministering requires a religious context,” he says. Here Green is aligned with those atheists who find beauty in God and the rise of that newly noted cohort of “religious nones” who still pray.
Is the vast conversation sparked by the book, the film, and Green’s internet followers (the Nerdfighters) one of these many new spaces?
In the end, after all of their philosophizing and text messages, our heroes cannot escape embodiment. Hazel Grace tells us that Augustus Waters died “when the cancer, which was made of him, finally stopped his heart, which was also made of him.”
We are built of human cells, microbe cells, mutated cells. We are built, too, of our parents, of genetic code and flesh and blood and bones that grow inside of flesh and blood and bones. So we come again to the parents: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer,” Hazel tells us.
Green, who is now the parent of two children, told The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot, that his own experience with anxiety has its benefits: “from a novelist’s perspective, the ability to cycle through all the possibilities and choose the worst is very helpful.” I take this quote seriously, but in other interviews and in the words of Hazel’s parents, he expresses a delicate hope for memory—at least a little bit of memory—and love between parents and children.
Bravo, Mr. Green. You have created the best and the worst of all possible worlds.