Like most Nerdfighters, I read John Green's The Fault in Our Stars when it was released. Like most John Green books, it made me laugh and cry and rethink my personal convictions.
One such personal conviction was about abstinence before marriage. I was raised in what is known as the "purity movement" -- a conservative, Christian and often homeschooled world where virginity is a prize to save for your future spouse. I knew I was saving sex for marriage, and wore a ring on my left hand to prove it, long before I informed myself on what I was saving.
When I got older, I learned that virginity has no real definition. I realized not everyone held guys to the same standards as they held girls, especially when it came to the so-called responsibility to dress modestly. I witnessed the devastation rape victims in the purity movement feel. In addition to recovering from abuse, people who'd been raped could never hope for the "pure" marriage available to virgins.
Before reading Green's book in early 2012, I was convinced that sex is to be saved for after marriage. Then I read a daring story about two teenagers with cancer who didn't have many options.
For context (and do please read or watch The Fault in Our Stars before indulging in the spoilers that follow. Save yourself for the right time, if you will.) Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus "Gus" Waters meet at a Christian support group for teenagers with cancer. Gus has recovered, but he's lost his leg to the cancer. Hazel's still fighting her own cancer, and she totes an oxygen tank with her wherever she goes. They fall in love. Gus' cancer comes back, but he doesn't tell her until after they've had sex. It's assumed that the cancer kills them both at young ages.
"This may turn out to be the greatest anti-Christian film of the decade," says Emily Whitten, in an audio review for World Magazine.
I didn't think this review was worth a response until Whitten said, "Unlike Romeo and Juliet, who had to earn their bedroom scene with marriage vows, for Hazel and Gus, there are no negative consequences."
This reveals the double-standards-no-exceptions view of sex that World, and its supportive audience, holds so tightly. It means there's far more to this discussion than one book and its film adaptation.
Romeo and Juliet is used for convenience only. I hope the act of getting married doesn't redeem Shakespeare's tragedy for Whitten. The romance lasted three days and six people died. The marriage took place in secret, and many fundamentalist Christian parents would disown their teenagers for eloping as Romeo and Juliet did. It's also worth mentioning that "marriage" is exclusive for World, which included two articles condemning same-sex marriage in its last issue. Even if you've saved yourself for your spouse, and are faithful to one spouse for life, being gay rules you out.
Save sex for marriage, but only how we define marriage, and Romeo and Juliet passes or fails when we say it does. This is the anthem of the fundamentalist take on sex. It's laden with contradiction, hypocrisy and arrogance. You can't win.
In the story, Hazel and Gus have no marriage to save themselves for, regardless of whether they believe in the Christian afterlife. Some may argue that Green shouldn't have put his characters in such a situation. In other words, if Green was really a Christian, he wouldn't set up entirely possible scenarios.
To be fair, leading American Christian magazines aren't exactly united on the matter. Comparing reviews makes you wonder if we were all watching the same movie. While World talks itself in circles over abstinence, Christianity Today gets by with saying there's "one scene of sexuality involving teenagers (no nudity)...In general it's a cleaner-than-average PG-13 film that depicts adolescents as more mature and innocent than we're used to seeing." Meanwhile, Paul Asay of Focus on the Family's Plugged In describes enough to horrify Christian parents aiming to shelter their teenagers.
None of the Christian reviews I found noted the sex scene's rare acknowledgement of disabilities. You don't often see a sex scene where the nervous virgin male character explains where his leg ends, or the girl laughs at herself for tangling her shirt with her oxygen tube. The scene screams out that people with disabilities have a right to experience pleasure, too.
Hazel and Gus are both young, and they both have disabilities. Many churches don't want to acknowledge young people -- that might undermine authority. I have at least one friend with a disability who, being raised in fundamentalist Christianity, thinks she isn't desirable, and not worth her own sexual desires. That's a tragedy. The Fault in Our Stars is a step toward removing such stigmas from our society.
Whitten says, "Certainly many Christians will be offended by the running joke about 'the literal heart of Jesus.'" And adds, "For a self-professed Christian author to make the name of Jesus a running gag makes no sense."
Unless, like Green, you aren't blindsided by the cheesiness of much of American Christianity. I've seen everything represented in the movie -- the homemade rugs depicting Jesus, the poorly written acoustic songs and the 30-something youth leaders working from their parents' basements. It's not satire to include these elements. It is, to use an old adage, funny because it's true.
I don't claim to know what John Green means when he calls himself a Christian. The answer to such a question is complex. As Donald Miller put it in his book Blue Like Jazz, "Stop ten people in the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people?"
I have one hesitation in my analysis, and that's the story a friend told me. She spent years of her childhood in a cancer ward, and recalled her friends dying on a regular basis. "Christians would come in and read us books about Jesus, and say he was going to heal us. You learned real quick that they were just there to make themselves feel good. Kids still got rolled out of the room in the middle of the night, and you knew they'd never come back."
I asked what she'd rather have. She said instead of Christian storybooks, she wished someone told her about science and astronomy. She wished someone had told her she was made of stardust, in accordance with the atheism she would later adopt. She wished people wouldn't lie by saying she and her friends weren't dying.
Her story more than justifies Green's satirical attitude toward Christianity in both the book and movie. It doesn't take a non-Christian to recognize that you shouldn't talk down to kids.
The reason my friend's story makes me hesitate, though, isn't about eternity. See, when she read The Fault in Our Stars, shortly after I did, she predicted the end. I remember her saying something like, "I'm guessing he has cancer again, and he won't tell her until after they have sex." So from one perspective, while Augustus may have been in love with Hazel, he was also deceiving her to get sex. Would she have slept with him if she knew he had a few weeks to live? Probably. Was he intentionally holding back out of fear? Again, probably. Who could blame him?
Sorry to ruin it for you, young moms who named your baby boys after Augustus in the past couple of years.
Asay of Plugged In concludes his review with this warning to Christian audiences:
Because it is quite good -- a persuasive, emotional story with strong, positive messages about sacrifice, hard truths and true love -- the bad stuff can come off as more persuasive than usual. It's harder to see a loving God yourself when the characters you grow to care about can't, or won't. It's harder to object to premarital sex while weepily watching Hazel and Gus -- teens who might never get the chance to ever have sex again -- get so much pleasure and fulfillment from it.
I agree with Asay. It's hard to object to personal choices and still believe in a loving God in the face of this story. He's worried about blurred lines and gray areas. Me, I'm glad someone out there is writing realistic novels that ask tough questions. I'm glad one such novel got a faithful film adaptation. Maybe the story isn't the problem. The problem is in the double standards, and the story reveals them.
So Green told a story, and it garnered various responses from the Christian world. It made us think, and maybe that's what stories should do. Maybe it's better than pretending to have all the answers about sexuality and eternity.