'The Fault in Our Stars' hailed for themes on suffering, love
Bestselling movie and book “The Fault in Our Stars” provides material to think more deeply about belief and skepticism – as well as the lessons on suffering and vulnerability that the terminally ill can teach us, clergy and cultural observers say.
“Pain demands to be felt – we need to face pain honestly, and we can't sugarcoat it,” said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America.
However, the film shows that “pain is not the last word, love is the last word,” Msgr. Rossetti told CNA June 6, ultimately demonstrating that “love conquers suffering, even though it brings suffering.”
“It's a short step from the movie to a Christian understanding” of pain and suffering, he offered. “For the Christian of course, we have a name for that love that conquers suffering – Jesus.”
Based on the bestselling book of the same name, “The Fault in Our Stars” is already one of the most popular films of the summer grossing $48.2 million its opening weekend and taking the top spot at the box office.
The film's plot centers around a teenager, Hazel Grace Lancaster – who has terminal cancer – following her as she navigates her parent's expectations, the shallow consolations of her support group leader, friendship and love with Augustus Waters, another teen and cancer survivor.
The story also focuses on the consequences of living with life-threatening illnesses, meditating on whether life has an ultimate meaning and the value and cost of love in the midst of pain.
Stephen D. Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register told CNA that while the film does not adequately address all of the themes it touches upon, “it's truer than a lot of stories.”
“I think this story touches equally on two things in the face of the scariness and the darkness of the world,” he said.
The story shows both that “it's ok to be afraid, it's ok to be depressed,” and that “on the other hand there's still hope: the fact that you are dying doesn't mean that you're cut off from the world.”
The story also speaks to questions of belief and skepticism facing younger generations today, Greydaynus added, offering “two possible perspectives about human existence.”
On the one hand a harsh nihilistic perspective that views people as the “byproduct of an evolutionary process,” countered by a “vaguely theistic” worldview that finds ultimate meaning in love and sees the “person as having irreplaceable value.”
The importance of love within the story and on making a difference to one person, he said, rests on a “confidence in something beyond this life, that there is an afterlife, that there is a Something with a capitol 'S.'”
Though it is not explicit in its support of a traditional vision of God, and returns to wrestle throughout the book with its more nihilistic themes, the story’s portrayal of love argues that “rather than rendering this life meaningless, (love) makes this life that much more meaningful.”
Although the film’s presentation of love is incomplete and includes premarital sex, Greydanus said, it manages to show that “what we love is something eternal, something that is not just worldly,” and “is the opposite of the atheist complaint that to believe in heaven or to believe in an afterlife devalues this world.”
In addition, “the story is a little franker about the realities of illness than many other stories” that deal with terminal illness and death. “In the movie we get something of the unpleasantness of the scariness” of the characters’ situations.
“It seems to me that serious illness is a topic that is often brushed aside,” Greydanus said. “Seeing a movie like this or reading the book can help young people especially" with being able to relate to illness and pain and sickness and being able "to prepare ourselves for whatever might come our way,” he offered.
Deacon Tom Devaney a hospital chaplain and the director of pastoral Care at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. told CNA that he hoped the movie’s emphasis on the humanity of the sick and dying would help others to see the gift and importance of everyone – even the old or ill – “even though we may be broken.”
Modern society, he said, has discounted the sick, seeing them as a “burden.”
“When Jesus wanted to proclaim the reign of God, he went out and healed the sick...I see in the sick lessons that are ignored,” Deacon Devaney continued, adding that Jesus himself says this in His ministry and his emphasis on those who are ill being “a way of proclaiming the care and love of God.”
In his ministry as a chaplain, the deacon said he has had the “privilege” of journeying with people to encounter their death. “When they're vulnerable there's no pretenses,” he explained, saying that in those phases people are often “raw.”
At the same time, the deacon explained, ministry to those facing their deaths is a lesson in “humility, surrender, compassion.”
“You don't know what suffering they may be going through,” Deacon Devany said, adding that in ministry to the sick, he must be humble and listen and not assume he knows the struggles of other people. ”
“You can surmise you can guess, but you can never know because you will never be in their shoes.”
Deacon Devaney also spoke to the power of love in this phase of life, pointing to the example of his first wife, who died fifteen years ago of cancer.
“It was just her and I at the moment she died,” he said, adding that the “intimacy of watching a person go and see the face of God for the first time is such a privilege.”
“The last thing that she heard was me telling her that I loved her and I always will love her,” Deacon Devaney said. “That is the most intimate moment during my years of marriage to Lori.”
Msgr. Rossetti commented that the film raises an important question of “how do we connect with people who are dying, who are ill, without sugar coating?” Ultimately, he said, the movie shows that “love reaches across the divide” even though that “love carried with it a sense of pain and loss.”
This question of the importance of love and its meaning resonates, he added, with “the philosophical and existential place of young people today,” and addresses many of the struggles adolescents face such as divorce and suffering.
Ultimately, Msgr. Rossetti said, “The Fault in Our Stars” emphasizes that “the love we share with each other, even through it may cause pain, gives us hope.”
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