“The Fault in Our Stars” as a Religious Studies Textbook?

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsHow do you get a class of 200 college freshmen to realize that they will die one day?

As sadistic as this may sound…this is the stated goal of RN 106: Death and Immortality, a popular class offered at Boston University. Structured like a “world religions” course, Death and Immortality systematically studies how Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism handle the biggest questions: What will happen after I die? What makes a “good” death? What makes a “good” life?

As a teaching assistant, I helped run classes on Socrates, Gilgamesh,and Tolstoy, but few assignments generated better discussion than John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars

Now I’m not one to read young-adults novels. 90% of my daily reading involves slogging through murky academic monographs. But thanks to my Youtuber friend and professional bookworm over at Page Break, I already had a copy of Green’s book sitting on my shelf. Though I was skeptical to see it on the syllabus for a religious studies course, this book’s raw portrayal of death and suffering elicits existential crises just as well as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Without spoiling too much, Fault in Our Stars tells a heart-rending love story between two teen cancer patients. Death and sickness hang over the entire story (as one would expect from such a book), but not out of any sense of morbid or voyeuristic curiosity. John Green, with the utmost empathy, humanizes his characters not as people defined by their sickness but as full humans with hopes, feelings, and regrets. Since Religious Studies is all about humanizing the Other, I’d say Green’s novel is a perfect religion textbook.

Class discussion started with a simple question: What makes a good death? And it didn’t take long to come up with a list of criteria:

1) A “good death” has minimal pain/suffering.

2) A “good death” is meaningful.

3) A “good death” occurs after a long life.

Though I would say many American college students would agree with this list, The Fault in Our Stars controverts this short definition of “a good death.” The characters, both teenagers, are dying slowly with immense pain. Their deaths, moreover, are largely meaningless, dying without any great political or moral cause by some biological scourge.

The students wrestled with these implications. Some agreed that the main character in question died a bad death. Others argued that the character died nobly and honorably (and therefore “well”). Still others rejected the dichotomy outright: “Is not all death bad?”

We didn’t come to any firm conclusions. Afterall, the purpose of these exercises, from a pedagogical perspective, is to destabilize what we find self-evident and NOT generate easy answers. But I was encouraged by what I saw: students questioning their supposedly self-evident definition of “a good death” and “a good life.”

Although you would sooner expect Tolstoy to rattle freshmen from their perceived immortality, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars offers an incisive and unexpected glimpse into these existential questions.

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

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