The 2014 teenage hit film, The Fault in Our Stars, was based on the bestselling novel by John Green. Written with a younger readership in mind, it also speaks movingly to readers of all ages. It brings together Hazel and the confident, thoughtful Augustus Waters, both of them teenage cancer patients in remission. Their evolving love is interwoven with the progression of their respective illnesses.
The film is more than a heart-tugging “cancer story”. Amongst other things, it is about the way in which love can enter and transform imperfect situations. “Life doesn’t have to be perfect for love to be extraordinary” is the film’s strap line. . . which might also be the strap line for the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
When we sing Christina Rossetti’s profoundly simple Love came down at Christmas (StF 210), we are challenged to ask ourselves: “What did that look like?” Part of the answer will be about something extraordinary transforming imperfect people in an imperfect world. In Philip Doddridge’s perennial Hark the glad sound! The Saviour comes (StF 171), God comes, we sing, “the broken heart to bind, the bleeding soul to cure”.
Advent challenges us to ask to what extent the words of hymns connect with our daily lives: lives also reflected, more or less, in the movies. To what extent do we believe, in James Montgomery’s words (Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, StF 228), that Christ comes, “with succour speedy,”
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light… ?
The Fault in Our Stars traces a way through a world that has let us down but seems to offer more. “It’s a good life, Hazel Grace,” says Augustus – reminding us, perhaps, that another Christmas movie perennial, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, explores a similar theme. It’s the same world that we sing of in different paraphrases of Psalm 23 – acknowledging an incarnate, guiding love that doesn’t demand perfection but walks beside us through thick and thin.
Gareth Hill picked up that same theme (and, indeed, echoed Psalm 23) during 2016 in a hymn that, at first sight, might not seem to fit with the season of Advent: God who knows our darkest moments (website only). The hymn was written to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in 1966. Yet here we sing of a risen Saviour who may lift us to “the place where mercy plays, where our broken hopes and heartache find their healing in [Christ’s] gaze”. Resurrection love, like Advent love, is made incarnate and endeavours to offer strength in lives that often struggle to make sense of what exists around them.
Hazel and Augustus acknowledge that “the world is not a wish-granting factory”. But perhaps, as Advent promises, “some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
(An earlier version of this article appeared in Magnet, Winter 2014 issue)