“Mom, if you tell kids that they need Jesus, they’ll just laugh.”
This is what my own kids told me while we were discussing the new Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why. In case you are not up to date with current teen trends, the show is narrated by a smart, pretty high school student named Hannah who has committed suicide but left behind tapes (cassettes no less!) telling her classmates that, basically, it was all their fault. I had watched a couple of episodes without knowing that this show was such a huge deal in teendom. And I can see why. It has a cool, sharp-tongued, John-Green-meets-Holden-Caulfield vibe.
Yet I was concerned that the show might actually glorify suicide in the minds of teens. After all, teenagers tend to have a morbid attraction to the Dark Side: Goth culture, vampire movies, violent video games, drugs and alcohol—the Dark can be far more intriguing than the Light, which to them might be like a bunch of clean-cut kids sitting around a campfire singing “Kum-Bah-Yah.” Would a show about someone committing suicide to get revenge on all the people who had made her suffer seem like a kind of cool idea?
So I asked my teens what they thought. One of them told me that the book on which the series is based had “changed her life” when she read it in high school. (Full disclosure —I have not read the book and have no idea how it compares to the TV show) This set off my Mom Alarm Bells, even though she assured me that it did not promote suicide but rather exposed the root causes. Mainly, that kids are mean.
But is that really all there is to it?
Maybe I am overreacting. But I’d just finished reading Columbine by Dave Cullen, the horrifying true story of the Colorado school shooting. Teenage killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s motivations, expressed in journals and on Eric’s website, seem strangely similar to Hannah’s: they wanted to get back at the mean, cruel, stupid world that had made them so miserable.
But here’s the really scary part: these two boys came from affluent, loving, two-parent families, were very intelligent, had friends, good access to education and seemingly bright futures, and yet they ended up plotting to blow up their school and kill themselves. When the bombs didn’t work, they went on a shooting spree, killing twelve students and a teacher before committing suicide.
How could this happen?
Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, we have been taught that evil can only be eradicated through education and opportunity. Science, reason, technology, these were the things that would fix society’s ills. Eric and Dylan (like Hannah, though she is a fictional character) had plenty of education, plenty of science, plenty of opportunity. Moreover, they had parents who taught them right from wrong, proactive intervention when they misbehaved, access to medical care and counseling, all the resources of a modern, progressive society at their disposal. None of these things stopped them from doing evil.
Could it be that education and opportunity are not enough after all? That science and technology alone cannot fix what’s wrong with human beings?
Columbine shone a spotlight on, among other things, the subject of teen depression. Cullen makes the point that school shooters are 100% suicidal. Time Magazine did a cover story last year entitled “Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” in which it struggled to make sense of the “startling” rise in depression among teens, offering a bevy of possible causes: single-family homes, abuse, economic hardship, and bullying, particularly cyber-bullying which is most prevalent among pre-teen girls. Yet a Pediatrics study found that these socio-economic factors “could not account for the big increase in depression trends.”
So what are kids missing in their lives that drives them to alcohol and drug abuse, to self-harming, suicide and in extreme cases, murder?
Could it be God?
With the rise in the suicide rate, there has been an equally dramatic drop in religious faith among teens. In a 2012 post entitled “Belief In God Plummets Among Youth,” Talking Point Memo reported that only 68% of teenagers believe in God, down from 83% in 2007. More recent numbers are closer to 50%.
The results suggest that a new movement of atheist or agnostic thinking during the last decade — spearheaded by high-profile authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — is steering younger people away from traditional beliefs long held by their parents.
The American Journal of Psychiatry published a study on the relationship between religion and suicide which discovered:
Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation.
It’s not that those who believe in God will never get depressed. On the contrary. Clinical depression is an illness that can happen to anyone. But humans are not only physiological and psychological beings. They are also spiritual beings. Treatments for depression mainly focus on the first two without addressing the spiritual component, as this article goes on to point out. Maybe there really is a “God-shaped” hole in every human heart that no amount of therapy or medications can fill.
When I said as much to my kids, they shook their heads sadly, as if to say, “Poor, delusional Mom.” And I get it. “You need Jesus” sounds simplistic and even trite these days. Kids are conditioned to view God as either irrelevant or fictional. The subject of God never even comes up in 13 Reasons Why. Why is that? Even Eric and Dylan, both atheists, wrote and spoke extensively about God, either to hate on Him and His followers or declare His nonexistence. Wouldn’t any show dealing with life and death issues mention God, even if only to dismiss Him?
13 Reasons Why illustrates the spiritual vacuum in which many teens live, while offering no remedy except that if everyone was nicer, if everyone cared a little more, these things wouldn’t happen.
And maybe that’s true. But in a world without God, how do you get kids to be nicer? To have compassion for each other? For in a world without God, there is no moral compass but the one you create for yourself. You can choose to be nice, or you can choose to be cruel, and it’s all the same.
As Lorne Malvo, the mysterious, devil-like character from Fargo said, “There are no saints in the animal kingdom. Only breakfast and dinner.”
But in a world with God, there is hope for human beings, even teenaged ones. Rachel Scott, whose story was made into the movie I Am Not Ashamed last year, was the very first person killed in the Columbine rampage. The movie chronicles a short life filled with teen angst, incidents of alcohol abuse, bullying, depression, and hopelessness, all the things that kids usually deal with on their journey to adulthood. Yet through her faith in God, Rachel found joy and hope as well as compassion for others, treating them as she herself would want to be treated. Since her death, her legacy has continued to flourish. While Eric and Dylan may have inspired dozens of people to mass murder and suicide, Rachel’s story has impacted millions of lives.
Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Hannah’s mistake was repaying evil with more evil, which in a world without God makes perfect sense. In a world with God, however, the remedy is quite the opposite:
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written:
“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
On the contrary,
If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Romans 12: 19-20
Yes, being a teenager is hard. Yes, you will face rejection, pain, heartache, loneliness, failure; you will feel like all the world is against you. In those times, remember there is One who is for you. Always.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18
“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God.” Psalm 43:5
“The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.” Psalm 145:14
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed me to
Bring good news to the afflicted
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners.