“I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.”
– “Looking for Alaska”/John Green
If you are anywhere present on the Tumblr scene, then you’ve most likely seen this quote slowly floating and re-circling through your dashboard. This quote is precisely what led me to read “Looking for Alaska” by John Green the other evening in one sitting (3.5 hours to be precise). And while it was a beautiful book that had me crying through several pages (and feeling very uncomfortable during others), I walked away from the book with a troubled feeling. Possibly because the quote I had seen and loved has been taken context and was not really some climactic God moment but rather just a superfluous quote from a story told by a teacher in the novel.
But it was more than realizing a quote I had loved was not really what I had come to view it as. It was with the overarching message of the novel and the “Coming of Age” story movement.
What exactly do I mean by “Coming of Age” story? Well, the basic plot can be surmised as such: A young, innocent, and sweetly naive boy or girl goes off and meets a wild, dangerous, and desirable member of the opposite sex. They begin a relationship or friendship. Innocent boy/girl experiments with things they never have before, be it pot, alcohol, pranks, adventure, cigarettes, or sex. Something cataclysmic (in their minds) happens and our naive protagonist walks away with some wisdom about “growing older.”
In “Looking for Alaska” Miles Halter ventures to a boarding school in Alabama looking for his “Great Perhaps,” wondering what could happen in his life if he took risks. Instead he finds three wild friends, Alaska, Colonel, and Takumi who teach Miles about loyalty, smoking cigarettes, and how to drink a bottle of wine. The book weaves in existential questions about the nature of death, suffering, and “life” but falls shorts by offering a highly simplistic view of religion and no meaning or hope to the reader through suffering. Green, through Miles Halter, simply concludes about the after life: ““Thomas Edison’s last words were ‘It’s very beautiful over there’. I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”
The trouble with these stories of reckless teenage discovery is that many of us have come to believe that to “come of age”, to grow up, to mature, we have to experience these dangerous and experimental behaviors ourselves. Many teenagers equate growing up to sin instead of a maturing process. To many, to mature is to go on reckless escapades of “adulthood” shouting “YOLO” out the car window (See Tom’s previous post). With no clear answers on the meaning of life, religion, and whether there’s anything to hope for amidst our world of divorce, pain, and cynicism, perhaps this seems to be the most logical way to “come of age.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is an answer to suffering. There is a way to mature without walking away with the scars of shattered hearts, drunken fights, and drug addictions. We should be giving teenagers an example of how to live well, not stories that idolize growth through sin. Yes, there is mess. There will be sin.
But we must pave the way for those struggling to grow up in a tired colorless world by showing them that to live well is not to cover recklessness with “YOLO” but to push on towards hope, righteousness, and the abundant life promised not in physical maturing but spiritual maturing. Here’s to growing up and growing fruit but never growing jadedly old.