13 Reasons Why: Reflection #2 – A World Without God
After watching 13 Reasons Why, there is much to be said about this wildly popular and controversial show. I will attempt to share some reflections in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. I will link to other articles as they are published. Be warned, spoilers and tragedy ahead.
Reflection #2 – A world without God
The world of Hannah Walker is a dark and depressing one. It is this way not only for her, but also for many of her classmates at Liberty High. The school has a major bullying problem, while also dealing with the standard teenage drama: drugs, alcohol, complicated dating relationships, and the like. Though a fictional universe, 13 Reasons Why reflects much of the high school experience for real-life teens. It is a place where sin runs rampant and the consequences are devastating.
It is worth noting that the show barely even addresses the existence of God. It hardly acknowledges religion in any form at all. If I’m not mistaken, there are only two times religion is really brought up. One is when Tony mentions in passing that he is Catholic—and even then, it is not hard to figure out that his Catholic self-designation is more of a family tradition thing than a real, active faith in God. The other is when a family sits around the dinner table to say grace over the meal, a scene which adds no real significance to the plot line at all.
This is not to say that God isn’t mentioned, because he is. Jesus is too. In fact, they are mentioned multiple times in pretty much every episode. Problem is, they are only mentioned in the form of curse words. And even though the show revolves around the death of a girl, talk about the afterlife is next to nil. A handful of passing remarks are included, but not with any real serious discussion or consideration. It seems that Clay and the rest of the 13 Reasons Why folks essentially find themselves in a world where there is no hope beyond themselves and the present life.
This worldview is important to note because it shapes and influences the rest of the show. For a story that wrestles with some of the most foundational aspects of our existence—life, death, hope, forgiveness, and justice—I can’t help but think that the absence of God and religion is entirely intentional. Even if the writers and producers do not hold to religious beliefs themselves, to completely ignore them in a show like this just doesn’t make any sense. Why is there not even one character who holds even moderately deep convictions of a religious nature? Why does not one person grapple with the question, Where is God?
It seems like a gigantic omission to me. I don’t expect shows like this one to promote a religious message, but to create a world that is so strikingly absent of any real concept of God at all seems imbalanced and unrealistic. However, I do think that this has its advantages. Because the world of 13 Reasons has no God, it is a painfully bleak place to live. Hannah feels as if her reputation as a slut cannot be changed and is incapable of finding hope or healing. Clay begins to take matters of justice into his own hands when he learns what others did to his friend, something which is surely motivated in part by the belief that there is no God to execute this justice instead. Other students struggle to forgive themselves or each other. Hannah’s parents try to alleviate their feelings of guilt by promoting anti-bulling campaigns in the school. In short, no one seems capable of true forgiveness or trusting in God to right all wrongs in the end. Everyone seems to assume that they must create these realities for themselves, otherwise they will never exist.
Here’s my point. 13 Reasons Why does a great job of portraying a world that has no hope. Without God, we cannot expect to receive any help from the outside. We are left to our own devices. This is the fundamental truth that ruins everyone’s lives in the show. Those who need an identity beyond what others have labelled them cannot seem to create one. Those who need healing seek it in the wrong places. Those who need forgiveness try to atone for their own mistakes. Those who need hope try to manufacture it on their own. It is sad and tragic because all of these problems can find their solution in God.
The main point by the end of the series seems to be that by caring for one another, the struggles experienced in the show would be resolved. Yet this is surely too simple of an answer. We know from looking at human history that unkindness is part of this world. We all contribute to this misery by treating others in ways we should not. To believe that the pain of life will be taken away by expecting that human beings can live together in peace and harmony is a pipe dream. That universe has not, and cannot, exist. At least not apart from God.
Though the show does not intend for its viewers to seek God, my prayer is that the hopelessness of the godless world of 13 Reasons will drive viewers to look for help from the outside. It is painfully clear that these high school students do not have the resources they need in themselves, each other, their families, or their schools in order to cope with the troubles of life. It is nothing but cycles of abuse, revenge, and misery. But a world that includes God includes hope.
Hannah needed to know that her reputation didn’t define her; God’s love does. She needed to know that when everything around her seemed hopeless, there was still hope; God is above and beyond her circumstances. Clay needed to know that he did not need to seek revenge for Hannah; God will execute justice in due time. The others needed to know that they could find healing from their guilty consciences; God forgives us of our sins.
A world without God has no hope. 13 Reasons shows this well. It is a good thing that 13 Reasons is just a work of fiction. The real world in which we live does have hope, because there is a God we can turn to in times of need, who has a plan and a future for anyone who trusts in him.