Tough Conversations: Unpacking 13 Reasons Why

Have you ever been hooked on a television show? I remember when the show Lost was must see TV for me. I had binged watch the first few seasons on DVD and made sure every Thursday night I tuned in to see what happened on the mysterious Island (I still think I’m trying to process what happened in that final episode). Lauren and I had just started dating, so my memories of Lost are of a time that takes me back to sitting in her small apartment near UNC-Greensboro’s campus and eating NYP pizza (which is hands down the best pizza joint in G’boro. They stay open to 5am!?!).

Movies, television shows, and now Netflix series can have quite an impact on us. I have always been something of a movie buff and have viewed all types of cinema as different forms of artistic expression. Just like me associating Lost with meeting Lauren and awesome pizza, movies and shows have the ability to take us back to times and settings long past. They have the ability to influence…sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. At their best I believe movies and shows have the ability to expose us to things that perhaps we haven’t been aware of before (think Boyz n the Hood for white suburbia in the mid 1990s).

With all that being said, I haven’t latched on to a show in quite some time. There have been a few here and there, but for the most part I tend not to allow myself to get drawn in too much by a series. As funny as it might sound, there is commitment involved. People speak of “binge watching” shows, and I have experienced that firsthand. You watch one or two episodes mid morning on Saturday and the next thing you know the sun is going down. One must be aware of these pitfalls, especially near the end of the academic semester (I’m completing my first year at Wake Forest Divinity in about a week, Allelujah indeed).

And yet, in the Youth Pastor cliques I run in I kept hearing about this new show. I found out students from all over our country are watching it. Without going into the whole synopsis (you can read that HERE), 13 Reasons Why tells the story of “Clay Jensen, a shy high school student, who returns home from school one day to find that he has received a mysterious package in the mail. It contains seven double-sided cassette tapes used by Hannah Baker, a classmate who has recently committed suicide. Each tape details a reason that she killed herself. The tapes were sent to various other people before arriving at Clay's door.” The show was released on March 31st 2017 as a Netflix original series. It was based off the book of the same name by author Jay Asher.

As a Youth Pastor I can’t help but be involved in some way in youth culture, even if it often leaves me feeling as if I’m on the outside looking in. When students begin to talk about something like this, adults like myself, need to pay attention.

For this reason I felt the need to address 13 Reasons Why.

First and foremost let me be clear: I’m not here to tell you as someone who doesn’t have kids what you’re supposed to do with your kids. That’s just not how I operate. What I do want to do is give parents the information they need in order to make that decision themselves.

So besides the synopsis, here is what I can tell you.

The show depicts the lives of modern day high school teenagers (perhaps sensationalized at times).

These teenagers come from all different backgrounds and have their own difficulties and problems.

Some characters drink and use drugs.

Some characters are sexually active.

They curse a lot.

There is a suicide scene at the end of the series.

A female character is raped.

I do want to make the point that certain scenes and language used at times may feel “raw” to some viewers. However, in my own opinion, the depictions of these scenes are less evasive than other shows and movies out there that deal with similar issues. Surprisingly, nudity almost never occurs.

For many, this could be reasons enough not to watch the show, and again, that is a choice you as a parent will have to make. However, I must say that by choosing not to engage the issues surrounding this show you might miss the opportunity to discuss issues ranging from;

Depression.

Pressure; imposed by peers and parents.

Bullying.

Gossip and Hearsay.

Mental Health.

Isolation and Disconnection.

The responsibilities of one’s own words and the consequences of one’s actions. Particularly when filtered through all avenues of social media.

What 13 Reasons Why brings to the forefront is that there are people sitting beside us, going to school/working with us, living in our communities that are suffering. For those of us who claim to be persons of faith…how can we stand by and not get involved? If I am to love my neighbor (Mark 12:31) than I must know my neighbor. That means spending time with them and doing life with them. It means we must allow those around us to trust us by building bridges. It means stepping out of our comfort zones and approaching people that don’t look like us and inviting them into our circles.

Could you have these discussions without watching the show? Absolutely. The goal of this post is to simply nudge parents towards having these conversations in an environment you and your student feel is safe. I know it may sound cliché, but the old saying of “your kids are already having these conversations with someone” I feel rings true here. One of the most alarming takeaways for me was how the parents on the show had no idea what was going on in Hannah’s school and social life.

Once we see these types of issues around us, we can’t turn a blind eye to them. I think to when Jesus heals a blind man in John’s Gospel. Jesus does this and is being questioned by the religious leaders of his time (Pharisees). Jesus, when speaking to the blind man, says, “I entered this world to render judgment – to give sight to the blind and to show those who think they see that they are blind.” (Ch.9:39) The religious leaders standing nearby became upset. These were the people who understood everything about the Jewish religion. How dare some radical rabbi from Galilee claim otherwise? They cry out to Jesus, “Are you saying we’re blind?”(v.40)

Jesus hits them with what is called in today’s terms a “clapback.”

“If you were blind, you wouldn’t be guilty. But you remain guilty because you claim you can see.” (v.41)

If we claim to care for people, if we claim to love our neighbor, if we claim to want to be welcoming of all people, if we want to practice being inclusive and not exclusive, if…

If we want to claim we follow Christ, we must admit that we see these issues and the people they are attached to. We must not suppress or shy away from these difficult conversations with our students. These types of issues are prevalent in people they know…and maybe even themselves.

Let us not claim we can see when we obviously don’t. And let us pray that when we do see we’re not afraid to do something about it.