[Caveat: There are some spoilers ahead!]
After reading comments about the show on my Facebook newsfeed, I decided to watch Netflix’s newly released 13 Reasons Why. The show is a dramatic adaptation of a novel by the same title, written by Jay Asher, in which high schooler Clay Jensen receives a set of thirteen cassette tapes that explain why his crush Hannah Baker decided to commit suicide. The thirteen reasons correspond to thirteen people who, in some way, caused her to end her life. To say that the series is emotionally draining is a bit of an understatement. As a father of a newly born daughter, watching Hannah have to deal with being called a slut, being stalked, sexually assaulted, raped, and winding up unable to view herself as loveable, I found myself having to confront a reality that young women face very often during the most formative years of their life. And as father of three boys, one who is only several years away from starting high school, I was forced to confront the reality that boys, in many cases, are capable of doing serious emotional damage to their female peers.
The show, in that sense, is good. It holds up a mirror to its adult and youth viewers alike. It openly identifies the maltreatment of one’s neighbor as immoral (“wrong” is the word the characters use) and urges viewers, by showing them the possible consequences of sinning against one’s neighbor, to act differently by not ignoring a child’s cry for help simply because it is coming from an otherwise immature individual, to not engage in spreading rumors about one’s peers, and to stand up for those who are oppressed, bullied, taken advantage of by the more powerful.
Scattered throughout the series, you’ll hear students and parents alike give cliched responses to Hannah’s suicide that are thoughtless and cruel. Statements like “She killed herself to get attention” or “She acted selfishly by killing herself” convict the conscience of anyone who has ever nonchalantly theorized about the suicide of someone they knew personally or through popular culture. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. I’ve said things of the same nature. You probably have as well. And 13 Reasons Why shows why such statements are merely the continuation of the same kind of neglect and minimization of the pain of our peers that can, in some cases, lead to suicide.
Some characters even offer up the saying “She decided to end her life! It isn’t your fault” as a means of justifying their sin. And to some extent, this is true: Everyone is ultimately accountable for their sin. However, listen to the Lord Jesus’ warning in Matthew 18:5-7:
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
What is of relevance here is the implied assertion that one can cause another to sin. Suicide is a sin, to be sure, but those who commit the sin are, in many cases, caused/influenced to sin in that way.
The Problems with 13 Reasons
It’s hard to say that I enjoyed the show. That seems to suggest I liked watching children abuse another child to such an extent that she killed herself. It’s better to say that I appreciated it. The visual representation of the past as more vibrant through brighter, warmer, and varied colors stands in sharp contrast to the cold, darker, less saturated present in which Clay goes through Hannah’s tapes. In the present, a blue tint dominates every object and every person’s face, suggesting that a kind of death rests on them too. Artistically, the show is done very well.
Morally, the show brings up some very important issues that often get swept under the rug via the use of cliches and empty well-wishing. Problematically, however, the show represents “normal” teenage life as consisting of underage drinking, sexual intercourse, cursing, using the Lord’s name in vain, recreational drug use, and homosexuality mostly done by kids’ whose parents are well aware of these behaviors. Teens will seek out ways of doing what they want, irrespective of what their parents tell them is right, of course. But throughout the show, the children whose parents discipline them (i.e. Zach, Jessica, and Alex) are strict disciplinarians whose behavior, it seems to be insinuated, caused their children to hide their sins, as well as their troubles, from their parents.
Even more problematically, culturally speaking the show deals with a real problem – viz. Innocent children dying at the hands of those who ignore their humanity, or who think seeing another as human would be too difficult and discomforting of a thing for them to do – that happens thousands of times a day in the private offices of so-called abortion “clinics.” Viewers are quick to empathize with Clay as he sets up Bryce (Hannah’s rapist) to admit to his crime, as they are also quick to empathize with Hannah’s parents who seek to fully prosecute the negligent and callous school officials who were actually aware of Hannah’s previously expressed desire to “not feel anything anymore” and “make it all stop” and did nothing to help her. Yet these same viewers will also support the legalized murdering of children much younger and innocent, socially speaking, than any high schooler.
If Hannah’s love sought to destroy her rapist, will not God seek to destroy his bride’s (i.e. the church’s) abusers? He will. And if Hannah’s parents seek to prosecute those who caused her to sin (by suicide) to the fullest extent of the law, will not God prosecute his enemies to the fullest extent of his holy and eternal law? He will. Lastly, if the death of a sinful teenager at the hands of other sinners is unjust enough for even the godless to see, isn’t it much more unjust and wicked for sinners to kill unborn children who have not even been delivered from the womb of their mothers? It is. And if those who killed the innocent Hannah, by indirect means, are to be held accountable for their crime, then will not the judge of all the earth hold accountable those who directly murder the most helpless and innocent among us, viz. infants? He will.
The Murdering of an Innocent Person
Additionally, although 13 Reasons Why correctly identifies the actions of Hannah’s peers as the murder of an innocent person (Tony says: “We all killed Hannah!”), it doesn’t identify suicide as itself a form of murdering the innocent. Hannah’s suicide is, ultimately, not justifiable before God. Augustine, speaking on the subject of Lucretia’s rape and subsequent suicide in his book City of God, makes the following observations. [This a long quotation, but it’s very relevant to the heartbreaking situation Hannah finds herself in after she has been raped by Bryce.]
We maintain that when a woman is violated [i.e. raped] while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her. …all know how loudly [the ancient Romans] extol the purity of Lucretia, that noble matron of ancient Rome. When King Tarquin’s son had violated her body [i.e. raped her], she made known the wickedness of this young profligate to her husband Collatinus, and to Brutus her kinsman, men of high rank and full of courage, and bound them by an oath to avenge it. Then, heart-sick, and unable to bear the shame, she put an end to her life.
What shall we call her? An adulteress, or chaste? There is no question which she was. Not more happily than truly did a declaimer say of this sad occurrence: “Here was a marvel: there were two, and only one committed adultery.” Most forcibly and truly spoken. For this declaimer, seeing in the union of the two bodies the foul lust of the one, and the caste will of the other, and giving heed not to the contact of the bodily members, but to the wide diversity of their souls, says: “There were two, but the adultery was committed only by one.”
But how is it, that she who was no partner to the crime bears the heavier punishment of the two? For the adulterer [Sextus] was only banished along with his father; she suffered the extreme penalty [of death, by her own hand]. If that was not impurity by which she was unwillingly ravished then this is not justice by which she, being chaste, is punished.
To you I appeal, ye laws and judges of Rome. Even after the perpetration of great enormities, you do not suffer the criminal to be slain untried. If, then, one were to bring to your bar this case, and were to prove to you that a woman not only untired, but chaste and innocent, had been killed, would you not visit the murder with punishment proportionately severe? This crime [i.e. self-murder] was committed by Lucretia; that Lucretia so celebrated and lauded slew the innocent, chaste, outraged Lucretia. Pronounce sentence. But if you cannot, because there does not appear any one whom you can punish, why do you extol with such unmeasured laudation her who slew an innocent and chaste woman? Assuredly you will find it impossible to defend her before the judges of the realms below, if they be such as your poets are fond of representing them.
Or perhaps she is not there, because she slew herself conscious of guilt, not of innocence? She herself alone knows her reason; but what if she was betrayed by the pleasure of the act, and gave some consent to Sextus, though so violently abusing her, and then was so affected with remorse, that she thought death alone could expiate her sin? Even [if] this were the case, she still ought to have held her hand from suicide, if she could with her false gods have accomplished a fruitful repentance.
However, if such were the state of the case, and if it were false that there two but only committed adultery; if the truth were that both were involved in it, one by open assault, the other by secret consent, then she did not kill an innocent woman; and therefore her erudite defenders maintain that she is not among that class of the dwellers below “who guiltless sent themselves to doom.”
But this case of Lucretia is in such a dilemma, that if you extenuate the homicide, you confirm the adultery; if you acquit her of adultery, you make the charge of homicide heavier; and there is no way out of the dilemma, when one asks, ‘If she was adulterous, why praise her? if chaste, why slay her?’
Like Lucretia, Hannah was raped. Like Lucretia, Hannah had no pleasure in the act of sexual intercourse with her rapist. Like Lucretia, in other words, Hannah was innocent of the sin of sex outside of the ordained parameters of a monogamous marriage. Yet, like Lucretia, Hannah took her own life. And by so doing, she committed an act of murder.
I mention this only to point out that 13 Reasons Why, as most people in our era, fails to identify suicide also as an immoral action. While some can be caused to sin, as I noted, that doesn’t make their sin any less sinful. By not identifying suicide as an immoral action, the show contradicts its overall moral axiom: “It is always wrong to take the life of an innocent person, whether directly or indirectly.”
What’s Missing from 13 Reasons Why
The Good News of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah’s peers and elders are aware of their evil and, therefore, will seek to be better people. But is this good news? How can a Hannah know that she is not impure because she has been raped? How can a Hannah know that she is more valuable than any of the world’s material and immaterial possessions? Through social reform that does not change the murderous intentions deeply rooted in all the fallen sons and daughters of Adam?
13 Reasons Why offers a very needed rebuke to the hypocrisy of our age, but it also perpetuates that hypocrisy by not identifying the murdering of infants (via abortion) and self-murder (i.e. suicide) for what they are: The murdering of innocent individuals. But it also offers a false hope through the death of Hannah (Heb. “Grace”). It ultimately has to find human worth in one’s relationships (e.g. Hannah’s parents & Clay), a tenuous network of sinners which can fall apart just as Hannah’s small circle of friends did.
The real Gospel, thankfully, gives us real grace through the death of the Son of God. Christ did not kill himself, but offered himself up as a sacrifice for sinners. The innocent Son of God was lied about, betrayed by his friend, abandoned by his other friends, cursed at, spit upon, beaten, stripped naked, nailed to a cross that was hoisted up in the air high enough to be seen by all his peers from miles away, mocked in his suffering, and killed. And he did this to satisfy the justice of God due to sinners.
The cross shows us that Christ is not unacquainted with the very kinds of humiliation and suffering that Hannah is depicted as having experienced. Christ knew no sin, yet there he was suffering the death of a criminal, treated as the scum of society. The cross shows us, too, that God will execute judgment upon those who despise his image bearers – men and women alike. Rapists will receive their punishment, if they do not repent and turn to Christ in faith. Liars, gossips, slanderers, adulterers, negligent authorities – these will all bear the wrath of God eternally. None will escape, ever.
13 Reasons Why cannot give a person struggling with suicidal ideation hope that lasts. However, the Gospel can. 13 Reasons Why cannot give that person any true lasting sense of worth that does not, in the end, depend on what others think of her. But the Christian faith can and does by telling us we are the image of God, more valuable than everything else in the created material world. By the very fact that you and I exist, we are valuable. By the very fact that you and I are valuable, those who cause us to sin will be punished with a punishment corresponding to our value before God, not mere temporary death or imprisonment.
Looking to Jesus, hanged on the cross unjustly for our sins, we can see that God punishes sin. God will deal with his enemies in a perfectly just manner, even if we cannot see it now. Similarly, God also grants real grace to those whose sins put Christ on the cross. Acknowledge your sin before God, that you put an innocent man to death. Repent. Be forgiven. Receive hope not merely in this life, which is passing away, but in the eternal, everlasting God who loves sinners and calls them to be cleansed of their guilt and shame, and be covered with the purity of his sinless Son.
Soli Deo Gloria