Editor’s note: The following article is not a recommendation for parents, adults, or youth to watch the show — please read in its entirety. This article is also not a comprehensive review. The show is rated TV-MA for language, violence, strong sexual content (including sexual assault), and other adult situations. If youth are watching the show, I suggest parents should watch it with them.
By Rev. Mark Kiessling
On Holy Saturday, I received a note from a co-worker and pastor who asked if LCMS Youth Ministry had any resources about the hit Netflix drama “13 Reasons Why,” which is based on the No. 1 New York Times and International Bestseller book of the same name.
I had read a little bit about the series. The email prompted me to do additional research, and I also watched several episodes that day and in subsequent days.’
From personal surveying and receiving other feedback from church workers, youth (and adults) in churches and communities are watching and discussing the show. Some youth report how accurately the show depicts high school life in their community; others comment on the binge-able nature of the storyline and characters. (The show probably isn’t going to win any Emmys, but it currently has a 9.0/10 user rating on imbd.com.)
Parents and youth workers report that the show hits close to home. They themselves — or young people whom they love — are dealing with suicide, attempted suicide, mental health issues, sexual sins, broken relationships, and bullying.
In my devotional life on Saturday, I reflected on the meaning of the crucifixion and the price Jesus paid for me. I also reflected on the confusion in the lives of Jesus’ disciples following the death and burial of Jesus.
Why did Jesus have to die? Where is the justice? Did I do enough to protect Jesus? What was Judas thinking? What is next? Will Jesus rise as He said?
I would guess the disciples spent time in grief reminiscing about Jesus’ teachings, the night in the Upper Room, wishing they had stayed with Him during those dark hours on the cross. And others prepared to take care of the buried body.
Juxtaposed against the Biblical account was this fictional story of death.
“13 Reasons Why” focuses on the aftermath of the suicide of Hannah Baker. Classmates deal with issues of death, guilt, consequences of sin, and evil. The show often shows a primary character, Clay, reminiscing about Hannah or re-living scenes of Hannah’s life in his imagination.
Throughout the story, in the context of high school and family life, characters deal with the implications of death, sexual activity, social media, and cyber-bullying. And they find little relief from the issues. Well-meaning adults seem out of touch or more interested in protecting their self-interests.
Some scenes from the show took me back to my high school years — the joy, the fun times, and, yes, the pain and uncertainty. Devotions and worship services of Holy Week focused my thoughts on the payment Christ made for me on Calvary.
Holy Week also reminds me of the blessing of faith and hope in Jesus. It reminds me of adults and friends from my home congregation who supported me through good and bad times of adolescence and loved me despite my sin and sometimes horrible behavior.
Holy Week reminds me of the love of God in Christ and the hope of the resurrection that brings joy amongst the sorrow around suicide or depressive thoughts. In this Easter Season, we celebrate the gift of new life which is ours in Christ Jesus (Romans 6: 4-11). May we be encouraged to live this life for others, including the young among us.
A few tips about ‘13 Reasons Why’
- Talk to youth in your life about the show. Are they watching it? Are other young people watching it? What is making it so popular? Is it accurate to their high school life?
- Listen to their responses.
- Be prepared to discuss the show or issues brought up on the show. Here are a few resources on thESource:
- Be sensitive to your youth’s context (again, listen first). In comparing various times and contexts, much has changed from my years in a rural high school twenty years ago. Did I have to deal with some of the same issues (suicide, sexual temptation, broken relationships, etc.) in high school? Sure, absolutely. (Although, I am thankful I didn’t grow up in a time when stuff I did could instantaneously be texted to half of my peer group.) However, I would also argue that society, in general, provided more positive (not necessarily Christian) examples and support. (Compare “13 Reasons Why” to shows from previous eras like “Saved By the Bell” or even “Beverly Hills, 90201.”)
- Should you watch the show? If your child or youth in your ministry/influence are watching it, I suggest you might watch it to be informed on the issues in the show. Or, at least read up on the show and topics. As stated in the opening, the show deserves its TV-MA rating (movie rating equivalent would probably be an R-rating), so be prepared. If you don’t want your own kids exposed to such storylines, discuss it with them. There is no need to encourage a young person to watch it. If you are in a trusting relationship with a young person, I am sure they can tell you first-hand accounts that sound similar to scenes from this show.
- Demonstrate the love of Christ, and say “hi” to a youth you don’t know. Perhaps this is the young person at the register at the grocery or retail store, or maybe it’s the person randomly walking in your neighborhood. Some youth are very isolated in our society. If time and consistency allows, form a relationship with this young person.
- Pray for young people in your church community. Tell them when you lift them up in prayer.
- Pray for those who work with young people — pastors, DCEs, teachers, and counselors. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are working overtime right now. Buy them an extra cup of coffee during this busy time.
- Know your community’s resources for suicide prevention. Keep the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on hand — 800-273-8255. Check-in on your own children and young people around you. Help young people notice signs of suicidal thoughts in their friends.