As promised, I once again venture into the realm of book reviews, this time to John Green’s Paper Towns. (This is as good a place as any to give the customary spoiler warning for anyone who doesn’t want to be spoiled. I talk mainly about the themes rather than the plot, but I inevitably give away plot details for people who have not read the book or seen the move. You have been warned.) Paper Towns is a popular teen mystery novel which has recently been adapted to film. Green has written a number of novels, and this is the second to be adapted into a film after The Fault in the Stars. (Note: this review is based on the book, as I haven’t yet seen the movie). He is also a big deal on YouTube, where he has a number of channels, and who (based on the contact of his novels) seemed to have had a crush on a beautiful but complex girl when he was a teenager. (It should also be noted that Green has (or had?) some sort of Christian faith, but how he would label it, I do not know.) Paper Towns is a well written and thought proving book, and is well worth the time reading it. In this review, I will unpack the key theme or motif of the book: the idea of a “paper town” from a theological point of view. But firstly, a quick synopsis. The story follows protagonist Quintin (or “Q,”) who has a crush, on his neighbour, Margo. One night, Margo takes Q out on a night of crazy teenage antics and revenge, before she disappears. Q spends the rest of the book try to work out where she is gone and trying to find her, along with his friends, Ben and Radar, and one of Margo’s friends, Lacey.
Central to the book is the idea of a “paper town,” which is not a concept most people would be familiar with. In the literal sense, a Paper Town is a town which doesn’t really exist, but is a town (or subdivision) which has been planned but was never built, or a town which is marked on a map, but which isn’t really there. It is used by Margo as a metaphor or motif for both the shallowness and faultily of the people who live in real life towns and lives that they lead. She critiques our society where people live self-indulgent lives for their own pleasure, where things are built that don’t last and where people destroy the future for the sake of present comforts. She says that she has never met anyone who “cares about anything that matters.” And later, she admits that this “paperness” (yeah, I totally just made up a new word) is not just something external, which she sees in the world around her, but also something which see inside herself.
Margo has a valid critique of the modern/postmodern western society in which we live, which from a theological point of view, I would agree with. Many people do live shallow, paper lives, driven by materialism and self-gratification, where people build shallow relationship while chasing dreams which will not last. But the critique runs deeper than just our current culture; it goes to the heart of our human nature. The “paper” town Margo describes in nothing new. Indeed, it sounds a lot like the “meaninglessness” the writer of Ecclesiastes also saw in the society he lived in thousands of years ago. Both realise that the way people live somehow falls short of some intrinsic standard for human living. And they are onto something here. Humans aren’t created to live paper lives. We are created in God’s image, to live lives of richness in relationships (with God and with each other), in meaning and with purpose. But the image has been distorted, and thus we realise, like Margo, that something is not right, that we are “living paper lives in a paper town.”
Faced with this paperness, Margo must decide how to respond. And her response is to run away, to leave everything she knows behind. Now, from a literary point of view, this is a good thing, as it’s what gives us the plot for the book. The rest of the book follows the Q and his friends tempting to solve the mystery of where Margo is, and it would be a pretty boring book if she stayed where she was. And this is a choice that many people make. Many, when face with the paperness of our lives, choice to ran way, it the hope that the grass maybe greener somewhere else. Unfortunately, this is only ever a temporary solution. Our paperness will find us in our new location.
Now, this is not to say that we should never move on to a new place, that is not what I am saying. We should always be open to new opportunities in new places. And there is definitely something to be said for taking time out from our lives, by seeking solitude for a time (to pray, for those of us who are that way inclined) or by entering another world thought books, TV or movies. This can be a healthy thing in moderation. However, running away from a problem is not going to make it go away. As Christians, escapism is a real temptation, and is often an accusation leveled at the church. Often, Christians feel to threatened or overwhelmed by the world and the problems they see around them, their response is to try to escape. Often we create our own “Christian” subculture, and try and live inside it, and only leave from time to time when we feel guilty about not evangelising. And some of the ways we sometime understand salvation, as “escaping” our earthly lives and going to Heaven, doesn’t help, as it gives us the impression that it’s okay to forget about the world around us, as we’re going to be leaving this world anyway. However, if we follow the God of The Bible, this cannot be our response. Because God did not give up on our paper selves. He entered our paper world, as a human, to redeem us, to take away our paperness, to “remove our hearts of stone (or paper) from our flesh and give us hearts of flesh.” (See Ezekiel 36:26)
So our repose to our paper towns should not be an escape, but some sort engagement with it, to love it, as God loved it (John 3:16). But how far do we go? Throughout the story, Q is relentless in his pursuit of Margo. He follows the clues wherever they led in order to find her: to abandoned buildings, failed sub divisions, and half away across America. And he dragged his friends along with him when he could. In a way, this story could be read as a retelling of parable of the lost sheep. In that parable, the Shepherd leaves all behind in order to find one sheep, who he loves (Luke 15:3-7). Likewise Q drops everything and misses his high school graduation in order to find Margo, who he loves. Now, his love is a romantic love, so it is not a perfect parallel. But in an age where love is all about what “feel good for me,” self-sacrificial love is a rare and beautiful thing. (Indeed, this story covers many different types of love: romantic love, friendship love, family love.) This is the type of love that we should have for those around us, the type that is willing to drop what we are doing to help someone in need. Because this is the type of love that people notice, that changes them. It showed Margo, who believed that no one loved her, that she was wrong. It helped her to see that, while she could leave her paper hometown, by doing so, she was hurting people who really did care about her.
Likewise, our repose to our paper towns should be a fierce and unrelenting love. For we follow a God who loved our paper town with a love that caused him to take on flesh, a love which drove him to the Cross, a love which he sealed by giving us the gift of the Spirit, so our lives would no longer be paper lives. This is the love which God shows us, and the love he calls us to emulate. There is a real hunger out there for something real, something more than paper. Will the church be that place of realness: of hope, of joy, of love? Will it be a community which cares about the things that mater, and not get caught up in the paper tail around us?
The God we follow is a God who is redeeming creation and humanity. And he calls us to live in our own Paper Towns, as ambassadors of the kingdom which is not paper, but real and living. We do this, not by leaving our paper towns, but by loving them, in a way with shows that there are still people who, as Margo would say, care about this things that matter: love, hope, community, people. We are called to live out our faith by being real people in Paper Towns.