A few weeks ago, Netflix released Heartstopper, a series based on the webcomic and graphic novels of Alice Oseman. The eight episodes follow the story of Charlie Spring, a 14-year-old boy who has recently come out as gay. At the start of a new academic year, Charlie is assigned to sit next to Nick Nelson in form class. The two strike up a friendship and the series follows the way that their friendship develops as Nick wrestles to work out his sexuality and the two eventually end up as boyfriends.
The release of Heartstopper has caused quite a stir. Both critics and general audiences have given the series rave reviews. Young people are recognising themselves in the story and speaking of how good it is to have positive queer representation on screen. Older LGBTQ+ people have described Heartstopper as the series they wish had been around when they were younger. I’ve spotted young people in my own church posting positively about the show. All of this made me think I should give it a watch, and so I did. And honestly, I’ve found it hard to know what to think.
On one level, it’s engaging and enjoyable. It’s beautifully made with lovely little artistic touches that allude to its origins as a graphic novel. The characters are endearing; it’s hard not to like them and you are easily drawn into the ups and downs of their emotions as they navigate the complexities of teenage life and relationships. And, as many are observing, it’s a lovely story. There are tensions, and there’s some homophobic bullying, but on the whole, it's just a very sweet teenage love story. I admit – it’s powerful.
Stories have the power to capture our hearts and bypass our heads.
And maybe that’s my biggest takeaway: it’s powerful, just as good stories are. Heartstopper is a good example of storytelling, and so it’s easy to be swept up by it. We can easily find ourselves willing for things to work out, for Charlie and Nick to embrace their feelings for each other and enter into a relationship. Stories have the power to capture our hearts and bypass our heads. Heartstopper appeals to our hearts by telling us that following our desires will be the way to find true happiness. It’s easy to absorb that view without engaging our heads to ask whether it is actually true.
So, what can we learn from a series like Heartstopper? We can learn the power of stories.
That’s important for our own discipleship. We will be shaped by the stories we hear. I don’t think that means we need to avoid stories like Heartstopper, but it does mean that we need to be aware of how they can shape us. We need to engage our heads as well as our hearts, asking what the story has told our hearts and whether that is true. And we also need to make sure that the ultimate story – the true story of God’s passionate love for us, his plan to restore all things and his promise of life with him in a perfect new creation – is the story that has most power over us. Stories like those told in Heartstopper are all around us, in popular media and on social media; we live in a world saturated by them. Since that’s the case, we need to be deliberate about making sure we are saturated by God’s story.
We need to be deliberate about making sure we are saturated by God’s story.
And the power of stories is also important for how we lead, teach and disciple others. You can’t fight the power of stories with a bald biblical prohibition. That would be like trying to put out a fire with a cupful of water. It’s not an equal match. If we want to help people – including and especially young people – see and feel the goodness and plausibility of God’s plan for sexuality, we need to help them know God’s story about sexuality. We need to tell the story of God’s purpose and plan in sexuality, that our sexual desires are a pointer to his passionate desire for us, and that marriages are meant to be pictures of Christ’s relationship with the Church. (That’s what we try to do in this animation and what Ed does in this short book.) And we need to tell the stories of same-sex attracted people and single people who are choosing to live in faithfulness to Jesus and are finding that in laying down their life they are finding true life. (Stories like those we share here.)
Heartstopper is powerful because it’s a story. But we have a story too. We have the greatest story. We have the story of truly heart-stopping love – the story of a son who allowed his own heart to stop beating so that he might draw us into the heart of his father. That’s the ultimate heartstopper.