Good News for Teenagers: Dear Evan Hansen and the Promise of Being Found
Dear Evan Hansen, the Broadway musical-turned-book-turned movie released in theatres and Apple TV earlier this fall. The musical’s contemporary score and unique plotline have drawn theatre-lovers and theatre-indifferents alike since its Broadway debut in 2016.
Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of – you guessed it—Evan Hansen. Evan (Ben Platt), a shy, socially awkward high school senior, lives with his single mom (Julianne Moore) after his father left him at age three. We learn that Evan’s therapist has assigned him “homework”: each day, he is to write letters to himself with positive affirmations to help bolster his flimsy self-esteem. Through an unfortunate series of events in the school computer lab, one of Evan’s darker, more vulnerable letters lands in the hands of Connor Murphy, a moody and isolated student with a rough reputation.
The story takes a dramatic turn when Evan learns that Connor has taken his own life. Connor’s parents approach Evan with a note—his note—which they found on Connor’s person. Given that the letter is addressed “Dear Evan Hansen,” Connor’s parents assume that Connor wrote the letter to Evan, who must have been a dear friend to their son.
Evan finds himself unable to tell Connor’s parents the truth: that Connor and Evan did not know each other and that Evan is in fact the author of the note—not their late son.
What follows is a touching, heartbreaking, sometimes cheesy unfolding of the story between Evan, Connor’s family, and Evan’s high school class as Evan navigates living in the fabricated tale of his and Connor’s friendship. Dear Evan Hansen packs it all in: grief, anger, isolation, humor, romance, and of course—song.
Why It Matters and How to Talk About it:
Like all movies that offer a glimpse into the life of a high-schooler, youth ministers and volunteers would be wise to add Dear Evan Hansen to their watch list. Of course, Dear Evan Hansen offers us an opportunity to have redemptive conversations with our students about the tragedy of death by suicide, mental illness, and the sanctity of human life. Rooted offers more resources on those conversations here.
On a broader level, Dear Evan Hansen allows us to talk with students about the universal craving we have to be seen, loved, and cared for. Throughout the movie, Evan’s main question is: does anyone see me? Does anyone care that I’m hurting? If I fell, would there be someone to pick me up?
Like Evan, our students want to know they are seen and cared for, that someone out there will come and rescue them in their hurting. Dear Evan Hansen offers an anemic solution, as Evan discovers that the way to really feel loved and seen is to just “be himself.” The lie here is subtle yet destructive: that within ourselves, we have the cure for our craving to be found.
Yet, anyone who has tried the solution of “being yourself” will know that our selves are never quite as great as we hoped. The sin that resides in our hearts is inescapable, so “being ourselves” can get pretty ugly. When left to ourselves, we are reminded of the great need we have for help that lies outside of us.
Thanks be to God, this help is found in Jesus. When the world around our students allures them with dead-end Evan-like solutions, we can point them to Jesus, the one who calls them to die to their selves so that they might live to him; the one who calls them to decrease as he increases. In this cruciform way, Jesus shows them the true path to lasting love and acceptance lies in him.
Instead of telling them to look within, we can point students to Jesus, who sees them fully and loves them unrelentingly. No one knows, sees, or cares for them quite like Jesus can. This means they don’t need to fret when they feel invisible and unlovable to others—they have a God who catches their tears in his bottle when they cry to him (PS 56:8). Could there be a care more intimate than this?
In a climactic moment of the story, Evan speaks at Connor’s memorial service at school. Evan’s speech (song) goes viral, exploding in a chorus of the song “You Will be Found.” It assures the audience that they are not alone; no matter how lost or invisible they feel, there is someone out there who cares for them; they will be found.
Of course, this is a beautiful truth to communicate to one another. But like the “solution” of being one’s self, it is far from foolproof. If our hope is contingent upon the arrival of a human rescuer, we will be waiting for a while. Sin renders us all unreliable, insufficient, and selfish for this task. At the end of the day, humans make for a pretty lousy search and rescue team.
In Jesus, we have hope for a perfect Rescuer. No one seeks out the lost as effectively as Jesus does. He wasn’t ambiguous when he explained why he came to earth: to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). God’s commitment to finding the lost went so far that he left Heaven, lived a perfect life, died on a cross, and raised triumphantly on our behalf. Jesus’ finding isn’t abstract like the one Evan sings about. It’s specific. Personal. Guaranteed to succeed because it is marked by his own blood.
Dear Evan Hansen allows us to point our students beyond the flimsy hopes of just “being themselves” in order to feel found, seen, and loved by others. We can point them to Jesus, the most glorious Seer, Rescuer, and Finder of all time. When they feel like Evan: lost, invisible, unlovable, we can assure them that Jesus will find them there and love them there—even when no one else does.
As it turns out, Evan was right. The Shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the lost one cares and sees, and he will find them.