22 February 2012

ReThinking Lent

Every year around this time, I'm amazed at how much talk about the Lent season there is. Growing up, I never participated in Lent, and the only references I heard to it were from the mouths of Catholics. Thanks to social media publicizing it (and probably efforts to recover the rich religious tradition), Lent has seemed to become the "norm" in the Christian sphere.

Problem is, it seems as though we have in many ways reduced Lent to a second New Years' resolution. Did your first one not work out for you? Well, just wait until a second opportunity presents itself in February...! This new New Years' resolution seems all the more binding, as it isn't merely a "resolution" anymore but is a pact with God Himself. All of a sudden, the Lent season has become a chance to lose weight, tone our bodies, abstain from drinking coffee or soda, and "bettering" ourselves. At least, on the outside.
(My personal favorite is when people choose to abstain from certain vices or sins. Shouldn't we as Christians be striving to expel sin from our lives at all times and not just for 40 days during Lent?)

As the peer pressure amounts ("What are you giving up for Lent?"), I'm finding that I need to be reminded about what Lent is really about. Lent is supposed to serve as a reminder of what Christ gave up for us. It is a time to mourn over our sins and realize how dependent we are on God's mercy. It is a time of repentance, reflection, and humbleness.

Giving up something for Lent, then, is not an end in itself but is a means to an end. Our goal should be to draw closer to Christ, not to shed x many pounds or run x many miles a day. While fasting and exercising certainly can become instruments whereby we better experience God's presence (I talk best to God while I'm running, for instance), the goal should not be to just complete these tasks and check them off of our list of things to do.
Maybe instead of giving something up we should add something to our lives. Sometimes, the presence of something new can invoke a sense of God's presence that the absence of something couldn't do. A few years ago, for instance, I wrote a little note to 40 different people, thanking them for their influence in my life and encouraging them in their faith. This helped me become aware of God in ways that forfeiting coffee can't.

I'm not giving up or adding anything this year, but that's ok. The quality of my relationship with God is not dependent on my participation in Lent. I am, however, trying to be aware of how God is present with me in each and every moment (read here). As sinful as I am, God has still chosen to make his dwelling place among me.

That's something to reflect on.

Photo credit: "Diet" by h-aniko

11 February 2012

A Theological Critique of The Hunger Games

Once, when I served as a youth pastor, I taught a lesson to the middle school students about peace. We discussed what God's peace looked like and how we could implement it into the world. We imagined what the world would look like when there would be perfect peace. I was just about to finish the lesson, confident that it had been a success, when one of the middle-school boys interrupted me.

"I don't think that a world with peace would be very much fun," he contended.

Puzzled, I asked him why he thought this way.

"If there wasn't any violence or killing," he replied, "there wouldn't be any good movies or video games."

A chill rose up inside of me and I tried to wipe my face of shock. Several of the students nodded their heads in agreement. This lesson had not gone in a way I had anticipated!

When a friend recently recommended The Hunger Games to me, I had no idea that it was one of the most popular young adult novels, closely trailing Harry Potter and the Twilight saga. Neither did I know that it was saturated with violence masqueraded under the pretense of entertainment. Since its release in 2008, this novel has rapidly sold copies to youth all over the world, making its way onto USA Today’s bestselling book list for 110 weeks and counting (USA). Two more sequels in the trilogy and a movie scheduled to make its debut next year have fans abuzz. But despite its popularity and rave reviews from critics and fans alike, there are some significantly sinister theological claims that the readers are subconsciously absorbing and accepting.

Story Synopsis

The story takes place sometime in the future in a country called Panem, situated in what previously was North America. Ravaged by war, famine, and natural disasters, the nation was fragmented into an affluent city called the Capitol and twelve impoverished districts. While the inhabitants of the Capitol lived in luxury, the oppressed majority lived from meal to meal. In order to keep the districts fearful of the regime’s power, the Panem government subjected the districts to the annual Hunger Games, a competition to the death on live television. During harvest, every child between the ages of 12 and 18 was entered into a lottery. A boy and a girl are drawn to participate in the Hunger Games. Since additional entries were rewarded with food, many parents were enticed to enter their children’s names into the drawing more than once.

In District 12, among the poorest of the poor, 16-year-old Katniss volunteered to take the place of her sister when her name was drawn. In the blink of an eye her life had been issued a death sentence. Unless she could somehow win the gauntlet, her life would be over and her family left to fend for themselves in her absence. The stakes were high as she and the other contender from District 12, Peeta, fought for their lives against the other children.

I was intrigued by how the author described the disparity between the rich and the poor in the book. By presenting Katniss as the heroine in the story, the author rallied the reader to the side of the poor. She satirized the inhabitants of the Capitol and pointed out their sadistic fascination with watching children murder each other for pure entertainment. I was anticipating a redemptive solution to the Games whereby Katniss and Peeta creatively resist the forces of the regime. I was shocked, however, when they complied with the Game and proceeded to murder other children in order to survive, with little reflection of their violent actions. One by one, the 22 tributes in the Hunger Games were viciously murdered until the only teenagers remaining were Katniss and Peeta. The author announced them as the triumphant victors of the game, but were they?

Theological Claims

Nevertheless, the good points stopped there. The main truth claims about violence cast a dark shadow over the remainder of the book. Collins fashioned death into a fa├žade that made death palatable. The heroes of the story were actually antagonists. Even though they disagreed with the game, they still submitted to the game. Collins cleverly separated the reader emotionally from the other tributes so that the heroes’ actions seemed acceptable. She did not disclose the other contestants’ names but simply referred to them as their district number. This made the other contenders just that to the readers’ minds: numbers.

The author also cleverly avoided other ethical dilemmas by conveniently killing off certain characters before the two heroes had the opportunity. The only two characters that were named and attributed with character qualities were murdered by other tributes so that Katniss and Peeta would not have to do the ugly deed. This cunningly prevented the heroes from looking like the antagonists. Further, in the midst of all the violence in the arena, the author did little to demonstrate that the Katniss and Peeta were distraught over the others’ deaths. There is no reflection over the integrity of their actions, no musings about whether another way was possible.

It quickly became apparent that Collins is the faceless Gamemaker in the story, sadistically murdering innocent children and rendering it as entertainment for the masses. She may have parodied the Capitol inhabitants, but the youth who enjoy this book are nothing less than the Capitol TV watchers. This novel completely undergirds the one point the author appeared to be making. If Suzanne Collins wished to provoke youth to think about how desensitized we have become to ungodly entertainment, is she not almost fostering more desensitization through her novel?

Theological Reflection

When it comes to media that portrays violence positively, it seems like we play what I like to call the “but” game. We say, “That movie is violent, but…” or “That song condones violence against women, but…” As followers of Christ, there is simply no excuse for such displays of brutality. We are called to seek peace and reconciliation with one another. Enjoying or even condoning violent acts is in direct violation of the Imago Dei (Gen. 9:6).

Repeatedly, the Bible makes it clear that we are to overcome evil with goodness, not with more evil (Rom. 8:21). It is easy to conclude that the murders in the book can be justified because the heroes of the book came out alright in the end. This is based on utilitarian and teleology ideologies. It is utilitarian in that what works is the best solution, and it is teleological in that the end justifies the means. Just because the telos is “good” in the end (i.e. Katniss and Peeta survive and can later overthrow the government in subsequent books), it does not gratify the measures that were taken to achieve it. Rather than achieving results, it is more important that we as followers of Christ are being shaped into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.

When the first century Christians faced persecution by the Roman regime, the book of Revelation encouraged them to persevere through nonviolent resistance. The author characterized the people of God as those who “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11). On numerous occasions the people of God are advised in Revelation to conquer not with weapons but through sacrifice. Even the Lamb was bathed is his own blood and not the blood of his enemies (Rev. 5:6). I believe that the Cross tells us a lot about our response to violence. We are commanded to lay down our lives and take up our crosses, not to seek to save our lives (Lk. 9:23-25).

Right before the heroes were thrown into the gauntlet, Katniss and Peeta shared the following anxiety over their foreseen deaths:

“I don’t want them to change me in [the arena],” Peeta said. “Turn me into some monster I’m not.”

“Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” [Katniss asked.]

“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” (141)

Peeta was so close to nailing it. He just missed it. Participating in the Games did not prove to the Capitol their lack of ownership of him; it further instated their hold on him. Peeta and Katniss could have sacrificed themselves and perhaps started a whole revolution, but they instead sought to hang onto their lives.

Let me propose a better ending to the book. Instead of complying with the Hunger Games, Katniss creatively subverts the Capitol and leads the other tributes in resisting violence. They resist to the point of death and die without innocent blood on their hands. Unfortunately, although this ending is biblically and ethically sound, it does not produce bestsellers. It does not produce money, and it does not produce sequels with which to make more money.

But we need to prophetically imagine another way. We need to dare to think that not only is another way possible, but it is commanded of us. If we are to be living embodiments of God's grace and love individually as disciples and collectively as the Church, how does our participation and/or approval of acts of violence make the love of God known?

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. NY: Scholastic Press, 2008.

“Michael A. Behr’s Review of The Hunger Games.” Amazon.com. 2008. 9 October 2011. http://www.amazon.com/review/R3M62HO4M6LXE6

“Solana2Mira’s Review of The Hunger Games.” Amazon.com. 2010. 9 October 2011. http://www.amazon.com/review/R2NORC5TO9QE6

“USA Today’s Best-selling Book List.” USAToday.com. 8 October 2011.