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.



Daniel Coutz said...

I haven't read the books but I've been tempted to because I thought the premise sounded interesting. Your post is convicting. I kept wanting to argue with you, but I knew deep down you were right. I find myself agreeing with the students in your youth group more often than I'd like to admit.

I like your ending to the story and I would buy a book like that. I got chills reading it. May "We not shrink from death" if it comes to us. Let us follow the example of our Lamb.

Shattering Statistics said...

beautifully written as always. i love your educated analysis and Biblical perspective. sadly it wouldn't let me comment on the page itself, oddly, but i suppose i can give opinion here. I whole heartedly agree that the point of Jesus is peace. The hunger games uses the play of its own title to show how the Capital feeds/preys on the other districts. I finished the book exactly a week ago, and haven't gotten into the second due to school, but am interested to see what angles the author takes, because I honestly expected the entire trilogy to be katniss in the games, developing all game players. honestly, i saw much of the sadistic themes as a great parallel to the Roman coliseum Games. I slightly related it back to Francine Rivers Mark of the Lion Series (which is great and u should read the 1st two if u get the chance- and actually Jesus based which is redeeming in comparison). The Hunger Games to me is supposed to portray a "higher" civilization exploitation of the smaller ethnic and district run societies. In an essence, I think it is an honest portrayal of what our society is climaxing too. The kids in your youth group, as sick and twisted as they came off, were coming from a world view they have observed. If anything, they are a perfect example of what this series is conveying about the reality of our world views. Are children, much like Gale/Peeta/Katniss/Rue....the innocent, are being raised in cultures that not only exploit one another (the districts are a good example of forever indentured servants..basically slaves) but also praise the idea of death! Anything from singing along to Eminem setting the house on fire with Rihanna tied to the bed to the new version of Call of Duty (where if you don't take the guy out the first time, you are forced to shoot him in the head). We live, here, in a safe-abundantly blessed culture, that much like the capital paints ourselves and praises murder. Let alone praising murder, but subjecting kids from an early age to not only find it appropriate but entertaining. A wise thing for me to do, which i admit having not done yet, is to read the authors commentary (i would assume must be out there) to see her exact pinpointing thoughts. My perspective i currently hold could be not what she was aiming for at all, however, this was the T*r* interpretation. Katniss is a teen who has grown up numb to the idea of the games, regardless of hating it for all it is worth. Peeta is the one redeeming character, and I know exactly what you mean- i wanted them to eat the daggon berries, yet I hope to see why the author did not have them do that in the next couple stories and have them not eating them be redeemed. Suicide isn't of the Lord either, so I can't really condone the idea regardless of wanting them to do it.

Shattering Statistics said...

Along those lines, I don't think we can fairly critique the story from a complete Biblical perspective...it wasn't written by a believer. She, as an author, does not hold the same standards that we do. So her having the two main characters live to continue on their tale of a story is not shocking. Ironically her doing that does play into the whole point she is trying to make, although people in the flesh, with out Christ- are not perfect. If I were Katniss, I don't know that I wouldn't bow down the boy who killed Rue or put the last boy out of misery. If I had a family to get home too, no Jesus in my life, surviving the games would make sense. Honestly, from a Jesus-less perspective, I think the books are a pretty good exploitation of the horrifying reality as to which our society continually heads towards. Brutality. Murder.

...obviously, as believers, it is important to always consider Christ and how He applies to everything. I think that is not only obvious, but completely necessary and not enough people do so. I also, however, believe we can't totally discredit the point seemingly driven behind the books- recognizing it wasn't intended to be written from a Christian perspective.

Shattering Statistics said...

these are just some thoughts I had. But, overall I agree- they are horrifying, i just believe their horror to be the point.

lastly, what DOES scare me about the books is TEENS are not analyzing them as you or I just did. They are perfect examples of the kids from the capital loving the atrocity of the other children dying in the "games". So, if anything...yes, the books are terrible for teens and pre-teens, or the mere uneducated. If you can't analyze the points behind them, they are in fact what you posed them in your post to be. Since my post is going on forever, i will end it there. But, I think these things should be discussed and that is, in fact, the point.

Christina said...

Thanks, Daniel, for sharing your thoughts. It's good to "see" you on here. :)

Christina said...

So good to hear your thoughts! I completely see what you mean about the book's critique of violence. I think that it definitely had some good points, many of which you list. Yet, I cannot agree with Collins' solution to the violence - more violence, particularly against others who are victims in the game too. She makes it seem like the tributes had no choice but to kill others to survive, when in fact they still had the choice and control of their own actions. Complying with the game is in no ways defiant. I don't think that characters that kill others in order to keep their own lives should be portrayed as heroes at all.

Christina said...

I understand what you mean about Collins not being a Christian. Of course she won't share the same kinds of values that we do. Yet, I still think that it is our responsibility as Christians, to whom God has revealed himself, to correct her. Everyone does theology, even if they don't believe in God. Too often we seem to think that only Christians do theology, or that only pastors/theologians do theology. Collins is making some very powerful theological claims, regardless of whether she even realizes it (!).

I think of the OT prophets and how time after time they critiqued the rulers of foreign nations who didn't even know Yahweh. My personal favorite is Ezekiel. Even though they do not worship Yahweh, Ezekiel holds them to Yahweh's standards. In the same way, if people are making theological claims that stand in opposition to God's character and his plan for the world/humankind, then it is our duty to point out their flaws and hold them to Yahweh's standard.

Carlos said...

I really appreciate your words. It's not everyday that one reads a well thought out critique of a meme. Not of the books, not of the movies, but the meme.

Memes have an insidious way of creeping into culture and, when repeated often enoug...h, of becoming tolerated and, in some cases, of becoming accepted as truth. You partly address this as the "...yes but..." game.

It's appalling to me that so many have lost the function of discernment. "Everybody likes it, so it must be good/true/beautiful" is the criteria by which these memes are judged rather than, "how does my ethic interpret this meme?" More often than not the unexamined life prevails because it's more convenient and assures me of being "in" and more popular. This is in large part why, in my opinion, Christians seldom move from "milk" to "solid food" and live frustrated lives.

Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. Keep up the good work.