A Youth Pastor’s view on “The Hunger Games”

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Full Disclosure: I have only read the first book of the trilogy (which is what the new movie is based on) but I plan on reading the other two books soon.

Why Read The Books?

Youth Ministry is unlike any other ministry one finds in the Christian church.  For all the amount of Bible Study, Theological and Philosophical thinking one does, a Youth Leader also must keep up with what is current.  Steve Patty, co-author of the excellent book Impact: Student Ministry that will Transform a Generation, says

“youth ministers are supposed to be able to walk with ease in the world of young people and yet retain their maturity and ‘adultness’” (p.106).

I chose to read The Hunger Games because I wanted to know more about what half my youth group was constantly talking about.  A couple years ago I didn’t think anything would come of the Twilight books and look how popular those became!  I didn’t want to make the same mistake again and miss an opportunity to investigate the morals and themes found in pop-culture so that I could better communicate with the students that the books and movies are aimed at.

Patty goes on to say:

“The power of staying informed should not be underestimated.  To be able to skillfully participate in the adolescent world and talk their talk, see what they see, and know what they know gives any youth leader a head start in sharing Christ.  All through Scripture we have examples of ministers adapting the unchanging truth to the particular unique audience they faced [The Book of Acts].  Awareness gets you far.”

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The Story

So what is The Hunger Games novel about?  The book is set in a future, dystopian world.  The main character, Katniss, lives in District 12 of Panem which is controlled along with the other 11 Districts by the Capitol.  Every year each district is forced to send two children between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight in the annual Hunger Games.  It’s not, however, just a fight – it’s a fight to the death and there can be only one winner (so whoever wins also has to kill the person that came with them from their own district – or hope that someone else did it for them).  These “games” are nationally televised throughout all of Panem and are required viewing for all the people.  This “entertainment” is an instrument of fear used by the Capitol to maintain control over the Districts.  The people have been slowly but surly beaten into a lethargic state and refuse to rebel against these ongoing atrocities.  It truly is a sad and hopeless world.

Is there any Good to be found?

Why read something so depressing?  What is it about this story that has so many teenagers attracted to the brutality of the Hunger Games?  Some readers may be content to think that the novels are just your run of the mill entertainment that has no real wisdom to share.  After all, those things would never really happen…right?  Unfortunately the concept behind the Hunger Games is not all that off from reality.  If you look back at human history you’ll see similar things that happened in Rome, center of the Roman Empire.  Imagine what it was like in those times:

You’re seated in an arena, beautiful and majestic.  It is a hot day with little shade but few of your fellow audience members care.  Anticipation and excitement spreads through the crowd in a wave of cheering as the day’s entertainment walk onto the main floor – they have the latest weapons and armor and you can tell it is going to be a great match.  Others are with them but they have not weapons.  No armor.  And no hope.  Slaves, prisoners of war, Christians; they are all forced into the arena for one purpose: your entertainment.  This is where they are slaughtered by the Gladiators for your delight and enjoyment.  All that is left when the cheering stops is human carnage and death.

Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy, has been quite open on what her inspiration was in creating the world of Panem – it was television.  Once, while she was flipping through channels late at night, she noticed seeing both reality shows and war over and over: “I was tired and the lines began to blur in a very unsettling way.”  Because it doesn’t really effect us personally, we don’t tend to care about tragedy that was see every day. In an interview with the School Library Journal, Collins said, “If there’s a real-life tragedy unfolding [on TV], you should not be thinking of yourself as an audience member.  Because those are real people on the screen, and they’re not going away when the commercials start to roll.”  Ms Collins has a good point: think about some recent headlines: the tsunami that hit Japan; the KONY2012 viral video.  The things we see played over and over on TV or online isn’t always make believe – it’s real.

“The world in the Hunger Games is stark.  It is real, and one can’t help but be drawn into it while simultaneously feeling repulsed.  Perhaps that was Suzanne Collins’ point, however.  There isn’t always a triumph.  Sometimes it’s just bitter reality.” – J.W. Wartick

Perhaps it is this reality and the characters actions of being victorious over the atrocities of the Capitol that attract teenagers to the books and movie.  Perhaps they like reading a story where the underdog makes a difference – however little that difference is.

Is it Christian?

I can’t say that the Hunger Games is actually Christian.  I don’t know if Ms Collins’ is a Christian either.  But the Hunger Games is a popular book, there is no denying that; some may have a problem with using such a mainstream “non-Christian” book for finding truth or fostering discussion.  However, as Christians, we can’t demand that popular media be overtly Christian (whether or not a thing can actually be “Christian” is another topic entirely).

Another thought is whether the world of The Hunger Games is a Christian world or not.  Nobody acknowledges in the book that Christianity exists; there is no church, no worship, no discussion of any kind on any type of religion – Christian or otherwise.  So, without God being a character in the story, can Panem still be a Christian world?  I believe so – just as how the teaching of Romans 1 is true whether or not you acknowledge it, your own Christian morals can be found in the worlds of the books you read because they affect your worldview.  How you see the actions made by the characters of the Hunger Games are weighed, whether you like it or not, on the worldview that you personally hold.  Sure, you can try to separate “book world” from the “real world” but that separates you from the story: why would you want to do that?

“The sinfulness of the human race, it seems, is at the forefront [of The Hunger Games]…I long for that comfort of the Redeemer. There seems to be no hope in the books that things will be made right, only that eventually, the nightmares may get better. Having the comfort of redemption and hope, I can’t help but wish for that in the world of Panem – a Redeemer to come and wash away the tears. And so, because there is no such Redeemer, I see the stories as a reflection of the brutal reality of a world without God. In such a world the best that can be hoped for is that the nightmares may one day end; that children may have a better life than their parents. But ultimately, it is a hard reality, one in which there is no true hope, no way to atone for past wrongs. Perhaps that is the central message of the books, or perhaps I am reading my own worldview onto it. Either way, I find this central message compelling.”  –  J.W. Wartick

Christian Parallels

While the book (and movie) may not be able to be labeled “Christian”, I believe there are many themes to be found that parallel Christian teachings: the wrongness of certain actions; the requirement we have to act against these wrongs; an allusion to Christ’s sacrifice, the actions of True Love.  Other good discussion topics include: our fear of the future, trusting others, entertainment and “reality tv”, alcholism, morality and our actions – I could go on, but really, Christians who are interested can take all kinds of talking points away from this story – we just have to look at the world of Panem through the same eyes that we hopefully use to see our world.  One of the most important talking points to be had, in my personal opinion, is the message of redemption (even though it is absent from the book) – with the opportunity for redemption, we need not fall into the same depravity found in Panem or repeat the horrors that were committed in ancient Rome.

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One last point: the violence

Make no mistake: this book is violent (and I assume the movie will follow suit).  Parents need to be aware of what is in this popular reading selection as it depicts the death of children in sometimes graphic detail.  There is also some brief nudity during scenes when Katniss is being “prepared” for the cameras.  Neither the violence or the nudity is ever explicit but it is there.  However, this is another example of a topic which could be discussed.  In the story, Katniss never once takes joy in the violence she is forced to take part in – instead she tries to avoid it whenever possible (though she does make a couple kills, she isn’t happy about it).

 

Conclusions

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”  As a Christian, I believe that all meaning comes from God – but in a world where God is not present, we must conclude that there is no true, universal meaning (this isn’t in conflict with what I said previously where I commented on how we interpret the world of The Hunger Games.  What I’m talking about here is the actual world of the characters in the book).  With no true meaning in the world there is no reason for the characters to act charitably toward each other.  “In such a world, we cannot say the Hunger Games are “bad” – they are a reflection of what the powerful desire over the powerless.  Morality becomes absolutely relative.” (Beates)

While the books are not overtly Christian, they have the opportunity to open up conversations about things like love, sacrifice, right + wrong, and entertainment – and that makes them worth reading in my opinion.

So can I recommend The Hunger Games?  No – as a youth leader, I can’t tell you that you need to read a book that has children killing each other in the name of sport and entertainment or see a movie that is rated PG-13.  In the end, the decision as to whether the story is appropriate for a certain child is up to his or her parent – but I hope that, no matter what choice a parent makes, they take the opportunity to discuss the themes found in the world of Panem with their kids because I guarantee they are already thinking about similar topics.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

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Sources:

“Hungering for Satisfaction”
http://mikebeates.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/hungering-for-satisfaction/

Focus on the Family “Hunger Games” review
http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/protecting_your_family/book-reviews/h/hunger-games.aspx

“The Hunger Games, Ethics, and Christianity”
http://atrossbooks.com/2011/08/01/the-hunger-games-ethics-and-christianity

“‘The Hunger Games’: A Christian’s Response”
http://dailyrunneronline.com/?p=2830

“The Original Hunger Games”
http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-original-hunger-games-71626/

“Christian Reflection on The Hunger Games Trilogy”
http://jwwartick.com/2012/02/20/hunger-games-christian/

“‘The Hunger Games’ and movie morality”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/the-hunger-games-and-movie-morality/2012/03/18/gIQAUvMjLS_blog.html

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