Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Will we play the games of the World? Some reflections on the Hunger Games and the Gospel.

Unless you have been stuck out in the bush somewhere for the last few weeks, you will not doubt be aware of the phenomenon which is The Hunger Games. Three books and one movie which, if not (yet) as big as Harry Potter and Twilight, nevertheless belongs in the same category. The movie had the 3rd biggest opening weekend of all time. So a big deal. When I first saw the trailer, my first reaction was “That’s kinda a sick concept.” But what I quickly realized that this was not a phenomenon which I could ignore. Not if I wanted to be able to speak the language of the young people who I work with, young people who will watch the movie and read the books. These books/ movies are speaking to young people by the millions, so we had better be listening. Only then can we truly speak with anything worth saying. So I read the first book. This post reflects the first book, but not the movie or the rest of the trilogy.

The story tells the experience of Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a futuristic North American nation called Panem, were a rich, powerful and corrupt Capitol cruelly rules over twelve outlying districts. As punishment of a rebellion many years ago, one male and one female teenager form each district is sent as a “tribune” to flight one another to death in the “hunger games,” a televised reality TV show on an epic scale. Katniss volunteers to be a tribune after her younger sister Prim’s name is randomly drawn out at “the reaping.” That’s the premise in a nutshell. But if you are going to watch/read the movies/books, I will warn you now, this will contain spoilers. OK, now that’s said. So where do we go with this story. What does it say to us about our world, young people today, about what it means to be human, about God? One thing I will say for the Author, Suzanne Collins, is that the first book at least is thoughtful and though provoking. It echoes myths and realities’ of the past. It critiques the wrongs of the present. And it warns us about our future. And I think that there popularity says something about young people today. I think that it says that many they are not as superficially as many think. But I digress. As Rod Thompson would say, we must celebrate, critique and confront with grace. So that’s what I will try and do here. Hopefully in a way which is helpful for anyone who can be bothered reading.

On one level, the Hunger Games is a timely critique of many of the wrongs of our consumer driven, obsessive western culture. We live in a world where the few (West) have much, live excessive, wasteful and often trivial lives, while most of the world has very little. I am pretty sure I don’t have to convince many people of this. It is not difficult to see this relationship represented in the book by the relationship between the Capitol, where people have plenty, living lives of fashion and luxury, and the districts, where the people produce of all the goods and food, yet live lives of poverty. While the people of the districts have to break the rules just to put food on the table, the people of the Capitol seem to spend most of their time on hear, cloths and make up and follow the hunger games with the same passion which is commonly associated with a soap operas, not unlike us in the west. The people of the districts are powerless to stand up to the injustice. They are mocked daily by the way which the Capitol enforces its power: its soldiers are called “peacekeepers” and power in the districts is exercised from what are called “justice buildings.” Is this really unlike our world? Where millions are starving around the world, what do we in the west do? We obsess over trivia like fashion and gossip. While people are dying of starvation in Africa, Asia and South America, people in the west and dying of obesity. And while we don’t literally have games where we let kids fight to the death for out entertainment, the reality is that many children live and poverty and do end up dying for the entertainment whims of the west. Sweatshops. Slave labour making our chocolate. So while I still find the whole premise of children fighting to the death as disturbing as the first time I saw the trailer on TV, what is more disturbing the suggestion which the book seems to be subtly hinting at thought out: that maybe our society is more like the society of the Capitol than we would care to admit. Yep, the Hunger games are real for many around the world.


Yet the themes run much deeper than our context today. Indeed, The Hunger Games speaks to the very core our understanding of humanity itself. While every piece of writing, every film, every song, ever peace of art is ultimately asks the question” what does it mean to be human?” few do so in such a profound way. As Christian’s, we believe that human identity is found in being created in the image of God. We are created to reflect God and his goodness. Yet, we also believe that this was broken: that humanity is fallen and that something of the image was broken. Humans are as we have seen throughout history are capable to both great good and great evil. The Hunger Games asks the question of our humanness in an extreme context. It asks questions of the characters in a context where few would find themselves in: where they miss kill or be killed: and for no greater cause than for their own lives. It brings out both the very best and the very worse in humanity.

Jesus said that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, see also 1 John 3:16-17.) And we know that God is love. This act of laying one’s life down for another because of love is therefore the deepest expression our true humanity. It is an action which echoes the One prefect sacrifice which Jesus made on the cross. It is action of love like this is at the heart of the book. In volunteering to be tribune instead of Prim, Katniss believes that she is giving herself a death sentence ( the fact that she ends up surviving is not relevant, as at this point she believes that she has no chance.) Despite years of enlightenment thinking which says that the individual is the most important unit of value, this theme reoccurs in countless places in popular culture. Self-sacrificial love is not dead, by any means.

There are other glimpses of human goodness throughout the book, despite it’s dark setting. Peeta, the male tribune from Katniss’ district, expresses a desire to “die as myself” and to “show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their game.” This can be seen an expression of the dignity which every human should have because of the fact that we reflect God’s image (although it could also be argues that this is an expression of individualism.) We also see it when Katniss teams up with fellow tribune Rue. When Rue is fatally wondered, Katniss fulfills Rue’s dying wish to sing to her. She then decorates her body with flowers and gives her a three finger salute (a sign of respect for the departed) before she leaves the body, an act which she feels will be seen as an act of rebellion against the Capitol. Rue’s district repays her kindness by send her a gift (“sponsors” are about to send gifts to tribunes if the pay) and the other turbine form her district spares Katniss’ life, because of this.

We also humanity at it’s very worst. The games very existence, for one thing. The social sins of the Capitol I have already outlined. Some of the tribunes are eager to kill, and in fact volunteer for the games in order to win glory for themselves. Neither is Katniss herself immune. She is willing to kill and kills four people (none in cold blood, but she still kills.) To kill another human is to destroy one who bares the image of God. Can she have resisted in some other way? The book seems to be trying its best to exclude this possibly, but is it really necessary for her to use violence? She is also willing to play on a possible romance with Peeta to get support from sponsor and ultimately so that they can both win and survive. She is therefore willing to use her own humanity as a weapon in the game. That is a bad place to be.

So is Katniss a good role model for your young people? Well, like every human, she has good and bad. And like every human, she is on a journey and continuously learning and growing. (Unfortunately, as I have only read the first book, I cannot tell you how her journey ends.) So we must ask, how does she stack up against the real role model, Jesus? Can she be described as a Christological figure? Well, it has been interesting thinking about this at the beginning of Holy week, when we think about the last week of Jesus life, and compare and contrast this with the week which Katniss spent in the capitol. Katniss’ triumph at the opening ceremony, where she and Petta outshine the other turbines with a costume which was on fire and where the crown chants her name, echoes Jesus’ arrive in Jerusalem on a donkey, which had crowers singing God’s Praises. While Jesus sacks the temple in an act of righteous anger, anger causes Katniss to shoot an arrow right into a crowd of the “gamemasters”, an act which leads her to getting a high score before the games begin. And while Jesus’ wisdom had the crowds in the temple speechless, Kitniss gets chars at her interview the night before she goes into the arena. And this leads us to the event which defines the life of Jesus. Katniss was willing to sacrifice herself for her sister out of love, an act of self-sacrifice which echoes the one perfect sacrifice for all time which Jesus made. Yet, there is a critical different here: Katniss is still willing to kill other to survive. She is still willing to commit evil acts, even when she considers the outcome to be good. She was, ultimately willing to play the game which she was asked to play, even though she considered it to be wrong. Jesus, on the other hand refused to play the game. He refused to be the warrior king many of Jews wanted. He refused to use force to resist arrest. He refused to answer the questions of the authorities. He went willingly to die on the cross. He did not play the game of power, but chose to show love. Will we, as his follower also refused to play the game of power? Or will we instead play the games of the world; a game which, if we play, will ultimately led to our death?

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