Katniss and Christ: Meeting the Hunger in Middle School Girls
- Melissa Dykes
- 2013 29 Aug
The Hunger Games phenomenon has swept the adolescent world by storm. I could give statistics on book, movie and merchandise sales, but the evidence is all around us. I don't know how many middle school girls I have seen wearing their hair in the side-of-the-head Katniss braid. At the junior high session of Impact, David Skidmore has a ritual with his side of the audience for morning games: After every score, he holds three fingers to his lips and raises them in salute, and his team responds in kind, mimicking the potent gesture from the series. One of my good friends, now a senior in college, has a mockingjay necklace hanging from her rearview mirror.
The question youth ministries face today is: How can we partner with this trend to bring Christ closer to the hearts of these teenagers? Or perhaps: How can Katniss be a vessel for Christ?
In trying to bring teens closer to the heart of God, youth ministers need to take advantage of these opportunities provided by culture. Because The Hunger Games is so popular and most of the teens in our youth groups have read the books or at least seen the movie, we have a wonderful opportunity to use this medium as a vessel for God's truth. One of my professors in college once said, "Truth is truth no matter where you find it." I believe this holds true for every good story. If it contains any measure of truth, there is a window through which we can catch a glimpse of God.
The Hunger Games seems to be especially popular with middle school girls. They are in a very vulnerable time of life. According to Erik Erikson's developmental stages, these girls are transitioning from the battle between industry and inferiority, where accomplishment is the main means of success; to the war between identity and role confusion, where the rules are entirely different. They are bombarded with ideas of who they could be or what they could become every time they glance at their cell phones. In this constant barrage, one way of coping is to attach themselves to role models. Heroines in young-adult novels—such as Katniss in The Hunger Games—provide such models for some of these girls.
Another war of the middle school girl has to do with self-worth. While they are choosing and developing a self-image (with the help of their chosen role models), they also are evaluating what that image is worth. All the incoming messages from society can play havoc here, as well as with identity. They see what culture deems popular and desirable and are compelled to measure themselves by that standard, often with disastrous results if they happen to be overweight, shy or merely late-developing.
Because most professional youth ministers are young adult males, relating to this demographic in particular does not always come easily. Finding boundaries that allow adequate connection without inappropriate intimacy is always a challenge. Add that to the vulnerability of the age group and the fact the youth ministers (often not so long ago) were once middle school boys who had less idea of how to approach middle school girls and you have a huge conundrum. That this ambiguity should fall on an age that so craves male support and affirmation is even more of a tragedy. With so many fathers out of the picture, the support of youth ministers is a crucial component to the development of our middle school girls. Fortunately, books such as The Hunger Games can provide material over which these two groups can connect and avenues that can bring them together.
While I am sure nearly every teenager has read or seen The Hunger Games, many youth ministers may have not. For the sake of discussion, I will briefly summarize the main plot:
The book focuses on Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old from the drastically poor District 12 in what remains of North America in the near future. Due to natural and civic disasters, little remains of society as we know it. Instead, people have congregated into 12 districts and one ruling Capitol that make up the world of Panem. At one point, the districts attempted to rebel against the oppressing Capitol, but they failed and are now forced to participate in an annual Hunger Games to remind them of their subordination. Once a year, each district is required to select two teenagers, one boy and one girl, by lottery to serve as tributes in the Games. These tributes are placed in a rugged arena and forced to kill each other while all of Panem is forced to watch the constantly televised events. The teenagers will die from exposure, hunger, natural disasters or the violence of other tributes until one victor emerges. It is a bloody spectacle meant to remind the people of Panem they remain subject to the dictates of the Capitol.
Katniss Everdeen is sent to the Hunger Games when her sister Prim's name is drawn in the lottery. Unable to let her beloved sister die in the arena, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The boy tribute chosen is Peeta Mellark, who turns out to have had a crush on Katniss since they were children. Katniss is pretty well prepared for the games already, having grown up poor and hungry and having had to feed herself and her sister through hunting since her father's death in the mines of District 12. She is incredibly skilled with a bow, a fact that many times saves her life in the arena. Once in the arena, Katniss faces one danger after another as she is used as target practice, pelted with fireballs by the Game-makers, and subjected the usual perils of nature. In the end, she and Peeta are acknowledged as victors by an act of rebellion against the Capitol, and they return to District 12 in anticipation of the President's retribution. This danger carries throughout the other two books, as well (and soon to be, two movies); I will limit the summary to the first book and movie in the series.
After analyzing The Hunger Games, my insights fell into one of two categories: insights for the average youth minister to understand better the nature of life as a middle school girl and topics from the book that can be used as bases for discussions in youth groups.
Youth Minister Insights
One of the first things we learn about Katniss is that she has family issues. Her father died in a tragic mining accident when she was young. His death haunts her throughout the book, and she constantly is reliving that pain and fear, associating good things with his life and painful things with his death. Since that accident, her relationship with her mother has been strained. Her mother was unable to cope with the loss and withdrew into a depressive state, leaving Katniss and Prim to face starvation. Katniss is not able to forgive her for that. From that time, Katniss has been the provider of the family, hunting and scavenging to feed young Prim, over whom she has grown extremely protective. It is this need to protect that motivated her to hunt and that leads her to volunteer as tribute in the Hunger Games instead of her sister. In these circumstances, she cannot stand idly by while Prim faces death.
Katniss' family dynamics easily resonate with middle school girls whose own families are broken. Many older sisters today grow protective of their siblings when a parent is absent, feeling the need to fill that void in the lives of their siblings that they feel in themselves. Both of Katniss' parents were in some way gone, and she felt the need to step up as provider and nurturer for Prim.
One way in which teenagers may subconsciously relate to the Hunger Games is in the idea of the imaginary audience. This term describes the underlying belief in adolescence that everyone's attention is somehow on the adolescent. Everything she does is important and observed. It's as if she is putting on a form of show at all times. From personal experience, I can say this can be exhausting, but it is intricately tied to developing self-image. The adolescent projects a chosen image to the imaginary crowd, taking it on a test-drive, if you will.
Katniss displays this phenomenon in a different way. While she is in the arena, she constantly is observed by the Capitol, and those images are frequently broadcast to all of Panem. She never knows when she is onscreen, but there is always the chance she is onscreen. At the beginning of the Games, Katniss always is trying to work the cameras. She refuses to cry or let her emotions show on her face because she does not want the world to see her weakness. There's a moment when she has narrowly missed detection from some of her opponents and she drops out of the tree where she was hiding, gives a knowing smile for the camera, and runs off thinking, "There! Let them figure out what that means!" (p.164). This real but invisible audience for Katniss aptly displays the effect of the imaginary audience in adolescence.
On the last night before entering the arena, all 24 tributes are interviewed before all of Panem. The entire day before, Katniss and Peeta work on refining their images and TV personalities. Their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, is there to guide them through the lead-up to the Games, and his part in this refinement is crucial. When he is working with Katniss, he has her try several different approaches to answering his practice interview questions so the audience will like her. She tries Winning, Humble, Cocky, Ferocious, Witty, Funny, Sexy and Mysterious; none of them work. She says, "By the end of the session, I am no one at all." When she finally gets to the interviews, everyone who goes before her has a persona they use. This is the struggle of adolescence with identity. The teenager, trying to figure out who she is, tries on different personas in hopes of finding a fit—one that other people will like. Similar to Katniss, however, many girls struggle to find a pre-made image that will stick.
In the book, it takes the wisdom of Katniss' stylist Cinna to resolve this issue for her. Cinna is there to make Katniss look good for the audience physically, but he goes above and beyond that role in giving her hope and moral support. Cinna dresses her in a beautiful gown for the interviews and sits her down to discuss her persona. She pours out her heart in telling him that she "can't be one of those people [Haymitch] wants [her] to be" (p. 121). Cinna wisely suggests she be herself. He points out the people who like her already without a persona and reminds her of the beautiful spirit she has shown so far in the Games. He then goes on to suggest that when she's answering the questions later that night that she tell herself that she is talking to him, to a friend. In this way, she is assured the emotional safety to be herself.
Instead of imposing something foreign on her, as Haymitch was trying to do, Cinna wisely steps back, sees what is beautiful in her already, and shows her the value of her own worth. This is something middle school girls need from their youth ministers today. They already are surrounded with images to try on; Christian does not need to be another one of those optional images. Instead, we can support these girls by helping them see the beauty of the personalities God already has placed in them. That imago dei in each one of us should be reinforced as the lasting image that should come out the victor for the Christian adolescent.
Katniss' life in District 12 was made possible by her ability to hunt. Her father taught her how when she was young, but when he died, she was left to fend for herself. At first, she hunts with the small bow he made for her; but as she matures, she begins to use the larger bows he had stashed around the forest. Not only does her hunting supply the food for her family in District 12, but her ability to use a bow is her main skill when she goes in the arena. The Game-makers recognize this skill in her and intend to make a show of it. When she first enters the arena, she sees the bow they have placed there for her, among all the other weapons and supplies at the Cornucopia in the middle of all the tributes. She cannot get it then, though, for fear of losing her life. She must continue on without it. Later, when a coalition of the most brutal tributes—the Careers—tree her, one of the tributes from District 1 tries to use the bow against her but doesn't have the skill to use it right. Seeing her bow in her enemy's hands, Katniss thinks, "My bow! My arrows! Just the sight of them makes me so angry I want to scream" (p.182). Once she finally claims her intended weapon, she has "an entirely new perspective on the Games" (pg. 197). From that point on, properly equipped, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Several of the other tributes have gifts too: Peeta has an affinity for camouflage, stemming from his talent for art and cake-decorating. Peeta smiles. "'Yes, frosting. The final defense of the dying'" (p. 252).
Cato, one of the Careers, is tied to his sword in a special way, more noticeably in the movie than in the book. "'No,' says Cato, pushing away the bow. 'I'll do better with my sword'" (p. 182).
The girl tribute from District 8, known to Katniss as Foxface, has a talent for stealth and deception. "There's something about that sly grin that makes me sure that befriending Foxface would ultimately get me a knife in the back" (p. 227).
The little girl Rue who teams up with Katniss for a while can hop from tree to tree without touching the ground. "'I'm very hard to catch,' she says in a tremulous voice" (p. 126).
The boy tribute from District 3 has an affinity for explosives, and his gift is exploited by the pack of Careers to guard their stash of food while they hunt tributes. "The land mines were disabled after the sixty seconds we stood on the plates, but the boy from District 3 must have managed to reactivate them" (p. 219).
Katniss' affinity for hunting and the talents of the other tributes can be a useful illustration of spiritual gifts. God has given each of us special gifts that He wants us to use for Hs purpose. I am uncomfortable comparing God and the sadistic Game-makers, but there is a principle in common. Katniss knows she has a gift,and when she is kept from using it, she is not effective; she is barely staying alive. Once she and the means to use her gift are reunited, she truly can effect the situation around her. God has given us all different gifts. Unlike the Game-makers, though, His desire is that we use our gifts to serve others and glorify Him (1 Pet. 4:10-11).
An interesting perspective comes through Katniss' communication with Haymitch while in the arena. In the movie version, all of Haymitch's gifts to her come with notes, expressing his intentions or instructions. However, in the book, Katniss is forced to guess as to his instructions or lack thereof. One of the first dangers she faces in the arena is dehydration. She has traveled for a few days with no water and is beginning to wonder why Haymitch has not sent her anything. Does he want her to die? Then she realizes he's sending her a message that water must be close by; if she keeps going, she won't need water from him. Later, she and Peeta are trapped in a cave with all of Panem watching the two star-crossed lovers from District 12. Peeta is dying of an infected wound, and Katniss impulsively kisses him to stop his talk about dying. Right then, she gets a package from Haymitch containing a pot of broth. She interprets this as an incentive for their romance: "One kiss equals one pot of broth" (p. 261).
Katniss' interpretation in the book and the direct notes in the movie can illustrate ways we tend to approach the mystery of God's will. Katniss did not have Haymitch there to speak to her directly, similarly to how God chooses not to speak to us today as He did to the Patriarchs or to Moses. Katniss must act on her knowledge of Haymitch and his wishes; or she must act on the messages he sends her, depending on which version you choose. These are two common ways Christians deal with God's will. We can rely on written messages in the Bible, the messages given to us by His people; or we can judge how to act based on the known character of God, determining if something is in accordance with His attributes. These are not the only approaches, but these are the two showcased in the book. They provide a base for further discussion of God's will.
The Capitol triumphs over the Districts largely because of its superior technology, and some of the most terrifying manifestations of that technology are the Capitol's genetically mutated animals, quaintly referred to as mutts. The Capitol uses these animals as weapons. The jabberjays are birds that would spy in the districts and repeat whole conversations to the Capitol. The trackerjackers are hornets whose stings cause hallucinations and sometimes death. Worst in this book, however, are the mutts used in the finale for the Games. The movie replaces these with giant mutated dogs; but in the book, they are much more disturbing. Peeta, Katniss and Cato are the only tributes remaining when all three are attacked by a pack of unnatural dogs. They can stand on their hind feet, use their paws like hands, and cut a person with their razor-sharp claws. The worst feature, though, is the eyes. Each dog closely resembles a dead tribute right down to human eyes. The Capitol, not satisfied with a physical attack, employs unnatural monsters that unsettle the psyche.
As Christians, we fight unnatural enemies. We are instructed to "Put on the full armor of God so you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:11-12). Our foes are unnatural. Evil is unnatural, as is sin. They are violations of nature and the created order. They are things that should never have been, just as the Capitol's mutts; they are inherently harmful. The tribute-dogs in the end of the Hunger Games shred one of Peeta's legs, which he ends up losing from blood loss. When Katniss sees him again, his leg has been replaced with a prosthetic of metal and plastic. He lived after encountering the unnatural enemies, but it left him an unnatural scar.
Spark of Hope
Probably the most memorable theme from The Hunger Games is Katniss as the girl who was on fire. For the opening ceremonies in the Capitol, each pair of tributes is required to dress in a manner befitting his or her district. For tributes from District 12, this usually would mean coalmining outfits. Cinna, however, has a different style in mind for Katniss and Peeta. He dresses them all in black and embellishes their cloaks with synthetic flames. Every eye is on these two flaming tributes when they enter for the parade. This flame motif carries throughout the book, not only in Cinna's designs for their clothing but in Katniss' persona, as well. She is labeled as "the girl on fire." This is what makes her memorable to the crowd. The notice from these flames is what gives her a hope of survival in the Games.
As the story goes on, though, the flames take on a new life. The flames grow as a symbol of hope and spirit. Cinna is truly the one in the story who not only endows her with flames but with the hope they symbolize. He listens to her, supports her and believes in her when she doesn't believe in herself. His work lays the foundation for her success in the Games, not only in image but in encouragement. His support gives her the hope she ultimately spreads to others. Once in the arena, Katniss teams up with Rue, giving her friendship and a hope of survival (coincidentally, that scene takes place around a fire). Later, Katniss brings hope to Peeta by rescuing him from impending death. The next two books reveal the "girl on fire" spreading hope through all of Panem.
President Snow recognized this danger early on; in the movie, he instructs the head Game-maker on using hope as a weapon: "Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is fine. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine as long as it's contained." He sees the danger in the hope Katniss brings and succinctly commands that the Game-makers: "Contain it."
The hope Cinna gives to Katniss is contagious and spreads throughout the country by the time it's done, but it is only a hope of victory and freedom from the oppression of the Capitol. In the real world, the church holds a hope far more powerful than any in Panem. It is our privilege as youth ministers to kindle that hope in the young people in our charge. If this spark takes hold, as it did in Katniss, the effect can be so much greater than the flames kindled by Cinna. He merely sets an example of care and encouragement of young people that we can choose to follow.
These are just a few of the insights and discussions to be found in The Hunger Games. I have tried to draw these themes out as examples for using this book in youth ministry. Good literature contains truth, no matter the creative trappings; all truth can bring glory to God. If we allow ourselves to recognize it in the culture of the teens around us, we can use it for its created purpose in pointing teenagers in general (beyond just middle school girls) to the Author of hope, the ultimate expression of self-sacrifice, the Giver of gifts, the One who established the created order—our Lord.