The Hunger Games and the Gospel: Bread, Circuses and the Kingdom of God
- Julie Clawson Adapted from The Hunger Games and the Gospel, copyright © 2012 by Patheos Press, Patheos.com.
- 2012 10 Apr
Introduction: Let the Games Begin
After Suzanne Collins' first book in the series, The Hunger Games, was published in September 2008, it spent more than 100 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. The next two books, Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010), quickly joined those ranks, as well. Winning numerous awards, the books soon appeared in 26 translations. Sparking fan sites and Twitter news feeds, fans soon started posting handmade T-shirts and jewelry based on the books on craft sites such as Etsy.com. Then came the mega-million dollar Hollywood film adaptation.
Still, these numbers are merely evidence the books captured people's attention. They do not explain why they moved us so deeply.
The Hunger Games Series gets inside you and holds your imagination captive. After I finished the books, the story and the characters haunted my thoughts. I couldn't let them go. It wasn't enough to re-read the series (although, I did, multiple times); these were stories that meant something, stories that dealt with themes larger than themselves; and I needed to let those themes speak into my life.
Although not explicitly Christian books, the themes explored in The Hunger Games are the same ones Christians have wrestled with since the days of Jesus and His apostles: themes of love, compassion and justice in the face of oppression; themes of hoq it looks to live full of hope that a better world is possible.
Amid the excitement of a well-told story, The Hunger Games addresses those hard questions people in our culture can't help but ask, questions not simply about why there is evil in the world (because we already know it's there), but questions about how to respond to evil. People want to know whether their core beliefs have anything to say to the realities of oppression, violence and economic inequalities that continually confront them and whether they can do anything about those problems.
These are also the questions Jesus addressed as He called and instructed people about how to follow the ways of the kingdom of God. Jesus didn't come offering spiritual advice meant only for some elusive future realm; He offered people a tangible way to live transformatively every day. So while The Hunger Games is not a retelling of the Christian story, I found in it a helpful and vivid portrayal of the struggles and blessings of pursuing the sort of life that can't help but turn the world upside-down...or right-side up, as the case may be.
To explore the intersection of The Hunger Games and the gospel is to discover echoes of the good news in the pages of these young adult, science-fiction books. The good news Jesus taught of the kingdom of God offered tangible ways for how a world full of injustice and oppression can be transformed into one of hope, which was a message of good news back when Jesus first preached it and remains so for us today. His is a message that resonates throughout the imaginative narrative of The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is not the gospel or even an allegory of the gospel story, but it reflects the good news, helping illuminate the path of kingdom living for readers today.
Spoiler Alert! The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to survive in the post-apocalyptic and totalitarian country of Panem, which is North America of the distant future. At some point, war and environmental disaster destroyed the United States, and out of the remnants grew the new country of Panem. The nation consists of a wealthy Capitol city, located in the Rocky Mountain region, with 12 poorer districts surrounding it. There was at one time a 13th district, but it supposedly was destroyed by the Capitol during a rebellion some 75 years prior to the events in the books.
As with any totalitarian regime, the Capitol asserts complete control over the districts, forcing the people there to abide by strict rules and work in industries that supply the needs of the Capitol. It also exerts its control by reminding the people of the price of rebellion by selecting two children from each district every year as tributes to be sacrificed in the Hunger Games—a televised spectacle that plays as a mash-up between "Survivor" and "Gladiator." Cherished as the height of entertainment in the Capitol, the games are required viewing in the districts where families and friends must watch their children fight to the death.
Readers first meet Katniss on Reaping Day, the day when the children are chosen from the districts to compete. When her younger sister Prim's name is drawn in the District 12 reaping, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the arena. Joining her from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, the baker's son who had once saved Katniss' life by giving her bread when she was desperately hungry. With their mentor Haymitch Abernathy, the solitary District 12 victor from a past Hunger Games, they are taken to the Capitol for complete makeovers, games training and to be paraded in front of the adoring Capitol crowds eager to see them get slaughtered. Coming from the poorest of the districts where winning the games is nearly unheard of, Katniss and Peeta are automatically different than the average tributes. They don't strive for fame or posture themselves as trained combatants (asother tributes), but reflect their humble background in their demeanor, even supporting each other during their presentation. With the help of the spectacular clothing made by her stylist, Cinna, Katniss is presented as "the girl on fire." She becomes a favorite when Peeta admits on live television that he has been in love with her for years.
In the Games Arena, Katniss attempts to survive the elements and the other tributes. She proves to be a smart contestant, catching food and outsmarting other players. When in a twist of the rules the Gamemakers announce two players could win the Games that year, Katniss immediately finds Peeta, who has been badly wounded, and helps them both survive to the end. Then at the last minute, the earlier rule change is revoked. Instead of turning on each other, she and Peeta take a gamble and attempt to commit suicide with poisonous berries. The Gamemakers relent and allow them both to live, though the Capitol is furious with Katniss for this highly subversive act.
Katniss' path of trying to figure out how to take those tentative steps forward into a new world resonates with readers who also are trying to make sense of their world because it sets Katniss' journey apart from other similar stories. She doesn't get to click her heels together or push through a wardrobe at the end of the journey to find she has returned to the safety and comforts of home. She does not have the peace of Harry Potter's concluding "all was well" or the chance to echo Edward and Bella's continuing "blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever."
For Katniss, there is no going back, no returning home to pick up where she left off before her adventures began. Her world has changed completely; and in her brokenness, she has to hold together the pieces of what is left in a way that makes living possible. However, the way forward isn't one of hopeless despair. Living in the new world is difficult, requiring change and growth, but it isn't impossible. It's just the struggle to end oppression and build a better world is complicated and messy—which is the sort of honest yet hopeful message that speaks into the lives of readers.
The Power of Stories
Because of such themes, The Hunger Games fits into the recent popular trend in young adult literature of presenting dystopian as opposed to utopian realities.
Popular books such as The Giver and The Uglies Series and movies such as The Matrix, The Dark Knight and Battlestar Galactica portray such struggling societies; not that these stories assume a better world is not possible, but they don't prescribe an idea of utopia as a fixed end in itself. Instead, they leave it up to the readers to do the hard work of imagining a way forward. Since 9/11, when even the United States no longer could be conceived of as a safe home to return to, the dystopian genre has exploded.
Jesus knew the power of story as He spread the message of that new way of being in the world He called the kingdom of God. He didn't spout off theological formulae, or list the "7 Steps for Living in the Kingdom"; He came telling stories.
His wasn't some pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die message of escapist hope, but a means of living according to God's ways in the here and now. It was a picture of how people could participate in God's will being done on earth as in heaven, or as some have referred to it, of allowing God's dreams to come true in the day-to-day tangible reality of life. It also wasn't about forcefully establishing God's kingdom through the application of human ingenuity or violent revolt. For although God will fully inaugurate the kingdom someday, it is in living in the ways of God right now that the kingdom is ours. It is yet to come and here for us already when we choose to accept the discipline of Jesus' alternative way of being in the world.
Despite that call to live differently, we still live in a broken world where injustice and oppression are the norm, a world where children are kidnapped and forced into sex slavery, where some women risk having acid thrown in their face every time they dare to show up at school, where governments court the favor of corporations by allowing them to ignore minimum wage or environmental protection standards, where a mom can work two jobs and still not be able to afford nutritious food or health care for her kids, where every 3.6 seconds someone dies from lack of food.
Our world is very similar ot Panem. Sadly, Christians, especially in countries such as the United States, often have been seduced into living in the ways of the world that devalue the image of God in others. Many Christians have forgotten how to live in the world in ways that are not of the world. What Jesus delivered as a transforming message of hope has been spiritualized away to nothing more than pithy sayings or pleasing rituals designed to make us feel content as we live in the ways of the world. For those who know life is not as it was meant to be, stories such as The Hunger Games serve as reminders of how it looks to choose a different path.
The early followers of Christ had hope because they knew which dreams to value as they lived into the kingdom. They knew to grasp hold of the dreams that manifested the ways of compassion and love, self-sacrifice, gentleness, respect and inclusion. In the face of oppression, they chose to declare their allegiance to the realization of these dreams instead. As did Katniss, they had their lives turned upside down and had to grow and change as people; but that's what the transformation Jesus talked about involves—becoming new creations who no longer can exist under the old ways of the world, but who instead embrace the life-affirming ways of the kingdom of God. That is the life Christians are called to live despite struggle and hardship and still choose to work for a better world that reflects God's dreams.
Thankfully, we have stories to help show us the way. These are stories that spark our imaginations, and teach us how to ensure the stories our children tell are more about justice and compassion than oppression and greed. These are stories that are more than just stories, but which also serve as avatars of hope as they engage our minds in ceaseless imaginative play about how to build a better world: stories such as Katniss', such as The Hunger Games.
So let our imaginations play, and let the games begin.