Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Deeper Hungers and Darker Games

 I'm a big fan of honesty in fiction. 

 I don't want cookie-cutter personalities, saccharine love, or shallow stereotypes.  I want the author to convince me to cheer for heroes and against villains - and I want to know why the heroes and villains are worthy of the label.  I want grit and beauty, despair and hope, love and loss. If a story tells me what the world is like, I don't mind if it’s happy or grim.  I want actions to have real consequences, and I want to feel like I ought to feel if the same situation were happening in real life.
   
I want to believe that some things are worth fighting for and some things are not, and I want to be reminded that people can be redeemed though not all will be.

This is why I like The Hunger Games series. There have been some really good posts about these books (Holly Ordway's comes to mind, as does J.W Wartick's); since I would be both redundant and boring if I covered the same ground, I will address an issue I have not heard discussed much elsewhere.

 The Hunger Games is entirely a world without God.

Suzanne Collins does not give even the slightest nod to God or religion. As a result, she has done a stellar job introducing a YA audience to a dystopian, godless future that reveals the horrors of unbridled human nature.  As a Christian, I don't mind that God is absent from the story.  If an author is going to write about a world without God, then show a world without God.  I just want the story to be honest about how awful that world would be - and it is.
  •   There is no Higher Power to give objective standard for justice. Neitzsche said that when everybody understands that God is dead, they will know they are beyond such petty labels as "good" and "evil" and will simply exercise power.  In The Hunger Games, what happens when one corrupt regime is replaced?  The next regime moves in with the seeds of corruption already sown. The State kills people without benefit of trial or proof; so does President Snow.  So do the rebels.  Gale might just be the ideal Neitzschean Superman, finally able to move beyond attachments and emotions and wield his power on behalf of a regime that is new, but not that different.
  •   There is no Higher Standard for morality.  Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote: “If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place. It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Hefner.”  Neil Postman noted, "Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."  Collins’ world without God captures both these possibilities. Those in the Capital who are not abusing or being abused by power are consumed with ease and pleasure.  The rebels “fight the system,” but what can they offer to replace it?  They are already intoxicated with the power they have. The distorted pleasure will follow, as we see foreshadowed in the agreement to have yet another Game.  
  • There is no Source of Hope outside ourselves.  Where does one find hope in the midst of the brutality and pain?  The only thing the book offers is relationships with others.  While I believe in the meaningfulness of community and companionship, that is the only hope in the story. Justice is either brutal, corrupted, or vigilante, and no ultimate justice will one day make things right.  There are no miracles, no unblemished saviors, no trustworthy authority figures.  There is only others - and even the hope found in them is broken. (The last chapter in the series is simultaneously hopeful and tragic - a measure of peace has been found, but it's a broken hallelujah)
  •  There is no Purpose to history.  In Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited, White, the nihilistic atheist, says: “The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different.” What will happen in Katniss’s world?  No way to tell, really, but White appears to be correct.  If there were a Book Four, I suspect we would see the new government looking more and more like the old regime.  Even the best of the rebels seemed to lose their soul by the time the revolution was complete.  The Mockingjay can only repeat what it knows; just like the iconic bird, the individual characters appear to be only echoes of the people and events that have formed them.  Why should governments be exempt?
This list might leave the impression the series is not worth reading, but that is not the case at all. The series has a lot to offer in a world awash in worldview battles. Collins did not shy away from the reality of the world she created. There were no false moments.  If one can learn truth equally well through a story that shows compelling good as well as disgusting evil, The Hunger Games has done a lot in the service of truth, even if the story is disturbing and grim.
 
 Contrast this approach with another recent YA phenomenon: Twilight. The series is full of bizarre distortions of reality - it never does the story, the characters or the reader the honor of allowing something real to happen.
 
Young, impressionable teenage girls absorb the message that putting all one’s self-worth in one boy is okay; that stalking is romantic; that ordinary, boring friends are losers; that a love triangle involving a teenage girl and two really dangerous men (one who is much older than she) is really cool; and that rough sex is okay if he loves you (you only bruise the ones you love!) No, thank you.  I am not entertained.

Let's not kid ourselves; today’s youth know that life is grim. They already know that parents die, friends can turn on them, power can corrupt, and even the best relationships are full of tension and pain.  For many, life looks so overwhelming at times that the only thing they can do is hide for a while and wonder how they can possibly be made whole.  Maybe they are drawn to this story because it does them the honor of giving them truth.

I'd much rather they read a story that takes life seriously than one that insults them with beautiful twilight lies. At least now we are in the realm of truth, and the truth of Christ has the ability to bring hope, life, and light into very dark lives indeed.

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Recommended Reviews of The Hunger Games:
Christian Reflection on the Hunger Games Trilogy - very thorough post from J.W. Wartick
The Hunger Games, Ethics and Christianity - another post about the role of luck
Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy - good overview and perspective of the series as literature
Blood-Stained Ink has a three-part series worth reading
From Emily Torres' Dystopia Ministries - a series of short articles on how our culture is intersecting with the Capital.
A series based on The Hunger Games and Philosophy begins here.

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