Monday, May 21, 2012

The Hunger Games: Prophetic Satire in Pop-Culture Story

I am well aware that I am a late arrival to The Hunger Games party. Thanks to the constant nudging of my high school students, my finger tips were just barely able to grasp the bumper of the Suzanne Collins bandwagon. I am not a fan of trend. I am cynical about pop-culture. I never opened a page of the Twilight saga, although I did watch the first film. Not impressed. Instead, most pop-culture, while a sure testament to contemporary whims and fads, is border-line kitsch. This is not to suggest that I am the best judge of art and culture. I am not. It is just to say that when it comes to the New York Times Bestseller's List, I am more often than not left disappointed.

Then I read The Hunger Games.

The stories within the trilogy are not the best books I have ever read (actually, I still have to read the third book, Mockingjay). However, I believe they are the most prophetic "literary" contributions by pop-culture in quite some time. Suzanne Collins is able to elicit with brilliance and creativity a subversive satire on contemporary politics, social concerns, ideological propaganda, and the oppressive myths that dominate our modern world. And youth play a central role!

That being the case, The Hunger Games caused me to ponder, how can youth ministries and churches engage these prophetic narratives as platforms for theological discussions about Christian work and witness in the world? Even more, how can we uncover truths within The Hunger Games, truths that shed light on our contemporary world not so different than the one illustrated throughout the 12 Districts. In other words, The Hunger Games is more than pop-culture entertainment, that is, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

So, as a means to begin related conversations within the Imago Dei Youth Ministry and to wrap my brain around what I have initially encountered in The Hunger Games, I developed a few musings drawn from this prophetic satire:

We Instruct Our Kids in the Way of Violence

History shows that humans are prone to violence. We celebrate violence. We are entertained by violence. We wield violence. We grow violence. This is especially evident in the plethora of movies, video games, music, and reality t.v. whose story lines hinge on domineering heroes, forceful strategies, and territorial conquests (click for Collins' interview on "desensitization"). This is also true in what we teach our kids. Said differently, do we foster environments whereby children and youth are led to believe that might equals right and war is just as long as it protects us and our stuff or do we celebrate stories of third-way alternatives to conflict, oppression, and injustice.

I cringed when I learned of the "Careers" from Districts 1, 2, and 4. They are trained from earliest childhood to thrive in the art of violence and Hunger Games strategy. Much akin to child soldiers in Uganda, they are instructed in such a way that all they know is survival and violent conquest. Nothing else matters. No questions are asked. Are what we show on television, how we interpret the Scriptures, the means in which we celebrate or lament our religious and political history, and our conversations about conflict resolutions framed around Matthew 5-7 or District 2? If the latter, we should not be surprised in the fruit that we bear and the newsfeeds we encounter. If the former, maybe then God's dreams for the world, dreams of peace, will break in all around us- especially in and through children and youth.

Violence Romanticized

I don't think it's coincidental that the best-selling movies and books are those that promote violence and sex. In fact, the best of the best movies and books are those that create a montage of both. Think of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, right? Violence is considered sexy. Collins hints at this undercurrent to American culture in her ability to interweave the activities in the arena with the staged romance between Peeta and Katniss. Sex sells. Violence equals entertainment. The combination sure to boost ratings of those scattered throughout the districts (read: states) as they sit glued to their television sets or gather in the town square. But what does this do to sexuality, human relationships, and the imaginative spirit that now has the pursuit of conquest ingrained into the very core of our being?

There is a certain irony in the popular response to the film, as many celebrated each tribute's death and cheered for Katniss and Peeta to come out victorious. The question has even been posed, when does the medium become the message? That is, were the novels as satires on pervasive violence replaced by Hollywood's sheer fascination with violence and the obsession with teen romance, both which sell in their related markets. Did the movie theater actually become its own district of Panem, whereby those seated comfortably could view the games as entertainment in the same way as those scattered throughout the futuristic empire?

Ignorance Is Bliss

The don't ask and don't tell policy extends beyond human sexuality. We like it when our consciences are not called into question and we can claim ignorance. But I didn't know... I find this not so much evident in the plotline of the book, rather in the popular response to The Hunger Games. Teenagers and adults alike have riveted over this trilogy, but when fans are pushed on the potential parallels between Panem and developing nations, the Careers and American children, and the Capitol and Washington, we plead the fifth. I don't read it that way. I just prefer to think of it as a good story. Yet, when we read The Hunger Games as satire, our social and ethical consciences are called into question, we are dared to become informed, and invited to move towards radical and prophetic change, especially for the most vulnerable in our communities and world.

Are You Not Entertained?

As Katniss looked for cameras in the arena sky so to blow a subversive kiss, I could not help but think of an epic scene in Gladiator when Spaniard (Russell Crowe) shouts to those gathered in another arena, "are you not entertained?" We live in an entertainment-driven world and pleasure-me industry. Still, fashion, food, and technology all come at a cost. There are real stories behind those who make the products we buy [1] and grow the food we consume. There are ethical and justice concerns that undergird the devices we carry in our pockets and the tablets typed on by bloggers like me. Yet, it is easy to ignore these stories and balk at advocacy, because to do so may slow and distort our ability to be purely entertained.

This is also true in how hard we push our kids in athletics and other extra-curricular activities. American youth are thrust into competition and lured into adult's dreams for success at younger and younger ages. They are enrolled in camps, participate in multiple travel teams, and encouraged to take lessons for every musical instrument under the sun. Is this for their good or our pleasure? Do we "encourage" them to pursue their interests and unique giftedness or use them to vicariously fulfill what we as adults were unable to achieve in our prime? [2]

Political Propaganda

"Not only are we in the districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capitol's power each year, we are forced to celebrate it. And this year I am one of the stars of the show. I will have to travel from district to district, to stand before cheering crowds who secretly loathe me, to look down into the faces of the families whose children I have killed..." (Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire 4).

We need only sit in the stadium of our favorite professional sport team as fighter jets fly overhead and we sing "God Bless America," to realize that we are also forced to remember another sort of iron grip and imperial power. Propaganda is everywhere, from military mantras and naval slogans to our morning pledges in home room. Our history books and public school government classes are also cleverly crafted so to avoid the faces of native families and international communities who have been victimized to our social and political benefit. The same rings true when we speak about religious history.

Objectified Beauty

One of the more ludicrous rituals of The Hunger Games regards the ways each tribute is dolled up for the cameras prior to entering the arena. Katniss questions, "So you're here to make me look pretty?" Her stylist, Cinna, replies, "I am here to help you make an impression." It is not hard to recognize how much we have objectified beauty through mass media, especially of adolescents. We particularly pose young girls on the cover of magazines and movie screens, aided by photoshop and airbrush, and present them as flawless, thin, and bronzed models of glamour. When it comes to the ability of young women (and men) to see themselves created beautiful and made in God's beloved image regardless of their skin tone or body shape, we have set them up for failure and asked few questions.

However, an even more repulsive ritual of The Hunger Games is noted when, immediately after Katniss and Peeta have survived the Games, they are rushed to their stylist, makeup artist, and boutique to begin the beautification process. Every scar, unwanted body hair, bruise, scratch, and chipped nail is removed and corrected so to present the victors as perfected symbols of the Capitol's power and prestige. They mask the effects of violence and paint over the cost of the Games on these young people. In so doing, the Games are able to maintain a certain level of humanity...or are they?

Never Underestimate the Social Conscience and Ingenuity of Youth

The best part of The Hunger Games trilogy is that the protagonists are adolescents. All too often youth are dismissed as shallow and lazy members of the human race. They may be celebrated as the future of the church and society, but do we neglect to see them as more than capable of contributing to and transforming the present? Katniss is brilliant, courageous, insecure, and awkward. She is a contemporary adolescent. Yet, she is able to see through the Capitol's propaganda, to challenge the oppressive reign that cripples the districts, and embraces a love for her most vulnerable neighbors in a way that reminds me of many youth partnerships with faith communities in inner cities and developing nations. Youth like Katniss are what keep me involved in youth ministry...and will keep me engaged for a long, long time. They teach me as much, if not more so, than I teach them.

There is much within The Hunger Games that can be critiqued. We must be careful not to allow the medium to become the message and ruin the prophetic satire in this pop-culture story. The same is true for classics like Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. However, we should certainly read them and look for opportunities both to join their prophetic voices and uncover opportunities to speak of the gospel and related discipleship with children, youth, and adults. [3]

I am eager to do this over the summer...[4]


[1] A great book that sheds light on the clothing industry: Where Are We Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman.

[2] Death by Suburb, by David Goetz, speaks to youth as immortality symbols of adults.

[3] A great book that works through the parallels of Matthew 5 and the thematic elements of The Hunger Games is The Hunger Games and the Gospel: Bread, Circuses, and the Kingdom of God.

[4] Podcast by Homebrewed Christianity: