I think that the first I’d heard of The Hunger Games was in a FaceBook conversation between a high school teacher I know and some of her students. I love to read and have a heart for teens, so when I heard an outline of the story I knew I had to read it for myself. Of course, then I found out it isn’t just one book but three, and I was thrilled. There is nothing like a continuing story to wet the appetite of an avid reader. I remember years ago discovering a paperback book series about the Oregon Trail that numbered into 30 or 40 books… I think I bought the whole set at a used book store in town and I devoured a book every couple of days. Needless to say, if The Hunger Games story went on beyond the three books, I’d be one happy camper. So, when I found out that the books were being turned into movies as well, I got about as excited as any other fan of the series.
If you’re not familiar with the book, here is the story in a nutshell. It is written from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen who lives in one of the 13 “districts” in the country of Panem, which is what is left of North America after some future war. Everything is run by the Capitol, a highly advanced city that seems to hold complete power over the rest of the nation. The Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 to 18 are selected through a lottery system from each of the districts to compete in a televised battle in which only one person can survive. The citizens of the Capitol find the most perverse pleasure in following what happens to the contestants from the comfort of their over-indulgent lives, and seem to love hearing the Gamekeeper’s creepy mantra, “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds ever be in your favor.” Think of it as “The Truman Show” meets “Survivor” meets “Lord of the Flies” – or the extreme end result of our cultural fascination with reality television. The story has families ripped apart, sacrifices being made, a disgust for the disconnected masses of the cultural elite, and a love story or two woven in between.
Since I’ve let it be known that I like the books, I’ve been asked by a lot of Christian friends what I think about the series, and have read more than a few concerns with the concept of teenagers having to battle it out to the death. I agree that without knowing the story it could be very disconcerting. But, having read the books – and now having seen the movie (my wife and I joined our sons and their friends at one of the more than 3000 midnight premiers this week), I can say that it is full of some pretty strong and important Christian themes. And as far-fetched as we think the idea of something like this ever taking place would be, it actually already has – think of the Roman culture with it’s gladiator games and the deaths of thousands of Christians at the hands of mercenaries and wild animals, all for people’s entertainment in the coliseums and arenas around Europe. Those games lasted for almost a thousand years, and are said to be one of the ideas behind the concept of The Hunger Games.
But the truth is that today we still offer up our young in the arena. Our culture seems to thrive on reality TV shows, and ever since MTV’s first offering of this type of programming with “The Real World”, we have gobbled up every show that’s come along where we can see young people battling it out emotionally, sexually, and physically week after week. How else could you explain the success of morally train-wreck type of shows like “The Bachelor” and “Jersey Shore”? The more controversy and conflict in the show, the greater the ratings. Sadly we are not much different than Rome in 600 BC. If only we would stand up against this culture that is harming us and our children.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” – Hebrews 12:1-3
When the Apostle Paul wrote these words, he was putting a spiritual concept into a cultural context. Those he was writing to knew and experienced the Roman contests in the arena, and he was putting that image in their heads. In the previous chapter he had just listed off all of these who in history had gone before them in their faith, who were now watching them as it were from the seats of the arena. They were cheering them on to run the race well, and to stay in the fight without giving up. More importantly they had one that they could look at as their example… one who had endured, overcome, and now stood as the Victor. That someone is Jesus.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is that example. She comes on the scene when the nation lacks hope and needs, as President Snow in the story puts it, “a spark.” First in her volunteering to take the place of her younger sister Primrose when her name is chosen as District 12’s female “tribute”, and then in simply trying to survive the game, Katniss became that spark and much more. She even came to be known as “the Girl on Fire”. And as she took on this role and did her best to make sure that her family and friends survive too, she unknowingly sparked a flame that would eventually roar into the fires of revolution. Sound familiar?
“When Pilate heard this, he became even more scared. He went back into the palace and said to Jesus, ‘Where did you come from?’ Jesus gave no answer. Pilate said, ‘You won’t talk? Don’t you know that I have the authority to pardon you, and the authority to – crucify you?’ Jesus said, ‘You haven’t a shred of authority over me except what has been given you from heaven…” – John 19:8-11a
So much of Katniss’ attitude toward the Capital, President Snow, and those who run the Game reminds me of this exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. There is a conversation that takes place between Katniss and Peeta Mellark (the young man chosen as the other tribute from her district) the night before the Game begins. He tells her, “I keep wishing that I could find a way to show the Capitol that they don’t own me… that I’m more than just a piece in their games.” This statement has an impression on Katniss and its sentiment shows up again at an important moment in the story. But for you and I, the same sentiment must be true. Do we live our lives simply to fit in to the dictates of the culture around us, or do we stand up and stand out? What is it that we have done that causes a spark? Reading the book, going to the movie, or braiding your hair doesn’t make you Katniss Everdeen. But dying to yourself, living your life for something greater, and putting others first WILL make you more like Jesus.
“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” – Jesus (John 15:13)
One of the main themes in this story is sacrifice. Again and again we see this in the choices that Katniss makes… in her commitment to stay near home to take care of her mother and sister rather than escape into the woods with her friend Gale, her volunteering to take the place of her sister, or in her willingness to risk the danger of facing those who are trying to find and kill her so that she can get medicine that Peeta so desperately needs to live. As her story continues in the next two books, more and more Katniss lays herself aside for the sake of others. This is a lesson that I am glad millions are reading around the globe. Now if everyone would just take that lesson and live it out the world would be a very different place.
“I see a real danger in our world. A generation who thinks because they ‘liked’ or ‘shared’ something, they’ve done their part. We are becoming overwhelmed with causes, and most are good. But just because you shared the Kony video doesn’t mean you’ve done anything. Yes, the world needs your voice, but it also needs your hands, feet, head and heart.” – Dave Kirby, President, IBelieve Media
Dave is an old friend and he just posted this statement on his FaceBook page this morning. When I read it I wanted to stand up and shout, “YES!” Dave gets it. I am personally about to release a book I’ve written for teens and young adults called The Justice Revolution that will hopefully shake them out of their comfort zone and ask them to get involved in a big way. It addresses seven different global justice issues, and will challenge the premise that social activism is something that only “the left” is involved in. The Gospel doesn’t stop at salvation – it should activate every Believer to interject themselves into the injustices they see around them. In The Hunger Games we see Katniss doing this for those that she comes into contact with, but the amazing thing is that she doesn’t realize that because she was willing to help a few, her impact actually spreads throughout Panem. We never truly understand the reach of our influence if we would only get involved.
**SPOILER ALERT** (Don’t read the next two paragraphs if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie and don’t want to know how the first book ends)
Remember how I said that Peeta’s statement about not wanting to let the Capitol control him comes back at a pivotal moment in the story? Well, that comes in the final moment of the Game. In a twist to the normal rules, it is declared that if the two tributes from the same district are the last two alive, then they can both win. This ends up being Peeta and Katniss. In that moment that they think they’ve survived, the rule is once again changed – with the Gamekeepers (and President Snow) hoping that Katniss will have learned her lesson by having to kill or be killed by the boy she is supposed to be romantically tied to now. With Peeta arguing with her to kill him so that she can go home to help her family, Katniss takes out some poisonous berries and convinces him to trust her and take the berries with her. With the world watching this moment unfold on live television, it would be their final act in telling the Gamekeepers that they can not be controlled. As they begin to take the berries, the Game is stopped and they are both declared the winners of the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
What I love about the way this ends is that there are two things shown here. First, that Katniss had a desire to do everything she could to make sure that Peeta crossed the finish line with her. Second, that after the rule was changed, she in essence made the statement that, “The only way to really win is to die.” She really was willing to lay her life down for her freind. Both of these are things that we see in the life of Jesus – He gave His all so that you and I could “win”, and He knew that the only way to do that was to go to the cross.
Please understand that I am not saying that the character of Katniss is a Jesus-figure. I’m saying that woven into that character are a lot of motivations and attributes that we should all hope are evident in our own lives. Let’s say that she is more like David from the Old Testament – a slightly flawed “underdog” but willing to do what it takes to get the job done. She knows who she is and is the last person a giant would want to see step out to face them when the moment of truth arrives. After all no one with an evil motivation likes the underdog. Why not? Because underdogs are the ones who people rally behind.
I live to see the world full of a generation that has caught on fire – one that realizes that life has nothing to do with odds, and everything to do with finding favor. God’s favor.