Virtuous Violence? The Hunger Games and Christian Sensibilities


I knew my take on violence in The Hunger Games would provoke some objections. (If you haven’t heard the live break from Monday’s show, click here.) Though I anticipated some backlash, I felt it was important to respond to what I felt was a mis-characterization of the violent elements of the story / film by critics within my own community of Bible-believing Christians.

Katniss takes aim.

Objections to My View

Most who have objected to my comments did so on two grounds: 1) that violence should not be portrayed in any form of entertainment, or 2) that Christian leaders–teachers , parents, public personalities–have no business commending a story in which objectionable elements (like violence) play such a prominent role as in The Hunger Games.

One respondent wrote:

Bill, you and I know that many people flocked (to) those theaters this weekend not to feel any detest or offense by this violence but simply to receive entertainment. Just because violence is a living reality in our society, it doesn’t mean we should observe it in any form. Especially for our own pleasure.

I appreciate thoughtful disagreement! But of course, I want to make a point that I feel, despite some credible objections, is biblically warranted and faithful to the calling of Christian leaders.

Worthy of Praise?

Typically, when I try to help people in my radio audience think critically about the rhetoric of popular Christian response to a book or movie, someone will cite one of my favorite New Testament verses:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

In order to interact with that teaching, my thinking and the objections to my position, please follow me through three rhetorical questions that trace a bit of logic, making some important distinctions: fine-tuning that helps us rightly apply Philippians 4:8.

Q1 – Is it possible to ACKNOWLEDGE violence without ENDORSING violence?

Q2 (If so) – Is it possible to PORTRAY violence without GLAMORIZING violence.

Q3 (If so) – Are there any honorable, true, even praiseworthy benefits to be found in portraying violence as done in The Hunger Games story?

The reason I ask those three questions is to demonstrate the unsound argument of those who object to The Hunger Games on the grounds that it endorses violence. Here is their logic, simplified:

All portrayals of violence endorse violence.
The Hunger Games PORTRAYS violence.
Therefore, The Hunger Games ENDORSES violence.

Their argument is valid. But it is SOUND (true, right) only if the premises are true. What I tried to demonstrate on the show, what I am now seeking to demonstrate here is that premise 1 (the first sentence in the argument) is not true. Therefore, the argument is unsound.

Why Unsound Reasoning?

I have read The Hunger Games and seen the film. In neither example will you find violence glamorized or endorsed. Like violence in the Bible (for example, Judges 19:29-30), the portrayal of violence in The Hunger Games was purposeful: it served to reinforce one of the story’s major themes.

To illustrate, let’s pretend The Hunger Games were your senior essay rather than a dystopian novel. If the topic of the essay were, “Projected Effects of Post Apocalyptic Authoritarianism in North America” (I’m not sure what department would assign such a topic!) and your thesis statement were, Every projection of post-apocalyptic conditions in North America featuring authoritarian or totalitarian government includes state control through violence, then your first bit of research would be to provide detailed examples of authoritarian / totalitarian regimes which, following their historical rise to power, used violence as a means of governing. From there, you could project a pattern, supported by statistical probabilities and analogies to make your point.

You wouldn’t have far to look.

Just think of the many close examples of infamous totalitarians of the right and left: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il. Move back in history from 20th century communism and fascism back through the authoritarian excesses of the Roman Empire, and you’ll find the legacy of authoritarian regimes quantified in body-counts. Historical reports of violence can be gruesome: to wit, the stories of ancient Christian martyrs who were violated, dismembered or fed to wild beasts under Diocletian and Maximinus (see Eusebius, Church History). These stories have been passed down, parent-to-child fashion, in verbal Technicolor, for two millennia.

We’re mostly just too insulated and ignorant to know about them.

Open-Eyed Parenting

Proverbs warns against insulating your children from the true character of the world in which you are raising them to function as wise adults.

Wisdom shouts in the streets.
She cries out in the public square.
21 She calls to the crowds along the main street,
to those gathered in front of the city gate:
22 “How long, you simpletons,
will you insist on being simpleminded?

In Proverbs 1:20-22, Wisdom (personified as a wise-woman) speaks not from a pulpit, but from the streets. Her setting reinforces her message (and the father’s exhortation) to naive youth: avoid gangs!

Come and join us.
Let’s hide and kill someone!
Just for fun, let’s ambush the innocent!
12 Let’s swallow them alive, like the grave;
let’s swallow them whole, like those who go down to the pit of death.
13 Think of the great things we’ll get!
We’ll fill our houses with all the stuff we take.
14 Come, throw in your lot with us;
we’ll all share the loot.”

Gang violence is represented, portrayed, and articulated in Proverbs 1 precisely to show it for what it really is, de-glamorizing it to let it strike the reader as empty and repulsive.

Biblical Wisdom in a Virtual World

Again, in my opinion, The Hunger Games did virtually the same thing, though not anchored in the transcendent truth and morality of Scripture. From a perspective that harmonizes with “whatever is true,” the narrative of The Hunger Games manages to marginalize the sensationalism of violence, even while portraying it as foundational to the authoritarian hegemony of Panem, the government of its post-apocalyptic setting. The story spotlights the heroism of the main character, Katniss, who fights against the evil system in which she lives and must work out her moral sense.

Katniss’s moral compass may not be true north, but it isn’t far off. Neither glory nor self-preservation defines her determination in the games; rather, she is fighting for love and protection for her sister Prim, for Peeta’s sacrificial and honorable life, for the other tributes, like Rue, who know they are victims, and for all in District 12 who see through the lying oppression of Panem and the Capitol. In the games, she never kills while on the offensive (though she does defend herself and others). Her skills have been honed as survival skills, hunting to keep food on the table in her single-mother’s household. Her passions are restrained and morally focused: defending virtue and opposing evil.

Similarly, the narrative frame of The Hunger Games makes the perspective on violence clear. The violence of the games, in which children are forced by the state to kill each other and residents of the districts of Panem are forced to watch, is sickening! The hero resists it. The districts are mixed in their moral response to it, and the absurd residents of the Capitol illustrate its vulgarity by their own absurdity, caricatured as voyeuristic consumers of base immorality and sinful self-indulgence, moral excess that is epitomized by the spectacle of the games themselves.

That’s Entertainment?

Where does this leave the reader / viewer of The Hunger Games? In other words, what purpose does its portrayal of violence serve? Obviously, the reader is meant to identify with the hero, or at least the disgusted citizens of the districts. Anyone who would read / watch and approve of the violence or be entertained by it is as sick and absurd as the residents of the Capitol. The story / movie may be entertaining and instructive, yes, but the subject it brings to light is nothing less than repulsive.

And that’s the point of the violence.

Thus, there is an excellent, praiseworthy lesson for us in the Suzanne Collins story, a lesson using violence as a teacher, highlighting the grotesque and bestial precisely as other valuable stories involving violence do, stories ranging from the biblical story of Cain murdering Abel to great dystopian tales like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four, Out of the Silent Planet (C.S. Lewis), and even, arguably, The Book of Eli and the Left Behind series. As one reviewer of The Hunger Games film put it:

The movie makes one appreciate what Collins achieved with her book: an indictment of the very audiences who clamor for violent spectacle, not in the future, but in 2012. She does this in the form of a coming of age story turned extreme. Sure, we don’t *really* pit our children against each other in a fight to the death. But in concept, is it really that far from Toddlers and Tiaras? (http://dcist.com/2012/03/out_of_frame_hunger_games.php, accessed 3/28/12)

Conclusion

The violence portrayed in The Hunger Games makes the point, speaking from its narrative perspective that subconsciously resonates with biblical and Christian morality, namely that, Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:32). In The Hunger Games, no approval is given to violence, except by depraved characters who, from the standpoint of justice, deserve to die. We all want Panem overthrown and the wealth of the wicked Capitol given to the poor but more-just districts.

Appropriate audiences for the book and movie are older teens and young adults. Nobody is telling you to take your eight-year old to this movie. But for those fit for its message, The Hunger Games forces us to ACKNOWLEDGE the violence inherent in our own culture and times; it PORTRAYS violence in its fictional world not to GLAMORIZE it, but rather to stir us up to abhor it! And in serving that purpose, we can give a definitive answer to Q3 – Are there any honorable, true, even praiseworthy benefits to be found in portraying violence as done in The Hunger Games story? The answer is yes. And Christian parents would do well to interact with older teens to highlight those benefits.

One footnote: my critique assumes throughout that the Christian mind is NOT a blank slate, a computer that works by “garbage in / garbage out.” That lie has been foisted on us by careless teachers who know neither their psychology nor biblical anthropology. We are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28) to discern between good and evil, and Christian minds ought to be particularly good at it, as Hebrews 5:13-14 suggests:

For everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Skillfully discerning good and evil in the significant stories of our culture, stories like The Hunger Games, is more than just a job for intellectuals and pastors; it is, for all of us, our Christian duty.

Invisible Children | Kony2012


Invisible Children | Kony2012. (Click the  link)

I believe in spreading the word that we can all contribute to stopping the #1 international war criminal. Watch the video if you want to weep, hope and act.

For weeks now, I have been jolted awake by the reality of human trafficking happening all around us, most everywhere, including American suburbs. Perhaps this is why the video I’m encouraging you to watch moved me so. Though it portrays a problem half a world away from me, it now seems up close, personal.

I also have some firsthand knowledge of this region and the LRA, as two good friend of mine have worked in Sudan, training chaplains in an army fighting the LRA, trying to teach the word and way of Jesus in the midst of tribal, civil and religious war.

Finally, I have supported Invisible Children in the past, because I trusted the band Third Day when they asked me to give to that cause. Now, I think that support can come from a more personal place and be given in a more direct way.

You can help too.