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.

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17 comments on “Virtuous Violence? The Hunger Games and Christian Sensibilities

  1. Louis Klein says:

    Thank you Bill for so clearly articulating this. Too many good Christians quickly classify anything beyonds the walls of the church as evil, having no redeeming (!) value. Our children WILL be exposed to the world – best we teach them how to interpret what they see and hear, rather than simply isloate themselves from it, removing their gospel influence from the world.

    Louis

  2. Daniel Adair says:

    93.3 listener:

    No lunch required. As for comments on your vocabulary I defend the fact that you shared your HEART in the best way that you know, which is to utilize the correct terminology so as to avoid confusion. Do not let anyone dumb you down (as I did and have all but lost my love of reading and words (though it has been returning as of late)). Considering the average US citizen posseses the reading comprehension of a child of grade 6, I fully commend and intend to ensure that God’s gift of language is not wasted.

    P.S. – No lunch required.

    Intelligence = I think I know
    Intillect = I know that I know
    Wisdom (which only comes from God) = I know when to know

  3. Stephanie Trietsch says:

    Thank you for your level-headed insight! I enjoyed your well thought out and biblically sound reasoning on the portrayal of violence The Hunger Games as an indictment of unspeakable human actions rather than the glorification. While I couldn’t put the books down it was the humanity that kept me reading. The violence was in and of itself a powerful antagonist to everyone in Panem (I believe even to those in the Capital though they were so far separated from the Games that the horror was unreal to them). I also can see that the human desire to survive and the self-sacrificing personality of Katniss for the protection of the many allows the story in my mind to be a parable.

  4. becki boggess says:

    I still find it very disappointing that more christians went to see this movie instead of supporting “October Baby”. I feel that this book and movie is getting our young people ready to accept the anti-christ and all that he has planed. our young people need to know to trust God and not themselves.

  5. Scott Himes says:

    Bill you are a blessing, not only for what you bring to life on air, but for your thought provoking and biblically sound doctrine you post.

    I’m thankful, and blessed, to have a person such as you on the radio and readily available at my fingertips.

    God Bless.

  6. Paul Fletcher says:

    Thank you Bill, not that I understood everything you said, but I do agree with you on the parts I understood. I haven’t read the book nor seen the movie (would like to though) but I have heard discussion not necessarily on the violence as a whole, but the idea of children killing children. With all the evil that is happening in our schools today, this may give a young person ideas. I do not have an opinion since I haven’t seen nor read The Hunger Games, except to not totally exclude my children from the world. Protect them yes, but hide them from everything no. Tough job, and many times tough to discern the correct path to take. And I like your take on the Left Behind series, could be same premise, or for the same manner the Harry Potter series. Violence is there (just look at the attacks on Christians today) and will be worse in the end times, just how much should we/can we shelter our children about it. Know what I mean?

    Sincerely,
    Paul Fletcher

  7. barryginn says:

    Bill – great job on your critique of “The Hunger Games”. I agree and I want to “interact” with you, Dave, Carmen and the JoyFM listeners about this subject – I want to put my two cents into this conversation.

    For far too long we Christians have been seduced by the lie that somehow viewing, reading or listening to questionable materials will “stain our clothes” or rub off on us in negative ways. No doubt we must use discernment when deciding what we view, read or listen to. But, I believe, one of the reasons why Christians are not nearly as effective as they could be in changing our culture is because we have disengaged our minds. The greater culture does not even listen to us now because we have given them plenty of reasons not to. It takes effort to think critically about what we view, read or listen to. The indictment of our Christian culture should not be that we don’t think, it should be that we are lazy. It’s time to change that and I appreciate you not being lazy and giving a thoughtful response to “The Hunger Games”.

    One final comment about the reference to the Philippians 4:8 passage. One simple-minded application of this Scripture would be to not view, read or listen to questionable materials. If all Christians applied this Scripture in this way, Christianity in our culture would vanish like a vapor in hurricane-force winds. We would have no connection to the greater culture and lose what voice we have remaining. If, however, more Christians would watch movies like “The Hunger Games” and look “inside” the movie at “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable…” then we can engage our culture in thoughtful conversation. I think Jesus would consider this part of “making disciples” in every corner of our world.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. dakotajoe says:

    Well said Bill. Thanks for taking the time to think this through as thoroughly as you have.

  9. Great stuff, Bill. Thanks for taking the time to post.

    Someday, though, I’d like to see someone pull the plug on the misapplication of Philippians 4.8. We strip it from its relational context and apply it without discernment to every life situation. I’m not sure that is appropriate.

    Thanks again. Now, to read the book…

  10. Tami says:

    Beautifully written. I too read the book and saw the movie. I feel it is a wakeup call to all. We must guard against travelling down that road. Thank you Bill.

  11. Harlan Davison says:

    Why do I need to see Hunger Games to know about violence? All of us, even children see it in reality very day. Violence is always connected with sin isn’t it? I don’t need to see the movie to know about it or how to deal with it. I don’t need to pay to “know.” Perhaps there is an element of entertainment to it after all. I don’t need to be entertained that way.
    Bill, I appreciate your knowledge and good insight into this. Mostly I agree.
    God bless your influence!!
    Harlan

  12. Danielle Tipton says:

    I completely agree with your take on this series. I first heard about this series from my 17 year old daughter. She told me, “Mom, you have to read this. It’s scary because I think that something like this has the potential to actually happen”. I loved the books! I think that they were wonderfully written and the story makes you think about what could happen if our government had too much control. I think that everyone should read them. Thank you for your well thought- out post!

  13. Brian Fernandes says:

    Hi Bill. First of all, thank you for taking the time to respond to my initial response. With all due respect, I believe your reasoning still remains baseless and I can’t help but feel that you are missing the big picture. With that being said, you and I can respectfully agree to disagree. You obviously feel very strongly and adamant about your position. Nonetheless, we’re still brothers in Christ. Please reflect on two things: 1. Is it really worth feeding my mind with certain things that dont strengthen my relationship with God? 2. Is God pleased with the content I read, watch, or listen to?

  14. Cindy Stewart says:

    Bill,
    I had not planned to see the Hunger Games, but with company in town it ended up be the movie of choice. Though I would not recommend it, due to the theme of children killing children, the overall movie reflects the ever present struggle of good vs evil. The characters depict the human race; the greedy and the oppressed, the success at all cost and the morally righteous.

    It is the world that exist around us, and permeates the USA with human trafficking, sex trade, etc. Not such a far reach from my perspective.

  15. David Caperton says:

    Very well said. Thank you Bill.

  16. Walter Folds says:

    Within each and every one of us is a side that embraces and enjoys being and doing evil things. Some people will disagree, but depending on the circumstances, we all have these tendencies. If we do not have a filter system we can easily turn into nothing more than pure evil. For me, and a lot of us, the filter is Christ and trying to live the way he teaches. If we concentrate on all the good he did and not consider the violent way he died, the value of his gift of Love is diminished.

  17. jerry linville says:

    All I can say is this…..I was born in 1966 and grew up WITHOUT any of this kind of “entertainment”. My parents did not shelter me, its just that this type of movie would be SUPER difficult to find, if not impossible, as some foreign “snuff” film. To have it beamed into local theatres, then ENCOURAGED to be viewed by Christians yet, oh boy, have we transgressed so far. Whatever message (moral or otherwise) can be gleaned from it, I see no reason to watch such extreme violence. Human excrement is part of life too, must we swim in it ???

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