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? (, accessed 3/28/12)


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.


Promising Reads for 2012

Each year I set out to read books from a variety of categories. 2012 is no different, with an ambitious goal (for me, given the life I lead) of FINISHING at least a dozen books. Last year, it was eight, cover to cover, along with plenty of partial reads for research, study and teaching. A couple of my hope-to titles this year include Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson and Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats by Helen Vendler. Both are loaded on the Kindle and sampled. But I can’t devour them until I finish this:

I ran across this book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus (Berkeley) and Sean Dorrance Kelly (Harvard), while browsing the philosophy section at Barnes & Noble. It grabbed my attention by quickly calling out the exhausting meaninglessness of modern life and the hopelessness of nihilism. Admitting that a loss of the sacred is the source of both maladies, the authors propose. . .ahem!. . .a re-appropriation of polytheism, based in the ancient Greeks’ openness to the world as a gift of the gods. The central source for the re-sacralization of postmodern life is Homer, whose attributed writings provide, admittedly, a fountain for Western culture. So far, I have found the Dreyfus-Kelly analysis of the emptiness of existentialism and its legacy to be incisive. Their narrative analysis of decline since the Enlightenment resonates with what I learned under the best seminary profs. Of course, their prescription is no cure, in my view. Neo-paganism provides no more of a moral compass for the future than did paganism in the ancient past.

I’m only about 30 percent in to All Things Shining, but I am committed to finishing it before I pick up something else. . .except for this book: Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and UnpleasantWayfaring: Essays Pleasant and UnpleasantIn a recent post, I admitted my newfound-old-love for the essay. Alan Jacobs has provided a collection of thoughtful short pieces that muse on such subjects as “the usefulness and dangers of blogging, the art of dictionary making, the world of Harry Potter, and an appreciation of trees” ( I hope to follow Alan’s Christian mind on a journey that will help me organize my own thought life and writing.

I have a few other books I absolutely want to read in various categories: science fiction (The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven); theology (Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath) and biography (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas). But by far, the best find of 2011 and most promising read of 2012 is a tome by newly-appointed professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, G.K. Beale.

Beale: A New Testament Biblical Theology

One thousand pages of pure fun! And a bit of redundancy.

I pre-ordered the hardcover premier of A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New based on my prior exposure to Dr. Beale’s teaching. I knew this would be his magnum opus. I was not disappointed. Two of his previously published works, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry and The Temple and the Church’s Mission are substantially summarized, applied and/or reproduced in this book, along with more of his writings including scholarly articles, and lectures. The groundbreaking (and painstaking) work of bringing the disciplines of biblical studies and biblical theology together with previously uncharted territory in New Testament theology makes this book the ONE that people with my bent–a love of the Bible-as-canon and dissatisfaction with the logical categories and proof-texting of systematic theology–absolutely must acquire and devour.

I plan to literally (figuratively) soak in this book all year long, hauling it along as a companion for Bible devotion and teaching prep as well as carefully reading key chapters and summarizing them. I’m about 80 pages in, with several other relevant sections highlighted and cross-referenced.  I could gush more–about Dr. Beale’s unassuming style, his love for the biblical text and its Author, his plain-spoken weaving of eschatalogical themes into a practical reading and application of the New Testament–but I’d better shut up until I’ve read more. If you want a better idea of the scope and significance of this book, check out the synopsis and comments at Reformation Heritage Books, where you can still get the pre-order price, I think. One critical observation: there is quite a bit of redundancy in this thousand page monster, but I’m choosing to view it as reiteration. Repetition is pedagogically (and theologically) sound, even if stylistically annoying.