You may have seen my Tweet earlier this week about writing a Cultural Exegesis on the popular book/movie The Hunger Games. I had a couple of friends mention they would like to read it and encouraged me to blog it. I was reluctant at first but think some of you might enjoy it…I would love your thoughts in the comments. I also should note this was specifically an assignment to consider something in mainstream culture and offer ways the church might effectively engage it. Enjoy.
Every once and awhile something comes along in pop culture that you feel you have to participate in, if only to be in the know because everyone is talking about it. These are the kind of things that you hear about at work from a co-worker, over hear people talking about at Starbucks, on the radio in the car, even plastered on the cup from your favorite fast food restaurant. Your kids ask for money to go see the movie, read the book or download the video game on their iTouch…even if you tried you could not escape hearing about it. In our fast paced post-modern world these waves tend to roll through multiple times a year where I believe generations before us had a bunch more time in-between each of them. Sadly many of these cultural phenomenons are filled with lewd behavior making it challenging for church-goers to partake without feeling guilty or tarnishing their reputation. Recently however one of these waves came along which was fairly tame and allowed Christians to interact with mainstream culture well. What I am I talking about? The Hunger Games!
What started in the fall of 2008 as a sleeper hit book for teens (sold fewer than 500,000 copies in 2009) has now become a multimillion dollar grossing box office hit and multimedia franchise selling over 10million books and analysts estimate will gross 400 million at the movies. The book was written by an unknown author Suzanne Collins who says she got the idea for the book while channel surfing between watching a reality TV show and news clips of troops entering Iraq. She also got a bunch of material from the Greek myth of Theseus as well. No doubt what brought so much attention to the hit movie (which grossed 152 million on opening weekend) was the wide acceptance by adolescents who had first read the book. Personally I was a bit late to the game as most adults are when something starts first in adolescent culture. I watched the movie having not read the book beforehand. After enjoying the movie and hearing from many of my friends what was left out from the book I decided to listen to the book on Audible during my current job which involves a ton of driving. I definitely wish I could have done it the other way around as I think it is tough reading the book after seeing the movie as all of the characters are already in your head.
There is a ton to learn from the popularity of the Hunger Games as I believe there always is much for us to learn when something resonates with the majority of people who interact with it. At its core The Hunger Games is a story, a fictional story which has many of the elements which have made stories popular since the beginning of time. I will share a couple of these elements which I saw in the book/movie and then share thoughts on how the church could engage them.
I think if you were to sum up The Hunger Games in a single word it would be: RELATIONSHIP. Throughout the story we follow the main character; a smart yet blunt, arrow-shooting sixteen year old girl named Katniss Everdeen. On one side of the coin we follow an adolescent fumbling with mixed feelings towards the opposite gender and on the other her relationship with the state. Kat is born into a poor district within a dystopian, post-apocalyptic country called Panem. The level of control and abuse by their government smells of Hitler’s Nazi Germany in the late thirties. As an annual reminder of the totalitarian power of the state, each year a lottery of sorts takes place to select a boy and a girl from each district to compete in The Hunger Games. It wouldn’t be so bad if it looked more like the Olympics than what took place in the Roman Coliseum. 24 teens enter the games each year with only one survivor emerging as the winner. As a result Katniss and many of her friends are cynical of those in power. She could accurately be labeled a “tomboy” if that term is even “PC” to use these days. Having grown up hunting with her father in the woods she is much more comfortable relating with the boys than the girls in her teens. We follow her interacting with two boys her age…one who is clearly a plutonic friend who took over as her hunting partner when he father died in a mine accident. The other boy Peeta, she falls in love with during the Hunger Games after she and Peeta are selected to represent their district. So in a creative story we watch Katniss work out her identity, figuring out her relationship with the opposite gender and also with her place in society. More or less this relational coin flips back and forth throughout the entire book, each having great effect on the other. One of the most vivid ways we see this is through Katniss becoming aware of using her beauty and affection for Peeta gains support from the audience and ultimately brings power over the state. She finds perhaps for the first time in her life the ability to bring about change to a world which never offers such opportunities to adolescents, especially those from the poor districts outside of the capital. No doubt this is an artistic way of illustrating the journey of every adolescent…to find their place in a dangerous and uncertain world. Of course I don’t think most teens realize this when they read the book or watch movie. Yet as with every good story they identify in some way with the main character, relating to the challenges they face and root for her to overcome them. I worked with students for 13 years as a youth pastor and every one of them had the desire to feel strong, validated, hopeful, powerful, empowered, meaningful, important, and significant. Ideally they would like to feel this way in IRL (in real life) but when unable to do so they turn to media as a replacement.
There are a number of ways churches could approach The Hunger Games. At one end of the spectrum they could do their best to create a cheesy sermon series related to the movie…something like: Hungry For Jesus, The Spiritual Hunger Games, and whatever title they choose I’m sure the worship band would happily lead the congregation in “We Are Hungry.” I hope you are laughing at this point, but sadly this is the most sincere approach churches often take to a cultural phenomenon like The Hunger Games. I don’t admire everything that comes out of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, but one thing I have always admired is their Film & Theology nights. Basically they take a film, watch it and then discuss spiritual themes you might derive from it. I attended one of these years back and found it effective simply because good movies touch us and the moments immediately following a film offer a unique opportunity for meaningful conversations, especially with strangers. I trust Mars will eventually show and discuss the Hunger Games and many will find it impacting. I still think there more effective ways for the church to address the deeper relational issues found within. Here are some of my thoughts:
Give adolescents significant leadership opportunities. Too often churches marginalize young people with most just offering programs FOR youth rather than with them. I know it’s a messy and radical idea but what about allowing a couple of students with particular leadership gifts sit on various teams/boards throughout the church? If the church has a minimum age to become members of the church why not consider lowering it a few years and allowing them to vote on significant decisions that the church needs to make. Where there is ownership there is a person who feels valuable and needed.
Teach a risky faith instead of the safe, tired, and boring Christianity. Always bothered me the vast difference between the life we teach adolescents to inspire to within the church and yet their heart longs for much more. To me this is at the heart of why they turn to sex, drugs and other various things to make them feel alive. The Bible isn’t filled with people who dress up nicely for church and sit around singing hymns and reading the Bible their whole lives, it is the stories of radicals to often abandoned everything they owned, even close relationships to pursue God. And it’s important to teach it didn’t always turn out well for them…God never promised them a rose-petalled journey, in fact quite the opposite…He promised them trouble. This flys in the fact of most of the movies Western teens see which always end with a positive, bow-tie ending. While the great narrative of Scripture ends with a positive resolution, most wont experience it in their lives.
Train adults to be students of adolescents, throwing out the lie that things are “the same as when we were their age.” Drives me nuts when I hear parents using that line on their kids…things are different than 2 years ago much less 20 yrs ago. I wonder what might be the result of taking out your church staff to view The Hunger Games and then doing a debrief asking what are some takeaways from adolescent culture. Generally speaking I believe most churches do a good job at creating an effective student ministry and fail horribly at involving them in the overall life of the church. As the adults in the congregation get to know the real world these students are facing their hearts will be bend towards them and allow them more involvement within the church body.
Create dangerous opportunities/trips. I don’t think enough thought is given to the fact that part of the lure for young people to go on mission trips is the danger involved. Some parents are explicit that the risk involved is precisely why they won’t allow their kid to go on them. Funny how that works; parents are confident trusting God to protect their kids in their own backyard but fail to do so across the border. There was a lot to fear in the middle of the arena during the games; getting killed, starving or freezing to death to name just a few. Fear is an often avoided and yet good thing for us…for the faster our heart beats the more aware we are that we are alive. Perhaps not hearing our heart beat on most days is part of the problem. When we look back over the past ten years of our life I would be willing to bet most of it fades to grey except for the moments that got our hearts racing. The church should create more of opportunities to get our hearts racing.
In the end I believe teens are starving for adventure in a world that has domesticated the human heart. Kids can’t even ride their bikes down the street without a helmet or ride in a car without 18 airbags surrounding them. The popularity of The Hunger Games and every other teen hit stands as a reminder to us of this reality. There are no shortcuts to creating adventures for teens…you must create them. As Donald Miller once said in a talk; we have to give them a better story to live out of and they will naturally choose that story over the one they are currently in. Parents who get frustrated when their boys spend endless hours playing video games would do well to heed this wisdom…no wonder they get so much push back when the alternative to a video game is cleaning their room or doing homework. The same longing for adventure that exists in your heart exists in theirs, the only difference is they might still be trying to find that adventure.