Where is God in Catching Fire?

She wrote one of the best selling book trilogies in the history of publishing. Those books will be turned into four movies, two of which are already box office blockbusters. The third and fourth will ultimately pack theaters again and again.

She is peaceful in countenance, often speaking with a quiet voice through a soft smile, when she speaks at all.

She wrote both Little Bear, the charming children’s animated series that wouldn’t hurt a fly, as well as that trilogy, where children attack children and the blood flows freely, where our heroine can pierce your heart with an arrow at 50 yards.

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Little Bear (L) Heroine Katniss Everdeen (R)

She is Suzanne Collins and if you haven’t heard of her… well, as an attentive church leader, I’m sure you have.

The New York Times has noted the almost humorous extremes of the author’s career arch: “Collins, a 48-year-old mother of two, spent much of her adult life writing for children’s television, dreaming up plot lines for shows like “Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!” a Nick Jr. cartoon aimed at preschoolers. But in the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy, she revealed an outsize imagination for suffering and brutality.”

She’s the heart, mind and soul behind the three Hunger Games books – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay – and the movies that have followed and will.

The Hunger Games narrative itself is set in a future dystopian nation where 12 district-states are ruled by despots from their seats in The Capitol, particularly the prime antagonist, President Snow. In order to remind the districts of a past uprising – and prevent future rebellion – a lottery, called the “Reaping” – is held each year. There, young people, a boy and a girl, – aged 12 to 18 – are chosen to compete to the death in “Hunger Games” where only one of 24 is left standing and is rewarded with a future of opulent living. Into that setting walks a maverick, “Katniss Everdeen,’ who volunteers for the games when her 12-year-old sister is chosen. From there, we follow Katniss from games participant to leader of the ultimate rebellion.

Where did such a story come from? If you’ve read any of the books, particularly the first, Collins’ influences are probably obvious to you, and she admits them. “I was a Greek mythology fanatic as a child, so you’ll definitely see elements of that, from Theseus and the minotaur and the oppression of Crete by Athens, the lottery and the calling of the youths and the maidens to be thrown into the labyrinth in Crete.  Also Spartacus – when I was a child I was fascinated with the gladiator movies, so there was Spartacus and Demetrius and the Gladiators, but Spartacus is the top of the line, so that would have to be an influence.”

This is the story of children-on-children killing that has captured worldwide popularity, and not just from the young readers to whom the story was originally targeted. (My beautiful and kind sister, upon reading the first book commented, “Those kids are going to need counseling!”) Collins herself surmises that it’s the future that draws people, particularly one so bleak. “I think people respond to dystopian stories because they’re ways of acting out anxieties that we have and fears that we have about the future,” she told one interviewer. “I think of dystopian literature as being cautionary tales, and it’s a way you can kind of frame it and try to make sense and kind of set it outside yourself but look at the issues involved.”

Is there a Christian understanding of the story? Many have pointed to several elements  – the sacrificial nature of love, the focus on youth, the scourge of big government, the drive to do what is morally right despite opposition – as evidence that this is largely a Christian allegory. Collins acknowledges it, but doesn’t claim it as a driving force behind her creation of the story. “I have read so many interpretations,” Collins told Time Magazine last year. “There’s a whole Christian allegory. There’s you know, I’ve seen people talk about it like Plato’s cave, which is really fun. I’ve seen an indictment of big government.”

While Collins allows for multiple interpretations, she claims one as above all others. “For me it was always first and foremost a war story, but whatever brings you into the story is fine with me.”

Collins herself feels strongly impacted by war. Susan Dominus writes: “(Collins’s’) grandfather was gassed in World War I, and her uncle sustained shrapnel wounds in World War II. Some of Collins’s earliest memories are of young men in uniform drilling at West Point, where her father, who later made lieutenant colonel, was on loan from the Air Force, teaching military history.”

But Collins understands when readers and viewers look beyond the war. “If a person interprets it as an adolescent experience or a Christian allegory, you can’t tell them they didn’t. That was their genuine response to it, and they’re going to have it, and that’s fine. You can’t both write and then sit on the other side and interpret it for people.”

Collins, a reported Roman Catholic, has been careful to strip the story of any direct or obvious religious inferences, if not symbolism. Yet, for the author, the center of the story is still the morality of the flawed main character. “You’re not sure about Katniss,” Collins admits. “Her moral compass shifts. It isn’t always pointing north.” And where there is a story of moral choices, there is a story of virtue and, by necessity, God. (See Romans 14:23). (Perhaps Collins was familiar with President Reagan’s words – “Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience.”)

Collins and Francis

Francis Lawrence, director of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with Suzanne Collins. (Peter Hapak for TIME Magazine)

However, one can understand that, even if an author wanted to use Christian allegory in popular fiction, that author might avoid allowing it to escape from cover explicitly because of the polarizing impact it might have. I, for instance, would prefer to write a fictional story that causes a reader to discover Jesus rather than to feel conked on the skull with my Bible.

Perhaps the power of the story, in terms of its ability to illustrate Christian themes and its usefulness to church leaders, is found in its depiction of the emptiness of a media-wild culture and its failure to fill a need for God.

It’s in the dualism of the story. Catching Fire mocks the same reality-TV Internet-vomit media that have driven its success. Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr, who loved Catching Fire, concluded, “Very few people will take in this spectacle of a society amusing itself to death, of  ‘reality games’ and the vapid media hysteria that surrounds them, and not draw a parallel to our own televised bread and circuses. At its best, ‘Catching Fire’ is a blockbuster that bites the culture that made it.”

Collins herself is notoriously media-shy, perhaps reflecting the media aversion so evident in the story.  Susan Dominus concluded that Collins’ “indictment of the media in ‘The Hunger Games’ — the camera is the enemy, celebrity an empty, even dangerous contrivance — is reflected in desire to keep fame at arm’s length.”

In the narrative, Collins connects the evil Capitol with the addictive celebrity-ism in which our current culture seems so mired. In the story itself, “The Hunger Games” competition is a live television show broadcast nationwide and hosted by a sparkly MC who gushes as teens die. Collins says, “The image of real or not real and whether or not you can believe what you’re witnessing on a screen, how much you’re being manipulated, how much the image is being manipulated, how much you’re being lied to.”

And perhaps that is one of the most powerful messages of the Hunger Games story that Christian leaders can heed and use, whether interpreted from a theological viewpoint or not.

The media culture often begs us to bathe in lies, while we don’t notice that the water keeps getting hotter and hotter.

It’s as if the most important thing the stories are teaching us is that one place God – or any Truth at all – cannot be found is in the world of vicarious living through reality media that is anything but real.

So what do we do with all of this?

As a ministry leader, you have every right to steer those you lead away from elements of culture that don’t point clearly, directly and explicitly to The Cross. You may advise your congregants to avoid movie theaters and non-Christian bookstores altogether and I, for at least one, would not criticize you. You may simply declare that material such as The Hunger Games should not be consumed. There is nothing more important than Christ and Him crucified and never well be.

If a 15 year-old in your church knows more about Harry Potter than the prophet Daniel, that’s a problem. If they’ve heard more Beyonce than Biblical teaching, that’s an issue. If they know more about Peetah Mellark than Jesus, you should worry.

And, other than parents, who is more responsible for changing such a situation than church lay leaders, pastors, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders and other ministers?

Shouldn’t we be the ones leading the relevant Church to solve those problems? And isn’t some understanding of culture necessary to minister powerfully in it?

When I read the Apostle Paul’s story, I see a man who was savvy to what was going on around him. He knew what his Roman citizenship bought him and why, he knew what pagan poetry was being written and how to use it as a foil for the Gospel, he was well aware of the culture of the city of Corinth and how it was impacting his church (and how his church should have been impacting it). He was both learned and resolved to “know nothing” but Christ and him crucified. Both. In the world but not of it.

Hunger_games

I read all three books in the Hunger Games trilogy, first, because my oldest daughter was reading them for school and I’m interested in what she’s interested in. But I also found them to be a creative interpretation of ancient concepts. I wish I could craft a story the way Collins does. I wish we had more of that level of quality narrative and drama in use in our churches. I thought both movies were extremely well done. They were artful.

More than anything, I think the popularity of Collins’s creativity can teach me something about the culture I live in and, most importantly, how I might reach that culture meaningfully for Christ’s sake.

And that’s no game.

Comments

  1. It’s a big deal to me that you take the time to read, Lauren.

  2. Nicely written Brian, and good points to think about!
    Lauren