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The Hunger Games, A Culture of Violence, and a Way Forward?

It was interesting to see, leading up to the film release of The Hunger Games, a variety of Christian blogs going back and forth about the appropriateness of The Hunger Games (both books and film) for kids and teenagers.

Christians get pretty worked up about sex, so I saw a lot of comments talking about how two of the characters kiss and sleep next to each other but “nothing more.” Many Christians also get worked up about communism and socialism, but The Hunger Games was deemed ok since it, more or less, paints a critical perspective of big government and dictators. A character talks back to her parent a bit, but because the movie is primarily about kids killing other kids, there’s not a lot of poor behavior towards parents that could give watching teens any ideas.

Generally, the discussions I saw ultimately agreed the movie was okay for older kids and teenagers alike, given it doesn’t display gratuitous sexuality, espouse radically liberal ideology, or highlight sassy kids talking smack to their parents.

But I was surprised the issue of violence didn’t come up much as a serious factor in these conversations. Although the movie does not depict the full graphic nature of the book (I’ve heard more than one person describe the movie’s portrayal of the book as “tasteful,” whatever that means in context), this is a violent movie with a violent storyline in a very violent dystopian world. And the Hunger Games trilogy offers little, if any, response to violence by the “bad guys” except for violence returned by “the good guys” – retributive justice at its finest, and bloodiest.

I don’t think we need to censor movies or books because of their violence (though I think we could do with fewer slasher films). I saw The Hunger Games, and I’ve seen movies more violent and more disturbing than this one – but I will say it gave me pause when many people in the theater watching The Hunger Games cheered and clapped when a teenage character’s head was smashed repeatedly against a metal wall.

I don’t really want to rag on The Hunger Games, but I am wondering about the unchallenged and uncontested culture of violence existing all around us.

I tweeted this after seeing the movie: “as we crowd theaters to see a movie about fake teenagers being killed, don’t forget we live in a world where actual teenagers are killed.” I hate reducing something as serious and complex as the Trayvon Martin killing to 140 characters, but violence is very deeply embedded in our culture, and it says something about our inability to have a consistent and deep moral position on violence when we will cheer for a teenager’s death on screen while  tweeting, blogging, or wearing hoodies to protest the death of another (I realize not all of us did the former, and there’s nothing wrong with those of us who did the latter).

I’m just saying our culture and, by association and participation, “I,” “you,” and “we” is/am/are pretty shallow, inconsistent, and downright uncreative when it comes to responding to violence.

Mostly we give in to our broken and misguided base-level response to fight fire with fire, taking an eye for an eye until we blindly and fearfully swing at anything or anyone looking remotely suspicious. So we have dead people on porches and streets and sidewalks and non-dead people who will live the rest of their life wondering why they couldn’t have learned a better way to deal with all of our collective hate and fear towards one another.

I’ve recently been reading through John Howard Yoder’s volume What Would You Do? Yoder is a terribly brilliant Mennonite theologian who, in this short book, offers a wonderful and challenging look at pacifism and non-violence in a culture of violence and a culture of suspicion (suspicion in particular directed at anyone who espouses a path of non-violence). Writing specifically about a Christian way forward, Yoder offers this:

In Jesus’ own life and career and in his instructions to his disciples, the enemy becomes a privileged object of love. Because we confess that the God who has worked out our reconciliation in Christ is a God who loves his enemies at the cost of his own suffering, we are to love our enemies beyond the extend of our capacity to be a good influence on them or to call forth a reciprocal love from them. In other ethical systems, the “neighbor” may well be dealt with as an object of our obligation to love. But Jesus goes further and makes of our relation to the adversary the special test of whether the love we have is derived from the love of God.  (38)

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “The Hunger Games, A Culture of Violence, and a Way Forward?

  1. John says:

    i think that you make some valid points but I believe that violence is not really the problem and the real issues are the intentions and motives behind it. God loves all people but at times he was violent in the way he punished those who opposed him or mistreated his followers… Egyptians? Philistines? Sodom and Gamorah? most of Revelations? so not really a contradiction to what you’re saying but just in my head I would separate violence and the goals/intentions behind the actions and in this case I think you got it right by how we should deal with our fear and hatred etc…

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    • John, thanks for the thoughts. Not enough space here to go deep into this, but I think there are issues and problems that are raised when “the ends justify the means” (a so called “teleological” ethic focused only on the end result). There is obviously violence present in the Bible (Richard Dawkins has made sure everyone knows that, even though I think most people already did ;)), but I believe there are non-teleological ways of reading and understanding the Scriptures that should give us pause, not permission, to move forward with an “ends justify the means” understanding of violence! Good thoughts though – appreciate your comment!

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  2. The real tragedy of The Hunger Games movie isn’t that it depicts violence. It is that the movie wasn’t crafted in such a way as to implicate its theatrical audience in the culture of violence depicted on the screen. (The book does this.) Had the movie aspired to satire, the violence on screen would have been heartbreaking instead of cheer-inducing. The movie itself should have challenged our culture of violence. Conscientious critics are only able to have the conversation that the movie itself starts.

    The real enemy in The Hunger Games is the viewing public, the people on whose opinion Katniss’ fate hangs. Had the movie been more intelligent, it would have gotten us to identify with those people. Then, the difficult Christian response becomes loving the true enemy – ourselves and our neighbors.

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    • Elijah, we’re of the same mind on this, though I don’t know if I felt the books really turned attention towards the reading audience’s culture or practices of violence either.

      My wife’s a 7th grade teacher and has facilitated several conversations with students about the Hunger Games, and few, if any, find any kind of deeper level meaning or embedded criticism of violence. I think we can choose to see that in there, but I don’t know if I would credit the author with intentionally developing that theme very well.

      I think she makes a mostly intelligent critique of our media-saturated culture, but doesn’t push beyond that. Violence is a tool she uses to talk about media, but I don’t know if I felt like she was actually targeting violence in her writing.

      thoughts?

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