"Catching Fire": Spirituality and the Hunger Games, Part One
Those on the Left have argued that the books and films record the loss of social mobility, the reality of classes in our so-called classless society. Paul Krugman used The Hunger Games as a metaphor in the New York Times last summer in an angry essay about cutting food stamps in a time when we give farm subsidies to corporate agriculture. Those on the Right have used The Hunger Games to equate the Capitol with our Capitol and pillory central government as repressive and evil.
Everyone picks and chooses, and probably I am no different, although I'm going to start with, I hope, a better and more neutral reading than someone coming to the story with an axe to grind. Here's the critical presupposition that I bring to the saga: The Hunger Games story lets us explore theological and ethical questions through the characters of Katniss and Gale and Cinna and President Snow and the society they inhabit—a society that is just a few steps removed from our own.
There are a hundred spiritual elements I could talk about, and so little space. I want to open this week with two general observations. While we're going to talk about powerful theological and ethical questions and do that talking from a Christian understanding, The Hunger Games is not a Christian work. Some religious commentators have condemned the books and films as scandalous; others have found them to be deeply Christian. I'm going to alight in the middle of those extremes, which seems to me to be a realistic way to approach a work full of sacramental imagery written by a reclusive author supposed to be Roman Catholic, but set in a world that has no Christians, no conception of God, no real and abiding hope, and no belief in anything other than luck or chance. (And a thought: If the world of The Hunger Games feels dark and bleak, isn't it possible that part of the reason for that feeling is that the story depicts a world without God, a world in which the holy function of the Church has been taken over by the unholy spectacle of the Games?)
The other observation: The primary heroes of our saga, those people we grow to love and with whom we identify—Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, Gayle Hawthorne, Haymitch Abernathy—are all residents of District 12, the impoverished Appalachian district whose inhabitants are starved and worked to death in the mines. We love to root for the underdogs, and as readers and viewers, we can clearly see the unfairness of the system under which our heroes—barely—survive.
But here's the important point: All of us reading this essay, whatever our current economic challenges, are citizens of the Capitol.
As much as we might love Katniss and her clan, everyone reading this essay has the leisure to pause from labor for a bit to ponder theological and literary questions, and probably at least a little more than the two dollars a day that marks the poverty line in America and that half of the world makes less than. When we look closely at the sins of the Capitol, they are our sins—exaggerated, to be sure, but still recognizable as our own. Whether we like it or not, America sends young people to war, loses itself in reality TV and celebrity worship, and exerts its substantial resources to influence and even overpower others. Like many dystopian stories, we are intended to recognize ourselves in this future.
As uncomfortable as that realization might make us, it also offers us an opportunity; it means it is incumbent on us to read or watch Catching Fire with the awareness that as powerless as we personally may feel at times, as much as we personally may wonder if our money is going to hold out until the end of the month, we also are the people in a position to change things if we choose. As the African-American poet June Jordan wrote, "We are the ones we have been waiting for."
If we're offended powerfully by the events of Catching Fire, good. We are actually in a position to do something—and perhaps to write a story that will be more hopeful than the narrowly-construed happy ending granted to the characters in the film.
So a central spiritual takeaway to take into our conversation next week: this dark future doesn't have to be our future. We can change—individually, and as a culture—in response to this vision of selfishness, gluttony, and apathy. The Baptismal Creed in the Book of Common Prayer offers us all the possibility that we can persevere in resisting evil, seek and serve Christ in all persons, strive for justice and peace among all people—"With God's help."
Next week, we'll explore more spiritual ideas in Catching Fire.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.