Make way for the new Harry Potter! Make way for the successor to Twilight! The Hunger Games is taking over as the new idol for America's young readers and movie-goers. The next great franchise has arrived!
So far, the movie version of Suzanne Collins' first Hunger Games novel (it's a trilogy) is the year's box-office champion. Supermarkets are selling Hunger Games posters and movie guides, and you can bet the video game won't be far behind.
Some Christian commentators-Kevin Swanson, for one-are denouncing it. Others are trying to spin some kind of Christian message out of it. No one is ignoring it.
The Hunger Games is a very well-written book, an expertly-crafted thriller. Collins never writes down to her young readers. Her prose is perfectly suited to its task, and never seems to get in the way of the story. She excels at arousing emotions of suspense, indignation, relief, and whatever else she wishes her reader to experience.
But for all that, The Hunger Games has a very nasty aftertaste, and I will not recommend it for young readers.
Let me tell you why.
Where Did God Go?
The story is set in a dystopian future, in which some unspecified disaster destroyed the United States and replaced it with a brutal dictatorship called Panem. That makes these books science fiction, not fantasy.
The distinction is important. When a science fiction writer writes about the future, the reader expects to have some idea as to how the future got that way. The explanation may be self-evident from the story-e.g. continued technological progress leads to space travel, robots, whatever. But if the change is truly radical, the writer must provide some kind of explanation. If I were to write a science fiction story in which the earth was populated solely by females, the reader will naturally demand to know, "What happened to the men?" I can't let the matter just sit there. It's not fair, and most science fiction readers won't like it.
That brings us to the gaping hole in Suzanne Collins' creation-the total absence of religion. Not just Christianity: all religion. All forms of religion, every trace of religious belief or practice, every vestige of religious thought or language, the absence of even superstition, even the most casual taking of God's name in vain-Collins has erased it all.
People in Panem don't wonder what happens to them after they die; the question never occurs to them. They don't wonder why they exist. They don't ask what their purpose is in life. They don't have God. They don't even have an Unknown God, as the pagans had in Athens. They don't pray. They have no god to give thanks to, no god to appeal to when they're in need. Nothing.
What happened to religion in this not-so-distant future? Collins doesn't answer. She doesn't seem to hear the question. You can read a number of Suzanne Collins interviews online, but they won't help you. No one asks her why she expunged religion from her future world, and she doesn't volunteer an explanation.
This is a very queer state of affairs. There has never existed on the earth a civilization or a culture that was 100% religion-free. The religious impulse is part of human nature. As St. Paul explained, God "hath made of one blood all nations of men ... That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from any one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being ..." (Acts 17:26-28). We know God because He made us in His image. Paul again: "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them" (Rom. 1:19).
To put it as simply as possible, to seek God is part of being human. And if we do not seek the true God, we wind up worshiping a false god. Thus we worship the work of our own hands, of our own imaginations-whether we burn incense to a collection of shrunken heads, gaze into a crystal and mutter mumbo-jumbo, or join with the secular humanists in bowing down to that greatest of false gods, the totalitarian State.
If we don't find meaning in God, we are sure to imagine that we've found it somewhere else. No one worships nothing-except, it seems, the inhabitants of Panem, who are presented as having no religious impulse at all.
What kind of cataclysm could have so profoundly altered human nature? You can't put it down to the thorough-going tyranny of Panem's rulers, and the stark misery of people's lives there. When all is said and done, Panem is nothing more or less than an oversized North Korea. And even in North Korea, the twin steam-rollers of starvation and oppression have failed to eradicate religion. Even these most cruel and bloody tyrants have learned they can't erase religion; they can only try to pervert it.
We claim, further, that not only would the religious impulse survive, if humanity survived: we declare the Christian religion would survive. Jesus Christ Himself promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church (Matt. 16:18). In Revelation the church is the Bride of Christ, united with Him for eternity, having survived every tribulation Hell could throw at it.
The Word of God is true: therefore any future without the church is impossible. Surely denominations, buildings, geographical distributions, and schools of interpreting theology will come and go. Possibly the church a hundred years from now will look very different from the church we know. But even if it must take refuge in the catacombs, it will still be the church; and it will shine forth in glory when all its enemies are dead and gone.
We declare Suzanne Collins' construction of the future to be, above all things, dishonest.
It's true that the vast majority of fiction we consume, in all its many forms, takes little or no notice of eternal things. In most novels, sitcoms, movies, and so on, the only time we hear God's name or Christ's name mentioned is when it's thoughtlessly (but still sinfully) taken in vain. Otherwise the fictional characters just go on and on with whatever they're doing, and you never see them pray or read the Bible or discuss religious matters with each other or go to church ... Maybe we've become so used to such worldly entertainment that it just doesn't register with us that we are looking at a fictional world that is nothing like the real one. And maybe that has been worse for us than we suspect.
Collins seems too good a writer to slide casually into this. She has plucked her creation clean of religion; we've never seen anyone else do such a thorough job of it. She doesn't tell us why she did it. All we can judge is the end result.
If your teenagers have read The Hunger Games or seen the movie, why not raise the point with them and see what they think of the total disappearance of religion? It may well be they haven't thought about it-yet. It might turn out to be an interesting conversation.
How Real Is "Realism"?
Special effects master Ray Harryhausen once said, "Nobody wants to go to the movies to see a sinkful of dirty dishes."
Nevertheless, it is a well-known foible of the sophomoric mind to believe that a sinkful of dirty dishes is somehow more "realistic" than, say, a vase of pretty flowers. Most of us have been through that phase. Most of us grew out of it. But when the reader is young and inexperienced, he is especially vulnerable to manipulation via the avenue of "gritty realism."
Here Collins pulls out all the stops. It doesn't get much grittier than Hunger Games. Life in the "districts," where most of the characters live, is nasty, brutish, and short. No one has enough to eat. Medical care is mostly of the do-it-yourself variety. For these poor souls, a sinkful of dirty dishes would be a luxury.
But life in the Capitol is lush, hi-tech, and glitzy. Everyone has Roman names. The men are disgustingly effete, the women, hideous. They parasitize the poor folk in the districts, and, once a year, force a boy and a girl from each district to take part in the Hunger Games-a gladiatorial survival show in which the winner is the last one left alive. The overall effect is reminiscent of The Running Man (if you're old enough to remember that movie). Otherwise, we can describe the games as a lethal form of reality TV.
The book's heroine, Katniss, is one of the contestants. She recognizes that the games are sadistic, exploitive, cruel, and "wrong." We do not know by what standard she is able to find them "wrong." She hates the rulers in the Capitol for putting her and twenty-three other teens through this ordeal.
But it's kill or be killed; so Katniss, in spite of hating the whole exercise, goes ahead and kills. Some Christian commentators have questioned this, suggesting that Katniss should refuse to play the game, even if she-and her family-were to be martyred for it. But this girl has nothing to go by but her feelings. Collins has denied her anything else. Would you consent to be martyred, if you'd never heard, or even imagined, that there was a God? If you had never even conceived of anything beyond your own immediate bodily existence? There isn't even anything to read, in Katniss' world! Under the circumstances, it's a wonder she can have any rebellious thoughts-indeed, any kind of thought-at all.
The danger here, to a young audience, is seduction by the oh-so-sophisticated-sounding, but profoundly silly, teaching that whatever is ugly, painful, or evil is "realistic," and that whatever is beautiful, wholesome, or good is only "sentiment." A poor wino lying in the gutter is "the way the world really is." A couple of Salvation Army volunteers picking him up, taking him to a shelter, cleaning him up, getting some good food into him, and giving him clean clothes and a safe place to sleep-well, that's nice, but it's "only sentiment."
Meanwhile, once the games begin, the story takes on a resemblance to a particularly violent video game. Before the video game based on the movie comes out, it might be productive to discuss with your teenagers what they think is "realistic" and what isn't-and how they tell the difference. They may discover that their ideas on that subject need further thinking-out.
Are We There Yet?
The Hunger Games has been praised for warning us where we are headed as a society. Think "U. N. Agenda 21, brought appallingly to life."
It's true that many of the most repulsive features of Collins' dystopia have already been recommended by our humanistic leaders and opinion-shapers as measures that really ought to be taken, now-both for our own good (because we don't know what our own good is, but they always do) and to "save the planet." The misery and wickedness of Panem have already been proposed to us as enlightened public policy.
These measures include:
*Herding people into tightly-packed urban districts, ostensibly because it is a more efficient and "sustainable" use of land, but in reality, to make it easier for our rulers to control us.
*Rationing of food, electricity, and health care-except, of course, for the Beautiful People in the Capitol, who get all they want of everything. Think of the private jets and limousines that deliver delegates to Global Warming conferences. Think of them living it up in Davos while they invent new ways to impoverish their countrymen.
*Abolition of private ownership of cars-if you can only go as far as you can walk or ride a bicycle, Big Brother's job is a lot easier.
*Abolition of the right to bear arms-we might hurt ourselves, or even shoot and eat an animal that belongs to the State. Aaagh! Didn't Robin Hood have to deal with this, centuries ago? Why would we want to go back to those bad old days?
*But-oh, joy of joys!-they do have high-speed rail in Panem!
Maybe Suzanne Collins has painted us a picture of what it would be like to live in a world in which the planet-savers and progressives have won the battle over public policy. But this is another topic which she has not addressed in interviews. Maybe this interpretation of Panem is more ours than hers.
Whatever the case, we do well to be on our guard whenever we hear a politician use the word "sustainable."
As much as we appreciate Collins' timely warning that "sustainability" might not turn out to be a very nice way to live, I personally would not recommend The Hunger Games to young readers. (I'm kind of sorry I read it myself. Certainly I'm no better for it.) Not that teens would have any trouble understanding it: they'd understand it all too well. But millions have already read it, and/or seen the movie, so we'll have to make the best of it.
Do your children understand that a world without God has never existed, and never will? Do they understand that for the writer to posit such a world, without a word of explanation, is not only cheating, but also worthy of suspicion?
Have they begun to learn how to tell when they're being manipulated? It's a good skill to acquire! Can they see how, when they're all caught up in Katniss' struggle to survive, and their emotions are engaged by the story, they're most susceptible to being manipulated by the author? It's at exactly those times when it's most opportune to slip other messages past the reader's defenses-in this case, messages about the end justifying the means, situational ethics, and excusing murder.
Chances are the teens in your family already know a lot about The Hunger Games, even if they haven't read the book or seen the movie. Use it as an opportunity to get them thinking about this story-not as consumers in search of idle entertainment, but as Christians in search of truth.
 For a concise-and chilling-look at the details involved in United Nations Agenda 21, and how it has probably already infiltrated your own city or county, see Behind the Green Mask: U.N. Agenda 21 by Rosa Koire (The Post Sustainability Institute Press, Santa Rosa, CA: 2011) The resemblance to Panem should make you quite uneasy.