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The Gospel According to The Hunger Games

This morning I sat down to enjoy a continental breakfast at the Hampton Inn in Tampa. Last night I had the joy of speaking to the great folks at Idlewild Baptist Church as part of their Engage Global Missions Emphasis. My topic: Reaching the Millennial Generation.

I opened the complimentary USA Today slipped under my door during the night and turned to the section where I knew I would find the list of top books.  The top three books on the USA Today list did not surprise me, as they consisted of the three books in the Hunger Games Trilogy by author Suzanne Collins: Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. Written for young adults and devoid of profanity, overt sexuality, and for that matter any hint of religious conviction, the books have received rave reviews and have been published now in 38 countries. On March 23 the movie Hunger Games will be released.

I rarely ever read fiction. I read a lot of books but mostly books on theology, philosophy, practical Christianity and culture. But because I have a great interest in the Millennial generation, history, and culture, I bought the trilogy last Sunday afternoon on my iphone Kindle app and started reading.

I finished all three by Tuesday. Now, I am on sabbatical and writing a book about students, so chalk that up as “research time.” But as a culture watcher and as an author I find Collins to be a remarkable storyteller, gifted in telling a tale that draws you in and makes you want more.

I could say so much about the Hunger Games, but what I am not going to do is offer a critical review. I want to show how a ridiculously popular series can have such appeal to young adults (and others) both in the church and outside, and how such an intentionally secular novel series can show us much about the Scriptures and in particular the gospel.

Two caveats: first, if you have not read them and plan to you may want to stop reading now. I do not want to spoil it for you.  Second, I am not endorsing them any more than I would endorse Harry Potter or Twilight or any other series, although I think Collins writes a more compelling story.  But if you work with students, you cannot take any of these and simply respond by jumping on the bandwagon of pop culture and say something profound like, “Those are soooo cool!” On the other hand, you do not help students by simply banning and dogging them.  One of the fundamental points of leadership for students pastors involves helping students to read culture, including the popular books of the times, through gospel lenses.  I will actually be including a lecture on this in my student ministry classes this fall.

Yes, you got it: that was a none-too-subtle statement about the importance of theological education for student pastors. Now, to the books.

When I say “the gospel according to the Hunger Games,” here is what I mean. Stories follow plotlines. Every movie Hollywood produces and every novel tells a story, and the story follows a plotline. Literary scholars tell us there are only seven basic plotlines. In the West, and in particular in pop culture, three matter a great deal:

One, a man falls in a hole and eventually gets out (epic, action films)

Another, boy meets girl and falls for her, it goes south, and then in the end everything works out for them (romantic comedies)

And one very popular storyline, rags to riches (Cinderella)

We love these stories. The reason: they follow a general plotline we all yearn to see happen.

1. Beginning: usually good, although sometimes (like rages to riches) it turns bad quickly

2. Dark Turn: misfortune, bad circumstances, a villain, etc, but things go badly

3. Rescue: a rescuer (in Disney this often involves a fairy godmother or magic) comes and saves the day

4. Happy ending: in virtually every case “they all lived happily ever after”

Does that sound familiar? Sort of like Creation, Fall, Rescue, Restoration.  Yes, the biblical plotline. Why do people want a happy ending? Because of what Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee”

This is beyond obvious in the Hunger Games (here is where I ruin it if you have not read it).  The story begins with a look into the life of the ultimate hero, a teenaged girl named Katniss as she describes her life in a new world in formerly North America many years in the future. From the start, something about this young lady compels you to know more, to understand her.

But very quickly you realize things do not go well for Katniss or her family. We see in specifically non-theological language the world of fallen humanity. The new world she finds herself in has been divided into 12 districts with a horrific “games” played annually. Each year, a young man and a young lady from the districts is “reaped” to participate in these hunger games, games in which these youth must kill the others until one survivor is left. Gruesome indeed. The prominent saying in the book is, “May the odds ever be in your favor,” i.e. may you never be chosen to represent your district. There is hope for something greater than the sordid world Katniss, her family and friends now endure.

This is the Lord of the Flies in reverse, because these games are premeditated by adult authority figures with a demented view of justice at best. The games intend to keep the districts in fear so they will not plan a rebellion. So the wonderful world has been shattered by the work of evil people, and youth are the victims. Depravity unleashed.

But there is a rescuer, the Messiah, well, in this instance the Mockingjay. I will let you read the story to see how it plays out if you must know.  But the ultimate outcome is this land called Panem is overthrown, the rebellion succeeds, and young people have been the key players in the story.

A perfect plotline for a Millennial generation consumed with justice issues.

And, in the Epilogue, you find this rescuer named Katniss with her family, restored.

Creation. Fall, Rescue. Restoration. There is more: the sense of Providence, as Katniss from the most poor district actually became prepared for the games by her ability to sneak out and hunt, developng remarkable archery skills. Or the fact that she retains total unawareness at how winsome she is as a leader and how much hope she gives to others, her genuine humility being most overlooked in her personal self-awareness. Oh, there is also the stereotypical romance, showing the craving we all have for relationships. But my purpose is to demonstrate how a novel completely secular in vision, and filled with more than a fair share of violence, hearkens back to the very gnawing of every soul for a happy ending, for justice.

For rescue.

I am sure somebody will come out with some Christian subcultural version of a Hunger Games “Bible study” series. I would argue that the more you teach students (and all people) the wonderful narrative of Scripture, the bloody cross of an atoning Savior Who is our Rescuer at the heart, and how this affects all of life, the more they can see the truthfulness of it not only as they read their Bibles, but also as they read the literature of their times.

The Bible does more than offer tips on morality. It shows us reality, and how everything in life that we know to be virtuous and good and hopeful comes from the good news in the Word of God.

At the end of the third book Collins’ writes these thoughts of Katniss: “What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again.”

This hope is why books like this matter to people. But the gospel matters so much more.

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Alvin L. Reid (born 1959) serves as Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he has been since 1995. He is also the founding Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism. Alvin and his wife Michelle have two children: Joshua, a senior at The College at Southeastern, and Hannah, a senior at Wake Forest Rolesville High School. Recently he became more focused at ministry in his local church by being named Young Professionals Director at Richland Creek Community Church. Alvin holds the M.Div and the Ph.D with a major in evangelism from Southwestern Seminary, and the B.A. from Samford University. He has spoken at a variety of conferences in almost every state and continent, and in over 2000 churches, colleges, conferences and events across the United States.