Hope in the Midst of Dystopia


20131004050534!Katniss_EverdeenThis past weekend I went with some friends to watch the second installment of The Hunger Games series. When I looked around at the audience, it was clear that just by our presence we raised the average age of the movie theater. What is it about this movie that is attracting young people?

The book’s theme has been described as disturbingly “dystopian”. For those that are only vaguely familiar with the term let me explain. There was a sense of irony this past week in that the day we observed the death of JFK we also celebrated the opening of The Hunger Games. The assassination of JFK, along with a few other events in recent history (the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, etc), have marked the end of the dream of “Camelot”. In other words, the utopian dream, that humans can achieve more greatness, and thus create eden on earth, is marred by the increased ugliness that progress has brought. The Hunger Games is a picture of what civilization looks like after the ultimate war leaves only devastation, slavery, and poverty behind (all while the rich in the capitol city are comfortably fed rich diets of food and violence). Hence the opposite of utopia – dystopia.

Suzanne Collins is not the first person to write dystopian literature. In fact, her predecessors’ work includes Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and even C.S. Lewis’ science fiction book, That Hideous Strength. If you want to read an excellent article contrasting alternating views of human freedom in both Huxley and Orwell and these themes in The Hunger Games, take a look at Andrew Wilson’s piece in First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/04/hunger-games-and-dystopia

Why does dystopia resonate so much with younger people today? Is it that they are more cynical than other generations? Maybe that’s true but there’s something even more fundamental I think that is going on. As Wilson’s article points out, there is a heightened sense that the modern notion of freedom from structural slavery has not given us a sense of freedom from the slavery that exists within. As Augustine and Luther spoke of sin (incurvatus in se), they described it as a radical curving inward: self-justification, self-promotion, self-inflation, self-indulgence, self-sufficiency. The Apostle Paul states the obviously pervasive condition when he writes in Romans the things I know I should do I don’t do, and the things I know I shouldn’t do, I do! We are not free from ourselves and outward dystopia is the reminder that there is something radically wrong with us.

Dystopia resonates with younger people because I think they sense that while society/culture is not “getting better”, neither are they. Why is it that a person can know so much and still wrestle with the same besetting issues? How is it that a person can achieve so much, accumulate so much and yet the fundamental issues of the heart are still not settled? Yet, behind the acceptance of dystopia is the inner desire, the hope, that everything will resolve. The theme that is repeated in this second installment of The Hunger Games is Katniss as the embodiment of hope. This is the glimmer of redemption, that dystopia is not the final word on the world or on you.

As Wilson points out in his article, the gospel brings with it a solid hope that God’s justice will bring a final end to the enslaving structures of society. But it also provides the goods for a person to truly become free inwardly from the enslavement of being curved inward. The hope of the gospel is that one day dystopia will finally end in a Kingdom where all that is wrong will be made right, even you. Unlike Collin’s novel, which is interesting myth, the gospel is the true myth (In C.S. Lewis’ words) of God’s redemptive work restoring even you to your former glory.

4 thoughts on “Hope in the Midst of Dystopia

  1. Elizabeth Brown

    Nicely stated. Than you. I currently working on an adult dystopian novel and want to integrate a spiritual and hopeful purpose. Reading your article has guided me.

  2. Elizabeth Brown

    Reblogged this on ElizabethBrownFiction and commented:
    Dystopian fascination is explored. Interesting perspective on why out youth are drawn to the dark and despairing themes of dystopia. I think too it can embody a paradigm of hope and morality.

    • jonnitta

      I think that’s right Elizabeth. Dystopian literature generally has to pull us back to some sort of unifying center that helps make sense of the world. What’s interesting is that it’s not enough to call this center, “You do your thing and I’ll do mine” or “Everybody has their own version of right and wrong.” What’s clearly portrayed in dystopian literature is the pull toward a common moral center that offers hope. Maybe you know this, but can you think of any dystopian literature that ends in greater hopelessness or greater moral chaos? Just curious…

      • Elizabeth Brown

        Yes..most end with a hopelessness-The Lord of the Flies, 1984, to name a few. Winston claims “it was all right” because he “loved Big Brother”. The once moral and hopeful transform when faced with self-preservation. Or they are simply stamped out, defeated. The righteous are unified but smaller in numbers so what you are left with is a disturbing sense that not enough moral ones are on board. It is an echo of our own current societal mores. The end is barely hopeful but rather an ominous warning. The moral center to which you refer is obscured or conquered by the bigger tragedy and decline that has occurred. The hope, then, is embedded in our potential, recognizing how we might avoid deteriorating morally and spiritually through adherence to faith in humanity. And other times, it seems like there is no turning back, and we are doomed. The Hunger Games, for example, is a sadistic portrayal of human savagery taken to a new level. That the books and movies are so popular and applauded is a comment on our own moral fragility in our desire to view the darker sides of ourselves. To justify it by pointing out the unified center that upholds a moral stance is irrelevant to the bigger picture of blatant disregard for each other’s well being. That’s why the audience is held captive. Virtue is and remains a mere shadow on the grimy wall of poverty. The ones who embrace it wholly, despite fear and suffering, they are the chosen ones (maybe) exceptional, not the norm.

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