Mockingjay Song

**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Mockingjay, Part I.**

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Mockingjay, Part I premieres tomorrow in theaters around the country.  As it does, I aim to continue a set of posts that I’ve written with the release of each of the films.  (Only one entry this year, however.)

The popularity and themes of the Hunger Games series have made it a particularly useful conversation piece.  Over the past two years I’ve taken the opportunity to use the films/books to write about theology, adolescent culture, and youth ministry.

As the story of Katniss and her struggles begins to wind to a close with this film, many of the motifs of the first two installments continue: the co-option of her agency by a dysfunctional adult world, a world structure built mostly upon violence, the use of artifice and/or deception as a means to survival, etc.  As I’ve argued before, Katniss’ story mirrors the perceived journey of many adolescents.  While our students are not forced to fight to the death against their will in a vicious set of games, their lives can feel that way sometimes.MockingjayCover

There are no games in Mockingjay, however.  Now things have become real.  At the end of Catching Fire Katniss is whisked away from the playing arena and enters into a larger struggle.  Her adolescence, we might say, is over.  The adult world now beckons.  Heady stuff for a young person looking forward to putting the nonsense of youth behind her.

And yet, the more time she spends in District 13, the more she realizes that the broken system that led to the Hunger Games and the societal mechanism’s that co-opted her youth persist.  As the symbolic leader of the rebellion against the Capitol she is forced to become “The Mockingjay.”  She has little choice in the matter.  Her young adulthood, therefore, is just as trapped in this broken place as was her adolescence.

Being forced to play a role in a world that seems to know only one way forward is not unique to Katniss Everdeen, however.  It is a reality felt by many young people as they strain at the B0t35sTIUAMBW3G.jpg largetension between their dreams and hopes and the strictures placed upon them by outside forces.  It can be a difficult place to live.

And yet: as much as the Hunger Games saga is about the ways in which young people are forced to fight for a broken system, it is also about how that system can be changed or subverted.

Katniss Everdeen is never just a passive participant in the brokenness around her.  Rather, she is always thinking about how her actions in the midst of it might work to change things for the better.  These efforts at subversion and resistance to the prevailing status quo are tested in Mockingjay, and I look forward to seeing how the two films based upon the book will address these issues.



Catching Fire Meets God

the-hunger-games-catching-fire-poster-header**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Catching Fire.**

Today’s entry in the Catching Fire discussion reflects on what the book “has to do with God.”  We’re going to think about it theologically, in other words.  While this may seem a strange undertaking for a piece of popular young adult fiction, I think it is worthwhile.  For as much as the trilogy is a shiny piece of pop culture replete with teenage angst and not a little violence, it is also one which is rarely short on ideas.  Though I suspect it was not written with theology in mind, the themes upon which it does reflect have theological implications all the same (see, for instance, my previous thoughts on The Hunger Games).

Having re-read Catching Fire in preparation for classroom discussion and this week’s premiere, my biggest takeaway was a broad theological concept that manifests itself a number of different ways.  To put it briefly, the book made me think about sin.  Not the popular idea of “angering God,” but the notion of sin as degradation/depravity/fallenness.  Its effects upon individuals and societies make ours a broken world.  Katniss’s is no different.  As such, many of the reflections that follow revolve around this central theme.

  • In the first book, we see Katniss and other adolescents forced to fight for their lives.  They do so, I think, as a symbol and symptom of their broken world.  At the end of The Hunger Games, they have won.  That is, until we find out in Catching Fire that their fallen society is not done with them yet.  The twisted net of sin–one that all e06bb81dfe8fc93806caa232c3824809Hunger Games tributes are caught up in–will not let them go.  It keeps going.  It never ends.  Whether it be as popular entertainment or back in the arena, their sinful world is eating them alive.
  • Speaking of their broken world, one of the interesting things about Catching Fire is how we begin to see the layers of artifice in the society of Panem slowly start to be peeled back.  The first book presents us a society that works to maintain the outward appearance of at least political stability, even if it is predicated upon yearly violence.  As sick as it is, the Hunger Games system is just how it works.  Districts go along with it for the most part.  The Capitol is happy.  Things move on.  In this second book, though, the hidden and deeply broken elements of their monstrous society are laid bare more and more.  Rebellion brewing.  Violent repression.  Warnings from the President.  This was never a world in equilibrium and we always knew that; we’re just seeing that more clearly now.  Understood in light of the Scriptural message, is ours any different?
  • One of Christ’s appellations is the “Prince of Peace.”  Looking at the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, not to mention the way in which His work was accomplished–not by the sword but through suffering and humility–many have looked to Christ’s model as one of nonviolence.  In some ways, I think that there is a sense that nonviolence is what Katniss hunger-games-catching-fire-pictures-38deeply desires in this trilogy. Sadly, though, this option is just not open to her.  In neither of the first two books is she a bloodthirsty killer, but all the same she is forced into violence in order to survive.  This presents an open question, theologically and philosophically: can violence ever be the ultimate solution to our problems?  Will it make things better or will it simply beget more violence?  Is this any way to solve things, or is this just the way our world tries to solve things?  The effects of using violence to achieved change and freedom in the society of Panem will be explored more in the book Mockingjay, but they are worth considering here.
  • As Catching Fire progresses, we the readers come to understand that Katniss Everdeen is becoming a powerful symbol of Panem’s resistance to its capital.  A symbol by which they will fight.  Her actions in standing up to the Capitol in The Hunger Games inspired many.  While her little trick with the berries was, I would submit, a kind of non-violence or passive resistance, the spirit of said resistance is being co-opted, even as she is, for something much more severe.  In the same way, there was always the danger that Christ’s mission–in his own lifetime and ours–might be co-opted towards much more nefarious purposes.  That the gospel (literally “good news”) of Katniss is being used in such a violent way is haunting indeed.catching-fire-character-poster-mags
  • One of the “holiest” moments in the first book was Katniss’s funeral for her fallen friend Rue.  Here, though, I would say that the two moments provided by an 80-year old participant in the arena serve this function.  The first is one we only hear about: on the day of the reaping, a younger woman is chosen to return to the Games.  On that day old Mags steps up to take her place.  Second, during the Games themselves there is a scene when the old lady is slowing down her companions and decreasing their chances for survival.  Rather than do so, she walks headlong into death to set them free.  Sacrifice, surely.
  • Lastly, a bit of a “reach.”  In my discussion of The Hunger Games, I posited Katniss as a type of Christ.  Fair enough.  Here, though, she is almost a kind of Mary, we might say.  Called to serve a cause greater than herself at a young age, she is the sign of a new state of affairs.  The metaphor breaks down, though: she unlike Mary is not particularly willing, and the stakes are not exactly the same.  She does, nevertheless, like the Virgin become an icon for devotion and fervor.

Tuesday Remainders

In honor of…Tuesday, some interesting links from the past week or so:

1. Bono’s Effervescent Wisdom:  The rockstar never ceases to amaze, even if the article’s author seems a little trite.

2.  NYC Saves Civilization:  Apparently, some very offensive words are appearing on standardized tests.  Words like “dinosaur,” “television,” and “religion.”  Fundamentalists, Luddites, and secular humanists must have been enraged by these words poisoning their children.  Unfortunately for them, NYC schools have decided NOT to eliminate them from their exams.  Finally.  Now students can enjoy reading about “rock n’ roll” on their Scantron tests!

3.  The Hunger Games is Deviant: Apparently, it has become a “most challenged book” by those who object to its themes.  As a friend of mine said on Facebook, don’t people realize that the book itself is a critique of our modern society rather than a blanket endorsement of violence and the like?

4.  Last but not least….my favorite picture of the week:

Review: “The Hunger Games”

After months of waiting, I was finally able to see The Hunger Games last night.  As a fan of the books, it was rewarding to see characters and settings I had heretofore only imagined in my mind come suddenly to life.  The costumes, makeup, and set design were superb.  The world of Panem–and especially its ostentatious Capitol–came to life in brilliant high definition.

The actors selected for the various roles were uniformly quite good, with Jennifer Lawrence a real standout as the lead character Katniss Everdeen.  Lawrence has already proved her acting chops elsewhere, and she is more than capable to carry this franchise

Stenberg as Rue.

on her shoulders.  Amandla Stenberg was also brilliant as the  actress who plays the young Tribute Rue.  Additional kudos to the often hilarious yet nuanced performances of Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy and an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket.  I was impressed not only by the casting decisions made here, but also the many great performances in the film.  Twilight should stand up and take notice!

Crazy ol' Effie.

For a fan of the novel, no movie adaptation could ever do The Hunger Games justice.  The pacing of the film was, for whatever reason, too quick for me.  I missed the psychological depth of the books and at times felt that we were forced too quickly through the various dramatic setpieces of the drama.  Much like the early Harry Potter film adaptations, too much attention may have been given to faithfully replicating scenes from the book and not enough to artistically interpreting the source material.  For instance, I felt the film could have done more to establish the depressed state of District 12, build up the Katniss/Rue relationship a bit more, and make the “berry” scene as powerful as it could have been.

This said, I may be asking the film to do too much.  The basic story is compelling enough by itself, and the movie tells it quite directly.  Further, nestled within the cinematic narrative are some deeply powerful moments: 1) Katniss calling out her mother on behalf of her sister and telling her to never again slip into the debilitating depression that almost destroyed their family in the past, 2) the wordless scene where a painfully oblivious Capitol family allows their ignorant children to play at “Hunger Games” with fake swords, and 3) the scenes regarding Katniss, Rue, floral arrangements, and District 11 (you’ll have to read the books or watch the movie to understand this one).  The extra screen time for President Snow was also a plus, as was the ever-present and magnificent beard of Seneca Crane.

All in all the film is a good one, and by most accounts will do very well for itself.  I look forward to the sequels continuing this powerful story of emerging adulthood, oppression, and freedom, and loss.  Hopefully in the midst of this now multimillion dollar enterprise, the deeper questions at the heart of the story will continue to resonate with teens and adults for some time to come.

I highly recommend the Hunger Games and encourage you to see it soon!

Grade: B+ (great performances, excellent design, and compelling story; marked down only for its pacing and the fact that nothing could ever live up to the book!)

Let The Games Begin

After a long absence combining spring break, out of town visitors, and a rather nasty bout of the flu, I am back…and just in the nick of time: The Hunger Games is released today!*

As some longtime readers are aware, I blogged on the books back in November as a part of a class exercise for my “Foundations of Youth Ministry” course at Northwest University.  The following are the links to those discussions:

1.  “The Hunger Games and Adolescence”

2.  “The Hunger Games Meets God”

3.  The Hunger Games as Practical Youth Ministry”

Today, I’ve also guest blogged with youth ministry organization Interlinc about the new film.

My wife and I will be seeing the movie tonight, and I look forward to offering a full review tomorrow.

In the meantime, a brief word about the place of pop culture in youth ministry.  One of my students offered a little pushback in class yesterday, asking why things like The Hunger Games should be a part of youth ministry conversations or youth group lessons in the first place.  Moreover, he wondered, what are the bounds of culture and ministry?  Are there appropriate limits we should follow as we pursue these ends?

A few thoughts:

  1. Pop culture should make an appearance in youth ministry when not talking about it would make no sense.  Twilight or the The Hunger Games are BIG teen phenomena.  To never speak of them seems a little silly.  They are some of the (increasingly few) stories that most teens share, and as such they provide a platform for drawing out important points of conversation.
  2. The use of pop culture in youth ministry should be limited and precise.  Having a little fun with The Hunger Games or doing a series this month makes sense; renaming your ministry “Katniss’s Kids” is just sad.
  3. Along the same lines, remember that pop culture is just that: POP.  It makes a loud noise for an instant, but then fades quickly.  Use, therefore, what you can for the time…but don’t hold on to it too tightly.
  4. Remember that some cultural items are richer sources of teaching and reflection than others.  Transformers, probably not so much.  The Hunger Games, as I have argued passionately, has a panoply of issues tailor-made for discussion and theological reflection with students.
  5. Concerning the appropriateness of material, remember to take into account things like ratings (an “R” rating, for instance, legally excludes 5/6 of your students), parents (with whom potential controversial material should be discussed), and your church/ministry environment.
  6. In all of these matters, remember to keep in mind the matrix of cost/benefit that should be in play here.  Pop culture should not be utilized in ministry just because one can or in order to prove a personal point. Rather, in all cases the benefit of such integration should always outweigh whatever costs or negatives may be incurred in the process.

There are just a few thoughts, and not all of them unique to me.  Feel free to comment and add your own thoughts in these areas.

*Speaking of “the nick of time,” I look forward to weekly updates and thoughts on AMC’s Mad Men, finally returning to television for its fifth season this Sunday!