A lot of people are very invested in the Hunger Games, many of them young women. Here are 10 things that youth ministers ought to know about the novels and how they affect their kids.
1. This is a novel of resistance to oppression, death, and resurrection. It is a profoundly Christian story in which love conquers death and community opposes tyranny.
Despite all the grief that this story gets for being violent, strange, and over dramatic, it also teaches young people how to preserve a self in great danger, and how to resist oppression through genuine acts of kindness. Even the evil empire that the revolution resists is a thinly veiled Roman Empire.
2. For better or for worse, Katniss Everdeen’s story and struggle is teaching girls what it means to become a woman in contemporary America.
Throughout this story, Katniss is created by others into a woman for an audience to consume. It is teaching young women that they are objects to be consumed by popular culture, but that their manipulation of that narrative is ultimately revolutionary–and profoundly dangerous.
3. This is the world they believe they live in.
The story is so popular because under all the drama, it speaks to kids in a safe way (fiction) about real problems that they experience. Over-dramatization of problems in society can often help us name and work through them. The Hunger Games has gained popularity because it taps into things that we subconsciously know are wrong in our world. Adolescents especially need this over-dramatization because of the intense ways in which they feel things that adults find to be simple and straightforward. That means that Youth workers must pay attention to the foundational themes and problems in order to understand the struggles kids face in their own world.
4. The relationship between adults and children is totally broken in this story.
There are probably two adults (Cinna and Boggs) in the entire series that Katniss thinks are genuine and actually rooting for her success. All the rest are vicious, cunning, or completely and totally incapable of taking care of themselves. Because of Number 3, this reflects a real rupture in the relationship between children and adults today. Youth ministers should pay attention to this.
Mark DeVries talks about the absence of adults in Family Based Youth Ministry. Here’s my previous post about it.
5. The adult world relies on the buy in of children.
Despite the fact that Panem is an evil oppressive regime, it totally relies on children buying in to its hero narrative of violence and competition in order to preserve their “peace.” Likewise, Youth Ministers should consider what kind of systems their kids are expected to “buy in to”. Competition, violence, dehumanization of the poor, and gender are all tools of socialization that, without the buy-in of semi-autonomous adolescents, would likely fall apart.
6. Part of buying in for these kids is destroying the lives of other children.
The viciousness of children towards other children has always been an issue: they’re still developing their empathy and their ability to understand each other. But in Panem, the Government intentionally uses this in order to keep everyone in their place and maintain their power. How might the kids in your youth ministry be encouraged to hurt their peers in order to succeed? How might that allow powerful adults to maintain their power?
7. The novel teaches children that refusing to buy in and conform is profoundly dangerous for them and everyone else: when Katniss refuses to play the role assigned to her, the whole world order collapses.
People are invested in maintaining their power. When Katniss resists and refuses to win the Hunger Games, she receives threats not only on her life but on the life of everyone she cares about. President Snow goes as far as to say that if she doesn’t play the part of lovesick school girl, a civil war will be on her shoulders. What dangers await the kids in your youth group who don’t play along? Social isolation? Eternal Damnation? Perhaps a hate crime? Or, is it subtle emotional manipulation by a parent?
8. All the children in this novel are under constant surveillance and constantly manipulating an audience.
Kids feel watched. Period. But, as in Katniss’ case, it’s not by her rather incompetent parental figure. Kids are watched by their school systems, coaches, other kids, the internet, and the police. It’s often not their parents who are being over-watchful.
9. This story teaches that love, even the illusion of love, can topple the most oppressive of empires. It teaches young people that to love is to regain one’s humanity after it has been taken away.
Despite all this, what at first becomes a survival tactic–Katniss’s heteronormative, camera-feeding relationship–actually ends up being a relationship that completely transforms her and her world. Her genuine investment in Peeta’s survival and her genuine care for him end up toppling the empire she was originally trying to fool. Her acts of building community in a community-robbed world are eventually what topple the whole thing.
And most importantly:
10. Many church practices reinforce the brokenness of this fictional world, when they could instead be using it to foster resistance and resurrection.
When churches demand heteronormative, heaven-and-hell guilt-based religiosity, they reinforce to young girls and boys that their life will be like Katniss’s and Peeta’s stories, should they choose to resist.
Churches that communicate to children that church is dying and that “young people” are the only way to survival, but then refused to be comfortable with squirming, happy kids in worship–these churches communicate that the world order rests on a child’s shoulders, but only if that child is not their own self.
When churches put kids up at the front of the church for theologically silly children’s sermons, and the whole congregation watches as they make ‘adorable’ comments for the whole congregation to laugh at and consume–then they communicate to kids that they are objects of entertainment and not people.
But, if churches focus on resurrection in the face of death, forming genuine relationships where there are none, and refusing to ‘win’ in order to resist–they reinforce the positive messages of redemption, resistance and love in this novel.
I encourage everyone to read The Hunger Games and think about what’s at stake here for the young people in our society. This is the world they believe they live in, and the church can easily be mapped onto one of the adult characters in the book. The question is which one.