Cultural Apologetics in Action: The Hunger Games

Cornelius Van Til often said that the Christian apologist should do his work with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In other words, the Christian must be a part of the culture in which he ministers. By being aware of the cultural trends of his day, he is able to use topics that are of interest to unbelievers to introduce the gospel.

We should be willing to start anywhere and with any fact that any person we meet is interested in. The very conviction that there is not a single fact that can really be known unless it is interpreted theistically [i.e., with reference to God] gives us this liberty to start anywhere, as far as a proximate starting point is concerned…We can start with any fact at all and challenge “our friends the enemy,” to give us an intelligible interpretation of it. (Cornelius Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 205)

This is the work of cultural apologetics—taking that in which the unbeliever is interested and demonstrating how that cultural expression either reveals the truth of God or man’s suppression of the truth.

No young-adult novels have garnered more interest since the Harry Potter series than The Hunger Games. This trilogy, set in the future, is representative of a certain genre of literature called, dystopia. A dystopia is a vision of the future that is the opposite of a utopia. It typically features oppression by a totalitarian government, human misery and a complete lack of hope. Examples include 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (two of the most prophetic books of the 20th century). In fact, The Hunger Games is basically a teenaged version of 1984 (with elements of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Running Man thrown in for excitement). To date, over 50 million copies of the books have been sold.

So, how should Christians evaluate this cultural phenomenon? The response among Christians has been varied, which demonstrates the complexity of analyzing culture. Several excellent critiques have been offered including those by Doug Wilson, N. D. Wilson, and this one in World Magazine. Putting aside the questions of whether Christians in general should read the books, or more specifically, at what age should a Christian child be allowed to read them, the more fundamental question is how we should interpret them to begin with.

This is where cultural analysis gets challenging. Cultural expressions often have layers of meaning, and Christians using the same criteria discern different messages in the cultural expression. Do the Hunger Games books exalt violence or reveal its ugliness? Do they promote a situational ethics, wherein it is acceptable to kill those whom the protagonist deems to be evil, while sparing those that appear innocent? Is this a matter of a young person being placed in an impossible situation and being forced to make choices between the lesser of two evils? Does Peeta Mellark’s wounding, “burial” in a cave for three days, and reemergence represent a Christ figure?

The ambiguity of the situation in The Hunger Games is part of what makes this series so intriguing to so many. One cannot help but ask when reading them, what would I do in this situation? And further, what is the main message of the books?

From a Christian perspective, the lack of reference to anything divine or transcendent is stark. Panem, the post-apocalyptic world in which The Hunger Games takes place, is entirely a human world, and the overriding mood is one of despair. Here is a truth upon which believers can agree with the author, Suzanne Collins. In a world where there is no God, there would only be despair. I have used The Hunger Games in talking to teens to emphasize that point.

Additionally, morality in the books is arbitrary. Here is an example of the truth rising above attempts to suppress it. The reader feels moral repugnance at brutality and violence and approval at the virtue of Katniss, the protagonist, for sparing innocent lives. But why? In a world where there is no God, brutality is as virtuous as compassion (or more so, as Nietzsche taught). The apologetic value of this emerges when I can challenge an unbeliever to explain why Katniss should be applauded for mercy, instead of Cato for his viciousness. From a Christian worldview I can judge mercy to be good and brutality to be bad, but how does the unbeliever justify the distinction?

By presenting this challenge, a Christian can “push the antithesis” between Christian belief and all other forms of belief to show that what the unbeliever intuitively knows to be true can only be consistently held in a Christian worldview. This is the goal of cultural apologetics. Cultural expressions like The Hunger Games are replete with examples of truth and the suppression of truth that make them fertile ground for gospel opportunities.

In Part 6 we will look at examples of leading cultural apologists today, and see how they use culture to point to the truth of the gospel.

Cultural Apologetics in Action: DaVinci Code and “Hurt”

Cultural apologetics is a response to the questions that our culture is posing. It seizes upon cultural statements (art, architecture, film, novels, etc.) and evaluates them in light of Scripture. It “gives an answer” to cultural expressions that pose an alternate explanation for who we are, why we are here, what’s wrong with this world, and where we are going. It points to the work of unbelievers that suppresses the truth in order to show the myriad ways in which suppression of the truth happens. It also identifies the expressions of unbelievers in which the truth breaks through, even in the midst of their depravity. Cultural apologetics seeks to illustrate that the unbeliever knows God even as he seeks to suppress that knowledge.

A number of gifted theologians and apologists in the 20th century have demonstrated various approaches to the task of cultural apologetics (Francis Schaeffer, C. S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, William Edgar, and Tim Keller among others). In a later post I will take the time to highlight the work of several of these.

But first some examples.

When The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown appeared in print, conversations about the novel were ubiquitous. About that time I sat next to a liberal feminist from San Francisco on a five-hour flight, and she challenged the reliability of the Bible and the development of theology, primarily drawing her objection from The DaVinci Code. I wasn’t prepared for her objections, as many of Brown’s quasi-historical accounts in the book were new to me. I determined to read the book so I could converse about it and give an answer to the challenges it presented. This was a departure for me. Previously I had avoided cultural expressions that challenged the Christian faith, as I had been taught growing up.

As I read the book I began to think, “Every Christian should be reading this book!” Why did I think this? Because here was a cultural expression that addressed a topic directly related to the gospel. In the ensuing months I had numerous gospel conversations with unbelievers whom I saw reading the book. Having read the book and worked on a rebuttal to the fictitious accounts of church history alleged by Brown, I felt confident to engage total strangers in conversation about the claims of the book concerning Jesus.

As I said in a previous post, the point of cultural apologetics is not permission for Christians to immerse themselves in worldly culture. Rather, it is an encouragement for believers to be aware of which cultural expressions are influencing their world, which are exhibiting truth or the suppression of truth, and consequently to learn to use those expressions to direct attention to the truth of the gospel.

Some cultural expressions clearly exhibit strong Christian themes, even when such is the farthest thing from the mind of those who create them. When preaching to teens I often use the lyrics from the song “Hurt” by the band Nine Inch Nails, an “industrial” rock band. This song was later adapted by Johnny Cash shortly before he died. The lyrics of “Hurt” clearly communicate the hopelessness and despair of one who has achieved fame and success apart from God:

I hurt myself today, To see if I still feel,

I focus on the pain, The only thing that’s real

The needle tears a hole, The old familiar sting

Try to kill it all away, But I remember everything

 

What have I become,  My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away In the end

And you could have it all, My empire of dirt

I will let you down,  I will make you hurt

 

I wear this crown of thorns Upon my liar’s chair

Full of broken thoughts I cannot repair

Beneath the stains of time, The feelings disappear

You are someone else, I am still right here

 

What have I become, My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away In the end

And you could have it all, My empire of dirt

I will let you down, I will make you hurt

 

If I could start again, A million miles away

I would keep myself, I would find a way

This song was originally written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails during a time of loneliness and emptiness after he had achieved critical acclaim for his music. It reflects the biblical themes found in Ecclesiastes 2, after Solomon had pursued every desire and had still came up empty:

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11 ESV)

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23 ESV)

When Johnny Cash filmed the video of his version of the song in 2002, he juxtaposed scenes from the crucifixion of Christ, indicating that hopelessness is replaced with hope only in the cross of Christ. Both “Hurt” and Ecclesiastes 2 communicate the inevitable end of idolatry. They can both be used to illustrate the biblical truth of Isaiah 57:20-21:

But the wicked are like the tossing sea;
for it cannot be quiet,
and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”
(Isaiah 57:20-21 ESV)

So, here is one example of cultural apologetics. I use the lyrics to “Hurt” to illustrate the emptiness of life apart from God. It often has a powerful effect on the audience.

In Part 5 we will look at other examples of cultural apologetics.

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