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.

About Mark Farnham
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA. Founder and Director, Apologetics for the Church (apologeticsforthechurch.org). PhD in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; ThM in New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

11 Responses to Cultural Apologetics in Action: The Hunger Games

  1. ” In a world where there is no God, brutality is as virtuous as compassion (or more so, as Nietzsche taught). ”

    Nietzsche was wrong. Depending, of course, how you’re defining ‘virtuous’.

    “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 analyzing harm versus benefit.

    • Mark Farnham says:

      Notascientist,

      You state pretty emphatically that Nietzsche was wrong. But why? because brutality is distasteful? If so, that opinion is merely a matter of taste, and taste alone cannot determine something to be right or wrong. it is merely preference. And not liking what Nietzsche said is not the same as being able to argue convincingly that he was wrong.

      On the second quote you work yourself into quite a corner. Who decides what is beneficial? Who defines “harm”? If there is no intrinsic problem with brutality and no intrinsic value to to mercy, they cannot be distinguished, except in the mind of each individual.

      • “You state pretty emphatically that Nietzsche was wrong. But why? because brutality is distasteful?”

        Not at all. It has nothing to do with taste. It’s because, if we determine what is ‘virtuous’ by how beneficial an action is, as I do, then we can see definitively that in a cooperative society like ours, compassion is more virtuous.

        “Who decides what is beneficial? Who defines “harm”?”

        Scientific study and observation.

        Not a who. We use a process that is as objective as we can make it.

      • Mark Farnham says:

        Science is fully capable of studying empirical evidence, but it is impotent in assigning values or deciding on ethical norms. Those are metaphysical questions that go beyond the scope of science. Scientists can create a weapon, but if they try to tell us whether it is “right” or “beneficial” to use it they have strayed from science.

        Additionally, beneficial” is not a universal value. Every culture considers some things to be beneficial that others consider destructive. To try to impose a 21st century American scientific definition of “beneficial” smells of imperialism, and was the exact impetus for “scientific advancements” such as eugenics, lobotomies, electroshock therapy for depressed housewives, sterilization of African Americans in the South, and of course the elephant in the room of the 20th century, Hitler’s “scientific” efforts to purify the German Race. There was never a society more dominated by the beatification of the sciences than Germany in the mid-20th century.

        As a skeptic of science’s ability to deal with any metaphysical questions, I would respond:

        “Whose science? Which objectivity?”

        You write as though:
        1. Science has never had to completely reject past pronouncements it held dearly
        2. Science is such a unified discipline that all scientists agree (or even that all scientific disciplines agree with one another)
        3. Scientists should become the high priests of determining right and wrong in a society

        You do, however, admit that we can only become comparatively objective. And I would agree, although for different reasons.

        Anyways, taken to its logical conclusion, your proposal sounds a lot like Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World.

  2. “Those are metaphysical questions that go beyond the scope of science. ”

    I don’t grant your assertion that the metaphysical even exists.

    “Every culture considers some things to be beneficial that others consider destructive.”

    Which is why we don’t look to culture to determine it. We look to science. All cultures have certain commonalities. Where we disagree, we examine things scientifically.

    Or should, at any rate.

    “There was never a society more dominated by the beatification of the sciences than Germany in the mid-20th century.”

    Incorrect.

    Nazi Germany was one of many cultures dominated by an ideology, one which they used bad science and pseudo-science to try and back up.

    ““Whose science? Which objectivity?””

    There’s only one science. If you think you have your own, it’s a sign you’ve gone wrong.

    “1. Science has never had to completely reject past pronouncements it held dearly”

    You say this like it’s a bad thing. Science corrects itself all the time. That’s a WONDERFUL thing. It allows for humans to learn from mistakes, as opposed to clutching them tightly and calling them ‘tradition’.

    “2. Science is such a unified discipline that all scientists agree (or even that all scientific disciplines agree with one another)”

    They do.

    97% of them. Because science operates in such a way that discoveries can be (and have to be) examined by others before they are hailed as true.

    “3. Scientists should become the high priests of determining right and wrong in a society”

    Not at all.

    Science, the process not the scientists, can help us determine right and wrong as long as we look at it as relating to harm and benefit. That’s how I look at it.

    “Anyways, taken to its logical conclusion, your proposal sounds a lot like Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World.”

    I doubt what you think are the logical conclusions of my proposal are actually the logical conclusions.

    Why don’t you tell me what you think they are?

  3. Pingback: What I Read Online – 08/24/2012 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  4. Henry says:

    @ Mark, the van Til citation comes from “The Method of Christian Theistic Epistemology” by Cornelius Van Til, not “A Survey Of Christian Epistemology”. The ‘Survey’ I’m reading is only 195 pages long

  5. Henry says:

    Pascal says the last step of rationality is to recognize that there are an infinite number of steps. Perhaps NotAScientist should consider what that means. You might also look around your world and attempt ascribe the source and cause of meaning in your life. Nietzsche was at least trying to be consistent in deconstructing it all to nothing. Of course, life without meaning (which is only derived my God) is untenable, which may be why he was driven out of his mind. I would not wish that upon you – or anyone.

    Perhaps ask yourself this, “Did the power of love (in all its dimensions), of heroism and self sacrifice simply evolve? or is it fundamentally incompatible with ‘survival of the fittest’?”

    Blessings to you,

    Henry

    • “You might also look around your world and attempt ascribe the source and cause of meaning in your life.”

      The people in my life and I am the source and cause for meaning in my life.

      ““Did the power of love (in all its dimensions), of heroism and self sacrifice simply evolve?”

      Yup.

      “or is it fundamentally incompatible with ‘survival of the fittest’?” ”

      Nope. Because survival of the fittest is about species, not individuals. And things like love, heroism and self sacrifice are incredibly beneficial to a species.

      • Henry says:

        @ NotAScientist, you respond saying “things like love, heroism and self sacrifice are incredibly beneficial to a species.” How is this possible? Where is the empirical reproducible proof of that? Would not self-sacrifice be demonstrated by an individual, how does that comport with your previous statement that “survival of the fittest is about species, not individuals”?

        Are you really the source AND cause for meaning in your life? You cause meaning? Was there no ‘Meaning’ before you were born? If there was, who caused that? What if that ‘causer’ is still alive and the meaning he still causes conflicts with the meaning you cause? What if there is a third causer different from you two? Can you give a scientific explanation how that all exists? Or is Nietzsche really correct that there is no meaning of any real …meaning? Or Is there any coherent meaning beyond ‘you and yours’? Do one word (Yup & Nope) answers to questions with profound implications constitute a scientific & complete answer?

        Let me offer something further for your consideration, if you are willing to hear an even handed discussion about science and the meaning of life. This is a discussion between to scientists asking the question “Is Science Enough? Thinking Reasonably about the Meaning of Life”, with Satyan Devadoss, William G. McCallum at the University of Arizona.

        http://www.veritas.org/Talks.aspx#!/v/1176

        I am merely asking plain questions. I hope you will consider them again.

        Blessings again,

        Henry

  6. Bethany says:

    Thank you for this post!

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