There is No Such Thing as “Just a Book”

Whenever I review popular books on this blog, I receive a few comments from people who feel that I shouldn’t attempt to read theological or philosophical concepts into works of fiction. They generally argue that books like The Hunger Games or Twilight are simply stories, meant for entertainment purposes.

There is no such thing as a book devoid of the author’s worldview, though. Every book, big or small, well-crafted or terrible, contains elements of the writer’s beliefs. Even if the author does not consciously intend to communicate philosophical ideas, such concepts have a way of creeping into the story nonetheless. Every book is written by a human being with particular ideas about the world, humanity, and God. Nobody is capable of writing “just a book” without including in it his personality and understanding of the world.

It’s possible, of course, that my understanding of a particular book is incorrect. It’s also possible that the author communicated poorly and left the wrong impression of his or her worldview. It is not possible, however, that the book is merely a story. As readers, we need to practice critical thinking. Those who argue that a book is “just a book” are no less influenced by the book’s worldview than anybody else. In fact, they’re more susceptible to being shaped by the worldview of the book, because they’re unaware that it’s there.

The Hunger Games trilogy is an interesting example of the point I’m making. The author, Suzanne Collins, has explicitly stated in interviews that her books are intended to make certain statements about war, violence, and government. Again, she may or may not have effectively accomplished that purpose, but there is no doubt that she intended to write more than mere entertainment.

Even books that appear on the surface to contain mere entertainment value contain more than that. For example, the astute reader of a John Grisham novel can pick up on Grisham’s personal beliefs about justice, poverty, and religion.

Past generations understood this concept better than we do, because they were accustomed to reading and evaluating books. Nobody truly believed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “just a story,” for example. In fact, Abraham Lincoln is said to have called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Books and words have power. Denying that power does not diminish it, but in fact increases it. Only by conscious awareness of what we are reading can we determine if the worldview of a book (or television show or website, for that matter) is consistent with Scripture.

That’s why I periodically discuss the relationship between popular literature and Christianity. As a Christian, I believe that every aspect of life ought to be subjected to the Lordship of Jesus. My thoughts about war, government, wealth, relationships, and everything else need to be viewed in light of God’s Word. The books I read and the media I consume will generally contain elements that either support or contradict God’s values. At the very least, we can be aware of those elements and make an attempt to frame our lives in light of those concepts that are consistent with Scripture.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think I’m being overly analytical when it comes to literature? Is there such a thing as “just a story” or does every story present elements of the author’s worldview? 

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The Hunger Games and Christianity: Are They Incompatible?

(Note: If you haven’t read The Hunger Games or seen the movie, you should know that this post contains spoilers. I can’t think of any way to discuss it without giving away certain critical plot points.)

I read The Hunger Games trilogy a few months ago, and I saw the movie this week. Several people have asked me to comment on the story from a biblical perspective — are there moral problems or ideas in it that contradict a Christian worldview?

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, I’ll provide a brief summary. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic North America, known as Panem. The country is divided into 12 separate districts and all of them are ruled with an iron fist by the authoritarian government in The Capitol. To demonstrate its power, The Capitol requires each district to participate every year in a brutal contest called The Hunger Games. Each district must choose one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18. The 24 contestants are released into a large outdoor arena and forced to fight to the death. The last contestant alive is declared the winner and receives a hero’s welcome and a lifetime of financial provision for his or her family. The story primarily revolves around Katniss Everdeen, one contestant from District 12, who enters the Games in place of her younger sister. Katniss is a courageous (yet often morally ambiguous) character who has to make some tough decisions about the value of life and the consequences of violence.

The books are filled with dark themes, even though they’re marketed to a “young adult” audience (presumably pre-teens and teenagers). But how does the book stack up to a Christian understanding of the world?

Here are a few themes in the book that relate to Christianity, along with my assessment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses in those areas: 

1. Violence and war are never ideal. If you haven’t read the books you might be inclined to think that Collins is glorifying violence. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Her clear goal is to raise serious questions about our culture’s obsession with violence and what that obsession does to the hearts and minds of our youth. As I read the books, some uncomfortable thoughts kept coming to my mind. In my younger years I watched dozens of movies that truly did glorify violence. For example, I’ll never forget watching a Tarantino film that included a brutal killing. The killing was timed and executed in such a way that it made the theater audience laugh. What sort of culture uses violence as a form of amusement? Collins raises that question masterfully. A quick scan of the Scripture tells us that God doesn’t like violence: “His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5b). The Hunger Games ought to make you reevaluate how you view violence — not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a means of settling conflict. Collins is probably more strictly pacifistic than the Scripture, but she raises some excellent questions.

2. Even the most innocent and noble among us are capable of terrible sin. Katniss has some wonderful character qualities. She’s resourceful, courageous, and even selfless when it comes to protecting her family. On the other hand, she has a vicious streak and readily kills other Tributes once she enters the arena. Her rationalizations for killing are reasonable and atrocious at the same time. Every reader probably asks himself, “How would I respond in a situation like this? Would I be the brutal killer or the meek victim?” By juxtaposing Katniss with the mild-mannered Peeta, we see the true dilemma of the book in black and white. Peeta is noble and refuses to allow his character to be sullied by the Capitol’s manipulation. Unfortunately, though, that requires him to depend on stronger and less scrupulous players like Katniss. In a dog-eat-dog world, are you the eater or the eaten? Is there a third alternative? If so, Collins doesn’t tell us what it is. Whether she intends to or not, Collins affirms the biblical doctrine of human depravity. Nobody is innocent and all of us need redemption (Romans 3:9-18).

3. Redemption is difficult, complex, and costly. Here’s where I think The Hunger Games falls short of a Christian worldview. Redemption from the cycle of violence and destruction is never complete for Katniss or her fellow Tributes. In fact, at the end of the third book (spoiler warning), Collins gives us the impression that Katniss ends the violence and war by killing President Coin, another act of violence. Her slow journey out of the  madness is assisted by the love of Peeta and the healing properties of time. Unfortunately, the book provides no permanent hope or promise of redemption. This obviously contrasts sharply with a Christian understanding of the world. Redemption from all sin, violence included, has been accomplished by Christ’s work on the cross (Colossians 1:19-22; Romans 5:18-19). The answer to violence and death is not more violence and death. The wounds of sin won’t be healed through time or good romance. They’ll be healed on the day our Savior returns, bringing heaven to earth. The only way to find true redemption is to trust in Him and await the day He makes everything right again. While we wait, we live in such a way to reflect His grace and the redemption that He offers. The Hunger Games sets up the problem well, but doesn’t provide us with a good solution.

One other note: I really don’t think these books are kids’ books. Obviously, each parent needs to decide what his or her child or teenager is able to absorb. Some teenagers are probably mature enough for the themes and challenges the book poses, but some are not. And I certainly wouldn’t let a teenager read them without following them up with a serious conversation about the story’s violence and where redemption is truly found.

If you’ve read the books or seen the movie, what would you add to my assessment here? 

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