“The Hunger Games” and the cross

I guess I’ve been living in a cave for the past few years because I only just read The Hunger Games last week. I stayed up until four in the morning on Friday to finish it. It’s a breathtakingly good and important book. Why didn’t somebody tell me?

I saw the movie, a surprisingly faithful adaptation, last night. (The novel’s author, Suzanne Collins, co-wrote the screenplay.) It goes without saying that it’s not nearly as full-bodied as the book—not to mention horrifying—but how could it be? The novel is a first-person narrative. Unless Katniss narrated the drama through internal monologues—I’m sure contemporary audiences would love that!—the movie would naturally miss many of the nuances. This ain’t Twilight, after all, even if it is marketed to young adult audiences. My advice, as always, is to read the book first.

Since I’m always looking for sermon illustrations, and vicarious suffering is an important theme of the book, The Hunger Games was a natural tie-in to yesterday’s sermon related to Good Friday. How original! I bet I was the only preacher in America yesterday who thought of using Hunger Games in a sermon illustration! 😉

But I was original… I used it for not one but two illustrations. One young teenager in my congregation told me afterward that while I mostly got the book right—I had to quickly summarize the premise in a couple of paragraphs—there were a couple of small details I got wrong, including Katniss’s age. I confused her with Gale and said she was 18, and that this was her last year of eligibility for the Games. (I’m just glad that a teenager was listening!)

I used the fact that Katniss volunteered for the Games (and thus to die, or so she thought) to save her little sister—an exchange of one life for another—as a way of talking about Jesus, Barabbas, and substitutionary atonement. As Adam Hamilton said, “Barabbas is the first sinner for whom Jesus died.” That was an easy point to make.

But I went further than that. In case you think I’m not a good Methodist, and I’m hung up on penal substitution, I found another atonement theme in the book, less obvious but clearly present. If you’re a theology geek who’s keeping score at home, this theory of atonement is traditionally called Christus Victor: On the cross, God won a decisive victory over sin, evil, and death. Through faith in Christ, we get to share in that victory. Christus Victor is a biblical motif, fully compatible with and complementary to penal substitution.

Here’s how I described it in my sermon:

Katniss and her friend Peeta, a fellow Hunger Games “contestant,” contemplate what’s about to happen to them the next morning, after the Capitol sends them off to the arena to fight to the death. Peeta tries to tell Katniss how he wants to die, but he can’t find the words. Peeta says, “‘I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only… I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?’” But it doesn’t make sense to Katniss, at least not at first. She wonders, “How could he die as anyone but himself?” Peeta explains: “‘I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some into some kind of monster that I’m not.… I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.’”[1]

The two of them will spend the rest of novel demonstrating a willingness to die as themselves—to not let this evil system change them, own them, or turn them into monsters. To refuse to become just another tool in their enemies’ twisted game. To refuse to let the system prevent them from loving and showing compassion—no matter what it does to them. And in so doing, they defeat the system. Love defeats the system. Love conquers their enemies.

And in a similar way, on the cross, all the evil forces of the world conspired to do their very worst against God’s only begotten Son—to make God the Son become something other than what he was: the embodiment of Love Itself. They did their very worst to change him, to own him, to turn him into a monster, to make him into another tool for the Enemy. And they failed. Christ won the victory. Love won the victory. Christ defeated sin and death. Love defeated sin and death. God defeated sin and death… On our behalf.

That’s not bad, right? Someone might object that, at the end of the first novel at least (I haven’t read the other two), the evil system that Katniss and Peeta “defeated” continues unabated. It’s not like The Capitol decides to call off The Hunger Games forevermore.

Two responses: First, Katniss refers to her Hunger Games victory as a “defeat” of the Hunger Games[2]—perhaps only one defeat in a larger war, but a defeat nonetheless. And I suspect that Suzanne Collins will show through the next two novels that Katniss and Peeta’s victory for love has sown seeds of the Hunger Games’ (and The Capitol’s) destruction. But don’t tell me… I still need to read the books!

My second response is that sin, evil, and death, likewise, seem to continue unabated in our world, despite what Christ accomplished on the cross. The whole creation groans with labor pains, as Paul writes, waiting for Christ’s victory to become manifest. In this in-between time, we suffer and wait patiently. But we do so with hope.

[1] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic, 2008), 141-2.

[2] Ibid., 358. “Funny, in the arena, when I poured out those berries, I was only thinking of outsmarting the Gamemakers, not how my actions would reflect on the Capitol. But their Hunger Games are their weapon and you are not supposed to be able to defeat it.”

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