Friday, December 23, 2011

Final for Reel Theology class: The Hunger Games!

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, published in 2008, is the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  With more than 7.5 million copies of The Hunger Games in print and having spent more than 160 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list, The Hunger Games is arguably one of the most popular books in the genre of young adult science fiction today.[1]  The popularity of the book is reason enough for those of us in positions of leadership, particularly youth leadership, to consider its messages and the questions it leaves the reader pondering.  As a leader in the Reform Jewish community, I believe it is my responsibility to help my community find meaning in popular culture and explore why any particular text, Jewish or secular, speaks to us.  As modern Jews, we not only engage with popular culture, but also think seriously and critically about how the themes and messages of our popular culture align, or come in conflict with, our Jewish identity, values, texts, and traditions.  The themes and messages of The Hunger Games are relevant to a number of themes and messages found in the vast canon of Jewish literature.  An exploration of the cross-section of these themes provides a particularly rich opportunity for a meaningful conversation that can influence the way we think about and live our lives as modern Jews.

It is important to have a grasp of the genre of young adult fiction in order to discover and find meaning in the major themes of this work.   According to James Blasingame, one characteristic of young adult fiction is: “characters and issues young readers can identify with; those issues and characters are treated in a way that does not invalidate, minimize, or devalue them.”[2]  He goes on to say that reading about issues that adolescents can relate to can help them validate their own experience and find meaning in that experience.  I believe that this is not only true for adolescents, but for many adults as well.  We search for ways to identify with characters and issues and search for ways to validate our own experiences through the lens of an outside text.  In this sense, The Hunger Games is a prime example of a text that takes what at first might seem to be completely foreign (and horrifically unimaginable) experiences and finds a way to make them real and relevant through language and emotion.  The themes become that much more powerful because of the inherent desire to reject the possibility that we might ever find ourselves in the shoes of the heroine, or any other character.  And yet, this inherent desire to push away is precisely what draws the reader in and enables us to discover connections to our own lives. 

A number of themes arise that are relevant and meaningful for the lives of adolescents today.  Despite the fact that God and religion are not mentioned in the book, many of the book’s themes have a deeply rooted theological core.  Some of these themes include the feeling that the weight of the world is on my shoulders, identity struggle and formation, friendship, love, alliances and cliques, reality television, life as a game, gap between the rich and the poor, developing a sense of ethics and determining what I live for, and what I am willing to die for.

I am choosing to focus on this last theme for a number of reasons.  First of all, elements of a number of the other themes emerge as integral elements of this theme in different ways.  Second, I think this theme is one of the most compelling topics in Jewish tradition and one that is worth exploring not only for adolescents, but for adults as well.  Determining what we live for and what we are willing to die for also touches on issues of identity formation, love and friendship, and a concern for global ethics, and standing up for a just cause.  I’d like to first explore a number of examples from The Hunger Games that illustrate this theme, and then examine how a number of Jewish voices further the discussion.  Hopefully, this synthesis of study will lead us to a greater understanding of how and why this book is potentially transformative in the lives of young American Jews and Jewish adults. 

Katniss and Peeta, the two main characters in the book, each go through their own internal struggle trying to determine who they are, what they stand for, and why they want to survive.  Peeta is portrayed as the good-hearted character that cares deeply about preserving his sense of identity and being a good person in the face of evil.  Katniss, on the other hand, is portrayed as a fighter with inherent survival instincts, struggling to figure out her own identity.  Both clearly care, live for, and act on behalf of others, but also struggle to maintain and determine their own sense of self.  Their identity struggles show their development in a way that is relatable and applicable any reader, but particularly adolescents who are going through a process of identity formation.  Before the games begin, Katniss and Peeta have a discussion on the roof where Peeta confides in her about his biggest fear entering the Games.  He says,

“I want to die as myself.  Does that make sense?” he asks.  I shake my head.  How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”[3]

This passage shows the fear that so many of us have about losing a sense of who we are in a new environment.  This is a situation where Peeta knows that his character is going to be tested and that he is going to be forced to do things that don’t reflect who he understands himself to be.  We all face situations that test our character, especially as adolescents. Though our tests are not as drastic as his, they are still tests and we often wonder how we will act. As readers, we identity with Peeta because we want to be like him; we want to be somebody who is seen as having a strong moral standard in the face of adversity.

At the same time, however, we are also drawn to Katniss.  In this passage, the idea of maintaining a moral standard is not on Katniss’ mind, and she doesn’t even understand how it could be on Peeta’s.  Her reaction is real.  She is thinking about surviving, not about losing her sense of self.  She doesn’t even know what her sense of self is.  While Peeta represents the character we all want to be, Katniss represents the character who we really are.  Katniss’ major identity struggle comes during the Games, when she realizes she actually has a chance of surviving.  She discovers that up until this point, her entire life centered on the act of surviving and begins to question who she is, besides a survivor.  She says,

“What would my life be like on a daily basis? Most of it has been consumed with the acquisition of food.  Take that away and I’m not really sure who I am, what my identity is.  The idea scares me some.”[4] 

This is a very real moment for Katniss, who suddenly realizes that there might be more to her life than the daily acquisition of food and struggle to stay alive.  This moment is so powerful because so many of us can relate to this sudden and terrifying feeling of wondering, who am I?  When we change schools, stop playing a sport, go to college, quit a job, or end a relationship, we ask ourselves these same questions.  Who am I, if not _________?

Katniss’ internal monologue that follows this passage serves as a beautiful transition to the other aspect of this theme: what, or whom do I live for that I am willing to die for?  Katniss answers her own question by insisting that the one thing she has to live for is her relationships.  For both Katniss and Peeta, relationships are the one thing that keeps them going through the traumas and terrors they face in the Arena.  At times, the power of these relationships is powerful and present in their minds as they act and at other times it serves as a subtle, if not subconscious power that keeps them going.  In addition to being motivated by intimate relationships, Katniss and Peeta both have a strong sense of living for and being willing to die for the greater good of others.  They are both committed to a sense of justice and making things right in a world that is filled with so much wrong.  Two of the most powerful passages in the book show Katniss’ willingness to sacrifice herself both for the power of relationships and also for a greater sense of global justice. 

The first passage is the scene of Rue’s death.  In this scene, all of Katniss’ actions are selfless and defy the logic of a person who only cared about their own personal survival.   Katniss puts herself at risk, both in the arena, and in front of the entire nation, by comforting Rue in her death and mourning her as an act of rebellion against the Capitol.  Katniss employs two modes of culture, singing and art, which are normally absent from day-to-day life in the districts, as a way of expressing both love and justice.  Katniss reflects,

“I can’t stop looking at Rue, smaller than ever, a baby animal curled up in a nest of netting. I can’t bring myself to leave her like this.  Past harm, but seemingly utterly defenseless.  To hate the boy from District 1, who appears so vulnerable in death, seems inadequate.  It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us… I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own.  That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.”[5] 

This passage is an expression of true love and a true sense of justice.  At this time, Katniss doesn’t care about herself or her own survival, she cares about honoring a person she loved and also fighting and standing up to the injustice of the Capitol.

The second passage comes at the end of the story, where Katniss and Peeta are willing to make the ultimate self-sacrifice for the sake of love and justice.  Even though one could argue that Katniss was motivated by survival, assuming that the Capitol would not let them go through with the suicide, she was also willing to commit.  She knew that she could not survive if it meant killing Peeta and was willing to take this risk, even if it meant her own death.  Additionally, the thought of this ultimate revenge against the Capitol was enough to motivate Katniss to do whatever it took to again show them that she is more than a piece in their Games. 

We relate to both of these expressions of love and the pursuit of justice on so many levels.  Katniss’ relationship with and feelings toward Rue remind us of our own feelings toward the vulnerable, the sick, and the needy in our midst.  Katniss was originally attracted to Rue because she reminded her of her little sister Prim, somebody who she felt she needed to protect and take care of.  This instinct to care for and protect others is the root of Katniss’ love and something that we can all relate to, whether we feel this way toward a child, younger sibling, friend or neighbor. 

Though we pray that we will never be in a situation like Katniss and Peeta, we also know that there are things in our lives that we would be unwilling to do, even if it meant our own death.  For Katniss and Peeta, that meant surviving while the other person died for us.  It also meant giving in to the Capitol and sacrificing their identity and their sense of ethics in order to survive another day.  For us, this passage is so powerful because it forces us to reflect on what those things are in our lives.  Are they a loved one? A cause we believe in? Both? We know there are times in our lives when we act because of these relationships, or because of these causes, regardless of if we are conscious of it or not.  These moments are indeed moments of transformation, teaching us what we care most about, what we live for, and what we are willing to die for. 

Though many Jewish texts discuss these themes, there are two contemporary Jewish thinkers that truly transform the conversation, Primo Levi and Martin Buber.  Primo Levi writes about issues relating to survival in his book, Survival in Auschwitz, and Martin Buber writes about the power of being in relationships in his book, I and Thou.  An examination of each of these texts can further our discussion of these themes in a Jewish context. 

Primo Levi’s book Survival in Auschwitz could be read as a non-fictional companion to The Hunger Games.  His accounts of suffering, hunger, and a determination to survive are horrifying and inspiring, elevated all the more so given the fact that his story is real and but only one account of millions like his.  Unfortunately, there are many parallels between the setting and plot of the fictional story The Hunger Games and the Holocaust.  Nazi ideology mirrors the evil of the Capitol and the experiences the teenagers face in the arena are chillingly similar to life in the camps.  It is interesting to think about these connections and what it means to be reading a book like this at this time in history.  For young adults today, the Holocaust is part of history.  The number of survivors still alive is getting smaller each year and though young people learn about the Holocaust, there is not a strong personal connection or feeling of immediacy.  The Jewish world today looks different because of the Holocaust, and not just because of how many Jews were lost.  The response of the Jewish community to the Holocaust has changed what it means to be a Jew in the world. 

The same can be said for Katniss and her generation in relation to the rebellion that remains the sole reason behind the Games.  Their generation is directly experiencing the result of something that happened 75 years ago (almost the same exact number of years since the Holocaust).  They have no personal connection to the rebellion, but feel its significance in their lives every day.  Obviously, there are drastic differences between the way the Jewish community and the greater world have responded to the Holocaust, and the way the Capitol responded to the rebellion.  That being said, the impact is still great, especially amongst the younger generations.  Many Jewish adolescents today are extremely interested in learning and reading about the Holocaust, and Jewish educators have spent countless hours developing appropriate curriculum for this age group.   It is interesting to think about how one might include The Hunger Games in any number of discussions about the Holocaust and possibly even consider it part of the genre of post-Holocaust theology.

Primo Levi does a beautiful job of addressing this difficult topic of what I live and die for in Survival in Auschwitz.  Through his narrative, Levi addresses and expands the notion of what it means to survive. He talks about survival on every level that one can imagine.  He provides an account of the harsh reality of what it meant to literally survive in the worst imaginable conditions.  He talks about the brutal realities of what it takes to physically survive hunger, exhaustion, cold, illness, work, and the randomness of unwarranted persecution.   He also, however, talks about what it takes to survive emotionally and spiritually.  He discusses the human elements of survival in this setting and what it brings out in a person’s character.  His presentation suggests that one can only survive on physical instinct for so long and that ultimately, we all need some type of meaning in our lives in order to survive a reality like Auschwitz.  We need something that we are willing to live for and something we are willing to die for.  For Primo Levi, this was a civilian named Lorenzo, who helped him survive physically and spiritually.  Lorenzo, like many others, provided Levi with food and clothing, without which he might not have been able to physically survive.  In this way, Lorenzo served a similar role as the donors, who provided Katniss and the other tributes with medicine, food, or whatever they needed to survive.  Unlike the donors, however, Lorenzo was also Levi’s spiritual hope; he was the reason why Levi decided life was worth living.  Levi writes,

“I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror, something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”[6]

Levi, we learn, lives for the possibility that there is still good in the world.  As long as he sees this example of pure, uncorrupt goodness, he is willing to commit his spiritual being to the act of survival.  The same is true for Peeta and Katniss in The Hunger Games. If survival in The Hunger Games were merely a matter of overcoming hunger and physical challenges, nobody would care about the book because that type of survival is not only barbaric, but it is also unrealistic. We learn that there is so much more to survival than acquiring food and shelter; there is a human element, an emotional and spiritual element that we all need in order to survive, regardless of our physical realities.  Primo Levi is here to tell his story because he was lucky enough to not only overcome the physical challenges, but because he was able to acquire the spiritual capacity to want to live.  We are drawn to Katniss and Peeta because they too embody the spiritual and emotional elements of survival that enable us to connect to them and root for them to survive. 

Martin Buber offers another Jewish perspective on the theme of what we live for and what we are willing to die for.   Buber has had a tremendous influence on modern Jewish thought and a number of his works are treasured both in and outside of the Jewish world.  He has been particularly influential in the area of religious existentialism, which addresses this theme from a broader perspective.  Where Levi addressed what it means for an individual to live when surrounded by death, Buber addresses what it means to live, or exist, in normal times.  As we explore his thoughts and how they relate to The Hunger Games, we must also keep in mind that Martin Buber was alive during the Holocaust and wrote I and Thou after the Holocaust in 1958.  His thinking, like others’ writing at the time, was informed by the Holocaust, even if he doesn’t always explicitly mention it in this particular work.  We know that Buber’s notion of evil and of God changed dramatically after the Holocaust.  Dr Eugene Borowitz tells us, “The unbearable evil of the Holocaust forced Buber to the tragic recognition that God sometimes, somehow withdraws from humankind.”[7] This will become important later, as we reflect on whether God does, or can exist in a scenario like The Hunger Games.

In his book I and Thou, Buber suggests that we exist in this world, and with those around us in two different ways: I-It and I-Thou.  The first, I-It, represents the primary way in which we act in this world.  It involves all of the moments where we think about, analyze, and reflect on the people, things and ideas that surround us.  I-It is an important and inescapable way to be in this world, but it is not the mode of being that enables us to achieve true meaning.  Meaning can only arise through an I-Thou encounter.  Buber describes I-Thou as an encounter that occurs by being in relation to another being.  The moment a person thinks about, or reflects on the encounter, it returns to the realm of I-It.  According to Buber, there are three realms through which the world of relation arises: life with nature, life with other humans, and life with spiritual beings.[8]  An encounter with God occurs in each of these realms so that every time I stand in relation to another human being in the I-Thou, I also stand in relation to God. 

Life in The Hunger Games, like most of life in general, exists primarily in the I-It.  It is interesting, however, to reflect on the possibility that there were a number of I-Thou encounters throughout the book.  This is interesting in that it suggests that meaning, and therefore God, can in fact be present outside the realm of normal life. I want to examine whether the final encounter that Katniss and Peeta have at the end of the arena was an I-Thou encounter. If so, Katniss and Peeta survived due to the fact that they stood in relation to one another at the most critical of times. First, let’s look at the scene:

My fingers fumble with the pouch on my belt, freeing it.  Peeta sees it and his hand clamps on my wrist. “No, I won’t let you.”
“Trust me,” I whisper.  He holds my gaze for a long moment then lets me go.  I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm.  Then I fill my own. “On the count of three?”
Peeta leans down and kisses me once, very gently. “The count of three,” he says.[9]

The moment when Katniss and Peeta gaze into each other’s eyes, communicating without words, but only through a knowing of one to the other, is what I think Martin Buber would consider an I-Thou encounter.  One could argue that Katniss was preoccupied with the scheme she developed moments ago to trick the Capitol and thus wasn’t truly present.  I believe, however, that in this moment Katniss knew she had to give her complete self to Peeta. The encounter had to be real, or it wouldn’t have been effective.  She couldn’t fake anything in this moment because Peeta would have seen through this and would have never been able to commit himself fully to what they were about to do.  It took them both being present with one another, knowing the other without the need for words, explanations or thoughts.  This encounter is truly an I-Thou encounter.

What is most interesting about this encounter is that it suggests that God can in fact be present in the direst of conditions.  If an I-Thou encounter can occur in a scenario where children are being forced to kill one another, can it not occur in any moment?  We must also ask what this means for us today as we try to cultivate moments of meaning in our lives.  Though we can contemplate and discuss what we might do if we were Katniss or Peeta, the exercise is ultimately useless.  They were only able to stand in relation to one another because of the particular experiences they had together and because of the evolution of their relationship with one another.  Instead of putting ourselves in their shoes, we should think about the relationships we are building in our own lives.  Who are the people we care about and who are the people who care about us?  What types of moments do we have together, how do we communicate and what can we do to make ourselves fully present each time we meet?

I believe that it is these types of thoughts and discussions that will enable us to find meaning as a result of reading this important book.  The stories and lessons are interesting to discuss and debate in and of themselves, but these discussions will ultimately leave us still in search of meaning.  I believe that The Hunger Games offers us an opportunity to start to figure out what it is we live for, and what it is we are willing to die for.  This is why this book is so compelling for those who read it.  It is more than a fun and quick read, but an opportunity to transform our lives and fill them with meaning.  I hope that those who read The Hunger Games will take this next step and engage in these important discussions with themselves and with their communities.  Hopefully, the wisdom of the Jewish tradition will serve as a guide and enable each of us to grow and contribute to the conversation.   

[3] Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games.  Scholastic Press. 2008.  Page 141.
[4] Ibid.  Pages 310-311.
[5] Ibid. Pages 236-237.
[6] Levi, Primo.  Survival in Auschwitz.  Touchstone.  New York.  1958.  Page 121. 
[7] Borowitz, Eugene.  Choices in Modern Jewish Thought.  Behrman House, Inc.  West Orange, New Jersey.  1983, 1995.  Page 155. 
[8] Buber, Martin.  I and Thou.  Touchstone.  New York.  1970.  Pages 56-57.
[9] Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games.  Scholastic Press. 2008. Page 344.

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