“The Hunger Games” and Human Nature

serfThe Hunger Games is great fiction. It takes the viewer or reader on an adventurous ride to a post-apocalyptic future, frighteningly reminiscent of ancient Rome’s barbaric approach to “public entertainment.” As the story unfolds, the protagonist – a 16-year-old girl whose hunting skills give her a better chance at survival than her much younger sister – volunteers to enter “the arena” in her place. In this fictitious futuristic world, denizens of “the Capitol” force a yearly ritual upon the subjugated peoples of the “twelve districts.” One boy and one girl from each district are selected at random to fight to the death in an arena of horrors, as some symbolic punishment for the rebellion that the Capitol had suppressed decades earlier.

The trilogy of books – and now, it seems, the movie – resonate with the audience because they tell a story as old as man. It is the story of the struggle against injustice and unfairness, the desire to see virtue prevail, the sense that it is just and right for the “good” to win and for evil to be thwarted. The reader can’t help but be attracted to young Katniss. Her selfless offer to face near-certain death in order to spare her sister makes her instantly appealing, and intriguing. But her resistance to the evil that is being perpetrated upon her, and her cleverness in dealing with the injustice she faces, seals her attraction. She is … good, and we know it. The people who created and run “the games,” by contrast, are evil. They inflict pain and suffering … because they can, or for the pleasure of seeing it unfold. They have lost their humanity and have become empty shells of human beings, going through the motions of life but not having even a mere fraction of what makes Katniss so fully alive.

I would venture to say that this story, though conjured up wholly in the mind of the author, is as relevant today, in this culture, as it would be in any human culture at any time. The struggle against the arrogance of power; the recognition of the value of honesty, fidelity, altruism, selfless love, sacrifice – the intuitive attraction we feel when we encounter virtue – these things seem to be built into the very nature of what it means to be human. Yes, many, perhaps most, human beings depart from this ideal. They become coarsened as a result of what life throws at them. For some, perhaps too many, they revel in the evil into which they allow themselves to descend. But we recognize them, and their acts, for what they are – perversions of the good. And we keep coming back to the standard, to a recognition of the permanence and rightness of the values that Katniss embodies. And we hope, however vainly, that those who have fallen astray will repent and seek redemption.

But why should this be so? Where does the grounding for such eternal truths exist? If atheism is true, as so many people seem to hold today, then we should have no particular reason to recognize good as good, or to embrace the struggle of the lonely fighter with the just cause against the forces of evil arrayed against her. “Good” is simply a point of view, an opinion of like or dislike, enjoyment or displeasure. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, does it not make more sense to simply view morality as whatever the prevailing view of the culture is? “Good” becomes what the majority – what the collective or the State – define it to be. In Katniss’ world, for instance, sacrificing 23 people a year for the sake of the “greater good” of the society would seem a relatively small price to pay.

We should not be deceived. Though those who derive benefit from barbarity may not complain – as is true of the ruling classes of all tyrannies – we nonetheless suffer no confusion as to what truly is the good. The virtues of selflessness and willingness to sacrifice for the other; the value of friendship for the sake of the other, and not so as to exploit another; the recognition that evil must be resisted and fought – these things that resonate with us as we watch Katniss, make no sense in a culture whose morality is situational, or based on the randomness that evolution presupposes.

Christianity, by contrast, provides a much better explanation for what we feel, what we know to be true. We intuitively recognize the existence of good because it is objectively there. We may rebel against it, and we may fool ourselves some or even most of the time about how well we are responding to it. But throughout history, and from culture to culture, that basic core sense of “the good” remains – with variations perhaps but largely intact. And we find ourselves naturally attracted to it – drawn to it even against our will – because the Author of all goodness has left that homing beacon within us. He, of course, sets the standard of good, and our view of true good is at best a dim reflection of what it really is. We may even disagree as to particular applications, but in recognizing that good and evil are real, that they occupy distinct and actual places in the universe, we take that first small step back home.

Posted by Al Serrato

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