Hope, Hunger, and the Truth about Fiction

Hope, Hunger, and the Truth about Fiction
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 2, 2012

 

Hope is my topic for today.  Of course, that means I also want to talk about courage, but primarily the focus is on ‘hope.’  Hope is that secret something within us that leads us to work for a better world.  Emily Dickenson says ..

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all

It is hope that allows us to imagine a better future or a better way to live.  It is hope that helps us see the possibility of more love, more justice, more peace in our world. 

All this I have said before and will continue to say in years to come.  But today I would like to add an extra layer to all this by looking at Hope through the story of a popular and disturbing work of young adult fiction.  Fiction is a remarkable vehicle for our common conversation about humanity and truth and what it means to be human.  Joseph Campbell made the point that myths, indeed all powerful stories, tell us something of what it means to be human.  Fiction and myth can serve to help us understand problems and explore solutions. 

The particular piece of fiction I want to explore today is the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  The first book came out in 2008, the other two each a year later.  These books have been on the New York Times Bestsellers List for practically that whole time.  In the spring of 2012, the first movie came out.  I’ve seen the movie and have read the books.  How many of you have read the books or seen the movie?  I recommend them, they are very good.  But they are dark and disturbing, you should know.

In the first book, we learn that following environmental devastation, a continent-wide country of Panem has been created.  After its districts revolt and are defeated, the Capitol punishes them by requiring that each send two “tributes,” a boy and a girl, every year to participate in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised fight to the death.  The heroine, Katniss, volunteers to be her district’s tribute after her sister’s name is called, and she is sent to the Capitol to compete, along with Peeta, a baker’s son from her district who once threw her some bread when she was starving.  In the following books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Katniss becomes the symbol for a growing revolution against the totalitarian state. (Cynthia Landrum’s UU World article “Seeing Ourselves in ‘The Hunger Games’” p 50 Fall 2012)

The Hunger Games is a dark and violent novel.  It is often lumped in with books like the Harry Potter series or C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.  But I think that is a mistake.  And it is more than simply the distinction between fantasy and science fiction.  My concern is closer to the one I had when I saw parents transitioning their young children straight from Barney the purple dinosaur to Jurassic Park.  I think the Hunger Games trilogy is more appropriate for older teens and young adults than for middle school and elementary aged kids. 

The Hunger Games falls into that particular genre of fiction known as ‘Dystopian Science Fiction.’ Dystopian fiction in general and dystopian science fiction in particular serves a distinct function of social critique.  Classics fiction like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale are examples of fiction that offer a warning to their contemporary culture.  Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy joins these ranks as a far-reaching cultural phenomenon. 

Tens of millions of copies have been published and the first book has only been out for four years. The books are not only hugely popular, they are also controversial.  They have a place on the ALA list of ‘frequently banned or challenged’ books.  I admit I have not offered them to my 11 year old yet. The bulk of the challenges I have seen tend to focus on middle school libraries, and as I mentioned before I have an opinion about the age category for which this book is written.

Violence and the effects of war and violence are certainly a theme in the books.  The premise of the book is a combination between reality TV and the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.  In the Greek myth Athens is required, as a form of punishment for past deeds, to send 7 boys and 7 girls to Crete every year where they are thrown into the Labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur.  Collins also mentioned a more contemporary inspiration for the trilogy: the juxtaposition between the glut of Reality TV programming and the orchestrated news coverage of the Gulf War.  So war and violence are a dominant theme throughout the story.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, the effects of war and violence are the dominant theme.

A companion meta-theme for the trilogy is economic injustice and oppression.  There is a very stark division between the “haves” living in the Capitol and the “have-nots” living out in the districts.  And this is an echo, a critique of our own living where some people support an ‘economic survival of the fittest’ model where we are encouraged to not only pull ourselves up by our economic bootstraps but also to push others off the cliff as we go.  “As with all good dystopian literature,” Cynthia Landrum writes in her UU World article on the topic, “the trilogy exaggerates realities we see in our own society.”

The Hunger Games is disturbing.  It is disturbing to imagine that the people in the Capitol could find children killing other children to be entertainment.  In this fictional future however, people tolerate it. It is hard to imagine a society that will grow decadent on “bread and circus” while others nearby starve and die to provide for them.  And yet in this fictional future, the people tolerate it. 

And this is the crux of what a good dystopian novel can offer, the opportunity for reflection and critique of our own lives.  What are we tolerating?  What is going on around us in terms of war and violence that we tolerate?  What is happening to our children that we tolerate?  What are the conditions we live with in terms of the “haves” and the “have-nots” that we tolerate?

Frederick Douglass is quoted in a reading at the back of our hymnal, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.” The passage continues saying,

Find out what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed upon them.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. (SLT #579)

There is a disturbing scene in the second book where Capitol party goers take a vomit-inducing drink so they can continue to consume more food.  Like the stories of decadent Romans going through a binge and purge cycle merely to indulge in the taste of exotic foods, the Capitol residents do this while citizens of the districts starve.  Again, this seems intolerable yet in this fictitious future, it is common place.

But is so unimaginable?  The United Nations reports that approximately 20,000 children per day die from hunger around the world – 20,000 children per day.  Each day nearly a billion people go to bed hungry according to UN reports.  And we tolerate that.  Certainly the analogy is exaggerated.  We sitting here in this room are not working a binge and purge feast cycle so as to consume merely for the taste and fashion of it all.  Yet we know hunger is felt in this town and in the whole world. 

In the book, the tension is so fierce it leads to revolution.  What can we do in our real lives?  We are not living in the exaggerated extreme portrayed in the Hunger Games, but a response is still possible to the hunger and poverty and violence we see in our lives.

As individuals many of us support local and global charities and organizations that make a difference in the world on the exact issues presented in the Hunger Games.  As a congregation we take our monthly special collection to support local and global agencies from CHOW to Oxfam.  Our Social Justice committee hosts the weekly salad portion of the Sarah Jane Johnson community free dinner each Tuesday.  We also help prepare bagged lunches every other Saturday morning with Trinity Church and donate the fruit for those lunches.  Food and Nutrition has been a major aspect of our Social Justice efforts over the past few years.  More of us could be involved in these activities.

In an interview, the author Suzanne Collins turned the question and answer model around and asked young readers listening a question, “If there is anything [in the books] that disturbs you …, what can you do about it?” 

I am most disturbed by the childhood violence portrayed in the book, what can I do about that?  I can become a stronger advocate against bullying. I can raise awareness about violence against children.  And I can continue to help create a community where children are safe and where we all can heal from our wounds.

What disturbs you in the books?  Or if you haven’t read the books or seen the movie I can just ask instead, what disturbs you?  It doesn’t have to come from this or any book.  But fiction does have a way of slipping into our awareness and settling into our consciences; of reminding us of our yearnings and hopes for a better world.

A colleague of mine, reflecting on our own patterns of social activism, likes to say we fall prey to compassion fatigue.  We burn out.  We burn hot for a time, impassioned, but then burn out.  But changing the big things that disturb us, addressing the oppression and injustice in our time is not something that can be done quickly.  In a novel, the heroine can make in all fall into place within a few hundred pages that take us a leisurely week to get through.  But in real life, these things take a lifetime. 

It is good to remember, perhaps, that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 year awaiting liberation to come.  And that was only one part of his life’s work.  Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 years.  But she did not lose hope, she did not lose heart.  Hope is a key ingredient for change.  Hope leads us to courage and determination; hope opens us to possibilities.  Hope it the critical ingredient. 

There is a scene in the movie that is not in the book.  It fits the book and is in keeping with the events, but the exact event is not in the book. It is the scene in which the president of the Capitol, President Snow, is talking with the game-master, the man who creates the particulars of the annual fight-to-the-death games.  Katniss had just done something remarkable that has won people to her side not because she is cruel or vicious but because she shows compassion.  President Snow, trying to get the game-master to understand the trouble this young girl’s behavior might cause, asks the other man if he knows why each year there is a winner.  Why not just kill all the tributes each year, why bother having any of them survive?  President Snow explains, “Hope: It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, so long as it’s contained.”  The game-master asks, “So what should I do?”  Snow leans in and says, “Contain it.”  It’s chilling. 

Hope is a fundamental human experience that belies reality and evidence.  The poet Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  Some scientific research suggests hope is something we are hard-wired for.   Sigmund Freud, however, suggested that hope was merely a delusion.  Karl Marx’s quote about ‘the opiate of the masses’ applies for the concept of hope as well for religion in general.  And Nietzsche, at his nihilistic finest wrote: “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” Nietzsche, Marx and Freud are pointing out how hope can be a tool to keep people trying when evidence suggests failure is the only possible result.  President Snow was offering the same council to his game-master.  But Snow qualified it saying, “a little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.” A little hope, in Snow’s worldview and in that of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, is merely a shallow optimism.  In the hands of a master manipulator, a little hope can be a tool of oppression. 

Because the truth is that our hopes are often frustrated by our lived reality.  Death still claims our loved ones, relationships do fall apart, jobs are lost, rivers overflow their banks, and injustice and oppression have not disappeared in our lifetimes.  Our hopes do get dashed.  But that is not all there is to the story.  Hope endures.  We are hard-wired for hope and it leads us to endure.  “A little hope is effective,” Snow said.  “A lot of hope is dangerous.”

Emily Dickenson says hope is a thing with feathers.  That makes it sound soft and gentle.  But truly what she is saying is that it lives and it endures. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all

Hope is dangerous because hope leads us to live our lives differently, to see the possibilities of change.  Hope is the fertile ground of imagination and imagination is a tragically underrated capacity in our society.  Imaginative thinking leads to transformative action.  The biggest theme half hidden in the Hunger Games trilogy is the power of hope.  Remember the bread and the dandelion.  If you’ve read the book, remember the pin and the song.  The author tucks moments of hope throughout the book.  Hope is the spark that can light the way to change.  Hope is the companion to the beauty and the brokenness of our lives that allows us to uncover meaning and the courage to reach out.   What disturbs you about the world and makes you yearn for something better.  Hope is the spark that lights the way to change. 

In a world without end,

May it be so