Starving for Religion in 'Hunger Games'

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The importance of religion in the wildly popular "Hunger Games" books and new movie is a lot like the barking of a dog in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze."

Holmes directs a police inspector's attention to "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." "The dog did nothing in the night-time." "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

The dog, of course, did not bark.

If you've been cut off from all popular culture for a while, "The Hunger Games" and its two sequels are novels by Suzanne Collins. She creates a dystopian future where the remnants of the United States are ruled by a despot who enforces his rule with an annual "game" that's a cross between Roman gladiator contests and a modern reality TV show. A couple of people from each province are chosen by lottery to enter into a group battle to the death, all televised. Last person standing is the winner.

Eventually, there's an uprising.

The plot is a gumbo that includes elements from Roman history and mythology; "The Truman Show" movie; Robert Heinlein's 1960s novel "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress;" "The Lottery," a short story written in the 1940s by Shirley Jackson; Madeline L'Engle's "A Wrinkle In Time" and who knows what else.

The core conflicts that drive the plot are moral choices when there are no good answers. And yeah, there's a romance conflict.

For my money, it's better written than the Harry Potter books -- more internally self-consistent with much more sophisticated character development. Like the Potter books, it's marketed as "young adult" fare but includes plenty of adult adults in its fan base. The first movie in what will surely be a series opened last week. Critics were generally kind and the box office was tremendous.

So what about religion? There isn't any. Not a prayer. Not an oath. The word "god" does not so much as appear in any of the books. Nobody even says "oh my gosh."

There's no ritual that isn't totally grounded in some materialistic purpose. Not a hint of serious superstition. Unless I missed it, there's not a remotely idiomatic reference to the supernatural.

The story is plenty busy without it, but such an unequivocal expunging can only have been intentional. We learn fine details about fashion and food and weaponry and the shape of furniture and the color of dust and so on and so on. She easily could have dropped in a couple of casual references to faith.

I've not been able to find any interviews she's granted on the topic, but it's pretty clear that, like Gene Roddenberry did when he created Star Trek, Collins wanted there to be zero religion in her world.

Based on her source material, she could have used religion as a positive or a negative. Here in the real world, people have turned to various kids of religion in the darkest moments of history. Victims of the Nazis prayed in the death camps. On the other hand, religion has been a tool of oppression in much of real history, too. From the imposed state faith of the ancient Roman Empire to the Catholic Inquisition to the Muslim theocrats of our own era, faith has been used by despots whose histories parallel some of the villains of Collins' story.

It's hard for me to imagine a real human future where either use of religion vanishes without a trace. But for her own reasons, Collins went in neither direction. It's a curious incident, a dog that should have barked.

A friend of mine who has read the books asked me a much more interesting question than "where is the religion." Where, she asked me, was God in this story? Had he abandoned humanity?

My friend is a person of deep and abiding faith who has survived some hard times. Her question was heartfelt. I thought about all of the real-world examples in human history where one might ask the same question. Theodicy is the toughest challenge for any religion that posits an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good deity. Why does he allow evil to persist? Where is his hand in stories where horrors pile upon horrors?

Is God in the world of the Hunger Games? Religious commentators are trying to find him. There's a book titled "The Hunger Games and the Gospel." A paper titled "The Gospel According to ‘The Hunger Games' Trilogy." "Hunger Games" bible studies.

The authors focus on plot elements that turn on moral questions, on discussions about good and evil characters, on redemption and faith in family and friends. Even though there's not a scintilla of actual religion in the stories, they are able to find aspects that represent their own religious values.

Finding the Almighty in apparently secular details has an ancient and honorable history. Look no further than the Bible and the Book of Esther. This is the basis of the Jewish holiday of Purim. The tale includes violence and romance, sexual wiles and betrayal, despots and heroes. (And like the Hunger Games, the central hero is a young woman.)

What it doesn't have, famously, is a single unequivocal mention of God. Not one. Yet it made it into the canon for Jews and Christians. And generations of theologians have delved into it to find religious meanings.

So maybe it is fair to search for God in the world of the Hunger Games. But given how hard Collins worked to scrub her work so squeaky religion-clean, I wonder what she thinks of the bible studies.

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