Like millions of other Americans, I have read "The Hunger Games" trilogy. I also queued up with much of the world's population and trekked off to the theater, with a bit of trepidation (violent movies are not my thing), to see the first movie in this new mega-franchise. In addition to that I have, for the past week or two, been watching the newspapers and wires for the inevitable Gospel According to The Hunger Games stories. I am not talking about essays or reviews. I'm talking about news feature stories.
I'm still waiting.
So is Godbeat veteran Jeffrey Weiss, writing at RealClearReligion.com (as opposed to writing in the non-existent religion pages of The Dallas Morning News). I have held off writing about his essay for quite some time now, since I wanted to see if anything new appeared in the mainstream press.
Well, I haven't seen anything. Thus, let me say this -- What. Weiss. Said.
Yes, this is not a news story. I know that. Instead, it's an essay by a religion-news professional about the lack of a religion-news story. In other words, it's an essay about a religion ghost.
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.
To adopt a familiar phrase, it appears that there is a God-shaped hole in this tragic trilogy by Susan Collins, this apocalyptic vision that appears to be utterly devoid of doctrines about the end times.
So is this simply a humanistic thriller, one rooted in existentialism and nothing else?
Weiss asks all the right and, indeed, obvious questions:
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. ...
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.
Now, I know that there are plenty of religious writers out there opining on religious themes in "The Hunger Games" for their religious readers. That really isn't the issue.
In that crowd, I would point interested readers toward my Orthodox friend John Granger -- the senior voice behind HogwartsProfessor.com -- who has also taken on the task of seeking ancient roots in the storytelling of Collins. He's the pro on these matters and has become a voice in the mainstream.
There are also writers who, lacking evidence of the divine in these books, simply broaden the meaning of "faith" to the point that, well, we are dealing with the whole "spiritual, but not religion" thing. Take this, from author Diana Butler Bass, writing at The Washington Post:
No religion in "The Hunger Games"? The story eschews religions that glory in crusades, jihads, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. In Panem, there is no place for religion that supports injustice. The enslaved neither want nor need such a religion. Banished are religions that celebrate bloodlust. There is too much of that already.
Yet "The Hunger Games" celebrates faith -- faith in family, faith in friendship, faith in song, faith in justice. "The Hunger Games" proclaims that beyond the fences of fear built to enslave, control, and guard, there is joy, beauty, and wonder. In the end, there is true freedom, and the hard-earned hope that human beings can create a better world based not in sacrificial violence but in sacrificial love.
This rather misses the point of the essay by Weiss. He wonders why there has been so little discussion of the absence of God in the world of "The Hunger Games," as opposed to a lack of religious images. That's a different issue.
The God-shaped hole is the dog that isn't barking -- in the books, the movies and now the mainstream press. I agree with Weiss that this is the missing story.