The Hunger Games
New York: NY, Scholastic Press, 2008
Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Rue, Prim … if these names are not familiar to you now, they will be soon. Now also a major motion picture, The Hunger Games introduces Katniss Everdeen, an inspiring, if prickly and reluctant, heroine in the midst of a horrifying futuristic North America. Just ask a teenager or millennial twenty-something close to you and prepare to hear an etiology of the politics of Panem, a “shiny Capitol ringed by thirteen districts” which might include the deliberately induced poverty of families who work coal mines located in the twelfth district or the excesses of wealth and frivolity enjoyed by people who live in the Capitol. You will hear about oppression and rebellion in the midst of a detailed description of a “game” that pits teenagers, drawn from a ghastly lottery from each of the geographic districts, against each other for mortal survival in a televised spectacle that recalls early Olympic competition and first century Roman gladiator trials.
These books are not easy to read. The story is not comforting or funny. And yet children and young adults love them. Published in 2008 by Scholastic, the same company that brought Harry Potter to the U.S., the first book of Suzanne Collin’s trilogy sets the stage for a treatise on power and violence that seems to have captured the heart and soul of teenagers and young adults in 26 different languages. In fact, these young readers have helped place the book on the New York Times bestseller list for over 100 weeks. Prior to reading The Hunger Games, I was curious as to what is so compelling about this story to young people?
I discovered that The Hunger Games has much to tell us about how youth and young adults experience authentic relationships and the dangers of social exploitation. Katniss lives in the Twelfth District of Panem in the Appalachian mountains surrounded by barbed wire, poverty and starvation. After the death of her father in a coal mine accident, Katniss was forced to hone the art of poaching with bow and arrow to provide food for her mother and Prim, her younger sister. Katniss, along with her good friend Gale, regularly escapes the confines of the electric wire surrounding their compound, bringing freshly caught fish and game to sell on the black market to the inhabitants of District 12. The book opens on the day of the Reaping, a once a year festival where citizens of each district draw one male and one female Tribute from a lottery of 11-18 year olds. The unlucky twenty four Tributes are then imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena where their bloody fight to be the last Tribute standing is broadcast to families and friends back home. When Prim is drawn as the female Tribute for District 12, Katniss, in a desperate move to save her beloved younger sister, volunteers to take her place. Peeta, a boy to whom Katniss is indebted for an act of kindness that saved Katniss from starvation when she was younger, is drawn as the male Tribute.
What follows is a harrowing yet strangely compelling narrative of survival and human connection amidst a nightmarish battle orchestrated by characters named after Roman citizens such as Plutarch Heavensbee, Ceasar Flickerman, and Claudius Templesmith. In the midst of the chaos of the Games, Katniss and Peeta create an alliance with each other and, in so doing, change the rules of the Game and become the reluctant symbols of rebellion for the oppressed people of the districts and targets for those in power.
While it may seem at the outset that Katniss’ story is simply of survival, I became engrossed in her struggle against personal exploitation and her need to create strong bonds with the other characters even in the midst of so much evil and distrust. Much like the characters within the Greek myths upon which these stories are based, no character is fully good or fully evil. Each character inherits the consequences of the sins of their ancestors and the hope of the most vulnerable. In addition to the wonderful and in depth discussion guide created by Scholastic for each of these books and for the entire trilogy, I decided to formulate a few more personal questions for discussion of this book with the teenager in my life. While I thought that the story was overwhelming, I also found that these books can gently be used as an opportunity to begin a conversation about the difficult issues of power, war and even of faith. I am mindful of being thankful for these opportunities that I rarely seek out on my own.
Laurie Griffith is the manager for judicial process and social witness with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
San Fransisco, CA, Jossey-Bass, 2011
Approaching 70 years of age it is not surprising that Richard Rohr’s recent book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life focuses on the transition and freedom that comes as one enters middle-age and the second half of life.
In addition to describing the two halves of life Rohr mines the expected subjects of the hero/heroine’s journey, the stumbling stone, necessary suffering, homesickness, shadow work, dualism, and mirroring. The difference this time is these topics of spirituality are explored from the vantage point of one who has presumably made the transition both physically and spiritually to the second half.
Rohr has made that transition and his words both comfort and challenge.
In addressing the heroine’s journey Rohr reminds us that the first step of the journey is to leave home. To follow the call in Matthew 4 is to leave “your father and your nets” and to give yourself to an ideology, whether it be the cause of Christ, socialism, ant-terrorism or unfettered capitalism. The point is we leave home and embrace a journey that includes building our house. This house must be built well and to do so we must have a proper container, an order that defines us and gives us the strength for the journey and the certitude of a builder. And then comes the challenge. We build the container and the house in order to leave them as well. The hero’s journey is merely the first act, there is another task for us.
Rohr reminds us that the most common one-liner in the Bible is “Do not be afraid” (it occurs 365 times!). This in essence is the call of the second half of life. We must let go of our needs from the first half of life that were necessary for the hero’s journey: personal security, reproduction and survival.
As an institution the church does a good job of preparing us for first-half of life issues. Rohr says we learn to build the container well, but we are left to believe that is all there is and the would-be maturing believer is not challenged to an adult faith for the second-half of life. In the end, the church fails at age-appropriate tasks and both groups lose out.
The necessity of failure, or the stumbling stone, is a known component of the spiritual journey. As Rohr reminds us, we must actually stumble and fall and not just read about (as we do in his book). Christian scripture is full of lost and found stories and it is almost cliché to say we find our way by losing it. The losing and finding again is not rediscovering that which we lost but finding a new self and new path. It is that necessary suffering that causes persons and institutions to change their game plan because the first was inadequate.
The unwelcome contact with our shadow self is another prerequisite to second-half spirituality. Rohr reminds us that our “shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, and what we do not want others to see.” The more we have succeeded in the first-half of life, the more work we will need to do to get to know our shadow self. I’m reminded of the Bruce Springsteen song “Brilliant Disguise” where he asks, “Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise.” Rohr tells us the masks we wear must die. Even the idealized ones like minister, mother, nice person, professor or what have you are dangerous and many times trap people (and institutions!) in lifelong delusions. The shadow self and the protected persona are a double blindness according to Rohr. Each keeping us from seeing and being our deepest self. As we get closer to second-half spirituality we see more of our shadow and the more we have to do. That is the challenge. The comfort is that the more we see of our shadow self and its games the more of its power we take away.
Both-And thinking is the benchmark of second-half spirituality. By accepting and including, by overcoming dualistic thinking, we see the big picture and that becomes our priority rather than the rules and certitude of the first-half. It is the replacing of ego needs with soul needs. This is especially difficult for institutions because they must pay attention to protocols and procedures even as they transform in their collective second-half. Rohr describes it as a creative tension that is the very shape of wisdom.
Rohr address many other issues of first-half and second-half spirituality in Falling Upward and ends with a “Coda” that is a meditation on a poem by Thomas Merton, “When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple”. At the heart of the poem is the stanza, “Be still:, There is no longer any need of comment., It was a lucky wind, That blew away his halo with his cares, A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.”
As individuals and institutions move into the second-half it may indeed be luck that allows us to successfully make the transition.
Rev. Fritz Gutwein is a contributing editor to Congregations and associate director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.