What has only now become popular after The Hunger Games really started quite awhile ago: books like Lord of the Flies, 1984, and Farenheit 451 popularized the dystopian genre with bleak futures filled by soul-less humans. Usually a hero arises to lead a rebellion which either ends poorly or wonderfully, depending upon how dark the book is.
I was in a bookstore just a couple of weeks ago and noticed that dystopian novels are on the rise; what shocked me most is that the vast majority of them are aimed at teenagers, not adults (though there are plenty of those rolling off the presses as well). From novels like Divergent to Red Rising to The Testing, there is suddenly a rash of novels aimed at teens which portray the world and the future as dark, evil, and without hope. And these three are only scratching the surface – simply visiting Amazon.com reveals an entire category of book after book in a similar vein. What are we to make of this phenomenon?
1) There is both good and bad to this emphasis on the problems of the world – let’s start with what is troubling. The bad is, of course, that in an increasingly secular society the responses to such world-wide problems are not Christian responses. Instead they are reactions which are filled with temporary measures, individual initiative, usually lots of bloodshed, and not much else. There is no overarching truth that Christ will return and set all things right – no, for a society which has rejected the Lord at most every turn, the solution to dystopia is (apparently) for younger folks to rise up against the machine, rather than to trust in the returning Lord.
2) I wonder what such novels reveal about the attitudes not just of our teens who read them, but about society at large. Don’t get me wrong: many read books for enjoyment (I’m one of them and yes, I’ve read The Hunger Games and Red Rising as well as a lot of the older novels in the vein of Brave New World and 1984), but I am concerned that the popularity of such works shows something much deeper than getting lost in a story: it shows loss of hope and helplessness when it comes to what many teens and young adults see as a bleak future dominated by war, corruption in government and Wall Street, and uncertainty in everything from income to health to retirement.
3) Sadly, we are beginning to see a progression in these sorts of novels from “hero/heroine who saves the day” to bleaker and more tragic outcomes where there is no clear distinction between good and evil. Just a handful of summaries that I’ve read on such books reveal themes that are ethically shocking and are rapidly coming to a point of being inappropriate for their intended audience – some have already left that line far behind. And yet, outside of Christian circles, this is considered normal and is promoted and published by the young adult and teen divisions of major publishing houses. The violence in such novels is increasing exponentially – Hunger Games is tame in comparison to most of what is coming off the presses today. As goes violence, so goes intimacy as well, as several reviews I’ve read state that sexual content has risen like a phoenix.
4) What do such novels reveal about how our society views age? It was once pointed out to me that a significant theme in the Harry Potter books is that the adults are almost always wrong and the youth are almost always right; even when they are found to be wrong, they are rarely, if ever, punished. We live in a culture that is inverted from almost every other one in history: whereas it used to be that those who were older were held in honor and sought out for wisdom, now we are told that those who are older are simply corrupt, and that it is the younger generations who have the answers. Stories like these only serve to reinforce that unhealthy viewpoint.
Now, I said that there were some redeeming values to such books – what are they?
1) The good is that novels (and now movies) such as these remind us that there is something wrong with the world. I recently heard an interview with Pastor Tim Keller which points out the misunderstanding that many have of the world. He took two very common phrases that we hear repeatedly in news media, from our neighbors, perhaps even from family members and pitted them against each other: “People are really good, deep down.” “The world is getting worse – war and evil and human trafficking are on the rise.”
The problem is that so many people believe both of those statements, but they can’t both be true. The second one – which can be objectively verified by observing what is happening in the world – cannot be true if the first one is true. Either the world really is worse, or at least our understanding of the sinfulness of mankind is only growing deeper as we see more and more of it (I think this second theory is the more correct one). Therefore, the idea that everyone is “good, deep down” must be false. That seems to be the truth that many dystopian novels are getting at: people really aren’t good. And you know what? They’re right.
But here’s where great hope enters in because, as Keller points out, we as Christians have the answer: no, we are not good but Christ is. He redeems our sin by taking our punishment with Him to the cross. He dies in our place. The sacrifice is complete. And this is where most dystopian novels seem to end: tragic beauty as the heroine or hero goes off, fights the bad guys, and wins, but usually it is a bittersweet victory where much is lost in the process…
…not so with Christianity.
Because our Savior rose to new life, appeared to many, and ascended to heaven. And yet, even that isn’t the end of the story: this same Savior has also promised to return after He has “prepared a place for us.” The Book of Revelation shows His return to conquer all that is sinful, all that is evil. What will remain is not some sort of future world where evil prevails. It will not be a world where teens and young adults need to rise up against a corrupt bureaucracy. Instead, we are told in Revelation 21 that Jesus “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
2) Such novels almost invariably feature a single person making all the difference: a hero or heroine that sees what is wrong, does what is right, and changes the world. Seeing this prepares us for the truest story ever told, for the real Hero, who steps on the scene and defeats our enemies so that we can live in freedom forevermore. That Hero has a name and it is Jesus Christ.
THAT is real hope and that is also reality. What awaits us is not dystopia. Whatever may befall us between now and Christ’s return, understand that the end result will not be tragedy, but joy forevermore.
There are many troubling themes revealed in and by such novels, but let us not miss what is undeniably true about dystopia: it reveals the God-given hope planted within for a life that is better, free from evil, and filled with hope.
Parents: use discernment with what your students and teens read. That’s a topic for a whole other post, which involves equal parts protection and wisdom – we can’t shelter our children from the sin of the world, much as we may want to; at the same time, we should not let them bathe in it. Finding the balance between the two is hard, but that is the call of parenting. If you allow your teens to read dystopian literature, let me make two suggestions: first, read the novel yourself to see what the level of violence, materialism, secularism, and sexuality really is. Second, if you decide that whatever book is appropriate, read it alongside your teens. Discuss the novel, show what is good and bad about it. Use your discussions not just to get closer to your kids, but also to point them towards the Savior.
Teens and young adults: I realize that the allure of such novels is strong. They present compelling stories that empower and give purpose and, in a world like ours which seems so dull and so corrupt, stories like these resonate. Be careful though. Be careful lest you begin to believe that dystopia is reality. Be careful lest you begin to think that you are the hero of your own story. Be careful lest you lose sight of the real Savior, and the real Story of Him coming to seek and save that which was lost. Look to Him! And know that whatever you think of the world, whatever you read of this world or fictional ones, Christ has died and risen to new life and will return to rule and reign. The question for you? Is He your Savior? Is He your Hero?