My nine-year old wanted to read the Hunger Games last spring when all the hub-bub about the books and the movie came out. I had heard mixed reviews and hesitated about letting her read the book and watch the movie, so we made a deal that we would read it together. Between my classes, work and paper-writing I picked up the book and got sucked into the imaginary world of Panem with Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark and Gale. She finished the first book on her own and then proceeded to “enact” the stories with her friends in their own imaginary Panem, attracted by the adventure of survival, creativity and a mysterious world for a heroine who appeared tough, smart and innovative.
I picked up the second book and consumed it as well, but tried to discipline myself from being distracted before I picked up the 3rd book. I finished my paper at the beginning of the week and then picked up MockingJay and couldn’t put it down until it was done. Suzanne Collins did an excellent job re-creating this world that drew me into the story of Katniss and Peeta, filled with injustice, power, poverty, identity, and struggle. Reading the book also coincided with my biblical reading of the Book of Ezekiel, where justice, God’s wrath and sinfulness and consequence are defined. I completed it the same day I watched two unrelated but completely connected TV news reports. One was about a pastor who was walking across the United States to raise money for a community center in the Chicago south-side neighborhood that is riddled with violence and poverty. The other story was about a man being beaten to death by three ‘gang-kids’ in a neighborhood just south of us. On top of that I watched “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” with my children, where the premise of fictional books pointing to a “real” world filled with adventure. The connections may seem like a stretch, but there seems to be an underlying theme in our culture – our media and God’s call for the human soul.
The real question in youth ministry becomes – how then do we navigate these “real and not real,” worlds with our young people today?
At a recent conference I led, we listened to the theory of what identity and truth means in our post-modern world. Previously, truth was truth because somebody said so. Today, identity and truth become real for us only when we locate ourselves in the story and discover our own understanding of truth defined by our relation to the story. It seems to me that in everything we “consume” we try to locate ourselves in the story. If we don’t see where we fit, then it is irrelevant to us, however, when we can relate clearly to where we fit, it becomes so REAL to us, transforming us and even motivating us to do something or react to something.
In MockingJay, Peeta Mellark was trying to discover what was “real or not real” because his memories had been tampered with. I think our identity and truth have been “tampered” with by a greed-driven society and culture enamored by power and violence and we have the challenging job of deprogramming our children and re-programming them in a “real” identity formed in God’s grace and love. In The United Methodist Church we believe that God’s identity of grace and love is inherently a part of each and every one of us and we are under God’s grace whether we acknowledge it or not. Our challenge is to acknowledge that inherently “good” identity of grace and love within ourselves and within our children and invite others to claim that “goodness” within them. Katniss was forced into a sin-filled life, influenced and perpetuated by the culture. In the gap between real and not real, how do we help our young people claim the “real” goodness inside them and invite them to let go of the “unreal” world that drives them towards a narrative of violence, greed, lust, and more? Let us help them claim the real love of God, the real grace offered to them and to all and the real opportunity to love one another, the way God loves us. Now this is a “good” vision worth dying for.