Friday, December 24, 2010

The Question of The Hunger Games

I finished The Hunger Games trilogy today - a disturbing fiction series set in a future North-America divided into 13 districts, tightly controlled by an authoritarian central government and leader.  The main character of the trilogy is a young woman (ages 16 to 18 over the course of the three books) whose life is destroyed and perspective is distorted by war and unending violence.  Suzanne Collins, the author of the series, is a student of how war and violence impact the lives of young people around the world.  Her three books are a creative way to really ask one question: how does the cycle of violence in our world today impact our youth and how does it stop?  Other questions pop up throughout the series - ones about life and death, love and loss, authority and submission to authority - but they are all (in my mind) subsets of the bigger question about the impact and cycle of violence.

In fact, my favorite paragraph in the whole series comes in the second paragraph of page 186 of the final book, Mockingjay, where Katniss (the main character) is having a conversation with fellow rebels about the weapons they are creating to use against the "evil" central government.  Here's the whole paragraph:

"That seems to be crossing some kind of life," I say. "So anything goes?"  They both stare at me - Beetee with doubt, Gale with hostility.  "I guess there isn't a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being."

In these few sentences, the author shows her hand.  She is asking a great question about the cycle of violence.  When people are hurt by others, they begin to think about hurting back (the natural emotions of vengeance), and usually they process their pain in such a way that the level of violence increases - "I will hurt them worse that they hurt me."  This is not unique to war (it happens in all of our lives), but it is magnified by war.  The violence and death of so many creates a rationalization to use "whatever means necessary" to get back at those who have caused the pain to us.

These questions are theological questions - why should we not treat each other like animals, hurting those who hurt those we love?  Why should we not respond in anger and hatred and violence?  And while Collins' book does a great job of raising the question, I feel like she does a very poor job of answering the question.  In fact, the resolution of her third book has created lots of debate online precisely because it seems her answer is, "just do what you have to survive, to not be controlled by others, and keep on living."  And while I really don't have a literary argument with the conclusion of the book, I have issues with her non-answer answer to her main question.  In other words, is Collins saying by not answering her own question that there is NO answer to the question of stopping the cycle of war and violence and genocide?  This might be the dominant view of our post-modern generation, but it surely leaves the reader wanting a better life philosophy than nihilism (extreme skepticism that denies meaning and truth).  For those who have read the series, am I reading this right?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

The biblical answer to acts of violence is deeper and harder than the answer of the Hunger Games - forgiveness.  I'm surprised with the level of violence in this series that the characters don't discuss God or forgiveness one time.  I don't expect the book to present a Christian worldview at all, but I would think an honest discussion about this level of violence and vengeance and war would include a discussion on forgiveness and how a person's worldview shapes their response to violence.  The series almost seemed to be going this direction several times (when the characters would talk about the need to NOT be a pawn in the games, controlled by the desires of evil leaders) but then would simply resort to the best way to fight back was to survive at whatever the cost.  While an engaging read, I found the lack of resolution disappointing.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book Notes: Safely Home by Randy Alcorn (5/5 - one of the best)

On the way home from East Asia in November, I read Randy Alcorn's novel Safely Home.  After my exposure to the underground church in Asia, this book hit me especially hard.  Though written in 2003, the narrative still accurately describes some of the challenges facing the persecuted church around the world.  Alcorn's book captures the tension that I have written about before - a nation whose economy is rapidly growing while the government continues to tightly control all freedoms of expression.  Many in the West have believed that as Asian economies were opened to the world, its people would experience greater freedom.  While the people have experienced growing exposure to Western companies and products, they have not experienced a corresponding growth in freedom - see the recent restriction of house-church leaders from attending the 2010 Lausanne World Evangelism Conference or the recent crackdown on political dissidents in light of the Nobel Peace Prize award to a pro-democracy advocate or the recent announcement that the government had designated all house churches as "cults" as evidence of the government's heavy hand.

Where Alcorn's book succeeds is giving us a person and a face and a story that grips our hearts related to the persecuted church.  It is hard to feel compassion for a number.  When you and I hear that millions of Christians face opposition because of their faith in Jesus Christ, we feel concern, but not deep, heart-rending compassion.  We need a name, a person to move the information from our heads to our hearts.  This was my experience in East Asia - I got to know people who are leading the church and got to spend time hearing their story.  Randy Alcorn has done all Christians a favor by giving us a story that, though fiction, could be the story of any number of Christians in persecuted countries.  A story of joy and victory, loss and pain, and most importantly - an eternal perspective.

Alcorn's ministry is called Eternal Perspective Ministries, and if you have never heard his personal testimony, I would encourage you to visit his ministry website and learn his story.  Through some fascinating life-experiences, Alcorn is required to give away all of the royalties of his books, which he has written keeps him daily focused on his eternal rewards and not his earthly rewards.  This understanding is important as you read Safely Home - you sense Alcorn's desire throughout the book to lift our eyes to the eternal scenes - to see persecution and evangelism and suffering through the eyes of Jesus Christ.  The heavenly scenes in Safely Home are the most powerful - the ones that led me to tears as I read them.

I won't say any more because I don't want to give away the story of the book.  However, I do pray that each of you will read this amazing work.  I pray that I will not soon forget the images that Alcorn has left with me.  And I pray for each of us to live every day in light of what is eternally significant, not temporarily seen as important.

I watched a TV special last night on the president's photographer - an interesting report on the people whose job it is to capture in pictures every moment of a president's term.  As I watched it, a thought hit me that was embedded during my reading of Safely Home - though a photographer tries to capture every moment of a presidency, he can't see everything.  And though a photographer wants to record significant moments for future historians to look back at, most images will be quickly forgotten and never looked at again.  But there is One who sees all and remembers everything.  And one day we will all meet Him face to face.

Are you living your life in light of this reality?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Another Look At Persecution

I wrote last week about some of the insights that God gave us while we were overseas in November.  In response to that post, I heard privately from one of our dear friends who serves in one of the hardest mission fields in the world.  By "hardest," I mean an area where believers in Jesus Christ are most persecuted for their faith.  After sharing my short-term insights on how facing persecution can be good for the purity and simplicity of the church, I wanted to share his insights on how persecution also suffocates the church.  Here where his wonderful insights (which should lead us to pray for our persecuted brothers today)...

Concerning persecution, I wish that believers in our area had room to breathe. It is really tough. The pressure is from government (and this pressure is real--real prosecution, real legal implications). The social and family pressure is also very intense. There seems to have been a little momentum building over the past few years. But after some things happened last year, believers are afraid to even be seen with each other. And they are very afraid to be seen with foreigners in too close of a way. It has been a hard thing to see the very weak and struggling body of Christ, take such a hard set back. I once heard of a group of 13 adults and 7 children meeting together to read scripture. That is a mega church here.
And our work is also very sensitive. The locals who help in our work really feel like if people knew what we were doing, that we wouldn't live much longer. If there is enough of a group then persecution is strengthening, but it seems that without a critical mass of some sort; the effects really are strangling. Satan wants to stop the proclamation of the truth of the good news. There are many tools used to do this.  Here fear is a huge weapon used very effectively. I praise God for the people that find the courage that only comes from the Lord. We realize in vivid ways that the only way that we can go forward is under the protection and care of God every day.  But isn't that always true! What a blessing to be reminded of it so often. Pray that we would know how to be harmless and wise, bold and meek, faithful and fruitful.