I belong to a small group of men who meet monthly to discuss a book selected each month by a member of the group. The book selected for our most recent meeting was The Hunger Games by Susan Collins. It wasn't a book I would've picked, but after reading it I'm glad for a couple of reasons that I did. First, it's immensely popular with younger readers, and I like to stay in touch, when I can, with what young people are reading, and secondly, I think it offers, perhaps inadvertently, a very important and significant message.
There were two things about the story which jumped out at me. First, the society in which it takes place is one of horrific cruelty and savagery. Second, there's no evidence anywhere in the book of any trace of religious conviction. The two, in my opinion, are not unrelated.
Human nature is fundamentally brutal. That brutality, particularly in the West, has been mitigated to some extent by the belief that we are commanded by God to do justice and love our neighbor. Where that belief has had purchase on the hearts of people civilization has advanced and humankind's basest impulses have been sublimated. Wherever it has failed to gain a grip on the conscience, however, life has been nasty, brutish, bestial, and short.
Just as in ancient Rome where men had no reason to think that the gods cared at all about how they behaved, they behaved with shocking sadism and barbarism, so it has been, at least in the West, up to our own day. The twentieth century was the high water mark of philosophical materialism, and it was also the bloodiest, most inhumane century since the days of the Roman Coliseum. The legacy of atheism, whether in fascist Germany, communist Europe and Asia, or anywhere else in the modern world, is unparalleled for it's horrors and fascination with death.
The dystopia Collins envisions is nothing new. It's simply a somewhat futuristic version of ancient Rome. It's what men become when they no longer feel bound to the commands of a transcendent moral lawgiver. It might also be noted that nowhere in the tale Collins spins for us, at least so far as I can remember, does anyone express moral outrage at the injustice and depravity of the festival. It's as if no one in Panem thinks in terms of moral categories. They resent what's happening to them, of course, they hate the people responsible for their predicament, but they seem to accept the evil as the natural way of things.
No one voices the opinion that it's a moral abomination, and, of course, in a world that has lost a vision of the transcendent, of God, moral reticence makes perfect sense. If there's no moral authority then there's no moral right and wrong, no good or evil, just nature red in tooth and claw.
If you haven't read the book yet, I commend it, not as literature - it's not that - but as an allegory. Whether Collins intended it or not her book is an allegory of the degeneration of a civilization that has lost its belief that anything matters other than power and pleasure. It's a vivid picture of what the world becomes when God is shut out.
The movie, which I'm told is very faithful to the book, comes out this week: