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Dulling an edgy story

Last month, the middle installment of the Hunger Games trilogy hit theaters. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are forced again to fight to the death in the Hunger Games as the affluent Capitol tries to stamp out the rebellion simmering in the impoverished Districts. President Snow rules with oppression, violence and viciousness. The people long for deliverance.

It is a sobering story exposing the iniquity of consumerism, economic oppression and violence—which makes a recent merchandising trend associated with the films somewhat disturbing.

Mobile game Panem Run has players struggling to survive and competing for high scores. Net-a-Porter features the “Capitol Couture” clothing line and Subway touts a “Where Victors Eat” marketing campaign. Then there’s Covergirl’s “Capitol Collection,” a line of makeup, as EOnline puts it, “more Effie Trinket than Katniss Everdeen.”

Net-a-Porter Capitol Couture
Perhaps most disturbing is that Lionsgate was approached for theme park rights to the franchise. Seriously? A theme park centered on a story in which children are forced to fight to the death?

In Christianity Today, film critic Alissa Wilkinson says this marketing trend “declaws the seriousness of the story of The Hunger Games, in much the same way that the actual affluent Capitol in the books declaws the seriousness of the ‘real’ Hunger Games…by staging flashy weeks-long television specials around it in order to distract from the horror of juvenile carnage by making it entertaining.”

In the Houston Chronicle, Marty Troyer also notes how this kind of marketing eerily mimics how the Capitol controls the narrative through advertising and pop culture. By making the games mainstream entertainment, the Capitol neuters a shocking injustice and twists it into a support system for its agenda and power.

Troyer notes that this watering down of subversive and edgy messages is intrinsic to our branding and sloganed t-shirt culture. “Jesus too has been cop-opted,” Troyer notes. “He himself was oppressed and ministered to the oppressed…. And yet we have refashioned him into our image in order to make sense of our suburban despair.”

Troyer makes a good point. Popular culture can’t take all the blame for the way we rewrite and declaw our own Story.

Too often, we edit the narrative to exclude troubling aspects—and we start this early with the Bible stories we filter for our children. In Christian Century’sR-Rated: How to Read the Bible with Children,” Sarah Hinlicky Wilson notes the “cuteness of paired-off animals, a rainbow and a dove” make it into the story of Noah while the “divinely willed, near extinction of the human race” is usually avoided. It’s not simply because we don’t want to give our kids more than they’re ready for. “It’s … even more so what grown-ups are capable of stomaching themselves,” says Wilson.
                                                                                                                                                  We also attempt to neuter difficult aspects by making entertainment out of it. On his blog, Kurt Willems ponders Omega, an “end-times” board game, mulling over both its theological basis and its “escapist” nature. No matter what your opinion of the dispensationalism, the idea of making entertainment out a narrative that predicts the suffering of countless millions should give us pause.

Recently, I ran across a popular Bible app for kids with an interactive element allowing users to manipulate characters or actions in the stories. The crucifixion scene gives you opportunities to make Mary cry or Jesus moan on the cross. In the context of this conversation, I find that somewhat disconcerting.

As we encounter and share our Story we must, as Wilson puts it, “abandon our efforts to control it.” Our Story is insurrectionary and troubling, exposing darkness in the systems we create as well as our souls. At times, it leaves us wrestling and even angry with God. But, at its core, it is a story of deliverance, redemption and hope in broken world destined to be whole once more. 

That’s a Story that needs to be told—just as it is.

This is a slightly longer version of my column that appeared in the December 23 2013 issue of Mennonite World Review