What Our Stories Tell Us…

If you have a high nerd/intellectual quotient this is a thought provoking article. Or if you have three kids, pre-read most of their books, and wonder just what we are teaching them. The first paragraph…

The myths, folk tales, and fiction of every culture are part of a feedback loop that both reflects and also shapes cultural values. Such tales provide their listeners with heroes to be imitated and enemies to be despised, with dreams to be chased and errors to be avoided, and, above all, with a sense of what is normal in the world. Through stories comes a sense of shared culture and a shared way of interpreting life. Youths of ancient Greece and Rome were immersed in the hierarchic, heroic culture of The Iliad. Uncle Tom’s Cabin magnified nineteenth-century disapproval of slavery. The Andy Griffith Show upheld trust in the wisdom and authority of sensible, masculine American virtue. These stories all helped to shape the social outlook of young people and to prepare them for entrance into the adult world. In the last forty years, the stories that our culture provides for our youth have acquired a strangely regressive message. It is a change that both reveals and contributes to the tribalism and generational isolation of our era.

The author, Mrs. Mussmann, eventually gets around to The Hunger Games and some others that are on my daughter’s reading list. Personally, I loved the Hunger Games, but then I would. It has taken me 42 years to get as cynical about power and our own ability to fight the “principalities and powers of this dark age” as I am. The Hunger Games portrays power and its struggles exactly as I would expect it. President Snow has it, knows it and can use it to his liking. The technocrats of district 13 are the “1984/Brave New World” version of the same power. Give me Snow any day simply for style and core honesty towards those “in the know”. The (un?)righteous power of the technocrats, and their ability to deny what Snow is honest about, is more dangerous. Snow kills 23 kids a year. You know that the technocrats wouldn’t blink at killing 100,000 if it “made society better” and was attached to a spreadsheet proving the claim. But the core of the story is Katniss. Katniss who starts out fighting for home and hearth. She gets caught up and used by the powers. She almost buys into the alternative power’s story, but in the end finds it just as false. The only truth to be found is home and hearth. All she wants is a quiet life. Which is the one thing neither will give her, because you will be made to care. The soul that sees truly is most to be troubled. But, do I want my 10 year-old to drink deeply of my cynicism? Or don’t call it cynicism, but instead do I want a 10 year old with sense instead of sensibility?

I think Mrs. Mussmann has an argument, but it isn’t quite as strong as it might be. She wants to attack the single age clique, the cult of “my generation”. That is a worthy battle, but the Hunger Games is not a recruit there because Katniss isn’t fighting for her friends. She might be fighting for her tribe, but her tribe is simply those who want to be left alone. That is a great many people of all ages. And, Mrs. Mussmann can only forward the argument by ignoring one set of youth books, Harry Potter. Harry has many of the elements of the story of Katniss. The ministry (of Magic) representing the mass of “old people” is corrupt or useless when it is not actively wrecking things. But the point Mrs. Mussmann finds lacking, “one is never dependent only on one’s peers, because powerful and benevolent forces exist and will come to one’s aid”, is found in the Potter Series. In fact, as the books progress, you become aware that the single generation school environment is a small protective part of the real story. Love protects and saves spiritually, even unrequited love (Snape), especially unrequited love. It is possible to use power responsibly if not without blemish, thinking of Dumbledore, who hides things from Harry and often uses him just as District 13 would use Katniss. Even the Dursleys, comic relief or small people who don’t get it, are acting with the wisdom given them. Magic killed her sister, maybe her husband Vernon has a point in trying to keep it away from Harry. Denial is not good wisdom, and Harry can’t see it at the time, but the Dursleys do come to his aid.

Given the endemic nature of divorce which is itself becoming a quaint notion as the child of divorce is one step ahead of the child of the never married, such cynicism of adults is justified. One can see the power of such flights of fancy as Percy Jackson discovering his “dad” is Poseidon. At least a “god” has some excuse compared to the reality that so many are faced with that “dad just didn’t care enough (or at all)”. (And “he” at least left Percy something powerful.) The truth hidden in these stories is a good one. To me they are ultimately two-kingdom tales. This dark and fallen world is as a whole un-reformable. Use of power ranges from Dumbledore to district 13 – gray to black. Dumbledore who means well, but who uses Harry as a means to an end, and who ultimately is about fulfilling your vocation instead of your desires, to District 13 where you are but a number. After following the pied-piper of Obama (thinking he was Dumbledore instead of the head of District 13) they will more quickly glimpse the truth, the other half of the two-kingdoms truth. This world might be un-reformable, but we also are called to live in another kingdom, a Kingdom coming in its fulness. And we live in that Kingdom when we take responsibility for how we then live, when we live according the things that need no law: love, joy, peace, patience, self-control (Galatians 5:22). That second kingdom has freed us for those things, not for hopeless societal progress defined by the gray and the black.