Letter from a Friend: What Does Suzanne Collins Believe?

by John on March 17, 2012

A very good friend from Marine Corps years in Okinawa, Dr. Arthur Remillard, now teaches Religious Studies at St. Francis University. In my regular correspondence with him, I shared my interest in The Hunger Games; he picked up the first novel in the series  as an impulse buy at an airport. He has since shared his thoughts on the lead-off book and I have his permission to share them here as a launchpad to my speculations about the religious faith implicit to the Everdeen Saga:

About the book… I can see why you are jumping on this.  In terms of style, the story moves swiftly and the author has a unique gift in her ability to use words to create vivid scenes, yet keep the story moving at the same time.  And it is thoughtful enough that I didn’t feel stupider (is that a word?) for having read it.  The Christian imagery pretty much hit me in the forehead like a hammer.  Easter and Pentecost symbolism in no short supply, with bread and fire images on every other page.  I wonder if the author is a Methodist, or wrote with Methodist influence.  The flame and the cross matched by the male and female lead… Wesley’s notion of “sanctifying grace” appearing in the slow awareness that winning the game was merely a prelude to a more complicated battle ahead.  Etc.


Then again, I suspect that like nearly every author of this genre, she watched or read Joseph Campbell and plugged and chugged with this rather unique, apocalyptic story line.  That is, ultimately, what I suspect is appealing here.  The American amygdala is on hyper alert, with the media deluge of gloom and doom.  Popular culture has seized on this evolutionary response to concentrate on threat, most notably with the proliferation of zombie books, movies, and television.  So the Hunger Games enters this door with a classic quest narrative, one that weaves together Old Testament liberation narratives, New Testament notions of sacrificial love, AND the story of America’s colonial rebellion.

There are about ten posts or the better part of a small book in unpacking just the ideas in my friend’s last sentence, but I’ll put that off for now to focus on his hypothesis that Mrs. Pryor, who, like Mrs. Murray, uses her maiden name as her nom de plume, is or was once a Methodist.

The note above gives two points of evidence that support this idea: the bread and fire imagery so predominant in the series’ lead characters, Katniss and Peeta, and the “sanctifying Grace” idea of salvation beginning an uphill adventure rather than a “once and done” born again experience. Let’s look at those first.

On bread and fire, John Wesley often referred to himself as a ‘brand plucked out of the fire’ (Zecheriah 3:2; Amos 4:11)” because of his being rescued miraculously from a burning home as a child and Christ as Bread is an aspect of Methodist belief. Hymn 906, for example, in the Methodist Hymnal begins:

BREAD of the world, in mercy broken!
Wine of the soul, in mercy shed!
By whom the words of life were spoken,
And in whose death our sins are dead!

One of John Wesley’s signature lines, however, was one that might have been tattooed to Katniss by her Capitol Stylists if they’d been able to get past Haymitch’s protection: Catch on fire and others will love to come watch you burn.” Wesley, of course, is referring to the Holy Spirit, who descends on the Disciples of Christ and the Theotokos at Pentecost in the form of “tongues of fire.” For a book series that features a “Girl on Fire” and which is a not very subtle story of her consequent total transformation as a Fire-Mutt or Piebald Phoenix at story’s end, the connection is a natural one.

On “sanctifying grace,” you’ll have to note that Methodist soteriology is a three step process of  prevenient and justifying graces leading to conversion, sanctifying grace cleansing us in our life of faith consequent to baptism (saved by faith in a life of mission and good works…), and our glorification hereafter.

The third and final step Wesley sees in salvation is glorification. This is the end result of our Christian life.  It includes the changing of our mortal state to become “like him” (1 John 3:2).  Wesley, however, sees glorification as changing not just the state of humankind but of all creation, that was corrupted by the fall of Adam.  In that day, not only our salvation, but the redemption of all the cosmos will be complete.

It is not a great stretch to see this progressive idea of salvation ending in a world redeeming glorification as the backdrop theology of Katniss Everdeen’s fictional transformation from Diana of the Seam, the pure natural woman in a fallen world, first into a Joan of Arc inspiring the downtrodden by her sacrificial love after her Reaping, and finally into something of a World Redemptrix in her heroic and life-risking acceptance of the Mockingjay-Phoenix role.

Why that isn’t a stretch — which I’m guessing not a few readers must think it is — C. S. Lewis explained in an essay published in Of Other Worlds. He wrote there,“to construct plausible and moving `other worlds’ you must draw upon the only real `other world’ we know, that of the spirit” (pp 35-36), i.e., a writer’s religious or spiritual understanding necessarily informs the worldview of their fictional sub-creation.

I have objections to both points, or perhaps ‘footnotes’ is better than ‘objections.’ I would not be very surprised if Suzanne Collins’ family faith, the one that shaped her understanding of the world, turned out to be Methodist, but I would be somewhat surprised.

My mother, for example, grew up in a strict Methodist clan that was W.C.T.U. and all. [She converted to my father's family's Episcopal faith at their wedding that had great confidence in the salutary powers of 'fire-water.'] John Wesley was an Anglican priest and believed in the sacraments of the church we would describe as Anglo-Catholic, which is to say, that baptism and frequent communion were essential to salvation.

Methodists, however, while affirming the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, as near-Anglicans step well away from Orthodox and Catholic beliefs about the bread of Communion becoming Christ’s body except for the receiving believer. Methodism is a sacramental faith, consequently, but not in the fullness of tradition preceding Protestant individualism. They are, qua ‘reformed’ Christians, more theological nominalists than realists.

Peeta being ‘the Boy with the Bread’ strikes me as less hesitant Methodist than Catholic. Both the assonance of Peeta with ‘pita’ and ‘Peter,’ as well as the salvific power of his sacrificial bread offering to the starving Katniss, dying like the Prodigal by a pig sty, suggest strongly the beliefs of the Christian community that insists it is the Church of St. Peter, namely, Roman Catholicism. Catholics believe the bread is the Real Presence of Christ without qualification or reservation and the foundation of Peeta’s relationship with Katniss, the memory she can never forget, is her debt to him consequent to his saving her life with the Bread that “tasted of spring.”

The three step life of repentance, purification, and perfection or theosis is not exclusively a Methodist soteriology, either. If anything, it is common to all even nominally orthodox Christian sects and is most clearly expounded in the Maximian theology common to old school Catholicism and traditional Orthodox Christianity. Students of comparative religion argue that these three steps are evident in every one of the five great revealed traditions and readers here recognize them as the nigredo, albedo, and rubedo of literary alchemy. Collins’ trilogy is evidently in the same hermetic stream of Dante’s Commedia in this regard at least as much as she is to the world view of John and Charles Wesley.

The same point could be made about Katniss as Redemptrix. This is more a Catholic belief than a Methodist one, despite the Social Gospel of modern Wesleyans (sic), if only because of the devotional prayers to the Mother of God as co-Redemptrix that inform so much of Roman theology and worship life. My bet, my first thought really, is that Collins is a Roman Catholic of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Movement; her hard-hitting and uncompromising view evident in the Games trilogyof social injustice consequent to capitalist excesses and the evils of war are both hallmarks of this Catholic niche school of thought.

But we don’t know! No one to my knowledge has asked Mrs. Pryor what she believes, what she grew up believing as a Collins child, and how this informs or does not have a place in her art as a writer. Which is a real shame! You cannot get at the heart of Rowling’s Potter books, Lewis’ Narniad, Meyer’s Twilight, or Grossman’s Magician books without a long hard look at these authors’ spiritual formation or lack/denial of same.

Or so I think is “common sense” and Lewis asserted. I look forward to reading your comments and corrections about this thesis as well as about what faith group you think Suzanne Collins hails from, if any.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Art Remillard March 17, 2012 at 11:48 am

Very cool! Thanks for taking the time to unpack my very passing–and totally uninformed–insights. For your readers, I would also add that I haven’t read the next two books, and don’t plan to until the semester ends. Accordingly, I haven’t done any research on the books or author, so as to not spoil the ending. OK, I checked your site–that qualifies as research. But I’m trying…

Anyway, I like your final thoughts on her being a Dorothy Day Catholic. However, the abject violence in the novel runs counter to Day’s guiding ethos. She wrote an article in the post WWII era, “We are Un-American, We are Catholic,” in response to a proposal for Universal Military Training. She concluded:

“We are against war because it is contrary to the spirit of Jesus Christ, and the only important thing is that we abide in His spirit. It is more important than being American, more important than being respectable, more important than obedience to the State. It is the only thing that matters. We are against Universal Military Training because it is preparation for sin, For the sin that is war. That it is better that the United States be liquidated than that she survive by war.”

The words, “unqualified pacifist” come to mind.

So perhaps Collins is a social justice Catholic, with a side order of Bonhoeffer and a twist of Augustine. In other words, we live in a broken world where limited violence is regrettable but necessary.

All of this being said, the story does have a sacramental influence that can come out of any number of Christian traditions, and just playing the numbers would lead us to Catholicism.

Susan Raab March 20, 2012 at 9:56 pm

I wanted to ask about the violence in Hunger Games. On one hand, Lev Grossman made a lot of sense in his Love Among the Ruins article in Time last week:

“What feeds the teenager’s appetite for global destruction? We think of children and adolescents as being interested only in anodyne, escapist fiction–but that’s to forget what it’s actually like to be a teenager. When you’re that age, everything feels like the end of the world: every test and snub and class and audition and prom. Adults have been around the block a few times. Whether it’s because we have more perspective or we’re just jaded, nothing is that big a deal to us. But you need to tear down the entire planet to match what goes on in a teenager’s interior universe. The apocalypse is where they live.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2108049,00.html#ixzz1pieWJRfZ

This makes sense to me regarding market appeal, but I believe the violence in Hunger Games symbolizes inner violence as well–our daily conflict with the enemy within, the ego voice that separates us from Love and God. We have such violent thoughts, saying cruel things to ourselves that we would never utter to another living soul. You don’t have to suffer from raging hormones to experience self-assasinating thoughts.

Here’s to achieving inner peace–disarming the inner Voldemort–so that we can hope to see peace in the world around us.

Rebecca May 7, 2012 at 6:22 pm

aSuzanne Collins is actually a Roman Catholic. As a Catholic myself, I saw through this as soon as I read it. The bread is obviously a reference to the life-giving power of the Eucharist, the body Christ in the form of bread.

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