Expectation Day #1–Dystopia Now

From etymology.com:

dystopia (n.) Look up dystopia at Dictionary.com“imaginary bad place,” 1868, apparently coined by J.S. Mill (“Hansard Commons”), from Greek dys- “bad, abnormal, difficult” (see dys-) + utopia. Related: Dystopian.

“When you’re in the arena, remember who the real enemy is.  “–Haymitch to Katniss in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

“And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.” –Mark 13: 37

The word “apocalypse” has to do with the “final or complete destruction of the world.”  Christian literature apocalypse(5)is littered with apocalyptic literature; sayings and writings that hint at and explore what will happen when God finally book on this experiment called Creation.  This is the basis for all the stuff you’ve heard people talk about for the last couple decades (or…forever, really): The Rapture, Revelations, the heaven that only some people will get into.  They’re all ways of expressing hopes and anxieties about the ultimate (as in “final”) form and purpose of the universe as God created it.  A central tentent of the Christian faith keeps us always pointed toward this final outcome, we typically articulate this as “Christ has come (Christmas), Christ has risen (Easter), Christ will come again (Advent).”

adventThis is the tension of Advent, it’s the preparation time leading up to Christmas, to get things in order and prepare ourselves to celebrate and remember that Jesus was born, named “God with us,” and the entire world is brighter for it.  AND ALSO, Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves for the new things God still has in store for this physical universe of ours…it’s a time of expectation, of lying in wait for what hasn’t happened yet.

If that sounds scary to you…it probably should.  Not that I buy into a lot of traditional apocalyptic writings…I’m not a “moon turns red and everyone who has the wrong faith bursts into flames” kind of guy.  Blame television.  I do, however, believe that the world as it exists today is not the world God intended to create, and God will continue to do new things both on and beyond our planet, until it becomes right…which could mean some uncomfortable changes for people of privilege and comfort.  But since people have been waiting for that grand, final act for at least 2,000 years now, I’m not sure there’s any reason to expect that to happen within my life time.  So in the meantime, I think Christians could learn a lot about their place and mission in this world by setting aside the apocalyptic literature, and checking hunger gamesout some dystopian literature instead.

I know a lot of people who are fed up with the sci-fi dystopian genre that has been all the rage in Young Adult books for the last several years.  “Why are these the only stories people are writing for kids?” they ask.  “Can’t we tell stories that are hopeful, that give our kids a view of the world that isn’t so…defeatist?”  Well…I think it’s neat.  Not only do I not see anything wrong with providing our kids with exciting imaginative stories that have clear allusions and parallels to the dysfunctional world in which we currently live, I think they ARE incredibly hope-filled stories in at least 2 major ways.  Almost every one of these dystopian stories I’ve come across–almost always in the style of a trilogy–contain 2 components that I think will always be worth our time: 1) The main character WAKES UP to the reality that the world is not as simplistic/binary as they were raised to think, and 2) That character becomes a hero by DEFYING the system as it is and working to create something new.

Let’s not waste time by geeking out and listing every dystopian story we possibly can.  Suffice to say, the ubiquitous The Hunger Games does this stuff profoundly well.  Katniss defies the way things are “supposed” to work, and in doing so wakes up to the reality of the society of which she is a part.  For her, it’s not the suffering and injustice that comes as a surprise–she grew up starving nearly to death and watching children murder each other annually on television–what she has to wake up to is: How fragile this unjust system really is.  As soon as people stop supporting the system the way they are supposed to…it all falls apart.


It’s a fictional story, but it highlights some important real life questions:  Dystopia literally means “a bad place.”  There are universes of dystopian stories here, on our earth, right in front of us. If you aren’t aware of “a bad place” that needs fixing…well, I suppose you’re the Capital.  What if the people of the Capital woke up to the suffering they imposed on the other districts in The Hunger Games?  What if we stopped playing our part in an unjust system?

Tamir Rice, 12 years old, killed in Cleveland by police for carrying around an air rifle.

Tamir Rice, 12 years old, killed in Cleveland by police for carrying around an air rifle.

What if Christians didn’t pin all their hopes on what God is going to do in the end?  What if we took seriously our job as God’s co-creators, making like heroes from dystopian novels and WAKING UP to the way things are and refusing to support the systems in place any longer?  In some ways, we do this all the time.  In other ways…we’re way over due for some daring heroics.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”  And before we debate endlessly about the “best” way to do that–as if there were only one way or one thing that needed to happen–before we begin to deconstruct and directly interfere with systems that would oppress and injure people, I would ask:  What happens next?  Especially when you consider the major lesson we should learn from dystopian fiction–which always winds up with epic scenes of violent insurrection to entice audiences–we need to recognize it isn’t enough to disrupt systems that exist…we have to be willing and able to offer alternative ways of being, alternative policies, practices, structures, etc. And that’s much harder.  And that’s exactly what we are called to work toward.  The harder thing.

Whether you are just now waking up to the world as it is, or if you are angry and looking to burn down everything that exists, I would ask you:  Remember who the real enemy is…it’s rarely the person standing in front of you.  Defeating the enemy is one thing…leading the world to what’s NEXT…that is something else entirely.  While we journey to that next place…as we discern how to get there together….let’s carry with us:  hope-12


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