Why Are All the Kids Reading Dystopian? And How the Gospel Gives Us a Better Story to Tell

Dystopian literature has come a long way since I was a teenager. Like most American high schoolers of yesteryear, I read 1984 and Brave New World. I don’t know about you, butI didn’t relish either; I had the sense that the adults were trying to show me realities in the world I wasn’t ready to face. I preferred the Millennial delusion that I could do and be anything I wanted, that everything would be okay—thank you very much.

In the years 2008 through 2010—the same years we now realize marked a dramatic shift between the Millennials and iGen—Suzanne Collins’ young adult fiction trilogy, The Hunger Games, took the world by storm. The series garnered teenage and adult fandom alike before spinning off into a series of films. Since that time the dystopian genre—fiction that portrays a hopeless future for human society—has exploded, and teenagers are loving it. Ask any group of middle or high schoolers what they like to read, and you’re bound to hear a number of them say dystopian. Many of the video games with a cult adolescent following also fall into this genre.

I read The Hunger Games somewhat begrudgingly (sometimes you just need to read what students are reading!) several years ago, and although the premise turned my stomach, I had to admit the writing was captivating. More recently, I binge-read Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, finding myself drawn into the story of post-apocalyptic Chicago and its teenage heroes in a way I hadn’t expected. But it’s not only the writing that makes these stories compelling.

Students’ interest in dystopian literature and video games gives us a window into their souls. When we think about what attracts them to the genre, at least three features emerge:

1.) They see the world is broken—and they long for a better one.
In a day and age when tension is mounting the world over, it’s no coincidence that dystopian fiction’s popularity is also on the rise. Today’s teenagers are tuned into social concerns such as racism, women’s rights, sex trafficking, the refugee crisis, genocide—and they’re conversant about these issues to an extreme that would have been shocking a decade ago. They are the most globally connected generation in history, and the most anxious, all thanks to the smartphone.[1]In addition to their global concerns, they worry about trigger words, school shootings, and income insecurity.

With all of this anxiety and fear on the rise, it might seem surprising that teenagers would escape to a world that’s even more messed up than the one they actually inhabit. But perhaps that is precisely the point: It’s comforting to know that things aren’t as bad as they could be.

2.) They sense they are on their own.
One of the key features of dystopian literature is the absence of adults who act on behalf of the young. In The Hunger Games, adults have sacrificed their children on the altar of entertainment as a twisted way to keep peace between the districts. In Divergent, the adults are lacking either intellect or courage to overthrow an oppressive government founded on deception, so teenagers must take matters into their own hands.

Chap Clark may have been prophetic when he diagnosed systemic abandonment by adults as the key feature of modern youth culture. At first glance, it’s easy for parents and youth workers to protest Clark’s thesis. But when we look at the content of the books and games students are into, the heroes and heroines they celebrate, Clark’s findings begin to resonate. Despite the best intentions of parents, communities, and churches, it appears students have a deep sense that they are on their own and must fend for themselves.

3.) They are looking for a hero—and they want to be part of the revolution.
Dystopian fiction typically features a young hero who rises up to put the world to rights. The Atlantic boldly called The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, “the most important female character in recent pop culture history…a heroine for the ages.”[2]Divergent’s Tris Prior is a similarly strong female character whose grit sparks an uprising. For our female students, these young heroines inspire their belief that they could actually do something to subvert the broken systems they observe in the world. First-person shooter (FPS) video games, like Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, take this interest to a new level by putting players in the protagonist role to save the world from destruction.

The violence embedded in these stories and their gaming counterparts is disturbing, but perhaps it demonstrates the helplessness teenagers experience as they live in a world they wish they could change. Our students want heroes who are like them, and who call them into an unfolding drama of saving the world.

Telling A Better Story

Dystopian literature provides valuable insight into students’ perceptions of the world and their place in it. But there is only one Story that can satisfy the deep longings dystopian fiction reveals, and that’s the gospel. Here are three applications that point to the Story for which teenagers are truly longing:

1.) The gospel tells us that “a better world did exist and will one day exist again.”[3]
The whole of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation tells the Story of a dystopian world in need of renovation. And in a renewal far more complete than any the dystopian genre can promise, this Story insists that the broken world will be completely redeemed.

We read in the first pages of the Bible of an all-wise and loving Creator who called His creation “very good,” (Genesis 1:32). And in Scripture’s final pages, we read about a glorious future hope as Jesus declares, “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 5:21).

2.) The gospel promises that we are never abandoned.
The Good News for students who feel alone in the world is that Jesus was abandoned on the cross so that they would never have to be (Matthew 27:45-46). In his God-forsakenness, Jesus fully satisfied the righteous requirements of the law in our place (Romans 8:3-4) so that we might be “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed,” (2 Corinthians 4:9).

As we tell students this Story, we must take care to examine our own idols of entertainment, workaholism, and acceptance that cause us to unwittingly neglect the teenagers in our care. Surely the grace of the gospel frees us from these things so that we might be present with our young, pointing them to the care of their Heavenly Father who will never forsake them (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5).

3.) The gospel insists that Jesus is the hero the world needs, and that he has already begun a revolution.
From the day human beings rebelled against God’s rule, he promised that one day a young hero would come. He would be one of us but altogether unlike us. And he would conquer the Enemy who overpowered us (Genesis 3:15).

Like many of the dystopian heroes, our Hero Jesus was willing to die for this cause—but unlike them, he conquered death forever when he rose again!

Perhaps best of all for our students, Jesus doesn’t ask us to sit passively by as he goes about the work of redemption. Rather, he invites us to join him in bringing his new kingdom to bear on our world (John 14:12). He has invited us to join him in his revolution! And one day he will come again to make all things right.

“Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

‘Now have come the salvation and the power

    and the kingdom of our God,

    and the authority of his Messiah.

For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,

    who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down,’” (Revelation 12:10).

This is the Story we should delight to tell again and again to our students, who are looking for a revolution to be caught up in.

The world is a broken place, it’s true. But the Good News for our students is that they are not abandoned, and that Jesus is the revolutionary they’ve hoped would come. As we point them back to the truest Story, we pray their deep longing for a good and beautiful world will be met in him.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.

[1]See Jean Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood *and What that Means for the Rest of Us, or her viral piece inThe Atlantic, “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?”, September, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/.

[2]Meghan Lewit, “Casting ‘The Hunger Games’: In Praise of Katniss Everdeen,” The Atlantic, March 9, 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/03/casting-the-hunger-games-in-praise-of-katniss-everdeen/72164/.

[3]“The Big Story,” James Choung, InterVarsity, https://2100.intervarsity.org/overview/big-story.

Chelsea is Editor of Youth Ministry Content and the Director of Publishing for Rooted. She previously served as a youth pastor in New England churches for 13 years. She and her husband, Steve, live north of Boston and are parents to Wells and Emmett. Chelsea holds an M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in Old Testament Studies. She is passionate about teaching teenagers biblical theology and helping them learn to study Scripture for themselves.

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