Divergent: the Movie and Christians

May 7, 2014

I saw the movie “Divergent” this week and was surprised. I had no idea what the story would be or even the name, age, or views of the author who wrote this first of a now completed trilogy.   Notice of the book did not escape me, though, for Divergent has been constantly checked out of our local library for months and 42 people are presently waiting in line with holds on the next available copies. Why the big deal?

In one sense, “Divergent” is yet another young adult story along dystopian lines, meaning the characters find themselves in a broken and messed up world. Yet “Divergent” is not simply another “Hunger Games.” The fault lines of evil are not so apparent, for “Divergent” is built on the idea of virtues. Things like honesty, amity, selflessness, bravery, and intelligence—which are considered good and desirable in persons and society.   The story is thereby more complex, more realistic and thereby more directly applicable than some stories vying for our attention.

For many of us, one of the greatest challenges in living comes from the many good things in our lives which we must learn to put in a right and thriving order. We love God, family, ourselves, neighbors, our country, our city, music, good food, funny jokes, and a host of other things. We may sometimes experience what is called “disordered loves” (even disordered virtues).   As teacher David Naugle said, “We can all too easily confuse what we desire with what is desirable, satisfy the superficial and starve the essential traits of our nature, love absolutely what we should love relatively, and love relatively what we should love absolutely. We can be on a fool’s errand after fool’s gold.”

What do we do with this wonderful world of goods, virtues and loves? Is one virtue enough to live a good and godly life? What if society told you it was, and assigned you the role to live in society as, say, a patient or a peaceful person? (While others get to focus on being honest folks or the brave ones.) This happens in the world of “Divergent,” where at the age of 16 a person must decide what is their one dominant virtue for the rest of their lives. Yet in the story there are those who are born to live out more than simply one virtue. Instead of focusing everything on bravery, for instance, they would pursue amity and honesty as well as bravery. In that world, these more than one virtue persons are known as “divergents.”   They are too complex to be controlled and are considered a threat to the perfect world as conceived by those in power.

Significantly, this aspect of “Divergent” is not simply “science fiction.” It is shaping our very social world in America. For instance, there is a strong impetus from the talking classes (politicians, media, teachers, etc.) to affirm one virtue among all, namely, freedom. Anyone who would question this unlimited type freedom by appealing to other virtues besides freedom (say responsibility, honor, faith, conscience) are labeled divergent. This is not a minor observation, for this is happening even in the supreme court, which a very quick reading of recent opinions reveal. We have a profound conflict of values in our lived world, and the conflict is much along the lines of the Divergent story: the present power people have very limited values (a value monoculture–I call them monotones—playing one note all the time).   Christians and much traditional American society also values freedom, but not simply freedom. They value freedom plus other values (seeking a symphony of values, playing chords of music, not simply one monotone note.) This makes for complexity and real life, but is a threat to anyone with high concern for control and an anemic understanding of justice. People holding to flat monotone music don’t understand those who enjoy the harmony of many tones, but the symphony people well understand the value of one tone. Christians certainly understand and value freedom, but don’t necessarily expect monotones to understand the Christian symphony of values under God. So many who are tone deaf to larger virtues will naturally label Christians “divergents.” Don’t’ be surprised. It is in this sense that being called “divergent” is a compliment. It shows we are on the right path. It is actually another word for “holiness” (set apart/different/consecrated).

 

I said that “Divergent” surprised me. All the remarkable virtue talk was only the beginning. As the story moved on I was taken aback by the romantic interaction of the main character Beatrice Prior (Tris for short) and Four (so named because he only has four fears in life left).   As interest for each other develops, surprising things DON’T happen. The typical, predictable formula for Hollywood is NOT followed regarding the mandatory sex scene. Missing are also the newly typical, predictable Hollywood mandatory pansexual causes. There is a kiss to be sure, but note what Tris says in the embrace: “I don’t want to go too fast.”   What dignity to the relationship and each other! Further, Four respectfully sleeps on the floor when Tris must take refuge at his place. The symphony of values here (sexuality is good / but is to be integrated with other values) is divergent indeed.

 

After the movie, I told the friend with me that whoever wrote “Divergent” had to be a Christian. Not that the movie is a Christian movie per se, but certain values were naturally showing through nonetheless. I looked up the name of the writer, who is Veronica Roth, and sure enough, she turns out to be a Christian. She was raised in Chicago by non-believing parents, but came to Christ through a high-school Bible study. One professional writer reviewing her book said this: “Veronica Roth has managed to do something virtually impossible these days in the publishing industry: she signed a book deal with a major publishing house on her debut novel straight out of college, secured three New York Times bestsellers, and signed a movie deal—all while being an open Christian.” It’s that being an open Christian that I emphasize. Veronica R. diverges from the typical Christian “wisdom” to keep your faith secret until you have to say something. She values authenticity more than this, and her authentic openness did not keep her from creatively contributing to culture and influencing millions of teens. Lesson: Christians could sometimes stand to be more open (authentic) about their faith.

This does not mean preaching all the time, wearing your religion on your sleeve, or turning art or work into a tract. Truly as Francis Schaeffer said, “An art work can be a doxology in itself.” Good creative work glorifies the Creator who made us creative. Veronica R. is definitely not “preachy” in the negative sense, but she is unashamedly Christian.   She defends her portrayal of the fallen brokenness of the world this way:

You can summarize Christian teachings in two parts: crucifixion and resurrection. Brokenness and mending. My concern with many Christians is their refusal to acknowledge brokenness. It’s all fine and good to walk around thinking “I’ve been saved! Woohoo!”, but seriously: saved from what? Sometimes I wonder if they even know, or if it’s too uncomfortable to think about.

I believe the resurrection has little significance unless you understand the crucifixion– and vice versa. We Christians need to understand both to the best of our abilities. And our belief is that the crucifixion happened because of sin– everyone’s. I try to think primarily of my own sin, because it reminds me not to get self-righteous. My sin. Mine. Just as much as anyone else’s. Remember.

The world is broken. No matter how much time you spend covering your eyes, and covering your children’s eyes, the world will still be broken when you uncover them. And when I say the world is broken, I mean that bad crap is happening to people everywhere and people are doing terrible things everywhere. Do you want your kids to understand just how beautiful the grace of God is? Then they have to understand how crappy the world is. It’s not just “a good idea.” It’s necessary.

Veronica R. offers gratitude to God and his Son in the acknowledgements of her novel. It is not a Christian book but has significant Christian influences. Is Veronica R. perfect in how she works this out?   Not at all, as critics of every stripe point out. But Veronica R. is divergent, in the good sense, and in the sense to which we are all called.  LH