A Sacred Look: Christian Anthropology in Dystopian Worlds
With Sr. Nancy Usselmann on April 18, 2016

Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here. - Editor

Young adult fiction trends change as quickly as do trends in popular music and movies. Yet, underlying all these sci-fi, time traveling, fantasy, and dystopian stories is a profound question: Where is humanity headed?

So much of this question is based on how we understand ourselves as human beings. The value of the human person is the basis of a society that grows and flourishes. Yet, in the contemporary world the very identity of a human person is questioned, altered, and disturbingly denied. This offers a bleak outlook on the future of the human race, as many dystopian stories creatively express. How can a Christian anthropology offer a hopeful outlook to the dismal story of humanity? It begins with our understanding of the human person.


What exactly do we mean by personhood? This is a much-debated topic in our contemporary, political context, even though the concept originated in philosophical-theological debate around the concepts of human and divine in the Person of Jesus Christ, and has had significant development over the centuries. Grace is essential to the concept of personhood since gift is at the core of its purpose and fulfillment.[1] No human being creates oneself; we are all gift. Person is derived from the Latin persona meaning a “face” or “mask” which comes from the theatrical or public roles people played. This connotation refers to one’s distinctive individuality. The Greek word prosopon means “face” signifying that the face is something more than the physical surface.

The debates in the early church focused on the term homoousios, which means that God the Son, Jesus Christ, is of the same substance as the Father. This long-debated concept creates the core of our Trinitarian doctrine—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in three persons. The distinction developed over person and nature, for Jesus is one person with two natures ­– human and divine. A development ensues to understand person as unique, individual, and endowed with a nature that gives each one a distinct personality. This view only came about with Boethius using the philosophical term incommunicabilis, suggesting that each human person has a unique and wholly non-transferable quality. Incommunicabilis means that each individual is completely singular, distinct and non-universal.[2] The human person’s personality, then, is a uniqueness that cannot be replicated.[3] This is compatible with the concept of human dignity. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and because of that have meaning and purpose. Thomas Aquinas brings together the concepts of existence and incommunicability by writing, “Person in God is the incommunicable existence of the divine nature.”[4]

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn relates, “The world was made for man, but man was made for God. The true ‘locus’ of his dignity is to be sought in this unique designation of man, which makes him, in the midst of all other creatures, the living image of God.”[5]  He continues that this realization of the dignity of the human person is a liberating message and one that provides good news for the constant, desperate seeking of humanity today.[6] Once humanity bases its dignity on a type of “pure nature” making itself the ultimate reality and finding an end in it, does it not then become destructive? Hans Urs von Balthasar writes succinctly, “Only where God is person is the human being taken seriously as person.”[7]

We have created in our imaginations (and somewhat in our reality) a dystopian universe where human destruction seems inevitable. The Hunger Games Trilogy shows a society where the Capitol, a tyrannical dictatorship, greedily controls the way of life of the vast majority of its citizens in the outlaying districts. The government assumes all the districts’ resources to supply the excessively indulgent utopian society of the Capitol’s citizens and enforces its power on the districts by constant propaganda, violent “Peacekeeping” forces, and the Hunger Games, where the human person is only as good as his/her power to fight. The Divergent Series also describes a dystopian world controlled by a totalitarian government desirous of a genetically perfect world. What the government cannot do, though, is control the human spirit that defies oppression and control. These genetically-altered societies, however, do not bring peace, but only selfishness and destruction.

Popular dystopian stories paint a verbal picture of the consequences of a nihilistic culture, where reality and existence are denied and where God is removed from an understanding of anthropology. In a world where science dictates what is true and governments attempt to quell human freedom, a battle stirs within each person. Despite the evil that lurks in human nature creating destruction in its path, there is always present the desire for something more that cannot be controlled or eliminated by any outside force.

Yet, what is it that moves human beings to seek that something more? It is the power of grace, a pure gift that gives humanity meaning, the desire for the supernatural, and the determination to seek truth, goodness, and beauty. Is grace present in the dystopian stories of The Hunger Games and Divergent or does its lack of grace leave readers with a sense of hopelessness in the sinfulness of human nature? The postmodernist denial of human personhood and the possibility of true altruism is present in these stories as well as the ways grace builds on nature to transform a nihilistic anthropology and carve a path for a theological dialogue with popular culture.

Dystopian Stories

Even though The Hunger Games and Divergent are two very different stories, there are many similarities that allow us to examine them in the same light of grace and nature. Both stories take place within dystopian societies under an oppressive government that came to power in order to quell the violence of an unchecked human nature. Both novels have a seemingly weak young woman as its protagonist whose strength comes from sheer determination to survive, but not only to survive for oneself but for the ones they love. Both are the cause for a rebellion among the oppressed peoples but at the same time help to halt the spread of violence and destruction. Both sacrifice themselves for others out of self-giving love. Both stories cause their readers to consider the human spirit’s will to survive faced with the seeming hopelessness of a David facing a Goliath. Both offer a reflection on the meaning of personhood, true altruism, and the reality of grace.

The Hunger Games follows the life of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen who is the supporter of her poor family in District 12. Under duress, all the outlaying districts provide resources that feed the indulgence of the citizens of the Capitol of Panem. Years before, a rebellion rose up out of the districts and the Capitol crushed the revolution, destroyed District 13, and made the annual televised Hunger Games the punishment of all the districts. Each year two youth from each district are chosen to participate in the death match Games, leaving only one winner out of the dozens who participated. At the annual “reaping” Katniss’ 12-year-old sister, Primrose, hears her name chosen. Katniss quickly volunteers in her place. Along with Peeta Mellark from her same district, she survives the games when, in defiance of the Capitol, they threaten to both commit suicide rather than allow only one of them to live. This action infuriates President Snow who senses this act of defiance is an indication of the rise to rebellion of the districts. Katniss becomes the symbol of the rebellion that ensues throughout the rest of trilogy.

The Divergent series takes place in the post-apocalyptic city of Chicago and follows the experiences of 16-year-old Beatrice “Tris” Prior who finds herself out of place in the faction society. The population is divided into five factions representing five virtues according to their personality traits: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty) and Dauntless (courageousness). Before the annual Choosing Ceremony, every 16-year-old must take an aptitude test to determine the faction to which his or her personality most closely relates. Beatrice’s test shows that she is divergent, having an aptitude for several factions, and finds out that this is a threat to the authorities that seek to eliminate all who are so labeled. At the Choosing Ceremony, each young person chooses which faction to which they wish to belong for the rest of their lives. If they choose a faction other then where they originate from they are not allowed to ever return. The motto is: faction before blood. When Beatrice chooses Dauntless over her family’s Abnegation faction, she quickly sees the non-virtuous side of human nature and yet finds her hidden divergent abilities innocuous to any serums given to control human fears, memory, honesty, and death. A rebellion among the factions ensues, and Tris is caught in a fight for the lives of her loved ones while risking her own.

Within both of these stories lies the question of whether humanity is destined to destroy itself or if there is something that prevents such utter annihilation despite human weaknesses for greed and power. Can the human person overcome the evil that is within while confronting the evil without? Can human love overcome any evil and bring a sense of order and peace to a fallen world? How does a Christian anthropology provide an understanding of the human person represented in these novels?

Denial of Personhood

Postmodernism is a late 20th century movement that departs from the philosophical self-consciousness of modernism and purports a skeptical view of the arts, culture, authority, and religion. Through its denial of transcendence and ultimate truth, postmodernism has removed the very possibility of grace. Frederick Nietzsche, the nihilistic philosopher, develops an idea of redemption where human beings redeem themselves. Divergent’s story is a Nietzschian view of human existence where the Bureau is the ultimate power that controls human genetics and human freedom. The people in the apocalyptic city of Chicago are part of the Bureau’s experiments and those who are immune to their serums, the divergent, such as the protagonist Tris, are a threat to the “well-ordering” of their false societies.

It does not take much to see in our present-day society that human beings are unable to redeem themselves. If that were possible, why then is there still the ever-present threat of self-destruction and war lurking around every corner? The postmodernist’s view is that power and violence are the law of life, but the Christian view is that power and conflict are transient and that power can be the servant of the good, as in the case of Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, our self-sacrificing heroines. Love alone lifts humanity from its selfishness and directs power for the good of all humanity.

From the Postmodern perspective, human self-giving is ultimately selfishness and love is self-centered. Can true self-sacrificing love be possible if human beings are nothing more than animalistic creatures following self-preservation instincts? Postmodernism’s death of God only leads to the diminishment of humanity because once we remove God as a way to interpret the world then only unstable humanistic interpretations can replace it. For, “Without God as the sanction of human life, the high value of each person evaporates.”[8]

Deep within the human being is an inherent tendency to evil that is activated through an immorality leading to social disorder and disintegration. This can only be healed by grace.[9] We have the ability to make choices, however, and we are capable of recognizing—even when violence and hostility are the natural reactions—the possibility of the grace offered to us by God to act in a way that appeals to our higher selves, the supernatural existential within us, as Karl Rahner would call it. Grace is God giving of himself to humanity. Rahner writes, “The capacity for the God of self-bestowing personal Love is the central and abiding existential of man as he really is.“[10] Yet, this grace does not diminish the human nature or supersede it. Rather, it builds upon it and is “an unsurpassable perfectioning of nature.”[11]

Reality of Grace

Grace is a foundation of the reality of faith. Only God can be this foundation since he communicates himself to humanity as its ultimate salvation. It is grace that is an exclusive mediation of salvation, which is at the core of revelation. The very gift of grace is God’s own life within the soul. It is God’s life within human beings that when a person acts out of this grace, the truth of his/her personhood, his/her true humanness shines forth, after the image of Jesus Christ, God’s Word spoken for humanity.

Though both dystopian stories do not refer specifically to the need for grace there is a noted restlessness in the human spirit that longs for this supernatural gift, one that cannot be attained by any natural means. Katniss seeks refuge from the oppressive experience of the Hunger Games and President Snow from which she can never seem to escape. Tris also desires a time and place where there is peace among peoples and no need to constantly fight against external oppressive forces that threaten to destroy human memory and freedom. Both desire something that the dystopian world humanity has created cannot give. Ultimately, it is that supernatural existential within them, that longing for the more, the hope of freedom from constant battle not only with a particular group, as Tris says, but, “against human nature itself—or at least what it has become.”[12]

In examining the characters of these dystopian stories we perceive grace at work, perhaps unbeknown to the authors, but present in the anthropological representations. The first grace we see is the grace of creation. Through creation each human person receives the gift of life and is made in the image and likeness of God. As a result of this likeness, each human being seeks the transcendent and desires the transcendentals at the heart of their existential longings. Each protagonist goes in search of truth, goodness, and beauty even though it is often disguised or hidden from their grasp. And each one, toward the end of the narrative, pours herself out as a sacrificial offering that can only be inspired by the gift of God himself.

The second grace is the very gift of God in the incarnate Son of God, the gift of God in person. Without the knowledge and love of Christ we cannot grasp a redeemer who heals, restores and shows a new way—that something more for which humanity longs.[13] For, as the author of Hebrews writes, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”[14] This gift is always interwoven with human freedom and faith. Without explicit articulation, both of these series address the ultimate desire of human beings for a Redeemer who knows what it means to be human and who understands the struggles and pains of life, but is also beyond it. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”[15]

Neither heroine can be that savior since they are broken, weak and often discouraged. They cannot heal others or prevent death or destruction, yet they often notice something that the rest of humanity cannot. They see the reality of love. And it is love that saves humanity from complete annihilation. It is love that opens one up to observe the uniqueness and gift of each human person. It is love that gives one the will to survive against all odds. It is love that offers humanity hope for a future. Love alone is the gift of grace.

[1] Philip A. Rolnick, Person, Grace and God, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 7.
[2] Ibid., 41.
[3] Ibid., 55.
[4] Rolnick, quoting Aquinas from his Summa Theologica I.29.3 in Person, Grace and God, 55.
[5] Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Man, the Image of God: The Creation of Man as Good News, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 40.
[6] Ibid., 68.
[7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Von Balthasar Reader, Eds. Medard Kehl, SJ, (Werner Loser, SJ, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1982), 194.
[8] Rolnick, Person, Grace and God, 99.
[9] Susan A. Ross, Anthropology, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 114.
[10] Karl Rahner, A Rahner Reader, Ed. Gerald A. McCool, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 187-8.
[11] Ibid., 176.
[12] Veronica Roth, Divergent, (New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2011).
[13] Rahner, Karl Rahner Reader, 170-1.
[14] Hebrews 1:3
[15] Hebrews 4:15

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.

4 Responses to "A Sacred Look: Christian Anthropology in Dystopian Worlds"

  1. What a wonderful article. I’ve always thought that dystopian stories were a magnificent backdrop for Christianity and the message of faith. Having set the scene with often shocking depravity and a bleak sin-caused future for humanity, it really highlights the grace and goodness of God and the redemption of our souls by the blood of Christ. In truth, it’s a story as old as time, simply put into a futuristic frame as opposed to a past or present frame, but the underlying truth is still there—how we are fallen creatures who left to our own devices will as a whole choose the earthly path as opposed to the divine one, except for the few who truly do make the conscious effort to follow God and set themselves apart. It’s a subject I myself have explored in the scope of Christian fiction in my novel “December’a Child” which is categorized as Christian dystopian, because I feel it’s a subject that can be both entertaining and telling of a message much bigger than simple Media frenzy. Thank you so much for this article, it was magnificent!

    by D.A. Williams on Oct 26th, 2016 at 9:08 am
  2. Thank you so much, Deborah. These stories truly are as old as time, as you say, yet every era of humanity needs to struggle with the sin within….and the grace present for us to grasp, if we choose to. How wonderful that you are a novelist. I will look for your book. Many blessings to you as we both shine a little light on a dark world. God bless you! -Sr Nancy

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