Dystopian young adult fiction is not my preferred genre for leisure reading. For one thing, novels set in a stark world, often portrayed as a police state, in which humanity is regularly repressed and coerced is a sure prescription (in my book!) for disturbed sleep and not sweet dreams. However, having recently committed to helping a middle schooler with a literature project, I’ve fallen headlong into Victoria Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy. As a discerning adult of a certain age whose tastes for fiction run more along the lines of spy thrillers and good old-fashioned murder mysteries, I am alternately fascinated and distressed by the predominance of this burgeoning genre. Yet, at the same time, I’ve grown a little more understanding of why this genre has captivated the imaginations of today’s youth and young adults. Rather than diagnose the sociological factors contributing to the proliferation of this genre, I offer these observations from the perspective of one whose more serious reading includes the writings of John Wesley and works on how Christians are formed theologically.
Value and Benefits of Community
The world into which “Divergent”’s main protagonist, Beatrice/Tris, is born, is run by five different factions. The worst thing that can occur to a citizen is to be declared “factionless.” Though Beatrice/Tris often acts as a “Lone Ranger” figure, she continually longs for and is most at ease when surrounded by a community in which she is a member and knows acceptance, nurture and even challenge.
Desire to belong is not just teen angst seeking to be part of the “in crowd,” this is a fundamental human instinct. Wesley understood that and organized the lives of early Methodists into societies, classes and bands in which Christians could support one another in their pursuit of following Christ. It was in these groups that members could not only find refuge from the world but uphold one another as they sought God’s intentions in their own lives and context.
The five factions are separate entities and except for the higher echelons of leadership only associate with their own. “Faction before Family” is the mantra drummed into the heads of citizens from the time they are children. Though born into a biological family and raised within a particular faction, if an adolescent were to choose a faction different from the one in which they were raised, they have little to no contact with their families from that point forward – they are labeled for life.
It is human nature to want to assign labels and assign categories to which we can locate persons as a way of understanding. Throughout Christian history, different sects of believers have earned names for the particular and distinctive ways they practice Christian faith. These categories can become harmful and problematic when they lose sight of the holistic nature of Christian faith; to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). Wesley often referred to Christian discipleship as having the “mind that was in Christ” and “walking in the way Christ walked.” To engage in outward actions of mercy and compassion without attending to nurturing one’s relationship with God and other believers depletes interior resources even in the most earnest of persons. Likewise, to be in love with God without demonstrating that love to our neighbor truncates our faith.
Defying Societal Expectations
Each 16-year-old will discover the faction for which they have the aptitude during a serum-induced exam on the eve of their Choosing Ceremony. As a result of this test, Beatrice/Tris defies the expected norm of testing for one faction and displays the aptitude for at least three of the five factions. She is labeled “Divergent” and urged to conceal this fact from others – even those she loves – because it is dangerous. Throughout the course of the trilogy, she discovers others who have the capacity to think and act beyond the parameters set upon them by society.
At some point, most Christians seeking to follow Jesus realize that their discipleship asks them to defy stereotypes that confine and segment their selves into neatly ordered boxes. Wesley was labeled an “antinomian” by some of his detractors for disregarding the law, defying Anglican norms and declaring the world to be his parish. Alternatively, he was labeled a legalist and called a “Papist” by those who considered the rules that governed the methodical living of his followers to be constraining. Despite this contradiction, Wesley is credited for holding a dialectic in tension, balancing each as he he sought a third alternative. For good reason, contemporary authors refer to Wesley as a “rational enthusiast” or a “radical conservative” for his ability defy expectations and hold together what society would otherwise compartmentalize. Our discipleship is at its fullest when we love God with all our heart, all our mind, all of our souls and with all the strength of our will.
Valuing and Cultivating Virtue
Beatrice/Tris chooses to transfer factions even though there is much about her parent’s faction she cherishes. When she transfers, she meets Tobias/Four, another transfer who is also Divergent. Tobias/Four seeks to emulate and champion the qualities once championed by his adopted faction; bravery, courage and guardianship. Furthermore, he finds value and admires the virtues inherent in each of the factions, seeking to do what he can to cultivate himself as a well-rounded person.
In a similar vein, Christian disciples understand themselves to be recipients of the Holy Spirit and endowed with God-given gifts and talents they use for Kingdom purposes. Yet all Christians, regardless of gifting, are called to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Wesley understood earnest Christians to be growing in these qualities. Regardless of social status, gender, educational level or ethnicity, Wesley and the people called Methodists radically included every person who expressed a desire “to flee the wrath to come” and encourage them in a faithful walk with Christ that they might bear fruit for more harvesting.
Beatrice/Tris and Tobias/Four work with others to not just free themselves from the present regime of factions but to unseat them in an effort to build a new society. They recoil when they discover their allies simply plan on substituting one totalitarian regime for another. Eventually, in league with other Divergents, they work to establish an integrated society in which all members are valued, fully included and experience human free will rather than government or scientific manipulation and coercion.
Disciples following Christ seek to live new lives free of bondage to sin and death. Christians just don’t seek any new identity, but one that is firmly established and grounded in the Lordship of Christ, the one human who is perfect, pleasing and good in the eyes of God. The ultimate goal of the Christian disciple is to live as God intended in ever increasing love for God and for neighbor. Wesley was adamant that humanity should continually strive to emulate Christ in all they did, which consequently had an effect on British society. As a result of seeking Christ, many persons were liberated from addictions. As Christians sought to share the love of Christ with others, schools were established and many families were gradually lifted out of poverty. Transformation of society occurred because disciples sought to be transformed and renewed in the image of God.
Final Thoughts and Takeaway
Though I found the “Divergent” trilogy (and its prequel “Four”) to be quite the page-turner, my nightstand reading is not about to be overtaken by dystopian young adult literature. I did find relevant themes for Christian living which helped redeem the genre as a whole. Regardless of your purpose for reading, whether to develop a sermon illustration, study the art of narrative, find a way to relate to a younger family member or neighbor, or just reading for plain enjoyment, Christians should not avoid similar novels on general principle. Though a central Christ-figure is nearly always missing, a recurrent theme runs throughout this genre: that humanity is subjected to its own perversions but seeks the goodness it was originally created to express. And when considered in the light of Christianity, this theme hits close to home and is profoundly relevant for Christian disciples who seek to be in this world but not of this world.