Right now I’m on a family vacation to Oregon, driving from Denver to Portland. As I write this, driving across the wastes of Idaho, I am contemplating the book I just finished reading on the way, The Giver by Lois Lowry. I first read this book several years ago in high school and at the time I hated it, thinking it was sad and depressing. Over the last few years however I’ve developed an interest in dystopia stories, whether books like the Giver, Brave New World, or 1984, or movies like the Matrix or Equilibrium. Beginning when I first read 1984 before leaving for college, I’ve gained a much better appreciation for why these stories are so powerful.
Usually set in some kind of distant future, post-apocalyptic world, dystopian tales often describe supposedly perfect societies that arose from the ashes of the world as we know it in an effort to force humanity to live in perfect harmony, with all memory of war, pain, and suffering erased. They all, however, have a fatal flaw, some critical aspect of humanity-whether freedom, emotion, or individuality-that was sacrificed to achieve this harmony.
In each story, the protagonist is the one that discovers the resulting illusion of peace and security wasn’t worth it, and in some way rebels against the oppressive regime that forces people to be something less than human. Sometimes he succeeds in restoring that which was lost, sometimes not. But in either case, I find myself connecting with these stories on a much deeper level than other types of fiction I have read. I think this is because of the pure philosophical depth this kind of story has to offer, and because of what it teaches us about ourselves and the world we live in.
The first thing each of the stories teaches us is what it means to be human. It is no accident that all of the great dystopian stories single out a particular trait of humanity that is suppressed for the sake of achieving some form of ultimate peace and harmony in society. It 1984, it is human freedom and individuality, which are both subjugated to the will of an all-powerful, all-seeing state embodied in the image of Big Brother, which actually exists not to achieve a perfect world as it claims but to cause fear and suffering in a Nietzschean will to power.
The film Equilibrium takes this concept one step further, where not only has freedom and individuality been sacrificed to a totalitarian state, but humans are also deprived of their ability to feel strong emotions by a pacifying drug called Prozium. In the Giver, all memories of the past, together with its feelings, experiences, and differences have been sacrificed, to be born instead by the Receiver of Memory, who must carry that burden while allowing the community to remain free of both its joys and sorrows. And in Brave New World, human relationships and choices have been rendered meaningless by careful social engineering and a society based on hedonism and empty entertainment.
In each case, the antagonist is far more insidious than in other kinds of literature simply because it does not attack individuals but the essence of humanity itself. As a result, these stories tell us something about what it means to be human, what we value, and what completes us and makes us who and what we are. They reveal that which we most greatly fear to lose-whether our freedom, individuality, emotions, or memories-the things most essential to our humanity.
More importantly, these stories acknowledge something which we all subconsciously know-that there is some fundamental part of our nature that we still lack; and that just beneath the surface, there is something severely wrong with the world we live in. In the Matrix movies, that thing turns out to be that everything people thought was real was actually artificial-an illusion created to deceive them and prevent them from discovering their true nature and identity. In 1984 it is the freedom to be an individual and to declare the truth that “two plus two equals four.” In the Giver and Equilibrium, it is the lack of feelings and emotions which complete our humanity and make us who we are.
While these stories are fictional, there is something just as fundamentally wrong with the “real” world; and though they may vaguely suspect it, most people are every bit as blind to it as the souls trapped in the Matrix. As Christians, we of course know that thing to be sin, caused by a real Fall in which mankind did indeed lose a crucial aspect of what it means to be human-our relationship with God. Deep inside we all know that we are somehow incomplete, that a critical part of us is missing which we long to restore. Characters such as Neo, Jonas, or Preston thus fill the role of a messiah, restoring to humanity that which was lost. Or in the case of Winston in 1984 or John the Savage in Brave New World, they ultimately fail to bring about any meaningful change to their world, leaving it in a state of unredeemed despair and hopelessness.
Luckily in the real world, we have the comfort that our Messiah has already come and restored to the world that which was lost, and will one day complete the process of making humanity whole again. And as Christians, we have the ability to regain that missing part of our humanity, living as whole humans while still on earth. In this we are every bit as different from the rest of the world as Neo and his friends when they returned to the Matrix, as only they knew the truth about the world around them, only they had achieved their full potential as humans.
So it is with us, and that critical difference should give us tremendous power. Just as Jonas could see colors while everyone around him could only see shades of gray, we too have the power to “see beyond,” with knowledge of an entire spiritual realm that remains hidden to the world. In this we can see what the world cannot, and can do what the world deems unthinkable, all through the power of Him who completes us.
Thus, there is one critical difference that sets us apart from the characters in these dystopia stories. In each of these stories, man sacrificed part of his humanity in search of a false hope of peace and harmony which ultimately proved untenable and not worth the sacrifice. The salvation brought by the likes of Neo and Preston was only a restoration of the way things previously were, not an actual improvement in basic human nature. While these stories show us that pain and suffering can never be eliminated by sacrificing our humanity, they ultimately fail to present a true solution for how they CAN be abolished. But as Christians, we may look forward to the day when all evils in the world WILL be banished, all pains erased, and all humanity made complete in the harmony that can only be found in Jesus Christ. And that, is a hope worth fighting for.