My wife and I saw Divergent today, and while I thought it was an extremely entertaining, high-quality movie, I found one thing in particular to be deeply troubling when we discussed the movie at an early dinner afterward:
Why is it that the “Erudite” faction—the intellectuals—were the evil people who were trying to take over the society and violently wipe out the “rightful” rulers, the “Abnegation” faction?
My wife was also interested in this question, so she looked up the author of the book, and discovered that the writer, Veronica Roth, was reported to be a “moralistic, devout Christian.”
Admittedly, this aroused my suspicion, and I began to look at the movie the way that I know many evangelical Christians look at society, from my own personal experiences and the experiences of friends. When I began really thinking about the movie, I started noticing several notable parallels:
1) The main character, Triss, is deeply uncomfortable about sex and firmly denies the sexual advances of her love interest, Four. The high level of her discomfort about sex becomes clear when we learn that is one of her greatest fears. Evangelical Christianity, of course, has a near obsession with premarital chastity, and Triss, the movie’s heroine, behaves exactly the way the evangelical religious culture would expect her to behave.
2) The plot is set in a post-apocalyptic world, and as anyone who has observed the “end times” element of evangelical Christianity knows, a post-apocalyptic society is a major focus of evangelical Christian thought.
3) Even though we learn that Four’s father abused him as a child, when Four’s father asks his son to save his life, Four does it—exactly what would be expected in a culture in which “honor(ing) thy mother and father” is paramount, regardless of parental transgressions.
4) The Abnegation faction consists of “simple, modest folk” who dress plainly, eat simple foods and behave, at all times, in an unfailingly virtuous way. This mirrors some of the practices—and the conceits—of many evangelical sects that discourage dressing or behaving “immodestly” and decry being “worldly.” They also harbor and shelter outcasts who have run afoul of the intelligentsia; the parallel here is that evangelicals like to view themselves as outcasts from the “immoral” society around them. It seems obvious that the “Abnegation” faction is a stand-in for evangelical Christians.
5) “Erudite,” the intellectual faction, is presented as scheming, evil, and jealous of the prerogatives of the ruling faction, which the “Abnegation” faction has somehow managed to become. How these simple, unassuming, virtuous people became the rulers of the post-apocalyptic Chicagoland is hard to imagine—unless one takes the view, as evangelical Christians in America do, that “God’s people” are the rightful rulers of our “Christian nation.” It is also worth noting that, in Judeo-Christian texts, Satan is portrayed as scheming, evil and jealous of God, and that he uses his intellect to turn the godly toward sin—so it hardly seems a stretch to see a parallel in the movie between intellectuals and Satan himself. This linkage of intelligence and evil should be deeply troubling for those of us who value evidence and intellectual inquiry over blind faith and unquestioning obedience.
6) The Erudites, consumed by their elitist arrogance, decide that they, not the righteous Abnegation faction, should rule. They use their intellect to control and corrupt the “Dauntless” faction—the military—in order to round up and execute the Abnegation faction. This is crucially important, because it lines up, chapter-and-verse, with the tenets of the persecution complex that is rampant in American evangelical Christianity. It is taken as an article of faith among evangelical Christians that they inevitably will be persecuted for their faith. In the evangelical community, mistrust of intellectual “elitists”—who, in the evangelical view, cleverly twist and spin the truth, idolize science and other “worldly” things, deny the Bible, and generally seek to corrupt our “Christian nation”—runs very deep.
I have some personal experience that informs my knowledge of the evangelical persecution complex. When I was about 10 years old, two friends of mine from school recruited me to join an evangelical imitation of the Boy Scouts. In between hikes and campfires, we were constantly being told by our adult leaders that we, as Christians, might one day be tortured, even killed, for professing our faith. (Finally, one night we were taken into the sanctuary where the Wednesday night services were taking place, and we were told to raise our hands, close our eyes, and softly, rhythmically chant “Jesus, Jesus.” Even as a 12-year-old, I found this experience decidedly weird, and I never went back.)
In short, I think the parallels between the movie and some of the stranger obsessions of American evangelicals are frightfully clear. I can’t help but wonder whether the flurry of books and movies such as this one, as well as Noah, Son of God, the impending Exodus, the Twilight series, and some of the obviously Christian morality parables being filmed by artists such as Tyler Perry, isn’t indicative of a serious push by the evangelical community to reverse their declining hold on American culture and politics via the aggressive use of the arts.
But most of all, I’m deeply troubled by the equating of intelligent people with the forces of evil, and I think we have to be wary of letting this train of thought get down the tracks unchecked. There has long been a tendency toward mistrust of intellectuals in American society—as noted by Frenchman Alexis deTocqueville in his seminal 19th-century work Democracy in America—and in the decades that have followed Charles Darwin’s publication of his Theory of Evolution, this anti-intellectualism has been taken up in a full-throated way by fundamentalist Christians as well. I think it is extremely dangerous when popular culture begins to reinforce this longtime loathing and mistrust of intellectuals.
I can almost smell the book barbecue now.