Christian themes in The Giver Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Sep. 11, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

Lois Lowry's 1993 novel The Giver has garnered a wide audience over the past two decades, since it has become a standard text in middle schools and high schools across the English-speaking world.

With the enormous success of the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games films, Hollywood has been busy adapting books written for the young adult audience. The most recent is the movie version of The Giver, produced by Jeff Bridges and starring Bridges and Meryl Streep.

Having never heard of the novel, I came at the film with no expectations, and I confess I was surprised both by the power of its societal critique and its implicit Christian themes.

Seemingly perfect city

The story is set in a seemingly utopian city, where there is no conflict, no inequality, and no stress. The streets are laid out in a perfectly symmetrical grid, the buildings are clean, and people dress in matching outfits and ride bicycles so as not to pollute the environment.

The "elders," the leadership of the community, artificially arrange families and assign vocations, all for the common good. To eliminate any volatile emotions, each citizen takes a daily injection of a sedative.

The elderly and unacceptable children are eliminated, though the people have been conditioned not to think of this as killing but as a peaceful transition to "Elsewhere."

The "sameness" of the city is maintained through the erasing of memory: no one can remember the colorful world that preceded the utopia. No one except the Giver, an elder who retains memories for the purpose of consulting them in case an emergency arises.

Attempts to create utopian societies

Utopian societies -- maintained through totalitarian control -- have been dreamed about at least since the time of Plato, and many attempts have been made over the centuries to realize the dream.

The 20th century witnessed quite a few of them: Mao's China, Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Third Reich, Pol Pot's Cambodia. There are echoes of these in The Giver's version of utopia, but I think what The Giver's city most readily calls to mind is modern liberalism, especially in its European incarnation.

We find the enforcement of politically correct speech, the manic attempt to control the environment, coldly modernist architecture, the prizing of equality as the supreme value, the rampant use of drugs, the denial of death, and the wanton exercise of both euthanasia and abortion.

Memory of the previous world

The plot of The Giver centers on a young man named Jonas chosen by the elders to become the sole recipient of the suppressed memory of the previous world. Through a sort of telepathy, the Giver communicates to Jonas all of the richness, color, drama, and joy of the pre-utopian society.

The most beguiling image Jonas receives is of himself sledding down a hill and coming upon a cottage from which he hears the strains of a song he had never heard before.

In time, the Giver fills out the picture, communicating to the young man the pain and conflict of the previous world as well. Though at first he is horrified by that experience, Jonas realizes that the colorful world, even with its suffering, would be preferable to the bloodless and inhuman dystopia in which he had been raised.

Jonas escapes from the city and ventures into the forbidden wilderness. He wanders through the snow until he comes to a clearing where he spies the sled from his memory.

Forgetfulness of Christianity

He rides the sled down a snowy hill, comes to the cottage, and listens to the song. It is then that we hear they are singing the best-loved Christmas hymn, "Silent Night."

What makes the society in The Giver most like contemporary Europe is the forgetfulness of Christianity. The story suggests -- quite rightly -- that suppression of the good news of the Incarnation is what conduces to dysfunctional and dangerous totalitarianism.

The source of the greatest suffering throughout history is the attempt to deal with original sin on our own, through our political, economic, military, or cultural efforts. When we try to eliminate conflict and sin through social reform, we inevitably make matters worse.

Belief in the Incarnation

The key to joy at the personal level and justice at the societal level is the conviction that God has dealt with original sin by taking it on himself and suffering with us and for us.

This belief allows us to embrace the world in both its beauty and its tragedy, for we see salvation as God's project, not our own. It is the Incarnation -- the event celebrated by the singing of "Silent Night" -- that frees us from our self-importance and gives the lie to our programs of perfectibility.

I can't help but think that the recovery of this lost memory -- so key to the authentic renewal of contemporary society -- is what The Giver is finally about.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org