‘Divergent’ Lesson in Human Depravity

It’s rare to find a major motion picture that paints humanity, as a whole, to be this bad.

Not only was it human evil that nearly destroyed the world in some great war, but now it is human depravity that threatens to undo it all again. They sought to guard against this very thing when they divided society into five factions: Abnegation to counter selfishness, Erudite to stand against ignorance, Amity against aggression, Candor against duplicity, and Dauntless against cowardice.

Each faction was formed to shine against some great human darkness, with all five working together to sustain human light and life. But the problem is that the depravity runs too deep. And now it’s all crashing down again.

Find the Fingerprints

In ‘Divergent’ (rated PG–13, opens this weekend), sixteen-year-old Beatrice (“Tris”) Prior finds herself coming of age in the middle of society collapsing around her. None of the factions — with their respective emphases on the virtues of selflessness, knowledge, harmony, truth, and courage — are able to stem the tide of evil at work in the human heart (some of us would call it “sin”). It’s calling out of human corruption is so honest, it’s almost Christian — even Calvinistic.

Veronica Roth, author of the bestselling book Divergent (2011) and its two sequels, partnered in the production of the movie, as author Suzanne Collins has with The Hunger Games series. The result is a film that is strikingly similar to the novel (if not also reminiscent in some ways of Hunger Games), with some small twists and turns to adapt it for the big screen. Perhaps it’s Roth’s involvement that keeps the movie turning on the same themes as the written medium. And this is a good thing.

She is a professing Christian, and while she clearly does not aim for the trilogy to be Christian fiction, some of us find the fingerprints of a generally biblical worldview to be refreshing. In addition to the intriguing personality categorizations of the factions, three major themes with Christian underpinnings begin their arc in this first story and develop in the subsequent installments. One is forgiveness. Another, perhaps most significant, is self-sacrifice (and will shine most brightly later in the trilogy). But the clearest and most striking in the first Divergent book is Roth’s conception of human nature.

Human Sin Is to Blame

Early in the story, one leader summarizes the societal consensus on what went wrong and called for the factions — humanity is to blame.

“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality — of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.” (42)

And Roth’s conception, it seems, is not simply a depravity, but a total depravity, across the human faculties, including the fallen and unreliable intellect. Tris, who narrates the story, speaks directly to the reader when she says, “Human reason can excuse any evil; that is why it’s so important that we don’t rely on it” (102).

Such depravity also means she can’t rely on mere human authority: “Listening to my father . . . and my experiences . . . make me wary of authority and human beings in general, so I’m not shocked to hear that a faction could be planning a war” (375–376). Not only does Tris remember her mother telling her that “people are flawed” (294) — hardly an unusual claim — but she also hears her say, “I don’t care about the factions. . . . Look where they got us. Human beings as a whole cannot be good for long before the bad creeps back in and poisons us again” (441).

Not the Prevailing Perspective

This realistic, even Calvinistic, vision of humanity under sin is not one that Roth has picked up by putting her finger in the wind, even if dystopian fiction is especially conducive to it. It’s not the prevailing perspective on humanity in the secular arena. It’s an anthropology rooted in the Christian Scriptures. This is not a picture we would paint of ourselves without some greater authority telling us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10), that the human heart “is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).

It’s not the normal Hollywood narrative that would bracket a Genesis flood story with such shocking depictions of humanity in its sin: “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and . . . every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5), and “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). (It’s doubtful that a major motion picture about Noah would be willing to go there.)

While ultimately this story stays sub-Christian, Roth has not left her faith behind. There may be lamentable lapses and inconsistencies (though no sexual immorality, at least in this first film), but as with other Christian writers sub-creating sub-Christian stories (like Tolkien), there is much here to appreciate in Roth’s wrestling with human nature. She shows us a world badly wanting, a humanity desperately in need of a rescue from outside of ourselves. There is virtue in pre-evangelism. Let’s pray an army of beautiful feet run to fill in the gaps with those left wondering.