Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Protestant Theology in the Divergent Trilogy

Since the Divergent movie came out this weekend (Luce reviewed the trailer here), I figured now would be a good time to discuss the trilogy’s religious implications. And no, I’m not going to go on about how the main character Tris is a Christ figure, because once again, that’s too obvious. But it’s well-known that Divergent trilogy author Veronica Roth is a Christian, and her beliefs come through in her books more clearly than they do for a lot of other authors. Specifically, while reading the second book Insurgent, I found a lot of references that sounded Protestant to me. Let’s take a look at how the whole trilogy holds up against a specific Protestant framework, the Five Points of Calvinism. Spoilers for the entire Divergent trilogy after the jump.

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Unlike a lot of YA, and heck, even adult dystopian fiction I’ve read, the Divergent trilogy sometimes actually discusses religion directly. The premise of the series is that, in a dystopian future Chicago, people separate themselves into factions based upon one of five guiding virtues: Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, Candor, or Erudite. At the age of sixteen, they choose either to continue living in the faction into which they were born, or transfer to another one. The main drama revolves around Tris, who is “Divergent”—that is, she could belong to more than one faction. Such people are targeted in their community, but eventually Tris and friends find out that the entire city is just one big scientific experiment meant to control the citizens’ behavior until their supposed “genetic damage” has been healed by the passing of enough generations. We find out there are theists in at least three of the five factions. I say “theists” and not “Christians” because we only ever get references to “God,” not to “Jesus” or “Son of God” or even a “Messiah” of any sort. However, Tris’s family, at least, practices baptism, because at a moment when she thinks she’s going to drown at the end of Divergent, she remembers how her parents “gave her to God” by bathing her in water. Since we find out in Allegiant that the Chicagoans’ memories had been modified several times as part of the experiment, it’s reasonable to assume that their memories of religion had been modified as well, to erase the “non-essential” aspects, and keep only those aspects that fit in best with the factions.

Divergent-movie-posterFor a stripped-down, faction-specific religion, though, a lot of the language used to describe the various religions in the city retains Protestant undertones. For instance, in Insurgent, Tris comes across a group of Amity performing a religious rite. One of the Amity women invites Tris to join them:

“May the peace of God be with you,” she says, her voice low, “even in the midst of trouble.”

“Why would it?” [Tris says] softly, so no one else can hear. “After all I’ve done…”

“It isn’t about you,” she says. “It is a gift. You cannot earn it, or it ceases to be a gift.”

Later in that same book, when Tris thinks she’s about to die, she understandably ponders the afterlife a bit:

I suppose that now would be the time to ask for forgiveness for all the things I’ve done, but I’m sure my list would never be complete. I also don’t believe that whatever comes after life depends on my correctly reciting a list of my transgressions…. I don’t believe that what comes after depends on anything I do at all.

Both of these sentiments sound awfully similar to the way many Protestants speak of God’s grace: as a gift that cannot be earned and that isn’t dependent upon any particular action. “Salvation by faith alone” as opposed to “salvation by good works” has been a Protestant mainstay since the Reformation. The idea behind it is that no human can hope to be “perfect” enough in their actions to be able to please God enough to make it into heaven. Instead, we need God’s grace and forgiveness to save us. Historically, Luther was the first to popularize this particular interpretation of salvation, which contrasted with what he viewed as the Catholic Church’s impossible moral standards. In fact, Roth’s own struggles with overcoming her treatment of virtue as an “idol” and realizing that she is “unable to be truly ‘good’” sound remarkably similar to Luther’s struggles.

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Martin Luther and Veronica Roth. Can’t you see the resemblance?

When I think back on the series as a whole, I find that certain issues about predestination keep coming to mind as well. The doctrine of predestination is most often associated with the Calvinist family of Protestant doctrine, so let’s see if and how the Divergent trilogy, with a particular focus on Tris, applies to the Five Points of Calvinism (popularly known by the TULIP acronym; also keep in mind that modern forms of Protestant churches are very diverse, so while some Reformed churches with Calvinist roots might adhere to these points, others accept only some of them or accept a more moderate form of them, and other Protestant churches have no relationship to Calvinism to begin with).

Total depravity: This is the idea that humans are by nature inclined not toward God, but toward sin and selfishness, and cannot save themselves from sin, but rather need God to save them. In the interview I link to above, Roth makes statements that sound similar to this, such as when she mentions how she is “unable to be truly ‘good'” and how the Divergent books are partly her way of working through an over-reliance on virtue. The members of the factions in Tris’s city think that adhering to their primary virtue—whether it’s Abnegation, Candor, or any of the others—is the be-all, end-all. And yet we find that no matter how hard they try to stick to their virtue, their vices show through. This remains true even when we leave the city in Allegiant and find people who don’t live their lives according to factions. They’re not any better or worse than the people who live in the city. Almost every single character in Roth’s world is morally ambiguous. No one is completely good, not even the main character, Tris, who continually sacrifices herself for others. Even Tris hurts and hates some people. But no one is completely evil, either. We gain at least some sympathy for all of the characters meant to be antagonists, even Marcus the abusive father. So “total depravity,” in both Calvinist theology and in the Divergent trilogy, means not that humans are totally evil, but that evil affects every part of our lives.

Unconditional election: When you hear people talking about “predestination” and “the elect,” this is what they mean. It’s the idea that God has chosen the ones he will save, and not based on any conditions like faith or good works. These “elect” are predestined from birth to be saved. Tris’s statement, “I don’t believe that what comes after depends on anything I do at all”, sounds similar to this unconditionality. But what really made me think of predestination with regards to this series is the existence of the Divergent. They’re supposed to be “special” somehow, from birth, because they don’t fit into only one faction. At the end of Insurgent, we think the Divergent are supposed to be sent out of the city to go help heal the war-torn outside world. But in Allegiant, we find out the Divergent are not any different from anyone else. The whole idea that genetic damage makes people more violent and unstable turns out to be false, so the fact that the Divergent are “genetically healed” makes no difference. Tris the Christ figure saves both genetically damaged and genetically normal alike. Does this mean the trilogy rejects the notion of predestination? Not quite. Tris “plays God” when choosing to save some people and erase the memories of other people. She uses her own criteria, just as God uses his (though in His case, His criteria are much less clear to the average human). Human categories like genetically damaged, Divergent, good, or evil didn’t play into her decision, and God’s election doesn’t depend on human categories either.

Limited atonement: This point asserts that Christ, through his sacrifice, atoned only for the sins of the elect. In the Divergent books, Tris did not, in fact, save everyone with her sacrifice. She saved her city and her friends from having their memories erased and replaced, but her actions led to, instead, the erasure of the memories of her antagonists, the members of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare. She didn’t “save” them by opening them to the truth about genetic damage. Memory modification against someone’s will is mind rape, and that’s that. So yes, Tris’s saving actions were in fact limited only to some people. And if we take the strictest possible interpretation of this point, then perhaps the people Tris didn’t save could not possibly have been saved.

Irresistible grace: This means that the elect cannot resist the pull of God’s grace. While various temptations in life may cause them to stumble, the Holy Spirit will ultimately guide them back toward Christ. We can see how this irresistibility plays out for Tris. Releasing the memory serum on the Bureau is a life-threatening task, and Tris and co. are prepared to force Tris’s treacherous brother Caleb to do it in order to make up for his betrayal. But Tris remains consumed with guilt about sending her brother to his death, and in the end, she cannot resist the call to make the sacrifice herself. Her conscience guides her toward this decision, which ultimately is very right for her character and leads to a much better situation for all her loved ones.

Perseverance of the saints: “Saints” here is just used as another word for the elect. This point asserts that nothing can derail God’s will for the elect, and that they will continue in faith until the end. If they appear to lose their faith, then they were never saved to begin with, or they will eventually repent and return to God. Certainly, nothing can derail Tris when she is determined to accomplish something. She is continually promising to stay safe, but then going off to risk her life for her friends, such as when she went behind her boyfriend Four’s back to turn herself over to the Erudite in Insurgent. She is even able to resist the death serum left as a booby trap for her when she enters the lab to release the memory serum. Not even gunshot wounds stop her from achieving her purpose. Only after her task is done does she die. No wonder she gets called stubborn!

So we can see these points of Calvinism playing out in the trilogy, especially in Tris’s heroism. Sometimes she plays the role of one of the elect, and sometimes she plays the role of God. And there are also ways that the series doesn’t quite fit into this TULIP framework. But remember, kids, literature is usually more enjoyable when it’s not an exact allegory. While it’s impossible to know if Veronica Roth intentionally incorporated TULIP into her books, we can see its influence if we look closely enough.

3 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Protestant Theology in the Divergent Trilogy

  1. As a Baptist Christian it has been my observation before that Christian fiction tends to come off as Calvinsit weather the Author intends it to or not. Because in a story everyone’s fate is predestined by the Author.

    That is my greatest struggle as an aspireing writer, since I really hate Calvinsit doctrine, I believe in true Eternal Security.

  2. Pingback: Divergent is the YA engine that apparently couldn’t – Seemingly Good Ideas

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