Christians and Game of Thrones: The Great Debate

by Theo Poward

You may or may not be aware that there of this. But, recently there has been a fascinating back and forth on the internet about whether Christians should watch Game of Thrones. As a Christian and a huge fan of Game of Thrones I have enjoyed reading through the blog posts and articles that made up the debate, and felt it necessary to summarize the key points made by both sides; maybe even offer a way forward on the issue.

The argument against

The whole thing started, as far as I can tell, with a piece which presented John Piper’s thoughts on the matter called ‘Twelve Questions to ask Before You Watch ‘Game of Thrones‘.’ The twelve questions are:

  1. Am I Re-crucifying Christ?
  2. Does It Express Or Advance My Holiness?
  3. When will I Tear Out My Eye, If Not Now?
  4. Is It Not Satisfying To Think Of What Is Honourable?
  5. Am I Longing To See God?
  6. Do I Care About The Souls Of The Nudes?
  7. Would I Be Glad If My Daughter Played This Role?
  8. Am I Assuming Nudity Can Be Faked?
  9. Am I Compromising the Beauty Of Sex?
  10. Am I Assuming Nudity Is Necessary For Good Art?
  11. Am I Craving Acceptance?
  12. Am I Free From Doubt?

Kevin DeYoung added approvingly to this list with his own question:

“Does anyone really think that when Jesus warned against looking at a woman lustfully (Matt. 5:27), or when Paul told us to avoid every hint of sexual immorality and not even to speak of the things the world does in secret (Eph. 5:3-12), that somehow this meant, go ahead and watch naked men and women have (or pretend to have) sex?”

Kevin DeYoung followed up his blog post with a rebuttal to the main arguments that were leveled against him and concluded on the following point:

“I’ve not come across a single, compelling argument for the legitimacy of Christians viewing graphic sex scenes.”

The focus of their argument is clear; they are concerned primarily, if not solely, on the sexual content of the show. We should note that they can be said to be using Game of Thrones as an example of what they refer to as ‘Hollywood culture’ that is very relaxed about showing nudity in its work. We will address these points when we look more at the more sophisticated responses to their argument. For now it is important to take their argument seriously. Cards on the table, I disagree with them. But, it would be academically dishonest to write a polemic. Their points are serious and need to be engaged with seriously.

Their work consistently refers back to scripture, and focuses on the corruptive nature of seeing sex and violence. This shouldn’t be seen as a controversial point in a society that accepts that shows like Game of Thrones are not appropriate viewing for children and must come with a warning. These writers are saying that viewing things like this makes us numb to it, regardless of our age, and we need to be careful. Grayson Gilbert argues this point well by looking at our society like a mold. If we do not ask questions then we become passive, shaped by society falling down to our lowest common denominators of base desires, rather than active in demanding better of ourselves. This is a fair challenge, and cannot be waved away. It is not only relevant for Christians either; ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ is a wisdom shared across humanity.

It is not an argument to be dismissed lightly. These writers equate the nudity in popular entertainment with pornography. I would say there is a difference, more on that later, but if we follow their train of thought we can see that with sex and violence it is only too easy to rationalize and justify viewing it, creating a cognitive dissonance and refusing to challenge ourselves. This is true of Game of Thrones:

“Perhaps fearing that the show would flop without a little extra help, HBO used its full premium-cable powers to lard it up with graphic sex and violence. Martin’s books aren’t for the squeamish, but HBO took the lewd elements to the next level. Comedians and critics even coined a term, “sexposition,” to describe the show’s habit of using extended sex scenes as a mechanism for explaining plot points and developing characters.”1

If the argument we are using is something along the lines of ‘I watch it for the story not the sex and violence.’ Then our argument, as Kevin DeYoung puts it, is “Like picking up Playboy for the articles. Or thumbing through the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to enjoy the pretty beaches.”

The charge is legitimate. However, I think things are more complicated than these writers think. The rest of this piece will explain why.

The argument For

As it played out online, the argument for watching Game of Thrones came from Michael Potemra and David French. They raise strong points as well, but perhaps don’t go far enough in engaging the other side’s points directly. I’ll try my best to fill in the gaps.

Calvinism without Christ?

Michael Potemra writes off the back of Kevin DeYoung’s piece and rightfully picks up that this is an issue of ‘Soulcraft’, writing ‘What will this show, this album, etc., leave behind in the consumer’s heart?‘ Michael is not a fan of the show, confessing that after watching the first couple of episodes he had to stop ‘because the show gave me (literal, sleeping-time) nightmares.‘ What he sees in the show is the worst recesses of humanity, without any recourse to hope. This dark and despairing world is too much for Him. He writes: ‘My faith in God, and my faith in Man, are frankly not strong enough to bear up emotionally against such a worldview, asserted for some 80 hours.’

  • The first thing we should note is the different approaches to assessing the value of watching the show. The writers who were against it, all confess to never having actually watched it. They argue that knowing that there is nudity in it is enough.
  • The second thing to note is that Michael is not talking about nudity, but despair. He tried, and does not want to watch the show anymore, not because there are naked people in it, but because the moral underpinning of the show is too disturbing to be enjoyable. David French agrees with this assessment; in his piece he writes ‘Think of it as Calvinism without Christ — natural human depravity unleashed.’

Nudity and Pornography

These points come together to rebuke the writers John Piper and Kevin DeYoung in a complex way. It primarily takes them to task in their conflation of the show with pornography, pointing out that this is a charge that cannot go unsubstantiated. Piper and DeYoung regularly refer to Matthew 5:27, and Jesus’ charge that ‘anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ But in doing so in regard to the show they suggest that nudity and lust go hand in hand. Jesus words talk about looking at a woman lustfully, these writers seem to think that there is no other way of looking at a woman. This is a very simplistic reading of Jesus’ words, and one removed from reality.

The show prides itself on it’s realism; and, as in reality, nudity also conveys both uncomfortable and comfortable vulnerability. If these writers had seen the show they would understand that the sexuality in the show is not presented in a way that is supposed to arose the audience. It is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, it is supposed to make us understand the characters more.

Sexuality is expressed in its full range on the show, lumping it all together inevitably limits our ability to engage with what the show is trying to portray. In other words, by equating the presence of sexuality with pornography these writers also conflate healthy expressions of sexuality found in the show with the rape, incest, and sadism also found in the show. When the possibility of non-pornographic nudity on film is rejected then our ability to talk about sexuality, and differentiate between good and bad expressions of it, becomes compromised. This seems to be a serious and broader problem for conservative Christianity; strict repression often leads to perversion.

Tolkienesque?

The show is not pornography, it presents sexuality as it presents humanity, as a spectrum from the purest expression of affection to the darkest aberration. This realism leads me to the next point. David French rightly compares the work to Tolkien. But he does so negatively, saying:

‘…if you dared to call their creation “Tolkienesque,” the esteemed deceased English author might well rise from the grave in protest.’

This is a very common understanding of the show. That it is flipping the fantasy genre on its head. Its Machiavellian streak is seen to be completely at odds with its inheritance from Tolkien. As Tolkien raps to Martin in their Epic Rap Battle of History showdown:

“We all know the world is full of chance and anarchy. So yes it’s true to life for characters to die randomly.
But newsflash the genres called fantasy. It’s meant to be un-realistic you myopic manatee.”

I think there is more going on in Game of Thrones, and we can understand it in the context of both Tolkien and Machiavelli.

 

Tolkien and the purpose of ‘Fairy Stories’

Tolkien and C. S. Lewis’ friendship is well documented. C. S. Lewis had another friend in G. K. Chesterton, and it’s not a stretch of the imagination, considering their works, to imagine that Tolkien and Chesterton were at least aware and approved of each others work. While defending works of fantasy, like Tolkien’s, Chesterton had this to say:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. – Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

Switch out ‘Bogeys’ for ‘Dragons’ and you have the much more famous misquote from Neil Gaiman.

Fantasy writers in the mold of Tolkien primarily aimed their works at children, in order to teach them that the horrors of the world are real, but they are not invincible.

 

Machiavelli and Morality

Machiavelli, the master of realpolitik, is often demonized as a power-hungry, amoral fiend. In reality he was frustrated because the political advice that leaders in his time were expected to receive was that they should be noble, just, and peaceful; ruling through the love of their subjects.

Machiavelli agreed that this is preferable, but was at pains to point out that we don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes making peace means agreeing to an injustice. Sometimes ruling requires us to to something dishonourable. Sometimes, to those in power, being feared is more useful than being loved.

 

Martin: Taking Dragons Seriously

Game of Thrones agrees with both. It moves on from conventional fantasy because George R. R. Martins intended audience are decidedly not children. The problem now is that, after growing up with stories like the Lord of the Rings and Narnia, we are more likely to be complacent about just how easy defeating dragons and monsters is.

In Game of Thrones, just as in Machiavelli’s thought, the only way to beat your opponent is to be stronger and/or smarter than them. You do not get extra points for being a good person.

This is thoroughly uncomfortable. It is fantasy that takes the dragon seriously. Consequently it forces us to take the darkness brought about by humanity in the real world seriously. David French rightly reminds us of Jesus’ charge that his followers should be both ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

Shutting up our eyes to darkness, ensuring our purity by refusing to engage, means that the darkness wins. Game of Thrones is not amoral, it is a moral challenge. Goodness does exist in Game of Thrones, but the good characters don’t get a free pass, they lose, a lot. If you can still find yourself hopeful, rooting for them, despite everything, then you pass. In other words Tolkien wanted to show us Dragons can be defeated, he succeeded perhaps too well. Martin is trying to remind us just how dangerous dragons really are. Yes it’s possible for the goodies to win, but it’s far from inevitable.

Conclusion

I am not saying that everybody should watch Game of Thrones, I’m not even saying that it is a good show for you to watch. On that point I agree with Michael Potemra:

“It depends entirely on the specific person. If someone were to ask, should people watch Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the answer would be the same: If your interest in the film is motivated chiefly by a desire to enjoy the spectacle of  people getting mutilated by machine-gun fire, then no, you shouldn’t watch it; it will not help you grow in a positive direction. But if you are interested in it because you want to be ennobled and encouraged by the acts of bravery of young men who gave their lives to defend our country, then you should watch it.”

This is why we have ratings systems, they are based upon age but that is only because age is the simplest way to measure maturity when it comes to issues of sexuality and violence. It is true that there is no guarantee of maturity, that is why we must take the concern about corruption seriously. But the weakness of the argument that we should avoid art that contains sexuality or violence is that it assumes that maturity in people is impossible; it assumes an inability to engage and properly digest the art.

In the case of artwork like Game of Thrones, attempts to dissuade viewers are usually based on the premise that the show, Game of Thrones in this instance, is not art, and therefore doesn’t have to be engaged with as if it were. But that is an even more difficult argument to make for somebody who refuses to engage with it in the first place. The worst version of this argument is a contradiction: they claim the show is not art because of its contents, after deciding it is not art they argue that it falls in the same category as things like ‘child porn’ and so refuse to watch and engage with it properly, making it impossible for there to be any actual challenge to their categorization. Nowhere is this more clear than in Mat Walsh’ article, which is the source of the ‘child porn’ comparison, in case you were wondering.

Making assessments on what counts as pornography without a definition is possible. In a famous case on a similar assessment of whether a piece of art counted as pornography the US Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography,  ‘I know it when I see it.‘ Mat Walsh is claiming to be able to know it without seeing it, an impossible standard to argue against.

Moving the discussion forward?

Instead of trying to break these writers out of this cyclical thought pattern, it would be a much more interesting discussion if the following were to happen:

  • After watching the show these writers maintain that it is Pornographic. Then there could be a real discussion about what makes a work pornographic and why they would label Game of Thrones Pornographic, and not the nudity found elsewhere, for example in Schidler’s List.
    • Steps are taken in this direction by this blog post which argues that Game of Thrones is not pornographic, but Friends is, because its permissive stance to extra marital sex. I disagree but at least we are giving a definition with which to work, definitely a step forward.
  • The question should not just be focused on sex and nudity. There is truly disturbing violence in Game of Thrones, I was surprised that none of the writers talked about that when trying to dissuade viewers.

It is a fascinating series of questions, and obviously extends beyond Game of Thrones. There is a good discussion of the topic to be found on the latest ‘More Than One Lesson’ Podcast’s episode. I hope this contribution can act as a touchstone for people who want to take the discussion further.  I also hope that it opens up these debates to a wider audience, these questions are not just for Christians, bringing more people to engage with these issues can only enrich the conversation. So please, don’t let me have the final word on the topic; take that throne for yourself.

Image Credit: HBO

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