Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Game of Thrones & Christians: What's a Christ-Follower to Do?

by Rev. Laura Barclay

A family member of mine recently sent me this article (Can a Christian Watch Game of Thrones?) and asked me to respond. The author argues that the show contains sex, violence and power struggles without the obvious good versus evil struggle contained in works like the blatantly Christian Lord of the Rings where the reader knows who will win. Ultimately, the author, David Gibson, concludes we will have to see how it ends to decide.

I would argue that Game of Thrones is a more realistic fantasy series than Tolkien's work and should be taken seriously by Christians for a number of reasons.

1) Christians, like Game of Thrones fans, lost our hero in the beginning of the story. If one considers the lifespan of the Christian church, our hero, Jesus, dies before the end of the first act. Fans recoiled at (*spoiler alert*) Ned Stark's beheading by a cruel king while two of his daughters watched. Similarly, Jesus was crucified by a historically terrible Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, while his mother Mary and close friend/Apostle to the Apostles Mary Magdalene stood by him. I think Christians can relate to this dark chapter.

2) Sex and gender relations in Game of Thrones are disturbing and complex, just like the real world. Yes, the show contains content that is at times graphic and unnecessary, but it underscores the unfair way women are treated in Westeros (and, thus, the Middles Ages that author George R. R. Martin based his story upon).  Let us not forget that in the real world, millions of women are sold into slavery and abused. Read Half the Sky to begin to get an idea of the gender inequality that exists at present. It could be argued that fans of the series judge their loyalties to characters based on their interaction with women (Tyrion Lannister and Robb Stark being fan favorites). The empowered leader Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen is the one everyone wants to be queen, and the knight Brienne is beloved by devoted readers and watchers alike. Similarly, Jesus treated women well in a historically patriarchal era, bringing many into his fold and they, in turn, supported his ministry with their money. In addition, Jesus defends the adulteress against the religious leaders who would stone her and women become important leaders in the fledging church. One more word on sex & Christianity: Roman leaders spread rumors that Christians were incestuous and participated in orgies (because they called each other brother and sister in Christ and exchanged the holy kiss) and accused them of cannibalism (eating the body and blood of Christ).

3) Life on Westeros and Earth can be unfair and violent, but ultimately good will prevail. The Red Wedding scene--(*spoiler alert*) how could so many beloved characters be slaughtered? How could the most seemingly moral family in the series lose so many? Individual like the apostles, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and events like My Lai Massacre, the Holocaust, and far too many other genocides and wars to count tell us that life can be brutal and unfair. Yet hope comes in the response. The world didn't forget the Holocaust--it is taught in schools, in museums, and documentaries. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his ideals are well-known in households across America and the world despite his assassination.  Christians and/or good people are not promised a good life because they are good. They are however, part of the Kingdom of God because they are slowly bringing about God's ideal of love on earth. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Because this is true for our world and Martin is aiming for realism, I'm hopeful this series will tend toward justice in the end.

4) Game of Thrones, like the history of Christianity, is murky in the character of its heros and villains.  Fans spent several seasons hating the Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, only to begin to almost root for him during season three. In life, there are rarely all bad or all good people. In one of the most chilling books I ever read during my college "Holocaust and the Human Image" class, War and Genocide, the author recounts stories of SS troops in World War II and how they came to participate in the Holocaust. These were normal family men who were persuaded through propoganda and peer pressure to do atrocious things. What the author believed, and my professor who was the child of two Jewish Holocaust survivors taught, was that genocide could happen anywhere and we all need to be vigilant. Subsequently, the Church, Christians, and religious people aren't always good. Any beginning student of history could see this through the Crusades, the Inquisition, atrocities during the Reformation, slavery in the American South, and various other social ills of which the Church and/or some Christians have fallen on the wrong side. The show depicts people as a whole, their good and their bad, just like the real world.

5) Christians need to engage in pop culture. Far too often, fundamentalist Christians have preached against something benign, like Disney, and bring scorn upon the entire religion as a consequence. Moderate and progressive Christians need to be louder about creating venues for discussion about pop culture and the ethics of what is portrayed on screen. If churches, and, by association, Christians, become insular communities who cannot relate to the surrounding culture, they ensure their own death.

These are just a few of the reasons why I'm a fan of Game of Thrones. I hope you'll consider watching it so that we can have nerdy discussions together!


  1. Interesting ideas, and I wholeheartedly agree that we should not distance ourselves from culture or sniff at the idea of watching a popular, engrossing TV series. I've been shocked and impressed that a few of my many cousins and even my Dad, all conservative Christians, watch GofT religiously. But I'll challenge one of your phrases, though: "blatantly Christian Lord of the Rings." As I recall from reading excerpts from his biography years ago, JRR Tolkien actually parted company with his good friend, CS Lewis, on the idea of allegory. For Tolkien, "allegory" vs. "story" was akin to "slavery" vs. "freedom," and he came down decidedly on the side of the latter. He didn't insist that his characters resemble or remind his readers of anybody. He was just telling a story. If LOTR is "blatantly Christian" to you, in your interpretation, fine - good on ya. But JRRT didn't set out to write it that way. But thanks for writing this. David, MDiv, JD.

  2. Many times in my life I have watched and listened as Christians tear down something in the pop culture and frankly have no idea what they are talking about. It is a pet peeve of mine when a Christians preaches against a TV Show or book and they show that they have no idea what the subject matter is. I am OK with not liking something as long as it is your personal opinion.

    On to your point. Many shows have ideas and truths that lend themselves to Christians themes. On show was Buffy The Vampire Slayer. While having strangely close parallels to Christian ideas and truths, it was not Christian. Yet many Youth Ministers were and still are fans of the Show. I can never use the clips though to teach, because of the uproar it might cause. Similar with shows like Game of Thrones.

    You are right however that Christians that lock themselves away from the pop culture limit the interactions and understanding they can have of the world around them.

  3. Those Christians you talk of are progressive too....they will probably say that we are meant to be "in the world not part of it." Jesus would not watch it. We should find out enjoyment in Godly things. These are desires of the flesh and not the spirit. This is true. Annoyingly true. Lust is something i struggle with. And I am a woman btw. So in my case avoiding the show would be good. But i do not because i genuinely like the story and i attempt to avoid viewing the very unnecessary sex scenes (eg. click other tab), walk out of the room, avert mh eyes. " But I can find the Christian morals in most TV shows or films i watch. I thought "gravity" had a christian theme to it. Even when created by atheists...suprisingly some of them mske christians look good (eg. The good wife).

  4. Really. I will make some pure lemon aid. Then I will pee in it. Its mostly good. Drink up. The bible says one sin in against the trinity and against your own body. Don't give me your excuse talk to god about it