Ever timely in our consumption of popular culture (yay for babies!), Leeman and I FINALLY saw the end of Game of Thrones season three. If you follow the series at all, that means one thing—the infamous Red Wedding. As long-time fans of the books, [SPOILER ALERT] the death of Robb Stark and his band of Northmen by the treacherous Walder Frey hardly came as a shock to us. But the brutality with which the scene played out did. Thinking particularly of the moment when Robb’s pregnant wife is stabbed repeatedly in the gut, Leeman turned to me to ask, “was that gratuitous? … did it need to be that violent?”
It’s a decent question, and one we absolutely should be asking of a series like Game of Thrones, notorious as it is for depictions of graphic sex and violence. It’s also a timely question to consider in light of the article posted last week from prominent Christian leader John Piper who posed to his congregation “12 Questions To Ask Before Watching Game of Thrones.” In essence, his comments boiled down to – naked ladies do not make for ideal material for the Christian viewer.
Now, I have no desire to criticize or mock Piper for the questions he raises (as the Huffington Post seemed to do). I actually think he’s right to remind us that as people of faith we should be somewhat circumspect regarding our media consumption habits. All too often, we in more progressive Christian circles can probably be a little lax when it comes to what we watch/read/listen to/etc., not considering how our media choices shape our broader attitudes to the world. And I actually think that Piper has a point that the incessant sexual content of a show like Game of Thrones does run the risk of cheapening human sexuality and, importantly, objectifying women (we’ll just leave aside for a moment the fact that Piper seemed more concerned with GoT cheapens female sexuality with respect to men—“Would I be happy if my daughter played this role”—and makes women responsible for controlling male lust).
That said, what frustrates me Piper’s “12 Questions” is that they are actually too easy, too simplistic to apply to a show like Game of Thrones. Basically, there is just so much more that a Christian could (or arguably should) be concerned with on Game of Thrones. Subjects that are far more problematic to my mind than its issues with sexuality, such as the aforementioned disembowelment of a pregnant women. But on a much deeper level, fangirl though I am, it has always troubled me that the world of George RR Martin’s Westeros is a world with little grace. Genuine acts of kindness are few and far between—even then those who perform them are typically either somewhat self-serving or punished for their political naiveté. Nobel characters (members of that ill-fated Stark family being the prime examples) cling to ideals over pragmatism with unfortunate results for many. Really, the sex on the show doesn’t both me, except insofar as it reflects an attitude towards human relationships that is often selfish and sometimes cruel. We rarely see an example of sexuality on the show that is not exploitative in some way. Often this goes beyond the content of the books in terms of problematic material, as in season one when Drogo clearly rapes Daenerys on their wedding night. I have from time to time, asked myself if this is a series I should be watching for any reason beyond, “But … DRAGONS!!”
I think there is. We would run into serious problems as Christians if we walled ourselves off in an innocent, protected bubble and blinded ourselves to the messiness of the real world. It is true that Westeros is full of morally ambiguous characters, defying easy categories of “good” and “evil.” I have to assume that the series resonates with such a growing fanbase precisely because it resonates with our actual experience of the world—which is messy, which is often filled with grey, and in which we all defy easy categorization. Also … did I mention the DRAGONS?
The question of whether a Christian should or should not watch something like Game of Thrones is itself one such grey area. Yes, it is a dark, dirty, often brutal world. One that hardly resembles the Kingdom of Heaven which we are called to work towards as followers of Christ. This is perhaps a good thing to be mindful of as we delight in the machinations of the Lanisters or we cheer Arya on in her determination to avenge her family. But we also believe in a God who is stronger than the messiness and uncertainty of life. Perhaps the great joy of watching something like Game of Thrones as a person of faith is that it at once speaks honestly to our experience of how complicated life can be, while reminding us that, ultimately, we do believe in something more than our own agendas and opportunism. The Gospel, I believe, is big enough for Westeros.