Can We Talk About Christians and Game of Thrones?
“We are narrative creatures, and we need narrative nourishment—narrative catechisms.” - ND Wilson
I think the way we've been taught to consume stories is wrong.
[When I say we, I mean Christians. Christ followers. Insert Jesus-loving-Christian-adjacent label here.]
Let me set the scene: you're six years old, a bright and inquisitive kindergartner, sitting in Sunday School. A kind volunteer is teaching from Genesis, particularly the passage that includes Noah and the Ark. The teacher relays the beats as follows:
+ There were evil people in the world, and Noah was the only good guy left.
+ God sent a flood to wipe out humanity, except for Noah and his family.
+ God put Noah and his family and two of every animal on a boat.
+ It rained.
+ The floodwaters left (a dove!) and Noah and his family lived happily ever after.
+ Also a rainbow!
I know why we are afraid to tell kids the real story of Noah and the ark. I know why we make crib bedding with the animals all two by two. I know why we end the story on the rainbow and not Noah's drunkenness with his sons a few verses later. Because looking that story in the eyes is terrifying. We gloss over that story like ice skaters because we don't want to think about a God who destroys almost all of humanity. The story of Abraham and Isaac? Same thing. What is that story trying to tell us about God? About humanity? About me and you?
Humans crave story. We always have. This is not new information for you, because our brains are always trying to tell us a story to help explain the world around us. We need to understand why this friend hurt us, so we create a narrative. We try to process a death, so we ask to hear the stories that surround a person's final moments. We look back at trying times in our lives and want a trial to serve a greater purpose, so we write a draft. It's embedded in our DNA to seek out truth, to try and make sense of chaos, and story is one of our major tools.
When the author of Genesis unflinchingly recorded these details in the stories of Noah and Abraham, no matter if they actually happened or not, no matter the trails they walked to become sacred text, I believe they are the inspired word of God, and I believe God wants to tell us something about Himself in these stories. When the major prophets paint pictures of fire and brimstone, when the minor prophets boldly spoke truth to power, none of it was pretty. None of it was fit for the Hallmark channel. When Jesus embedded the truths of the Kingdom into stories, He was giving us a way to better understand the unfathomable news of a shepherd who rejoices to find one lost sheep, a man who sells everything to buy a field with a hidden treasure, seeds that fall on good soil. Jesus is helping us understand the mysteries of God by telling us a story.
Or as one of my favorite authors puts it:
“Imagine a poem written with such enormous three-dimensional words that we had to invent a smaller word to reference each of the big ones; that we had to rewrite the whole thing in shorthand, smashing it into two dimensions, just to talk about it. Or don’t imagine it. Look outside. Human language is our attempt at navigating God’s language; it is us running between the lines of His epic, climbing on the vowels and building houses out of the consonants.” - ND Wilson
On its surface, I cannot say that Game of Thrones (or The Walking Dead, or Saving Private Ryan, or or or...) meets Saint Paul's criteria for things to think about (Phil. 4:8). I would argue that is because we've confused true with clean. Clean says: there's no bad language or sex scenes in this movie, so I can watch it. When in all actuality, while that Hallmark movie is rated G, it makes you hate the fact that you're single (or creates dissatisfaction in your marriage) and gives you wildly painful expectations of love, relationships, and what your life should look like. It stirs up jealousy in your heart. But it's clean so...we let it slide.
Not everything that is clean is true. And not everything that is true is clean. I want my stories crackling with truth, and I don't really care if they are clean, mainly because the world isn't clean. Human nature is deeply flawed. Evil exists and sometimes it looks like it wins. The world is rated for mature audiences whether we like it or not.
Shall we let our friend Gilbert Keith Chesterton expound in his way: "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 Saint 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."
I'm not going to sit here and try to tell you that some story exposition taking place in the inner chambers of a brothel is uplifting. It's not. This is not me trying to tie a clever knot that insists senseless killing is holy. I won't. I don't like those aspects of any story, but I know that in order for a story to be good, someone has to be the villain. Good is meaningless without evil. Redemption doesn't come without blasphemy and you can't free something if it's not enslaved. There has to be a struggle in order for a story to be told, otherwise, it is just a report of information.
I'm always on the lookout for how I can better understand the world and the people in it. Madeleine L'Engle says that "when we look at a painting, or hear a symphony, or read a book and feel more Named, then, for us, that work is a work of Christian art. But to look at a work of art and then to make a judgment as to whether or not it is art, and whether or not it is Christian, is presumptuous. It is something we cannot know in any conclusive way. We can only know if it speaks within our own hearts, and leads us to living more deeply with Christ in God...there is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred."
When I first read the book that quote originates from (Walking on Water, absolute mandatory reading for anyone who considers themselves a creative) in 2005, I made a little note in the margin: "Is that true?" Twenty-two-year-old Erin wanted to know if sacred could hide in the secular: if Harry Potter was a cautionary tale about the evils of witchcraft, or if it was a story about the eternal struggle between good and evil and the real lives shaped in its midst.
A stranger once muttered that I must be "ungodly" because I read Harry Potter.
I was perplexed because what Harry Potter did for me was draw me closer to God. It pulled me in: I asked questions about humanity and destiny and death and love and the meaning of life. I saw a picture of redemption and resurrection. I explored my questions about friendship and family and higher powers in a fantasy world, but the answers still checked out in the real world. To me, it is "ungodly" to view the world any other way than by looking under the rocks and in the dark hidey-holes for places God has left truth. In a painting, in a story, in a sky, in a person. Why are you not picking up everything you see and turning it over for what God might have to say to you? Why are you not searching for Him in all of it?
I can only speak from a Christian perspective, but not only have we confused true with clean, we've conflated joy with happiness, holiness with rightness, gentleness with weakness, peace with quiet, and faithfulness with being a doormat. It is easier and more socially acceptable to be right as opposed to seeking holiness. We mock gentleness because it has somehow been made feminine and feminine is fine for the ladies, but dudes better freakin' man up and rub some dirt on it. "Why can't you just be peaceful" is code for "why can't you just shut up and let this go?" Happiness looks for its own satisfaction, instead of finding joy in whatever comes our way: happy or sad. But this worldview lacks teeth, and it shows up in our stories. It's why Christian filmmaking gets such a bad rap, it's why we look at something and decide it's "bad" before we've used an ounce of the brain God gave us to think critically about it. I'll agree that I don't think everyone should or can consume story this way. And I'll agree that I'm not sure Game of Thrones will end up telling a story where the hero wins and good prevails. I don't need it to do that. I need it to help me understand my own life and the world I see around me: good and bad, light and dark, truth and falsehood.
I watch Game of Thrones because the sacred is hiding in the secular bulrushes. I don't watch Game of Thrones because I'm jonesing for the next sex scene, or because I love watching people die. I'm looking for handles for how I interact with my own love, my own ashes, my own joys, and sorrows. That's what anyone who is in the business of telling stories is doing.
God is not shying away from these stories. The stories of God are terrifying, vast, redemptive, troubling, holy. There are heroes. There are villains. Sometimes they switch. Are we not looking for these themes in our own lives? Are we not living on the same epic scale? Twenty-two-year-old Erin didn't know what thirty-six-year-old Erin knows. Thirty-six-year-old Erin knows she barely knows anything, but most of what she does know that is true was laid on her doorstep wrapped up in a story.
*****I'm about to get slightly spoiler-y here, so you've been warned.*****
I don't think you're wrong for not watching Game of Thrones. If you feel strongly about the content, I'm not advocating that you watch it or read it. I also don't think you hold the higher moral ground because you only watch the Hallmark channel. (I'm coming hard for the Hallmark channel, but it's just the most opposite form of storytelling I can come up with) I don't think it's true to say that GoT (or any number of films, shows, books, whatever) isn't dicey at times. I don't love the way they've handled parts of the story as a book reader and a show watcher. I'm definitely not going to defend gratuitous sex and shock value violence. But when Arya Stark decided to eschew being No One, and reclaim her true identity as a Stark of Winterfell, I was reminded of my own experience of salvation and my own true identity. When the Hound found redemption only to fall back into his old ways, I was reminded of how hard trauma is to shake. When I watched Jon Snow open his eyes after being dead, what else was I thinking about but the hero of my own story?
I can only speak for myself here, but these stories are stones for me, ebenezers that remind me of my place in The Great Story. I don't live with any kind of guilt because I watch the show. Buechner says "who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?" Maybe something easters up for you in sports or spreadsheets or scripture. For me, it is story.
I've talked before about my love for Every Moment Holy, and because it's perfect, it contains a beautiful liturgy entitled "A Liturgy Before Consuming Media". I won't quote the whole thing (go get this book, it's wonderful), but here's a part I try to always keep in mind when asking these questions:
"Let me experience mediums of art and expression, neither as a passive consumer nor as an entertainment glutton, but rather as one who through such works would more fully and compassionately enter this ongoing, human conversation of mystery and meaning, wonder and beauty, good and evil, sorrow and joy, fear and love."
Maybe it feels like a justification for you. That's okay. It might be. I've loved this story for years, since I read the books, and I am so invested in these characters, I can see a possibility where that investment overshadows good sense. I try to be objective, but I don't always get it right. I don't feel bad for watching the show in the least, but I understand myself well enough to know that I need guardrails and boundaries. I ask three questions that help me decide whether something like a story or a book or a movie is worth my time and my soul, my two greatest non-renewable resources.
1. Is it doing any work in pointing me toward God? Can I find the sacred in the secular?
2. Is it doing work to help me understand my own place in the world? Is it giving me handles to process hard and holy things?
3. Does it contain a pressure point for me personally? If you happen to be a sex addict, I can see where watching something like Game of Thrones might be particularly troublesome for you. If you're a recovering drug addict, I think a show or a movie that glorifies that behavior might not plant a good story in your brain. For me, I cannot watch shows like Real Housewives or Keeping Up with the Kardashians because jealousy and greed will overtake my heart in a flash. Political news created so much deep anger and discord in my soul that I had to stop consuming it. It's probably different for you. That's okay.
Madeleine L'Engle wraps up Walking on Water with these thoughts, and they seem like the perfect way to wrap up thoughts here. At the end of the day, here's what I care about in my consumption of any type of art:
“The journey homewards. Coming home. That's what it's all about. The journey to the coming of the Kingdom. That's probably the chief difference between the Christian and the secular artist--the purpose of the work, be it story or music or painting, is to further the coming of the kingdom, to make us aware of our status as children of God, and to turn our feet toward home.”
Some writing that helped me formulate my own thinking on this subject:
Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle
Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederich Buechner
Notes from a Tilt-a-Whirl by ND Wilson
Death by Living by ND Wilson
Article: The Thin Places of Fantasy by Chris Yokel
Article: Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me by Andrew Peterson
Article: Harry Potter is a Hobbit by Dr. Amy H. Sturgis
Article: Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy by Lev Grossman