TagGame of Thrones

The Meaning of Game of Thrones

I read the first three books. I loved them, and then I waited.  I waited for George R. R. Martin to write the fourth book.  By the time it came out, I had forgotten what happened in the first three, so I read no more Song of Fire and Ice.

Then, in 2011, HBO gave us the television series Game of Thrones.

I’ve enjoyed watching, thinking and arguing about the series.  Some people don’t think Christians should watch it because of the content.  I disagreed with them in “Why Christians Might Watch Game of Thrones.

Now we are in the eighth season.  The first episodes of this final season suggest an important theme.  Perhaps it’s the way we might understand the entire series.

The story is set in a pseudo-medieval world, a brutal world.  The series follows the main players in the deadly game of thrones.  The purpose of the game is to  establish and solidify and expand their kingdoms in Westeros at the expense of the other players.

The nine main houses of Westeros are Stark, Arryn, Baratheon, Tully, Greyjoy, Lannister, Tyrell, Martell and Targaryen.   The first 7 seasons are dominated by the overt and covert machinations of various of these houses as they struggle for control or domination of a greater piece of Westeros.

SPOILER ALERT

The Game of Thrones

The cost of playing the game of thrones is high.  Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is beheaded at the end of season 1.  Ned was thought to be the hero of the story–he was admirable in every way.  If he played the game at all, he played it with integrity.  His integrity, in fact, kills him.  His name has become a verb in my family–when a main character is unexpectedly killed on a TV show, he is said have been “Ned Starked.”

Besides Ned Stark’s there are many significant deaths that are a result of playing the game:

  • Oberyn Martell played the game with a little too much confidence in his matial skills–he payed, first with his eyeballs, then with his life.
  • Because of this death Ellaria Sand poisoned young Myrcella Baratheon, a Lanister princess.
  •  Sweet and innocent Tommen Baratheon kills himself after his mother kills his wife, and a lot of others, when she blows up the Sept of Baelor in the game.
  • Lysa Arryn cannot fly, so she falls to her death when pushed through the Moon Door by Lord Baylish, a master player until the Stark girls take him out.
  • Renly Baratheon is murdered indirectly by his brother, Stannis.  He is assassinated by magic smoke.
  • Speaking of Stannis; he burns his own daughter to death in order to win the assistance of the Lord of Light to win the game.  The Lord of Light was away from the table.
  • Viserys Targaryen earned a golden crown–he died because the gold was still in liquid form.
  • Joffrey Baratheon was poisoned by at his wedding by Olenna Tyrell–no regrets here.
  • The vile Ramsey Bolton decided to play.  He played the game hard, but lost big time.
  • Walder Frey wanted to play.  His big move was the Red Wedding.

Almost all of the people who killed the above were killed our of revenge for doing it.

“Winter is Coming”

“Winter is coming” has been the tagline of the show since the beginning.  In literature, the seasonal year has long been a metaphor for human life.  Spring is linked to birth and the winter is analogous to death.  This idea is reinforced in Game of Thrones with the simultaneous arrival of winter and the Night King.

“Winter is coming,” then, means “Death is Coming.”

The Night King is accompanied by a gigantic army of the dead.

By the end of season 7, Jon Snow realizes that the inhabitants of Westeros are no longer playing a game of thrones, but a game of life and death.  His mission is to convince the other leaders that they must stop fighting each other and come together to face the far bigger enemy–the Night King and his host.

He has limited success in creating a coalition of the living against the zombies from beyond the wall.  The houses Stark, Targaryen and Arryn join together to fight the dead.  But that’s pretty much it.

The Tullys would likely help, but the head of their house, Edmure, was last seen rotting in a cell at the Twins.  Gendry is the only remaining Baratheon. He’s at the fight, but since he’s illegitimate, he’s just a soldier.  Theon of house Greyjoy is doing his bit, but he’s brought no army.  House Tyrell has been erased.  All that’s left of the Martells is Ellaria Sand who is in a prison cell watching her daughter decompose.  These families have lost the game of thrones before it became the game of life.

This leaves the Lannisters.  Although her brothers fight with the north, Cersei and all the armies under her control have refused to march. The Greyjoy navy under Euron are joining with Cersei.

Game of Thrones as Allegory

Game of Thrones can be looked at allegorically.

“Winter is coming,” means “Death is Coming.”

This might be the tagline for all of our lives.  There are various ways to play the game of life.  We can pursue love, money, fame, sex, family, and power.  Analogous to the game of thrones, our playing of the game of life will have a high cost.  We invariably pay the cost by sacrificing our relationships or money or family or health or happiness.

Then we become aware of death.  For many, this awareness comes too late; they have  already been consumed by the game itself.   Some will stop playing the game when the reality of death crosses the wall.  Priorities will change as they become begin to grasp reality.  An then there a those like Cersei.  Still able, but refusing to acknowledge the reality of death, the true enemy.  They respond by playing the game harder than ever.

Game of Thrones might be, among other things, an allegory for our response to the reality of death.  If the series is, in fact, allegorical, it will be very interesting to see the conclusions Game of Thrones will offer in the remaining episodes.

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Why Christians Might Watch Game of Thrones

Image: HBO

 

Kevin De Young stated recently that he didn’t understand Christians watching Game of Thrones.  From the comments following his post, it’s obvious that this is a bit of a contentious issue.  I don’t think that Kevin De Young is necessarily wrong, but I do think that there is one reason why some Christians might watch Game of Thrones.

Before I engage his main idea, I have a few preliminary, knee-jerk reactions to his post:

First:  A particular strain of North American Christian is particularly sensitive to sexual content.  DeYoung’s post only questions this. Ten of John Piper’s explanations of the Twelve Questions to ask before You Watch Game of Thrones are centered on sex.  That violence in Game of Thrones doesn’t seem to be a concern suggests an imbalance.

Second:  Because he has not seen Game of Thrones (“Not an episode. Not a scene. I hardly know anything about the show.”) I don’t think De Young is qualified to publically comment on the show.   The question a discerning Christian viewer must ask about questionable content (coarse language, violence, and nudity) is not whether or not it is present, but whether or not is it gratuitous.  I have no problem with anyone choosing to avoid a program because of the content, but this does disqualify them from making a public critique of the show.  I have had many frustrating conversations with people bent on banning books they’ve never read–Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were the subjects of three of these conversations.

Third:  I find his use of the adjective “conservative” to be puzzling.    De Young is baffled that many “conservative Christians” are watching the show.  Why not just “Christians”? With this usage, he seems to be suggesting that there are all sorts of things we might expect from _____________ Christians, but conservative Christians should know better.  There is so much damage done in the church through the deliberate perpetuation of divisions within the body of Christ, and they are often completely imaginary.

Fourth: De Young’s post is short because “the issue doesn’t seem all that complicated.”  Oversimplification is a dangerous thing.  I concede that over-complicating simple issues is also a danger–which is this?  I don’t think too many things are simple.  In this post, De Young is oversimplifying a complex topic: the Christian engagement with culture.

 

[tweetshareinline tweet=”OK, so why might some Christians watch Game of Thrones?” username=”Dryb0nz”]

 

Game of Thrones is art.  It may be bad art or art to be avoided, but it is art.  It is a product of our culture and it contributes to the discussion about what it means to be human.  Christians have some important things to say on this topic, and should not exclude themselves from the table.  Most Christians should be paying attention to this conversation, and some Christians might need to pay attention to the contribution that Game of Thrones makes to this conversation.  The stakes are high, and, like I said, we have some important things to say on this topic.

[tweetshare tweet=”Some Christians ought to be paying attention to the contribution that Game of Thrones makes to the conversation: What does it mean to be human?” username=”Dryb0nz”]I’ve recently read a book called, How to Survive the Apocalypse by Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson.  In Chapter 7 — “Winter is Coming: The Slide to Subjectivism,” the authors suggest that Game of Thrones “gives us a picture of the world that could (and can) be but not the world that is.”  Of course, the dragons and whight walkers are fantastic, but Joustra and Wilkinson are talking about one of our cultural pathologies that is on display in Game of Thrones–instrumentalism.  Less and less, in Western culture, do we make decisions based on morals, ideals or principles.  We weigh costs and benefits, and these are measured on a scale of personal fulfillment.  Whatever benefits me is meaningful; I get to decide what benefits me–meaning is subjective.

The problem is that we live in a world that has a bunch of other people living in it too, and these folks present conflicting meanings.  Very quickly we are faced with a problem: How do we decide whose meaning is more meaningful? The answer is simple: whosoever is the stronger.  Consequently, everyone wants power, for only with power can my idea of personal fulfillment be realized for me.  This is, perhaps, the reality to which we are headed.  This is the world of Game of Thrones–“You win, or you die.”  Because Game of Thrones gives us a peek at our possible future, it can be taken as a warning.  We aren’t supposed to find the sex and violence stimulating, we are supposed to find it offensive because they are being used as tools to achieve a particular idea of personal fulfillment–this is something hellish.

If the show uses sex and violence simply to titillate and entertain, it is gratuitous sex and violence, and Christians ought to avoid this show.  If the show condemns the instrumental use of sex and violence, then we are on the same page as the creators and watching the show will enable us to engage in meaningful dialogue with our culture, so that we might yet pull back from the slide to subjectivism.  The problem is, I suspect the show uses the sex and violence both gratuitously and as a signifier of important ideas.  See what I mean?  It’s not simple.

One of the problems with the sex in Game of Thrones is that it distracts Christians from much more important and much more dangerous ideas than the sex and nudity.  It would seem that the artists who create Game of Thrones are concerned about the increased role that power is or might be, playing in our culture.  As Christians, we are concerned about that as well and we might, perhaps, be thankful that they pointed it out in such a way that so many people are paying attention.  Christians have something far more to contribute to the conversations about Game of Thrones that go way past nudity–in the Gospel, we have the resources to challenge subjectivism, instrumentalism, and power before they transform our culture into one that too closely resembles what we see in the television program.  Some Christians will need to be watching the show in order to take part in this important conversation.

[tweetshare tweet=”Sex in television is a problem because it distracts Christians from ideas that are much more dangerous than nudity.  ” username=”Dryb0nz”]

Am I arguing that all Christians ought to watch Game of Thrones?  Certainly not.  Many should stay far from it because of the sex and the violence–it will cause them to sin, or another to stumble.  Others should stay away from it because no Christian should ever passively consume a show like Game of Thrones, or any show for that matter.  We are not of the world, but we are in it, and if we are going to be in it, some of us will need to understand it–this takes a lot more work than many people want to do, so these, too, should avoid shows like Game of Thrones.

When it comes to our interaction with culture, Christians often find themselves caught between a desire to be innocent as doves and to be as wise as serpents.  It seems that it is Christ’s desire that we be both.  So we, with the power of the Holy Spirit, are left to sort it out.  This conversation has been going on for a long time; DeYoung leaning more toward a Puritan position, and my ideas coming out of a more Kyperean-Calvinist model.

Whatever position we take in this conversation, I believe these things are important:

  1. There is a line.  Game of Thrones may have crossed it and the “cultural engagement,” or “Christian freedom” arguments can’t be used as excuses to do whatever we want.
  2. Our engagement must be inclusive and holistic.  We need to pay attention to more than sexual content.  This would include violence, but I think the far more subtle ideas about human value (or lack thereof) and meaning (or the lack thereof) are far more dangerous, and these are to be found in movies that are rated G.
  3. I think it is important that we do not perpetuate artificial divisions between others in the body of Christ.  Most of our differences have to do with differing emphases.  Too many Christians are getting caught up in the political polarization that dominates our culture–we don’t have to go down that road.  I would suggest that to do so is to defy Christ’s desire that we be unified.
  4. And we must not over-simplify things which are not simple.

What do you think?  Is there a place for some Christians to watch Game of Thrones?

Image: HBO

 

 

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