June 6, 2013
Why one Game of Thrones fan decided to stop watching the popular HBO show.
What is it that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23, "'I have the right to do anything', you say, but not everything is beneficial."
Shows like this probably fall into the non-beneficial category.
I would imagine that the nihilistic despair portrayed in the show is quite similar to how much of the life on earth must have felt before Jesus brought His kingdom near. I had to stop watching after the first season despite part of me wanting to continue.
Where does The N.T. Wright quote come from?
"Game of Thrones is nihilism set to an epic scale."
Let's wait to the end of the series, shall we?
"I donâ€™t need my art to be full of fluff and optimism, but I do need it to have hope."
Is there no benefit or value in art that exposes and reflects on the reality of darkness and depravity--as an end in itself? I doubt Martin wants to live in a world like Westeros, so maybe we should pay more careful attention to what the story says on its own terms, rather than compare it with some moralistic ideal of what art should do?
Josh, TC editor here. Wright talks about this in an essay he wrote for 2004's The Character of Wisdom: Essays in Honour of Wesley Carr. You can find it on page 3 here, where he discusses secular modernism: http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_God_Caesar.pdf
You started this post with the question, <i>"Can art be good if itâ€™s inherently opposed to a Christian point of view?"</i> But that word "good" is fiendishly difficult. We have good in the sense of moral goodness but also in the sense of a good chair, a good housecat, even a good thief. A good thief is effective at thievery - which almost certainly means he's not morally good!
Art can be good without being hopeful. To take your Tolkien example, both the book and movie versions of <i>The Two Towers</i> end on thoroughly unhopeful notes. And I suspect sometimes art can have other purposes. <i>Uncle Tom's Cabin</i> for instance was about the horrors of slavery, and so if it had any hope it was outside of its own narrative - it was that it motivated other people to (the author most likely expected) to act.
I'm not a GoT fan, haven't seen a single episode, so I have nothing invested in this question. That said, based on your synopsis, I can see a role for GoT to be good at: communicating the horror of evil before grace enters in, for instance, which could point people to more goodness than they could muster or at least the need to face the reality of evil. If it does this kind of thing well, it could be good art. But it also may be the kind of point you don't need to hear, or <i>can't</i> absorb this way. That would basically mean that it's good art but not art that you can put to good purpose. In that case, I don't see any shame in you bidding the series farewell. Not everything good has to be accessible to all people, I don't think.
I like the comment above, "I would imagine that the nihilistic despair portrayed in the show is quite similar to how much of the life on earth must have felt before Jesus brought His kingdom near."
With the exception and clarification that for the unbelieving world, things *still* look that way.
Martin is an admitted agnostic and so portrays the narrative arc as he sees it. And if we are honest, the kinds of cruelties and atrocities depicted in the fantasy medieval world of GoT is actually very realistic. History is replete with the good guys losing, the bad guys winning, the victors writing the histories - sometimes for centuries or millennia before a shard of hope breaks forth.
Western evangelicalism has lost its stomach to stare into the deep despair of the world, (who was it that talked about "the long defeat"? Oh, right - Tolkien), gird ourselves and march forward admitting we will likely lose as far as we will be able to tell.
GoT is tough stuff, but it is not because it is "unchristian", but because it fairly depicts humanity in a fallen world. The church would do well to stare into that and ask how we would answer such despair.
Like John Fowler, I find GoT to depict a worldview against which the gospel is stunning news. Imagine if GoT was set not with vaguely medieval European stylings, but more of a Mesopotamian / Egyptian tone. I suggest the pointless struggle of life against the whims of would-be kings and gods is precisely the setting of the Old Testament. All we're missing in GoT is Molech-style child sacrifice, though we've already come close. The creator God who loves and is faithful to his people would be remarkable indeed. Such a context might even help us make sense of the Warrior God we see in the OT: one who fights battles for his people to protect them from very present chaotic evil. So maybe GoT could still be a reference point in telling God's Story.
Thanks John for the comment, and Josh for the attribution. I believe I stumbled across the concept in Wright's book "Simply Christian."
First off, thanks for the thoughts Eric. Lest I didn't make it clear I LOVED G.O.T. and miss it. I am thinking about at least watching the Red Wedding from last Sunday ...
That being said, you bring up two very interesting points. I read your comment right before a 9-hour plane ride which gave me time to think about a response ... and so here are my ludicrously long thoughts.
To your first point: I tend to be a big believer in the "wait and see how it ends" line of thinking. The Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man" could have gone two very different ways, and it wasn't until the very last scene that we finally learned what kind of world we were in. Fight Club can't be dissected without contemplating Tyler and Marla holding hands while the world crumbles. I see the value in what you're saying.
That being said ... I'm not sure that's a fair approach to serialized television. By the time I quit watching I had invested around 25 hours in GOT. Is it fair to say that those 25 hours only have relevance based on an ending that's years out? It seems to me like those 25 hours have to each stand on their own merit. They were works of art to be understood, dissected and responded to, and when I did that all I saw was hopelessness ... a deep, deep pessimism about the world and no hope of redemption.
And you're right that Martin probably doesn't want to live in Westeros, but what option has he given us. His world is bleak ... and this is coming from someone who LOVES film noir, and the movie Se7en, No Country for Old Men & The Road. I have a special place in my heart for stories of a deeply evil world where good men rage - maybe in vain - against the dying of the light. But in all of those films there's something noble about the heroes quest for goodness in an awful world. We watch and think "I would WANT that character's belief in goodness to be true, even if it isn't."
HBO's other masterpiece "The Wire" is a good counterpoint. That show was extremely bleak and depressing and hopeless at times, but there was something noble about it's characters fumbling journeys toward some sort of goodness. It may have been pointless, but their goodness MATTERED.
When I watch G.O.T. I get the sense such sentimentality is pure foolishness ... probably because Martin violently kills off the characters who believe - as Hemingway/Martin Freeman's character from Se7en say - "the world is a good place, and worth fighting for."
Ultimately however Martin feels, Westeros is not a world that *I* want to live in, and I'm not sure any ending wipes out the 25 hours I've seen. When I look at Martin's world on his own terms - as you suggest - I see a gleeful delight in sadism (the torture of Theon should stand alone), the triumph of evil against good men, and the ever-infamous "sexposition" where women are objectified with little to nothing to do with the plot.
These aren't side elements. They're core. They are every episode features.
Now I get that's not all coming from Martin - and I should say here I haven't read the books at all - but if the 25 hours of GOT should stand on their merit then all I've seen so far is sexism, sadism, and brief glimmers of heroism beat to hell by evil.
I'm not saying no one should watch the show - I'm not even saying the show is bad art - I'm simply calling into question what, exactly, we're all getting out of it.
Marta, you have some good thoughts in here. I just posted at length up above, so I'll try and keep this short.
Westeros HAS good people - Ned Stark being the best example. He's a great father, a man of principles, the kind of guy who's supposed to be the hero. And Martin kills him off, which is a pretty brilliant literary move. It would have been like Tolkein (permanently) killing off Gandalf and Frodo in book 1.
So far Martin has only made one point clear: the world is awful and people who strive for goodness in it will suffer. I simply don't see any positives (yet). Maybe I'm missing something, but in the (brilliant) comments left by people there's not one concrete example of an ennobling point from the plot so far.
I appreciate the thoughts Jeff, but by your logic then there is no artistic endeavor so depraved that Christians can't look at it and say "well how would I respond to that." I mean, there's got to be a line at some point where it's no longer valuable to subject ourselves to that, right?
Again, I'm very tempted to be a GoT apologist. I WANT to be. But I just can't see it. The Bible doesn't shy away from depicting horrors nearly as bad as the worst on GoT, but it sets it right next to redemption. There's always a thru-line of God saying "but even this can be redeemed." Christian art (such as Tolkien's) always dares to claim that hope is worth fighting for even in the darkest places.
Martin has basically said that while he loves LOTR, he set out to make a more realistic version of it. But so far, Martin's idea of realism is hopelessness. I just don't see another way to look at it.
That being said, I don't want to say YOU shouldn't watch it, or that others shouldn't. But I do think there's value in wrestling with "why am I watching it?"
Steven - thanks for the thoughts.
My one pushback against this - and this is a common theme to all the genuinely insightful comments people have left - is that there's not one concrete example of how this is the case. There's no evidence this is what Martin is doing and mountains of evidence he's deconstructing such a way of thinking. And as I argued above, if the last half of a 7th season years from now finally provides redemption, was the path leading up then worth it?
I'm not trying to give the definitive answer, but it seems worth asking.
Thanks for the reply.
"but by your logic then there is no artistic endeavor so depraved that Christians can't look at it and say "well how would I respond to that." I mean, there's got to be a line at some point where it's no longer valuable to subject ourselves to that"
First, I would say that I didn't say GoT was "depraved" - I stated it depicts human behavior fairly realistically (esp. as compared to the Old Testament or Medieval history) - and that our refined sensibilities tend to demure against believing this is what humanity is really capable of.
My point is *exactly* that especially Western evangelicalism tends to live in and view the world from the perspective of a bubble that views the worst of human depravity as the exposure of a female nipple or, perhaps, voting for a Democrat - instead of what *real* human depravity and cruelty looks like (and still goes on in many dark corners of the world even today). And that art & entertainment that "pulls no punches" can be a wake-up call to our numbness. Compare this to, for example, the "Christian" art of Thomas Kincade.
Having said that, can you drown yourself in negative, nihilistic, hopeless art? Probably. But I think it's fairly clear that the risk to evangelicalism is much closer to the opposite error.
One other parting thought. It seems to me Martin is not as much saying "there is no hope or redemption" as painting the world *as it is* and asking us, "where do you find hope in this mess?"
I realize this approach is unsettling to many evangelicals as we prefer to think of the guys in the white hats winning at the end of every episode. But this narrative arc is "true" fantasy. The real world doesn't work that way. The Old Testament doesn't end in redemption - it ends in a question mark and abandonment.
LoTR does end heroically - and Tolkien was clear he was setting out to create a "Christian myth". Martin - like the Coens or Cormac McCarthy - is telling a story we might actually encounter in the world that leaves the faithful wondering where to find hope and leaves the nihilist self-satisfied that their worldview is accurate.
Like it or not, this is exactly what we experience in the world outside of the evangelical bubble. Searching for hope where there is abundant evidence to the contrary. And *this is the message of Christianity* - to have faith and hope *in spite of the evidence to the contrary*. Again, from Tolkein, suffering "the long defeat".
By experiencing such art, I believe the message of the gospel stands in even starker relief to such "faux art" as "Fireproof" and "Facing the Giants" or even "August Rush". Happy endings this side of the eschaton are a rarity - yet there is a deeper hope that sustains some even when all other hope is absent.
In terms of "why do we watch?", I think the question is "what is art supposed to do?" If we want our art to confirm our biases, comfort our illusions and encourage our conceits, by all means, avoid art that is challenging, uncomfortable or upsetting. If, instead, we experience art to be transported, transformed, challenged and moved, perhaps we should prepare to be made uncomfortable.
That said, I don't limit my consumption to one genre or one artist or one medium. Like any diet, diversity is important.
Jeff, I'm really conflicted in your thoughts. On one hand I also am strongly against the whitewashed view of the world that some "Christian art" (as a subgenre) offers. The cross can't be what it is when the world isn't as IT is. So in that sense we're agreed.
Here's where I don't agree - that GoT is in any way similar to the world of the Old Testament. The story of the OT may not end in redemption, but a theme of redemption hoped for and in part found is all throughout.
Even in the midst of God at his most wrathful, the reader is only a couple chapters away from the promise of "but there will come a time ..." It's Joseph saying "you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." It's David crying out in frustration but mid-Psalm saying "but still I will hope." It's Abraham waiting and waiting and waiting for a child, and then the child coming.
This is key. The very definition of what it means to be a Christian. In "Orthodoxy" Chesterton talks about a way of seeing the world that is neither naively optimistic, nor pessimistic. He claims that one of the hallmarks of Christianity is its ability to be both of these and yet neither. A Christian way of seeing the world - a very OT way of seeing the world - is horrible evil intermingling with the hope and promise of redemption. Jesus, the cross & the resurrection isn't a surprise twist thrown in at the end, but a theme hitting its crescendo.
And this is where GoT fails. It not only has zero redemptive hope, it mocks people who believe in hope. It wallows in depravity and forces us as a viewer to do so as well. I see no evidence of Martin pointing toward anything beyond his world's despair, and dozens of examples of him punching his reader in the face for daring to look for it. And that doesn't include the over-the-top torture, the gratuitous sex, and the at times gleefully joy at some main character's actions.
If Martin ever DOES provide some sort of catharsis it will stand in direct contradiction to the values he's put in place so far. And like I said in another comment, does such a catharsis retroactively wipe out seasons of despair up to that point?
I'm super sympathetic to your frustration against most modern evangelicalism - the fact that Christian radio advertises itself as "positive, encouraging, safe for the whole family" makes me feel gross. And Kincaid's false nostalgia offers up a world that never was. And problems don't get neatly resolved in 22 minute increments. I get that, and agree Christian art needs to delve deep into sin for it to emerge with a well-earned redemption.
But just because evangelicalism lost its way doesn't validate what I still see as as the blatantly, purposefully anti-God, anti-hope, anti-redemption world of Westeros.
One last thought to balance out my comments though ... there are SOME slightly signs of redemption. The evolution of Jamie Lannister's character has been beautiful. There's some small signs of Danyaers being a leader worth following.
Of course in both cases I'm fully expecting Jamie to revert and Dany to be killed ...
First things first. Thanks for being open about your thought process. I am a huge movie/TV watcher and consume lots of media in that way so I can understand you're line of thinking when considering the value of art and the impact it has on your life, thoughts, etc. Sometimes, I have to leave a show never to be watched again or sometimes I have to be very careful because I know there will be scenes or content that is no good for me.
I'm not G.O.T. person, never seen a single episode and I can say I likely never will.
To answer your question, "Can art be good if its inherently opposed to a Christian worldview?"
Good is a tricky word. I would say it can have value but only to a point. Every christian has a threshold of art they can consume without it beginning to negatively affect them.
I enjoy the conversation over how to discern art and how to know when its no good for you, personally and just wanted to say thanks for expounding your thoughts even it was directly about G.O.T.
Josh, hope is elusive in Westeros, I agree, but like Josh Larsen's argument about the new Star Trek it is not so much its absence that is striking, as the pleading, almost painful way it deconstructs the hope that was, in search of something else. It is art that is working out some a central malaise of 'realism' in western thought. I agree that Martin's antidote is not religion - at least not the traditional kind - but there is the "dream of spring" after the long winter, that persists. I wrote a bit more about this at Books & Culture here: http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2012/april/returnofdragons.html
You've hit quite a nerve with this post I think! It may be unintentional, but I feel like your article is challenging Christians to consider whether they should be watching Game of Thrones as well. Which is a valuable question I think, though very uncomfortable.
Honestly, I wish Martin was a Christian, and I pray he does have an experience with God that transforms his life. Because Westeros is a world without God, if it was created by Martin to exclude Him.
However, I am willing to dig deep to find my own God truths, or moments of hope, because he is such a genius storyteller, (a gift given to him by God I would add!)
The more I think about it, I am overwhelmed with hope in Game of Thrones:
You mention Jaime Lannister's humbling journey to become a better man, as well as Dany's desire to bring about a more just world. I would add, the character of Tyrion is hope incarnate, a dwarf overcomes all mockery to find joy in life, as well as striving to be a good person. Even the Spider is an example of serving others in the background, without seeking personal glory. The touching friendship between Jaime and Brienne, as Jaime comes to see her true beauty while others scoff, even putting his life on the line for her, also fills me with hope.
The Hound, man I love the Hound! A hulking, ugly brute everyone loves to hate, turns out to be a compassionate, good man. He saves Sansa, and the budding friendship between him and Aria, again, fills me with hope. I can't help but smile thinking about it even now as I type this. And even the torture of Theon Greyjoy, as horrifying as it is, Theon was a proud, selfish and despicable character. Seeing him tortured fills me with sympathy, and in the process reveals a possible redemption journey for him. Having his penis cut off is similar to having the proud, sword fighter Jaime losing his right hand. God humbles the proud, and he raises the humble.
Even the righteous people who are cut down like Ned, I would argue are powerful moments as well. Being righteous in this present age DOES NOT make people love you. How many Christians lost their heads and continue to lose their heads like Ned?
Yes, there is plenty of tragedy and death, but I would argue the series is overflowing with hope if you look close enough. If anything, I'd say the true theme of the series is about misfits fighting the good fight.
Some suggested GoT is like The Lord of the Rings, except Gandalf and Frodo are killed off in the first book. I disagree, I think a more apt analogy is Gandalf and Aragorn are killed off in the first book, Legolas loses a hand and Frodo becomes a cripple, and Gimli is left to cart him to Mount Doom. It's less obviously hopeful, we are left with some very unlikely heroes to save the world, but doesn't that sound like a more realistic, and even more interesting story?
Steven, to some extent I think you overstate your case ... but you've made me consider whether I'm overstating mine. This is a very, very good comment. Thank you for that.
My argument would be that we're given every reason to 1) question whether these characters will continue to be good (Arya, for instance, worries me) and 2) that there's a good chance they'll just be killed off anyway. Pre-Red Wedding you could have said similar things about Robb ...
I do believe Martin has created a world where hope and goodness seem pretty futile, and where the only way to really thrive is to be a nihilistic survivor ... but I hear what you're saying as well.
Thanks for the kind words Joshua! And to be clear I think all your points are valid. Personally, I feel part of Martin's gritty realism does err on the side of revelling in punishing people for trying to be good, though 1) I feel questioning whether characters will continue to be good reveals the better part of realism. I can empathize with Arya because I know I am often a selfish, mean-spirited person. (But I don't want to revel in that!) We instinctively intuit that shining white knights are unrealistic, two dimensional and 2) I know it seems arbitrary the way Martin kills off characters, though when he does I absolutely believe it makes for a "better" (or at least more interesting story).
From a storytelling point of view, killing off Ned in the first season creates much needed space for his children to come into their own, and puts what were minor characters like Robb and co. onto the centre stage.
The Red Wedding episode, while pretty depressing, adds a tension to the overall story. Martin doesn't kill off hopeful characters for no reason, I believe he kills characters when it is the most interesting thing that could happen in the story. If Robb were to secure the Freys allegiance and march on King's Landing, well that would be a pretty straight forward storyline. He would have a son, and then the question as to who the heir to the North is would be solved.
Arya remains on the run, the North is up for grabs, and now the Lannisters seem even more unstoppable. It's quite possibly the more interesting direction for the overall story to take!
As well, I think it plays into the emerging theme of Game of Thrones: Unlikely heroes pushed into the spotlight. Ned was a LIKELY hero, strong, brave, powerful and righteous. His death thrust Robb into the spotlight, young, unproven, weak. He came into his own and when he finally proved himself his father's equal Martin killed him off!
Tyrion being pushed into the role of Hand of the King is another example of an unlikely hero pushed into a higher role, picking up the pieces where the natural leaders were no where to be found.
The Hound, Brienne the female knight, a crippled boy, a bastard son, a young tomboy, the teenage exiled queen; Martin reiterates time after time, these are the true heroes, not the gallant knights or powerful kings.
Finally, I do admit plugging 25 hours+ into a story is more than enough to decide whether the tone/subject matter is worth it for you. However, watching the season finale, hearing Theon's sister swear to rescue her pig-headed, selfish, disgraced, mutilated, "no longer a man" and of no value to his father, brother from torture and death? Well I couldn't help but feel a chill and an analogy of Christ leading a rescue mission to earch. The world is falling apart, much like our real world today, but hope remains. Isn't that the definition of faith and hope, believing something exists even if there isn't any obvious proof?
The world of Westeros is without a one true God, and I could watch the show with more ease, letting my guard down and turning off my critical filter, if Martin was a Christian. Unfortunately he is not, not yet. So your article asks a very important question: Is this a world worth entering and submersing yourself in? The answer is different for every Christian, and those who aren't carefully throwing the chaff out will be inundated with hopelessness. If we don't like where an author is taking us, then it is our duty to leave and spend our time elsewhere.
But we are also living in a world that is filled with darkness, arbitrary death and meaningless torture, for me that is not good enough to give up on a world, not when hope is still to be found. Does that make these characters nihilistic survivors? Probably, because they don't know Jesus. But as a Christian viewer, we do. And using Martin's incredible gift for storytelling, I find that the Holy Spirit still has nuggets of beauty and hope to reveal, pictures of Christ even in places Martin may have not intended.
A few interesting points.
1) Are you aware Martin is actually an relapsed Catholic?
2) There is a strong Christian element through out the 7 novels. Or rather, Catholicism. Of course, if you only watched the show, then you would miss until season 4-5, when a "Sparrow", a poor priest who suddenly showed up King's landing, and start to preach a return to the faith.
3) Directly display of Magic/Godly power in Martin's opinion lead to bad writing. Lord of Rings would had been very boring if Frodo just prayed to god to smite the one ring, or cook it with a wizardry fireball. Several fantasy authors also commented on this problem (Such as David Edding), that in order to have a great story, you can't just "pray your way to victory."
4) Where is Christianity you may ask? The faith of the seven = holy trinity in our world. Martian made is clear that Crone/Mother/Maiden was a reflection of the holy spirit (Father/son/HS), it was later he added Warrior/Smith/Father/Stranger. Kind of like Narnia. Except, where Narnia is an idealized version of Christianity, I.E Pray to the Lion and you win, here it would had ran directly against rule #3. So instead, Martin try to present Christianity in its human form. The humble Septon who fed the poor, Catyelin Tully praying for her son, Cersei pray for her son, men pray before battle, the high Septon who choose to sell the Church's wealth for the poor...
The story isn't even over yet guys. I saw that someone mentioned the road and no country for old men. Both to me were very good. But also depressing (especially the road). Got doesn't depress me at all, it makes me happy to read it. It is just brilliant fiction. And also to me daenerys story is very inspiring, which no one mentioned.
In Reply to John Fowler (comment #20880)
"I would imagine that the nihilistic despair portrayed in the show is quite similar to how much of the life on earth must have felt before Jesus brought His kingdom near. I had to stop watching after the first season despite part of me wanting to continue."
Except in Season 2 Stannis is the Lord of Light, the head of a monotheistic religion which burns unbelievers at the stake like christian inquisitors and witch hunters did.
So when Jesus does enter the picture the picture becomes even more sick. Much like in the real world and it's religions that try to monopolize on the nature of a social animal helping each other out.
The world has become more and more secular and despite huge problems we aren't living in the middle ages anymore where a church dictated the planet was flat and imprisoned and killed people who opposed that FAITH with REASON.
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