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Game of Thrones: Gratuitous sexuality or powerful warning?

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. All Christians should be paying attention to this conversation, and some Christians might need to pay attention to the contribution that Game of Thrones is making.

Game of Thrones: Gratuitous sexuality or powerful warning?

“I Don’t Understand Christians Watching Game of Thrones,” posted Kevin DeYoung, pastor and chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition website. From the comments that followed his August 8 post, and DeYoung’s response to the criticism, it’s obvious that this is a contentious issue in the Christian community. I don’t necessarily disagree with DeYoung, but I do think that there is a reason why some Christians might watch Game of Thrones.

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

First:  A particular strain of North American Christianity is very vocal about human sexuality, it seems to me, to the exclusion of all other issues. I’m sure DeYoung would agree that we don’t want Christianity to be reduced to merely sexual ethic, but his post exclusively questions the sexual content of the show and nothing else. That violence doesn’t seem to be a concern suggests an imbalance. Our interaction with culture ought to be as broad as the scope of Christ’s Lordship.

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 DeYoung is qualified to publically comment on the show. The question a mature and discerning Christian viewer must ask about questionable content is not whether it is present, but whether or not it is 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:  DeYoung is confused that “a good number of conservative Christians treat the series as must-see TV.”  I find his use of the adjective “conservative” to be puzzling. Why not just “Christians”? With this, 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 these divisions are often made of straw.

Fourth: DeYoung comments on the brevity of his post saying, “the issue doesn’t seem all that complicated.” Oversimplification is a dangerous thing. I concede that over-complicating simple issues is also a danger – so which is this? I don’t think too many things are simple. In this case, DeYoung is oversimplifying a complex topic: the Christian’s engagement with culture.

A peek at our possible future
OK, so why might some Christians watch Game of Thrones?

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. All Christians should be paying attention to this conversation, and some Christians might need to pay attention to the contribution that Game of Thrones is making. 

In How to Survive the Apocalypse, authors Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson suggest in Chapter 7, “Winter is Coming: The Slide to Subjectivism,” 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 White 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 and 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. According to Joustra and Wilkinson, this is the world Game of Thrones presents – “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; rather, 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.

Important conversations
If a show uses sex and violence simply to titillate and entertain, Christians ought to avoid the show. If, however, it 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 some Christians from the more important and dangerous ideas that it presents. It seems that the artists who create Game of Thrones are concerned about the increased role that power is playing in our culture. As Christians, we are also concerned about this and we might, perhaps, be thankful that they point it out in such a way that so many people are paying attention. Christians have important contributions 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.

Am I arguing that all Christians ought to watch Game of Thrones? Certainly not. Many should stay far from it because it might cause them to sin, or 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 are willing to do, so these, too, should avoid Game of Thrones.

When it comes to our interaction with culture, Christians often find themselves caught between being as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents. It is Christ’s desire that we are characterized by both. So we, with the power of the Holy Spirit, are left to sort it out. This important conversation has been going on for a long time and it needs to continue, so I commend DeYoung for bringing it up again.

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

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. 

Secondly, our engagement must be inclusive and holistic. We need to pay attention to more than just sexual content. This would include violence, but I think the far subtler ideas about human value and meaning (or the lack thereof) are more dangerous, and these are to be found in shows and movies that are rated G. 

Thirdly, it is important that we do not perpetuate artificial divisions 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. 

Lastly, we must not over-simplify things which are not simple, or make simple things complex. 

About the Author
Game of Thrones: Gratuitous sexuality or powerful warning?

Trent DeJong

Trent De Jong watches television and movies, but rarely does so passively. He writes to sort out what he thinks. You can find his musings at trentdejong.com

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