The Gospel According to Game of Thrones

I'm late to the game in any commentary about Game of Thrones, but our family was given a free subscription to HBO when we signed up for a new cellular package. So for the first time I've been able to watch the much acclaimed and commented on TV drama. (I've not read the books, so my comments are just about the HBO adaptation.)

To get something out of the way right at the start, Game of Thrones is for mature audiences given its sex and violence. And that, of course, raises some questions about if Christians should consume this drama. I'm not going to spend any time defending the series as entertainment for Christians. Opinions will differ.

What I do want to write about is the amorality of the series and world created by George R.R. Martin. As many have noted, Martin's fantasy is a sort of anti-Lord of the Rings. Inspired as it was by his Catholic faith, Tolkien's epic is a classic good versus evil struggle with good triumphing in the end. Martin's fantasy, by contrast, is amoral. As the title of the show suggests, Martin's world is Nietzschean, Darwinian, and Machiavellian, a grim struggle for power. The good aren't reliably rewarded in Martin's epic. In fact, the good often come to sudden, violent ends at the hands of the evil and psychopathic. 

And given this, it seems strange, even outlandish, that one might find any "gospel" in Game of Thrones. Yet that's what I want to share.

And no spoilers below. 

Agian, I'm late to this game. There has been a lot of very good writing about Christian themes in Game of Thrones. For example, many of the protagonists we care most deeply about in Game of Thrones are those on the margins, those without power or influence who are just trying to survive. This attention to the weak and oppressed is very Christian. There's a whole lot of God's preferential option for the poor in Tyrion Lannister's quote from Season 1: "I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things."

Others have also pointed out how religion in the Game of Thrones, while pagan, highlights how faith becomes fused with politics, how the will to power becomes sacralized by the gods. This creates a prophetic looking glass for Christians who are tempted to use God to justify their own illicit will to power in the political arena. 

Still others have pointed to the Augustinian anthropology at work in Game of Thrones. Depravity and moral confusion are on full display. Any humanistic optimism regarding human nature is going to take a beating in Martin's world. 

And lastly, Game of Thrones isn't amoral, quite the opposite. Game of Thrones might be tragic and the good aren't guaranteed success, but that doesn't means goodness isn't present. In fact, many of the very worst characters at the start, like Jamie Lannister and the Hound, go on interesting moral journeys. Key protagonists, like Jon Snow, Brienne of Tarth, and Tyrion Lannister, are solidly good. And the ripples of goodness sent out from Ned Stark at the very start gently ripple through the entire series to the very final frames. At heart, the story in Game of Thrones is a moral drama, a story about the perseverance of love. In many ways, the pathos of trying to be good person in an evil world is what makes Game of Thrones such a powerful work of art. 

Which brings me to the gospel according to Game of the Thrones.

Let me state the obvious: there's not much Christianity or gospel in Game of Thrones. Again, putting aside the observations above, in trying to be anti-Tolkien Game of Thrones is trying to be anti-Christian. So how can I claim to find the gospel in the show?

Let me suggest that Christianity isn't found in the text of the show but in the moral sensibilities of the viewer. The moral shock of Game of Thrones, its well documented moments where good and virtuous people are suddenly and violently dispatched by psychopaths, only works if we assume an audience who holds to the Judeo-Christian moral worldview. The "art" of Game of Thrones is due to its transgressive nature, what sets it apart from Tolkien's moralism. But transgression presupposes a moral backdrop that one can transgress against. The gospel according to the anti-Christ is the truth that there exists a Christ. 

Now the counter argument here might be that any wicked entertainment could be morally justified on just these grounds. To behold evil is to be reminded of the good. And the more evil, the more good we'd behold, correct?

Not quite. As I observed above, the transgressive nature of Games of Thrones isn't the sadism of, say, a Saw movie. Game of Thrones isn't violence for the thrill of it. Game of Thrones has many things that elevate it to the level of art: story, characterization, and moral depth. We don't voyeuristically thrill to the deaths of good people in Game of Thrones. Quite the opposite. Their deaths hurt us because we have come to care for and admire these characters. The story creates empathy and moral concern. The transgressive nature of the show is that these good people don't get what they deserve. Game of Thrones displays the moral asymmetry of the lament psalms, where the righteous suffer and the wicked thrive. 

All that to say, as I watched Game of Thrones it slowly dawned upon me that the critical accolades of the show are wholly due to Christianity. Without Christianity bequeathing us the moral vision of the West Game of Thrones just doesn't exist. Couldn't exist. The show would be unable to perform its transgressive trick of moral shock and reversal. The central artistic conceit of the show presumes Christianity. 

The gospel according to Game of Thrones is that when the show shocks me I'm acutely reminded of the Christ within me, the Logos, the moral grain of the universe. My dismay at the moral twists and turns of Game of Thrones, what makes the show so addictive and compelling, points me toward the Kingdom I long will come to earth as it is in heaven. Yes, on the surface, the Game of Thrones doesn't seem to be a gospel text. The gospel is found, rather, in the moral relationship the viewer has with the characters. 

True, in Martin's world there isn't an eschatological horizon where the Sheep and the Goats are separated by the Judge of History. But that Judge very much exists, because without that Judge the show just doesn't work. The Judge sits in the heart of the viewer as we weigh every character and every choice they make in the moral balance. You cannot watch the gospel-less world of Game of Thrones without being haunted by Christ.

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