(RNS) Is there anything morally redeeming about “Game of Thrones”? Does the hit HBO series even have a moral vision?

game of thrones

A scene with Catelyn Stark (left) played by Michelle Fairley from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” episode 29. Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO


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The show is certainly entertaining, almost addictively so, and as “Games of Thrones” wraps up its third season on Sunday (June 9), the ratings reflect that popularity: a record of more than 5.5 million viewers have followed the ruthless struggles for power among the teeming clans of Westeros, the medieval-looking world created by fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin.

That success has also guaranteed that the show will be back for a fourth year of mayhem and passion, swords and sorcery, despite this season’s many violent endings. Or, as one tweet put it after the bloody penultimate episode: “Why doesn’t George R.R. Martin use twitter? Because he killed all 140 characters.”

But therein lies the moral problem for some: The appeal of the series seems bound up in the senseless violence and amoral machinations – not to mention the free-wheeling sex – that the writers use to dramatize this brutish world of shifting alliances and dalliances.

That, in turn, has prompted intense debates about whether Christians should watch “Games of Thrones” at all, or whether the show’s only possible virtue is depicting how the world would look if Christ had never been born – or what it could look like if Christianity disappeared tomorrow.

“Why should Christians watch ‘Game of Thrones’? There’s no necessity, and some will find the gratuitous sex and violence dangerous and damaging,” wrote Daniel Muth of the Living Church Foundation.

Emilia Clarke as Calisi in Game of Thrones espisode 24. Photo courtesy HBO

Emilia Clarke as Calisi in Game of Thrones episode 24. Photo courtesy HBO


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But, Muth concluded, “Seeing the hopelessness and savagery of what this age threatens to become may serve to shake us from our torpor.”

To be sure, “Game of Thrones” can be as “relentlessly grim” as Jonathan Ryan described it in a Christianity Today critique. As one character puts it: “When you play a game of thrones, you win or you die.”

Dark magic plays a role in the plots, yes, and there are hints of something supernatural, if not altogether benign. But for the most part, the land of the Seven Kingdoms is a dog-eat-dog world dominated by soulless connivers like Lord Baelish, who concludes one chilling monologue by declaring: “Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”

Which is not to say that the world of “Games of Thrones” doesn’t have religion. In fact, it has several of them. But belief is slippery and divine justice improbable. Even those who hope there is something at the other end of the ladder – a realm above – fear that it is populated by cynical gods who view mortals the way cats regard a mouse, as something to be toyed with until it dies.

“The gods have no mercy. That’s why they’re gods,” as Queen Regent, Cersei Lannister, coldly tells terrified young women praying for help during a siege.

A scene from Game of Thrones episode 24 with actress Sophie Turner. Photo by Keith Bernstein/courtesy HBO

A scene from Game of Thrones episode 24 with actress Sophie Turner. Photo by Keith Bernstein/courtesy HBO


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

For some, the most damning aspect of “Game of Thrones” may be the way that it subverts the work that it most closely tracks: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” saga that’s beloved by so many contemporary Christians.

In those novels, and the hit films they inspired, Tolkien also presents an epic struggle – but one in which good battles evil, and triumphs in the end. George R.R. Martin is having none of that.

“The sort of fantasy where all the people get together to fight the dark lord doesn’t interest me,” Martin told The New Republic when asked about comparisons to Tolkien.

“We don’t tend to have wars or political controversies where one side is really ugly and wears dark clothing, where the other side wears white and has glowing magical swords,” he said.

(Martin, who is helping to adapt the television series from his series of novels, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” is busy shooting the fourth season and was not available for further comment.)

But ambiguity is not necessarily amorality. It can also reflect the complexity of real life.

“What constitutes good and what constitutes evil? What happens if our good intentions produce evil? Does the end justify the means?” Those are the questions Martin says he is asking, and they are questions that have spawned a cottage industry of blogs and even a book about the philosophy behind the show.

Still, some have also detected a genuine theological framework behind the show that does not reject Christian teachings but instead reflects them in important ways.

“Indeed, the series can be read as an argument for Reinhold Niebuhr’s Augustinian realism,” George Schmidt wrote at Religion Dispatches, citing the Cold War theologian who has often been invoked during America’s current battle against terrorism. As Schmidt notes, idealists who would triumph in Tolkien’s world are blithely cut down in Martin’s.

A scene from HBO's Game of Thrones episode 27 with actor Alfie Allen.  Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO

A scene from HBO’s Game of Thrones episode 27 with actor Alfie Allen. Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The Rev. Jim McDermott, a Jesuit priest who is studying screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles, also pointed out that in “Game of Thrones,” raw power and high birth provide no guarantee of protection. And, like the Bible, the series finds unlikely heroes among “the shattered, the shunned and the disregarded.”

The realism that McDermott finds in the show is the gospel truth that life is often hard and unfair – but everyone shares in that fate.

“And salvation is not the purview of some elect, nor does grace inherently reside in a crown,” he wrote in America magazine. “As with horror, so hope springs from the most unexpected of quarters.”

Or maybe not. The story lines continue to unfold, and Martin hasn’t yet finished the final book that will serve as the template for the rest of the series. Strong characters and unpredictable narratives are sure to keep coming, and to keep viewers glued to the screen. But at the end will they find a “transcendent moral vision”?

That’s the question that troubles Scott R. Paeth, who teaches Christian social ethics at DePaul University in Chicago.

A scene from HBO's Game of Thrones episode 21 with actors Rose Leslie and Kit Harington. Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO

A scene from HBO’s Game of Thrones episode 21 with actors Rose Leslie and Kit Harington. Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Thus far (Martin has) been fairly scornful of the idea that the end result of the political struggle is the establishment of social justice, and seems to be suggesting that, in the end, all succumbs to dust and entropy, or that on the whole those willing to give themselves wholly over to their will to power will ultimately prevail,” Paeth wrote on his blog.

“How he ends his story will tell us much about the moral world in which he dwells.”

KRE/AMB END GIBSON

18 Comments

  1. David Thompson

    “Still, some have also detected a genuine theological framework behind the show that does not reject Christian teachings but instead reflects them in important ways.”

    Nobody cares about Christianity back then. Even today 2/3 of the world lives happily without Christianity. Which goes to show that morals are an evolved sense of values, not something from some unknowable deity.

    And life does work like that back then and today. Power is seized from one person to another, by various methods, according to culture. We just dress it up and use the media to make it look acceptable. But you already know this.

  2. Dewd the Agnostic

    So some Christians are taking a little spiritual umbrage at the lack of moral redemption apparent on Game of Thrones ? How hypocritical. The show is a mirror image of Europe in the Middle Ages, less the supernatural magic. Look at that era , then ask again: How can a Christian be condescending towards Game of Thrones and not in the next breath be equally condescending to the Catholic church’s many atrocities and body count in the millions, Old World and New , which continue to this day ?

    Be thankful that only 5.5 million people see Game of Thrones each week ( actually probably more like 12 million ). That means here in America 320 million have no idea what the moralistic fuss is all about. Take solace there. Those of us who are enraptured by GRR Martin’s bloody novels and HBO’s cinematic rendering of same have no need of your moral ambiguity and hypocrisy . Come to think of it, that’s barely the tip of the religious hypocrisy spear…

  3. Don’t watch Thrones, but from this article I don’t see how it differs greatly from the Borgias. In costumes, of course, but the same in the triumph of power over justice.

    How can anyone doubt that power triumphs over justice as they watch the religious right create virtuous hatred, and amoral corporations make public policy solely in their wealth grabbing interests?

    If the earth itself could speak, it would agree that power triumphs over justice. With humans as the evil gods of power.

  4. In re Mr. Paeth’s final quote above: I refer him to Niven’s Law.

    “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author.
    The term is ‘idiot’.”

  5. Stephanie Sanchiz

    Christians do not have to watch ‘Game of Thrones.’ If they want to see “senseless violence and amoral machinations,” they should just read their own history.

  6. Why is that the question being asked? Of course a Christian can watch GoT. Titling the article that way blankets the entire Christian community into your anti-GoT standpoint. Who are you to dictate what ANYONE watches, let alone a whole religion? Even if you deserved that kind of authority, why would you alienate Martin and tell others not to read or watch because you don’t agree with what’s being said? Or that the answer to the question lies in whether or not his artwork has a flowery ending? That sounds narrow, segregating and uncooperative at the least. People should be allowed to read/watch/learn whatever they want and use that information to make well-rounded, thought-out decisions. And, as an artist, it’s not Martin’s responsibility to script a fairytale. He’s not writing a book for you, Christians already have one they won’t let go of. Why should a Christian readership be condemned just because it’s not the same boring story over and over again?

    Secondly, sex is a part of life. It’s how humans make babies, and I don’t understand the demonization of the act. As for the objectification of women, the series is set in a time where women were objectified regularly and the show reflects that attitude since it’s a major point. The violence is also intentional as it depicts the brutal and selfish aspects of human life that are very real.

    Anyway, there are absolutely Christians out there to whom I would not send a recommendation for this show. There also happen to be Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Atheists I wouldn’t recommend it to because being a part of a religion should not designate what you are and are not allowed to watch on T.V. There too many starving children in the world for me to believe god gives a FUCK about your HBO guilty pleasure.

  7. I am quite “confused” by the comment of Kazee. Why? Well, because there seems to be misunderstanding of what a christian is. In general a devoted christian wants to live an authentic life style, namely following Jesus Christ and his teachings because Jesus has risen from death and a personal relationship with him is possible and the clue of it all. The bible is our fundamental framework for our understanding of God; his revelation in history and his compas for a fulfilling life. In this worldview, we dont want to participate or support any kind of violence, hate, evil in this world. So why would a christian watch violence, nudity etc. packed in a fantasie storyline?
    This world is full of evil. Do we have to entertain ourselfes as human beings by watching movies where violence, nudity etc are shown and sometimes even glorified?!? Bread and games to keep the mass of people blinded and content with their status qou, like in roman empire. That drives the “average” citizens but shouldnt drive a christian life style!

    I clicked on a youtube clip “best scenes GoT season 1″. Started of with a couple obviously engaging in intercourse and a boy seeing them; guy throws boy from the tower they are in, down to his death, stating “things I do for love”. If this is the love they are illustrating, killing an innocent 10year old boy, well….do I have to say more? Clicked through the 35 min. video and came to a following scene: a guy gets smolten gold over his head and dies painfully.

    Of course, a movie like LoR by Peter Jackson also contains lots of violence, for some parts drugs (hobbits smoking) etc. but at least it is very obvious a fight between good and evil, and evil is illustrated in a fantasy way (orcs, trolls…). But one can also discuss if a christian should watch such violence as well.
    I think as Western christian I am so used to it, its part of the culture;
    christianity in its core is based on grace, still, I cannot differently than think that it is not good to feed violence and immorality etc. So for most parts I try to avoid such movies. 15 years back, as teenager the worst thing I saw was the Terminator, and nudity was usually not shown that often in 12+ movies, not even in average 16+ movies. Nowadays, there are movies where it is completly normal to show teenagers having sex, trying drugs etc. Think where this road will lead to…has the sexual revolution of the 60′s and freedom we experience nowadays leed to more stable and healthy relationships for couples? Judge on your own reason. We got from one extreme (talking about sex is bad, or worse, sex itself is ‘evil’) to the other extreme and the fruits are slowly becoming observable. Honestly, I hate it. Almost no place anymore without bombardement of sex, violence or other stuff. Sitting in the public train, teenagers playing shooter games, sometimes even watching porn, talking about sex or about their last party and how funny it was…….hedonic life style is the new God of the indivualistic modern society, even though “The picture of Dorian Gray” should have told us a lessons already. But thats humans….stupid….sooo utterly stupid, even though we are made in Gods image and possible of creating lots of great stuff.

    Oh, and for the last part, that a loving God would/should intervene in this world? Obviously, love could not exist without free choice to love, and this free choice comes with the burden of acting/choosing differently, resulting i.e. violence/hate. In christian worldview, we all carry a evil root deep within us. This is the root of evil, neccessary to see what good is….without point of reference we wouldnt know a difference. God made us humans responsible for this earth. Why not start act in responsible manners instead of accusing God for all the ‘bad stuff’ we humans do to each other?

  8. I find it quite sad that many religious people try to veto or curtail their ilk from watching certain shows.

    Just because Game of thrones or Harry Potter doesn’t have anything to do with Mohammed, Christ, Shiva or Zeus, is a very narrow-minded reason to deprive yourself of the creative fantasy, or at the very least be adult enough to determine whether it’s suitable for your taste – morally or otherwise.

  9. ok, I’ll start by saying i love the show, I love all medieval shows and shows set in times of kings queens and conquest,fantasy or otherwise, I love sword play and tales of magical creatures and strategic politicking Reign, White Queen etc. once i start to watch game of thrones I can’t stop and sometimes you have to watch it more than once to keep track of the 257 plus characters and scenarios. But from a christian slant game of thrones is set in a a similar setting to lord of the rings or even Alice in wonderland. this is not earth, yes it integrates earths politics but this is more like middle earth, the 2nd realm and therefore has nothing to do with Christ, you would spend hours trying to identify who is good and the saviour, the lord of light and fire portrayed as good spits out demonic shadow creatures. the mother of dragons is much liek the antichrist appearing as a savior while her dragons police the air. smh this is a land where evil is fighting evil, demon princes fighting for a iron throne similar to the throne ares or mars sits on, there is no good, there is conquest and power. lord of the rings actually came closer to imitating a christ like chararcter with the final king even looking like him. this is a battle in the realm of faes and witches and magical beings, my personal favorite is mother of dragons. she comes across as a sought of mary (misa-mother) but mary was not raped into submission, she was a virgin and she wasn’t mother of flying serpents she came to mash the serpents head under her heal and her son did not die by black magic in birth and give spawn to flying serpents he died on a cross for pure love and sacrifice and gave spawn to the king of king lord of lords and the conquering lion of the tribe of judah. and the lord of light and fire the one through god is none other than “lucipher light of the morning” so my point is Christians don’t get too caught up in trying to find some comparison, but you can learn from watching the show because politics is politics good bad or indifferent. is either you watch the show or you don’t simple as that but that show is not about Christians, its not a war fought in heaven or in earth its a war between the 7 princes of hell to rule the nether realm and we all know who wins that……………..it will be a close call between mother of dragons if she can control the dragons which will most likely turn on her and kill everyone or the king and his witch.whore……..should be very interesting

  1. [...] David Gibson of the Religious News Service recently asked what I take to be an intentionally provocative question: “Can a Christian watch A Game of Thrones?” My short answer: certain kinds of Christians can, while others most definitely should not. [...]

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