The Gospel According to 'Game of Thrones'

The recent furor in Christian circles about George R. R. Martin's magical and medieval-like world of Westeros reveals one of the unspoken dividing lines between two very different understandings of Christianity.
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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.

Allow me to explain. First and foremost, there is no more one kind of Christian any more than there is one kind of Muslim, Jew or atheist. And the recent furor in Christian circles about George R. R. Martin's magical and medieval-like world of Westeros reveals one of the unspoken dividing lines between two very different understandings of Christianity.

For some, Christianity is the answer to a problem, indeed, to many problems: addiction, lawlessness, debauchery and more. This is the version of Christianity that has dominated the religious imagination of America in recent years, stringing together a host of otherwise disparate Christian traditions that run the gamut from the "family values" morality of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the "prosperity gospel" of Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen. Its unifying tenent: Christianity restores righteousness and order to a chaotic world and promises stability and success (whether moral or economic) to those who adhere to it.

Another version of Christianity also recognizes the world and human existence as unruly and chaotic, but rather than imagining that Christian faith eliminates the tremors, it offers its adherents instead only the ability to keep their footing amid the vibrations. This kind of Christianity raises more questions than it answers and makes few promises beyond saying that there is more to this story we are living than meets the eye and that hope often emerges from unexpected quarters.

Which is where "A Game of Thrones" comes in. While Martin has been castigated by conservative columnists like Jonathan Ryan for his apparent lack of a moral vision and unrealistically grim view of human nature, others like George Schmidt have embraced Martin's realism as an accurate portrayal of human nature and the consequent necessity for embracing, after the fashion of Reinhold Niebuhr's Augustinian realism, the logic of the world in order to advance the values of the kingdom. Moreover, as Jim McDermott points out, the story hinges not only on the fortunes of the rich and powerful but also on "the journeys of those on the margins," a characteristic that runs through the biblical drama as well.

So if you are a Christian that seeks from your faith a narrative that divides the world neatly into the righteous and the unrepentant and provides an unerring guide to the moral demands of the day, you will likely find Martin not just upsetting but downright offensive. Don't get me wrong: Martin's characters aren't nearly as morally ambiguous as many would make out. Very few, I'm willing to wager, root for Petyr Baelish, want Gregor Clegane to prevail, or wish Tywin Lannister had been their father. Similarly, we earnestly hope Jon Snow finds acceptance, Tyrion flourishes, and Daenerys triumphs. Many of Martin's characters, while perhaps more complex than those of the other "R. R." to which he is regularly compared, nevertheless often fall into clearly demarcated camps.

What's disturbing isn't Martin's characters but rather his universe. For here is a world where purity of heart -- embodied, for instance, by Ned Stark -- is not necessarily rewarded. In fact, it is precisely Ned's rigidity of values and naïve if admirable principles that make him such easy prey for the unscrupulous likes of Littlefinger. And this is where Martin truly is, if not a Christian realist, at least very much a secular one. For even though I would cringe with disappointment and curse Martin's authorial cruelty after scenes such as Ned's beheading or the red wedding, it usually took only a few moments for me to acknowledge with a modicum of grudging admiration, "But, damn, that's probably what would have happened."

Which is what makes Martin's larger series, "A Song of Ice and Fire," both disappointing and threatening to conservative Christians who understand redemption as the triumphant restoration of order: Martin's world remains irreparably chaotic, a place where power is everything and the game of thrones is all.

Except it's even more than that. For behind the ordered universe of conservative Christianity is a law-giving, judgment-dealing deity who rewards virtue and punishes vice and, in the ultimate imposition of order, will eventually divide humanity into the saved and the damned. Martin's world is noticeably absent any such God. Or rather, it is populated by many gods, and the seriousness and sympathy with which he portrays the devotion of various characters to each is unsettling. Placed along side each other, the various faiths threaten to negate each other and urge a relativistic view of religion altogether.

Which might be just why I love Martin's work so much. He refuses to allow religion to save the day. While it may provide comfort to some, it just as often legitimizes the grab for power by others. Religion itself, in other words, is as morally ambivalent as politics, and Martin's universe yields no unambiguous path to salvation from religion any more than it offers the promise of justice from politics. Self-interest -- or what the Protestant Reformers called the state of incurvates in se (literally, "being curved in on oneself") -- would seem to rule all.

Are Ryan's charges, then, that Martin views the world through "one jaundiced, damaged eye" accurate? I don't think so. I suspect that what confuses Ryan and others is that redemption isn't found in religious piety, doctrine or morality. Rather, redemption -- or at least the possibility of redemption -- is found only at the edges of the story far from the most religious or powerful. As McDermott notes, Martin's story is populated by unlikely heroes who take the form of "Bastards and midgets, orphans and prisoners, a crippled boy, a lost little girl, a gigantic, mannish warrior woman," and others similarly unlikely to arouse confidence.

What unites all these characters is not only the improbability of their triumph but also their sheer vulnerability, and even weakness, in the game of thrones. The heroes Martin invites us to root for are neither particularly strong, nor consistently principled, nor especially beautiful. Rather, they are the cast offs, the ones overlooked, despised or flung to the side by the powerful. Yet there is little doubt that Daenerys, that once abandoned and abused child, will eventually come to the aid of Westeros. The only question is which of the other misfits and beggars will accompany her on her dragons in a reversal of her ancestor Aegon's conquest? (My guess, for what its worth, is Jon [Targaryen?] Snow and Tyrion.)

It is in weakness and vulnerability that Martin reveals the strength and hope of the world, which is where he shares sympathies not only with Tolkien but also with the Apostle Paul, who asserted that "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are" (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

Nowhere is the salvific power of affliction more evident than in Martin's narrative redemption of Jamie Lannister. At the end of the first season (and book) of the series, few characters seem more despicable than "the Kingslayer." The one who betrayed his vows as a Kingsguard for political gain, who incestuously fathered three children by his sister, and who pushed 10-year-old Bran from a tower crippling him for life, Jamie Lannister would appear to have, as he and many others comment, "shit for honor." Yet in the third season something rather remarkable happens: Jamie is maimed and loses his sword hand and, with it, his identity and sense of purpose. But in this unexpected state of extreme vulnerability, he begins to reveal himself to Brienne and to us as someone who has paid the price for making difficult and courageous choices that likely saved all of King's Landing but were branded as acts of cowardice and betrayal. Stripped of the armor and identity he has used to protect himself from those slights for so long, he begins to see the world from the point of view of the marginalized, and when he rides back to Harrenhal to save Brienne we recognize that he has also been saved himself.

One might think that this kind of agnostic "theology of the cross" would be appealing to those who follow a crucified messiah, one cast aside by the religious authorities and executed by the political powers. But for those who embrace a version of Christianity where salvation is understood as the triumphant restoration of order, the crucifixion is only the first stage of a larger and more glorious plan. For some of us Christians, however, crucifixion is not a first step in, but rather the pattern of, God's activity. From this point of view, the cross invites us to expect God to show up always and only where we least expect God to be -- with the weak, the broken and the oppressed.

Just as the vulnerability and anguish of the cross becomes the archetype for all of God's redemptive work in the Christian drama, so also rejection, suffering and loss are the marks of possible redemption in Martin's magisterial work of fantasy. It may be that precisely in this world of many and competing religions and cultures we can hear this message most clearly. If so, this won't be a first, as it is in Shakespeare's pre-Christian England that King Lear discovers the power of sacrificial love only when he has been stripped of all he once deemed valuable. Similarly, in Martin's complex and somewhat relativistic world, Jamie, Jon, Daenerys, Tyrion, Brienne, Bran, Arya and even "the hound" Sandor Clegane (who will emerge, I suspect, as a significant and self-sacrificing character in a future installment) become the chief protagonists because they are the ones who know the value of love and loyalty, mercy and compassion because that is all that is left to them. As in the Christian narrative, so also in Martin's world: there is more to this story than meets the eye and hope often emerges from unexpected quarters

This, then, is the gospel of "A Game of Thrones": that power is found paradoxically in vulnerability, that compassion and mercy are peculiarly stronger than judgment and might, and that, much to the surprise of everyone, the weak shall not only inherit but actually save the earth. So if we do not at first detect in Martin's universe a reliable moral vision, perhaps it is because we misapprehend morality as a consistent way of acting, rather than as a way of being in the world that exposes ourselves to the needs of others and discovers our common humanity in our shared vulnerability. I suspect that the unlikely heroes of Westeros will discover this in time to prevail against the powers that threaten to tear their world asunder. The more pressing question, I believe, is whether we will.

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