The world’s love for Game of Thrones was seen again this week as tens of millions of people tuned in or streamed the season seven premiere. Nobody loves GOT quite as much as Australia though, who leads the world in illegal downloads and who crashed Foxtel’s legal streaming service during the new season’s debut.
Almost as much ink has been spilled by Christians about whether it’s acceptable to watch GOT as there has been blood spilled in the show. (Well, maybe not that much) But for those who do watch, there are many themes that reflect our human experience. This makes sense. Any show that is as popular as GOT must be saying something about our world that’s at least perceived to be true, otherwise people wouldn’t connect with it in the way that they do. Interestingly, religion and faith have grown in prominence over the life of the show. So, what does GOT say about our human condition and how do these things relate to faith and religion?
Talk of gods and religion is a constant presence in the show and the fictional faiths share some similarities with real world beliefs. The Old Gods are similar to pagan deities and animistic religions. The New Gods, or ‘the Faith of the Seven’, have parallels with the medieval Christian faith and Trinitarian theology (except there are seven distinct forms of the one god). Meanwhile the Red God, aka ‘the Lord of Light’ has a habit of resurrecting people.
Some Christian commentators [have been] particularly critical of the show, decrying that the show depicts an amoral world and is unrealistically grim in its presentation of people.
All of these religions are tied to magic and the supernatural to some degree. However, even those people who the gods work through, like the priestess Melisandre of the Red God, are ultimately shown to know little of the gods’ true will. This doesn’t seem likely to change either. G.R.R. Martin (the author of the source material) has said, “We’re not going to have [a god] appearing, deus ex machina, to affect the outcomes of things, no matter how hard anyone prays.” At the end of the day, Game of Thrones is suggestive of a supernatural reality to the world, but one which we can’t know with any certainty.
While the supernatural may be a mystery, themes that are at the heart of the Christian gospel narrative are continuously on display. In the early seasons, part of the appeal of the show was the excitement of seeing various protagonists come to the foreground, only to have the story tellers hack them to pieces in front of us. You never knew who was safe and it seemed like there was no justice to the show. Our favourites were slain or tortured and the unjust, like the boy-king Joffrey, prospered.
Even the heroic characters that we put our hope in are flawed and complicated, just as in real life, and just as the bible depicts all its heroes outside of Christ.
This has led some Christian commentators to be particularly critical of the show, decrying that the show depicts an amoral world and is unrealistically grim in its presentation of people. However, part of Martin’s project has been to breakdown naïve conceptions of good and evil. All of us have a little bit of evil in us. Sansa Stark, a long-lasting character, said in the season seven premiere, “[Father] was trying to protect us, he never wanted us to see how dirty the world really is.” But, she continues to her brother Jon, “Father couldn’t protect me and neither can you.” The medieval fantasy context of the story allows Martin to portray concretely (if incidentally) the Bible’s declaration that “There is no-one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no-one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:9-12). Even the heroic characters that we put our hope in are flawed and complicated, just as in real life, and just as the bible depicts all its heroes outside of Christ.
The show plays with themes of justice, mercy, wrath, forgiveness, vengeance and redemption but does so in a way that shows just how messy these things are when placed in the hands of people. The character of Jaime Lannister is introduced in season one as a treasonous knight, ‘the kingslayer’. He is the father of three children through an incestuous relationship with his sister, and an attempted child murderer. But in season three, after losing his sword hand and being pushed to the margins of the GOT world, it is revealed that his treason was a courageous attempt to save his city from a mad king. The incest problem still stands but there are hints that, perhaps, he will ultimately be the one who stops his murderous sister Cersei.
GOT would have us realise that being good is good, but if you can’t compromise and work in this complicated world it will cast you out of it. It is perhaps this complicated and grey world that makes the show relatable.
On the other side of the equation, is the virtuous Ned Stark. He is respected by all, reluctantly enters the Game of Thrones, attempts to stand by his principles, and ends up paying the price. Ned has a naïve view of the way the world operated and it cost him dearly. GOT would have us realise that being good is good, but if you can’t compromise and work in this complicated world it will cast you out of it. It is perhaps this complicated and grey world that makes the show relatable. The violence and sexual content of the show may be a product of our voyeuristic culture but in its genre it is a poetic form of expressing the suppressed sexuality and violence of the civilised world.
What is interesting, but perhaps not unexpected for Christians who continue to be woke to the unavoidable meta narratives in culture, is that there are some unavoidable tropes on the horizon for the show. Two main protagonists remain. A low-born, rejected and resurrected warrior king, and a liberator of the oppressed who possesses a spirit of wisdom (and dragons). Our hope as the audience rests on these two. Part of me expects the show to subvert these classic literary types to some degree, But I have little doubt that in the end if there is salvation and the creation of a happy and blessed kingdom, it will come through sacrifice and love. As Proverbs 20: 28 says, “Love and faithfulness keep a king safe; through love his throne is made secure.”
James Snare is a pastor at Gosford Presbyterian Church, on the NSW Central Coast.