By Matthew William Brake
In the Christian circles I run in, there is some tension about whether Christian people should watch Game of Thrones because of some of the graphic, and specifically sexual, content (go over to the Popcorn Theology Facebook page if you don’t believe me).
It is true that Game of Thrones presents us with a brutal fantasy world—one which we ourselves would probably not want to visit, unlike Narnia or Middle Earth. However, I find it to be a profound tale about human nature, politics, and yes, even theology. It is true that the world of Game of Thrones reveals a world of profound darkness and human corruption, but in that way, it puts on display the three Christian traditional enemies of the human soul: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
While the articulation of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” is not found in the biblical text, it is a traditional articulation found in the works of Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent, and the Common Book of Prayer.
1 John 2:16 states, “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (NIV). Is this not the situation we see in Game of Thrones? We find a world whose structures perpetuate acts of lust, greed, and ultimately violence.
Violence (especially systemic violence) is often motivated by a mentality of scarcity, a sense that there is not enough of X and so we need to fight to keep what’s ours, or take more to make sure we’ll be safe. The societal structures in Game of Thrones are defined by this lack, exemplified by the power of the Iron Throne.
In Book One/Season One of Game of Thrones when Ned Stark is confronting Cersei Lannister about her incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime, Cersei tells Ned:
Cersei: “You should have taken the realm for yourself. It was there for the taking. Jaime told me how you found him on the Iron Throne the day King’s Landing fell, and made him yield it up. That was your moment. All you needed to do was climb those steps, and sit. Such a sad mistake.”
Ned: “I have made more mistakes than you can possibly imagine, but that was not one of them.”
Cersei: “Oh, but it was, my lord. When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground” (Martin, A Game of Thrones).
There’s no room for harmony, servanthood, or sharing in the world of Game of Thrones, and I would argue the same holds true for the real world. As Varys tells Ned, it is “always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones” (Martin, A Game of Thrones).
One of the best players of the game of thrones is Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. He uses all of the world’s temptations—money and the brothels—to turn the Seven Kingdoms upside down. As he tells the prostitute Ros concerning his duel over the hand of Catelyn Stark:
Littlefinger: You know what I learnt losing that duel? I learnt that I’ll never win. Not that way. That’s their game, their rules. I’m not going to fight them. I’m going to f*&% them. That’s what I know, that’s what I am, and only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.
Ros: And what do you want?
Littlefinger: Oh, everything, my dear. Everything there is (“You Win or You Die”).
Littlefinger’s lies and the machinations he sets in motion lead to the deaths of many beloved characters (including Ned Stark) and plunge the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros into war, with the commoners and peasants of the kingdom paying the worst price. All so he can rule.
While politicians try to please their constituencies or secure their “legacies” or simply pursue the raw desire for power, they create systems that harm or betray those very constituents. One example worth noting is the Democratic support of mass incarceration in this country under the Clinton presidency, which has continued to severely harm the black community in the U.S.—despite the fact that the black community is a key constituent of the Democratic party. Even those who proclaim themselves as champions for justice for oppressed people in this world can’t help being drawn into the game of thrones, betraying those they swear to protect (one can’t help but think of when Dany put a former slave to death who killed a former slave master, while the people cried out for mercy on his behalf with the word “Mhysa,” or mother).
But that’s the nature of the world’s temptations and systems—this “game of thrones.”
Whatever else can be said about the world of Game of Thrones, it is indeed flawed and violent—but what other kind of system would such broken people create? If there’s anything we can say about the characters from Game of Thrones, it is that they are indeed flawed.
The human characters in the world of Game of Thrones are imperfect, incomplete people, and they all seek to fill their incompleteness through different means.
Tyrion Lannister does so through his excessive appetites (booze, prostitutes, etc.). Tywin Lannister focuses on building his family’s legacy. Cersei Lannister makes her brother and her children the center of her world. Jon Snow joins the Night’s Watch, where his status as a bastard won’t matter. Littlefinger creates a chaos that will allow his ascent to the Iron Throne.
The ignorance, insecurity, jealousy, etc. of each individual leads them astray, causing them to act with terrible naïveté, or to outright betray and murder of their friends and family. In many ways, each person is their own worst enemy. This is an essential flaw of human nature, the “God-shaped hole” described by Blaise Pascal:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself” (Pascal, p. 45).
Even a more modern thinker like Martin Heidegger acknowledges that humans are incomplete, or “a nullity” (Heidegger, p. 272).
For the Christian (and those of many other faiths), the desire for finite stuff to fill the void in our being is a distraction from the focus on our true problem—our mortality and the enemy of our souls.
The ultimate enemy in Game of Thrones, however, is not the Lannisters, the Freys, or any other group of people; rather, the show has been building up to a confrontation between the world of human beings of that of the Night King, the white walkers, and their army of the dead.
Throughout season 7, Jon Snow made it clear to any who would listen that the true war for Westeros wasn’t among the claims of the competing houses but against the Night King and his power over the dead. In the finale, surrounded by those vying for the Iron Throne, he tells all those gathered, “There’s only one war that matters. And it is here” (“The Dragon and the Wolf”).
In the epistle to the Ephesians, the Christian followers are told, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (6:12). It is an otherworldly reality that deserves our enmity, not our fellow human beings whom we squabble and do battle with.
This world has its own Night King, the one who holds “the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
The power of death and its accompanying fear and grief: that is the ultimate enemy that confronts a flawed world with its flawed people.
However, rather than allowing the fear of death to bond her and her rivals together against their common foe, Cersei betrays them, sending them to their deaths while protecting herself, her house, and her unborn child. The power of death is exercised at least in part by its ability to turn us against each other. To cause us to fight for scarce resources and create systems that ensure the exploitation of others for the sake of our own self-preservation. To attempt to silence the abyss and cause us to numb the pain of our inevitable doom.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
“Humankind lives in a circle; it lives out of its own resources; it is alone. Yet it cannot live, because in fact it does not live but in this life is dead, because it must live, that is, it must accomplish life out of its own resources and just that is its death (as the basis at once of its knowledge and its existence!). (Bonhoeffer, p. 91).
This is the human condition, and this is what Game of Thrones shows us.
If only there was someone to save us from this cycle of violence, scarcity, and self-protection at the expense of others….someone to save us from this “body of death” perhaps?
Azor Ahai…or maybe someone else?
Matthew William Brake is the creator and founder of Pop Culture and Theology. He is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He has chapters in Deadpool and Philosophy, Wonder Woman and Philosophy, and Mr. Robot and Philosophy.
Martin, George R. R.. A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Pascal, Blaise Pensees, translated by A.J. Krailsheimer. New York: Penguin Books. 1995.
Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2010.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Edited by John W. De Gruchy. Translated by Douglas Stephen Bax. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1997.