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A compromised world like this

14 June 2013

Game of Thrones challenges Christians to think about acting for God, argues Rachel Mann

Ruthless but recognisable: a scene from Game of Thrones

Ruthless but recognisable: a scene from Game of Thrones

IF, LIKE ME, you are an avid student of popular trends, there is one television series to which you should be paying attention: Game of Thrones. The final episode of the current season, broadcast this week, has caused widespread mourning among its legions of younger, switched-on adults and teens. It has also spawned countless internet memes - images based on the show's catchphrases and characters which are passed rapidly around the web.

Despite its being available only on a small satellite channel, it has been an international hit, beating the Olympics' Opening Ceremony to the Audience Award at the BAFTA Television Awards last month, and is the single highest illegally downloaded show in internet history.

Its combination of violence, sex, and high-medieval politicking may be a turn-off to some, but it is not going away. Any Christian who wants to engage with modern fascinations should take it seriously: we can find, in its sometimes-shocking ruthlessness, ways in which it can challenge and deepen our faith.

It began as a series of books by the fantasy writer George R. R. Martin. Set primarily on the fictional continent of Westeros, Game of Thrones describes a world where society is essentially fixed, culturally, in a version of the High Middle Ages. In some ways, it is The Lord of the Rings meets the Wars of the Roses, and it is by turns vulgar, moving, offensive, and compelling. Its combination of intrigues, swords, sorcery, and heightened sexuality makes the Borgias look tame.

It presents various Houses and nobles vying for power. Honour and duty are culturally valued, yet rarely lived up to. This world can have summers and winters that last years, dragons, giants, and the undead, yet its heart is political intrigue. The abiding theme is the constant battle to be the King (or Queen) who sits on the Iron Throne of Westeros.

The abiding feature of Martin's fiction and the TV series is that no character - no matter how lovable, charming, or powerful - is safe from sudden death. As a result of the extraordinarily bloody events that happened during episode nine of the current TV season, the blogosphere and Twitter went into meltdown in disbelief at what some saw as Martin's callous disregard for his fans' favourites.

In some Christian critiques of the series, "callousness" has been taken as grounds for suggesting that Christians should avoid watching the show. Despite the presence of various religions and moral codes, it has been accused of lacking a moral centre.

It is certainly a world where moral absolutes are in question. The most attractive characters are scheming, whoring nobles, such as Tyrion Lannister, or ruthless killers such as his brother Jaime. While both the books and TV series are entertaining, they are seemingly unedifying.

It would be foolish to imagine that Martin ever envisioned the world of Westeros as a kind of post-modern Middle Earth. Tolkien's world is inevitably infused with his fascinations with romantic medievalism, Roman Catholicism, and his late-Victorian upbringing, which took notions such as honour seriously.

Martin's world is - for all its fantasy elements - very much a story of our times. The gods of Martin's imagination are mostly useless; everyone is morally and psychologically compromised; and there is no great quest on which heroes can embark.

It reflects our modern fascination with a disenchanted world, and demands Christians' attention precisely because it is so honest about how problematic being a human can be. Its alternative title could be The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; for, like Sergio Leone's Western, Game of Thrones represents a world where "being good" is a matter of degree. As in Leone's world, Martin's "good guys (and gals)" are as likely to kill, take sexual advantage, or betray. They are not quite as nasty as the bad ones.

I HAVE found aspects of Game of Thrones difficult. With a few exceptions, it reflects a patriarchal obsession with women and women's bodies as objects for sex and possession. Women are far too often seen as property for men to use. The TV series can also be hilariously fixated on shock and lasciviousness. Yet, if it is primarily slick entertainment, it is also a wake-up call for Christian engagement with the popular mind.

The world that Game of Thrones outlines is surprisingly sophisticated about human motivation. It is definitely not simply an exercise in showing how we are all mere grasping animals. If the vast cast of characters are people of "unclean hands", the story reveals how many of them are people simply trying to survive in extraordinary, grasping times.

Some characters act from a wider virtue, such as Jon Snow, who breaks his vow of celibacy in order to serve the greater good of his military order. Others, such as the spymaster Varys, appear utterly slippery, and yet are trying to find a way to redress personal in- justices and to save the realm from the madness of an uncontrollable king.

They are not so different from many of us when we are faced with decisions where we do not have the privilege of a God's-eye view. We are caught up in events, and seek to act for the good as best we can. Game of Thrones is fantasy, and yet its characters' decisions often have a difference of scale rather than of kind.

IN HIS final letters to Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about how, during his imprisonment, his reading of the Bible has reminded him of how the Old Testament is full of real characters who make compromised decisions, whereas the New Testament (Jesus apart) tends to overemphasise the heroics of Spirit-filled disciples of faith.

One senses that Bonhoeffer, dealing with the reality of being a Christian who had chosen to be part of a plot to kill Hitler, found power, attraction, and comfort in the fact that the Bible is real and human, as well as a catalogue of faithfulness and wondrous deeds.

Yes, Bonhoeffer was living in extraordinary times; but the truth is that all Christians and humans have to start from reality when seeking to live lives that flourish. We are always caught up in the events of our age, and compromised by them, as well as challenged to be agents of change.

This takes us to the deep challenge of Game of Thrones. Its rapacious world - full of a mix of appalling characters and ordinary people caught up in impossible situations - is in so many ways our world. It is a world more like the Old Testament than the questing gospel goodness of the New. Rightly, Christians do not want to be merely satisfied with the status quo; as people of the gospel, we, too, are looking for the breaking-in of the Kingdom.

Yet, if we are not honest about where we start from, and we fail to acknowledge our own complicity in it, we cannot hope to participate properly in the opportunities that God is giving us. One of the constant challenges of being a Christian is to be both a participant in and a servant of a world that is not as whole as we might like.

We must also reckon with the extent to which, even if we are called to sanctification, we are not only broken creatures, but the societies in which we are set are economically, socially, and politically exploitative. To be a citizen of one of the privileged countries of the Global North is to be morally compromised.

The IF rally in Hyde Park last Saturday, in the build-up to the G8 Summit next week, was botha reminder of how far from an equitable world we inhabit, and yet how - if communities, leaders, and societies are committed to it - it is still possible for the poor and vulnerable to be fed.

In a world where economic and political challenges can feel overwhelming, it is tempting for Christians to focus on the things that feel controllable, not least our personal morality and holiness. It is always tempting to withdraw from the world, or to focus on what we try to avoid (for example, sexual impropriety, or being mean to people we meet) rather than on how we can act for God in the world.

It is tempting to create holy huddles of saved people, who celebrate on a Sunday how good God is rather than to try to understand that we gather together in order to be sent out to serve a tough world. Our church gatherings might make us feel good, but, unless they are tied toour action, they will disconnect us morefrom discovering God in a compromised and compromising world. It is a world that, inits human complexity, is often not so far fromthe world of Game of Thrones.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, Manchester, poet-in- residence at Manchester Cathedral, and the author of Dazzling Darkness (Wild Goose, 2012).

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