Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and scan the horizon of contemporary culture. It’s beneficial on many levels to recognize what’s popular, and to honestly discern: How is a particular cultural phenomenon affecting the life of Christian believers? How can this phenomenon be “baptized” and used to help people of faith?
Believers know that everything in our world expresses some positive reflection of divine truth. This conviction is born from the belief that creation is good and was made from the overflowing of God’s love.
Since all things are vestiges of God, therefore, they participate in a great analogy of being. This means that created things share in God’s wisdom, power, and beauty, and they manifest these divine realities in our world today.
Our task as we look at our culture is to discern these heavenly truths, name them, and draw them out of things. This exercise has been called by several names, the most popular being the sacramental principle. This principle holds that created things can be visible signs of invisible grace, namely, that they are indications to us of divine favor in the hustle and bustle of our lives.
And so, whether it’s Roman myths, Pokeman Go, fidget spinners, or the recent eclipse, everything is a breathing word of God, who is the Author of all things, and so can be a source of transcendence, faith, and goodness.
This interplay between heaven and earth is a powerful and uplifting assertion. But is it true? Can all things really reflect heavenly realities?
Let’s go ahead and step back and peruse Western culture today. What do we see? One predominant and surprising trend is the television show, Game of Thrones.
The show has an unprecedented fan base, has received extensive awards, and has become a topic of conversation across our society’s spectrum. The show is violent, sexually explicit, crude, despairing, full of plots that are manipulative and coercive, praises vicious and merciless characters, mocks virtue and shows how to use it against people, and screams utilitarian barbarism.
From Cersei’s cold brutality to her incestuous relationship with her brother, or the Red Wedding and its revenge by Arya, the masochism of Ramsay or Euron Greyjoy, the deception of Littlefinger or Varys, the list goes on and on. This is a dark world, with very little hope.
Any resemblance of righteousness in one or some character is shown as a dire weakness and the character must either betray it or suffer destruction because of it. Goodness is crushed by wickedness or severely overshadowed by evil.
And so, if everything is a sign of divine favor, how are we to make sense of this television show? Does the show repudiate our sacramental principle and show us to be displaced optimists? Or perhaps we should look the other way, and allow for our ignorance and avoidance to justify our principle?
Such a course of action would lack integrity and not help us to find indications of God’s kindness in our world. And so, what is the answer to this challenge? What can we say about the characters and the plots of Game of Thrones?
Admittedly, the sacramental principle takes a turn and has two sides. It not only shows us how to find goodness by its presence in the world, but it also teaches us to find goodness by its absence in our world. This is referred to as the via negativa. In a fallen world, such a twist is necessary if we are to find sources of peace, goodness, and hope.
With this clarification, then, we turn back to this show and ask: Why are so many people in the West absorbed by this game of thrones? How is it so appealing and strangely consoling to so many good people?
The answer is simple. We are a fallen race, and people can see in the throws of this show exaggerations of themselves. Game of Thrones displays a world without grace, without virtue or even the desire for virtue. It presents a world marked by a will to power, by the maxim “might makes right,” and by a fallen golden rule, namely, he who has the gold makes the rule.
This is a world in reverse of every good counsel and admonition to right order that civil people have received from the time they could comprehend words and customs.
In a civilized world, people temper their passions and order their desires. We are taught to do this, and are willing to die to ourselves in order to grow in grace and contribute to a greater good. Game of Thrones is the ultimate deconstruction. It discards all morality and throws raw human nature in the trenches by itself- without grace or virtue – to fight it out and let the strongest or more cunning among us win.
And this world filled with revenge, indulgence and violence can be an odd delight to us in our own fallenness. There are times in which we wish revenge was a moral option, we want others to suffer violence, we want to win at any cost, we seek our own will over the good of others, and we want those in our way to be destroyed.
Yes, Game of Thrones is what can happen when the thin veneer of civilization is removed. It’s an experience of what being mugged by fallen reality looks like. It’s the reminder to us – in spite of our misplaced solace – of what is possible when we forget our higher natures, when we neglect goodness, and when we think the world is supposed to revolve around us.
And so in the via negative, this show – this horrible game of passing thrones – shows us the importance and centrality of goodness, of discerning reflections of grace, and laboring for virtue in ourselves and our society.