Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Game of Thrones and Christian liberty

Most likely, at least some of those reading this blog have seen the HBO series A Game of Thrones. The series is based upon a seven book series by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire (of which, five have been written). Having heard the show was good from a co-worker, I began reading the books on my trip to China a few months back. The books have been fascinating, and I am now about a third of the way through the fifth book—-and caught up with viewing the HBO series, as well.

Now it should be noted, for those who have not read or seen the movie, that—-how shall I say this?-—they are about as debased as anything you’ll ever see. The series is full of coarse language, betrayals, sexual deviance, rape, sorcery, and the like. Not the kind of thing you watch with your kids. So don’t say I didn’t warn you! I am not necessarily recommending this series as healthy for Christian viewing.

That said, I cannot help but see a very strong underlying message here which is relevant to us as Christians; and indeed, for those who follow the show or books I believe you will find it very clearly practical and useful for our daily lives as Christians. Spoiler alert: I am going to assume with what I say going forward that you have at least seen the HBO series up to season two; if not, this will make absolutely no sense. I will try to explain anything which is post-season two so that it is clear to those who are fans of the shows only but have yet to read the books, in such a way as to not spoil the future of the series.

One of the most fascinating aspects of A Song of Ice and Fire is its impressively raw, real look at human nature. Nothing about our depravity is candy-coated on this show, but neither is it unrealistic. On its surface this might seem to be a story about dragons and wars, but as you read the books you find that the vast majority of the writing is about the character’s reactions to the events around them. It is far more a book about human nature than about any particular series of events. We see what people think about as they crave power and what they do when they get it (or lose it); we see how they view death and religion; we see how they view right and wrong; we see both the immense evil and sacrificial good of which people are capable. It is as good an analysis of human nature as I have ever read, and thus has great value to us as Christians--for in its characters, we see much of ourselves.

Through this series, the two groups of people whom I initially found most reprehensible were the “free folk” (wildlings) north of the Wall, and the “ironborn” who live on the Iron Islands. As I reflected throughout the series, though, I see that this might in fact be the two groups which most closely resemble the American (and my) approach to life...and perhaps the revulsion I feel then is a self-revulsion. At their hearts, the free folk and ironborn both have a similar motivation for, well, an American-like freedom. They do not wish to bend the knee to a monarch or jump at the government’s commands; rather, they want freedom to serve only themselves.

The free folk are basically libertarian in mindset—-they follow Mance Rayder as the “king-beyond-the-wall” voluntarily, having chosen him themselves. When Mance is no longer in this position later (I won’t tell you when or how so as to avoid spoiling it), the free folk do not even understand the concept of Mance’s son being a ‘prince’ or inheriting his leadership. Kings among the free folk are followed voluntarily and unfollowed voluntarily. These wildlings may be seen as a decent example of the Tea Party / Libertarian concept of government: no government is best, but if we must have one, it better be minimal and non-invasive and only existing for the defense of our freedom.

The ironborn have a saying that “Every man is a king on his own ship” (much like our modern saying that “Every man’s home is his castle”). Their kings do not hold the absolute power of other kings in the realm, and only with great reluctance follow the sort of “federal” government in King’s Landing. The ironborn are rebellious and violent when they need to be, and care only about themselves and their people-—what happens in other kingdoms is none of their concern. If succession is not clear, or an ironborn king is overreaching, then the new king is chosen via kingsmoot, an open democratic election. Each person is seen as an individual with power, the lords and kingly powers are greatly limited, and their elections are democratic. That is, their view of government is not vastly different from the two major American parties.

In each case, these two groups desire the same thing that we Americans desire--freedom. They value freedom above all other virtues: the ironborn only limit individual freedom in a way that they find pragmatic, and the free folk do not limit freedom at all. They hate the concept of bowing down to another government, and could care less what is good for the “realm"; all they care about is what is good for the individual and, to a much lesser extent, their people.

They, like we Americans, make freedom their most central belief system. “Give me liberty or give me death”; “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither”; “The patriot’s blood is the seed of freedom’s tree”; “Liberty has never come from the government...the history of liberty is a history of resistance”. These quotes are all by great American leaders but would be equally natural coming from the mouths of Martin’s ironborn or free folk. We all desire the same thing: freedom to live our lives as we see fit, with little or no interference from those in power above us.

However, there is one group in the books who see things differently. At this point in the HBO series, we have only met one of these people—-Jaqen H’ghar, who after being freed by Arya said that three people must die in order to repay the many-faced god. Jaqen is a worshipper of the Braavosi god called the “many-faced god”, a god of death who is said to be the true god from which all the other gods of the realm devolve. These worshippers of the many-faced god have two key sayings in the books: valar morghulis and valar dohaeris.

Valar morghulis means “all men must die”, and valar dohaeris means “all men must serve”. The basic concept of this religion—-so strange in the series-—is that all men serve someone, and all men die in the end. Thus they view the world through these two primary prisms (and have no problem with "serving" by bringing about the "death" part to someone else, if necessary). One of the current major characters in the HBO show will one day join this cult (much later in the series); to keep from spoiling who it is, let us call this person "X". X will spend the bulk of their training learning to clean out their soul and become “no one”—-only a servant of the many-faced god. Every day their lead priest will ask, “Who are you”, to which X will respond, “No one”...only to be called a liar until that day when X truly sacrifices their own identity and joins the cult heart and soul. When asked to do something, the response of these worshippers is always “valar dohaeris”--all men must serve; when they hear someone discuss death or fear death, their calm response is always, “valar morghulis”--all men must die.

Now it may seem strange to say this, since this cult is a strange and frightening religion in the series, but frankly they have a most thoroughly Christian concept in their teachings. For it is only this cult which has understood the reality of life which Christ preached: that all men serve someone, and that our death is the most critical event in our lives. We humans (Americans especially) despise the concept of someone having authority over us, or limiting our freedom, and we greatly fear our mortality. Yet the reality of life remains, valar dohaeris, valar morghulis.

We all serve someone, whether we like to admit it or not: we serve ourselves or our bosses or our families or our country or our greed or our selfishness or our false gods. To be truly free from service is a ridiculous notion, and not a Christian one. Jesus does not say that following Him removes us from service--far from it! He says that we cannot serve both God and greed, so choose one (choosing neither is not given as an option). The question in life is not, “Am I free?”, but rather, “To whom am I a slave?” Because all men must serve, whether we like to admit it or not. And Jesus tells us that when He freed us from the Law, it was so that we might better serve each other in love. We were not freed simply to be free: we were freed for the purpose of service. He tells us that the servants are the greatest in heaven; that if we wish to follow Him, we should serve others even unto death, as He did; He washes our feet as a slave and commands us to do the same to others. Valar dohaeris.

We also all die. We like to talk about building a legacy or doing something which has a lasting impact--as though that somehow will make death less of an ending to our life. And we Americans really like to think of death as “going to a better place” (that part of Christianity at least is rousingly endorsed by everyone, even if they conveniently have no recollection of the whole “serve God” part). Jesus, however, says that the best way to lose your life is to hold onto it too tightly. There is no choice but that one day all will die. The question is not, “Will I die?”, but rather, “Will my death be the end of my life?” For Jesus says that those who are loyal to Him and follow Him will taste death, only to be given a life that is truer and more real and cannot end. But dying is the first step to this eternal life, and there is no way to get there without it. Valar morghulis.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ did not free us from the Law into some sort of anarchist feel-good faith, as some would have it. Like character X in the Game of Thrones who will one day follow in Jaqer’s footsteps, we too must empty ourselves of our identities and become someone new. We too must die to ourselves so that we can live as a Christian—-and in the end, must literally die so that we might live in Christ. We are freed not for freedom’s sake (tempting as that may be for our American way of thinking), but rather we are freed so that we might serve freely until the day we die.

The Gospel tells us that our true purpose can only be fulfilled, and our true joy only obtained, when we empty ourselves of “me” and fully embrace the twin realities of life: valar dohaeris, and valar morghulis. Though we may greatly desire it as Americans, true freedom is a myth. You are now, and always will be, a slave to something or someone. And whom you choose to serve will be directly related to whether the inevitable death that you will experience is the end or merely the beginning.

“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve...but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

Valar dohaeris.
Valar morghulis.


  1. I appreciate your seeing some positives in GoT, but I just couldn't get past the wanton sexuality. When some form of nudity is seemingly REQUIRED in every episode, you know where their true intentions lie with this series. yet another way to push the boundaries and break down our sensitivities. Sorry, but I would warn any Christian AGAINST this show.

    1. Certainly I do not think it is for everyone, or even for most Christians. In fact, I believe I called it "as debased as anything you'll ever see."

      This very likely does fall into the category of something which, though allowed for us, may not be good for us. But then that could apply to nearly any form of modern entertainment, including the advertisements one sees driving down the road. Never forget that there are three ways to respond to the depravity of this world: (1) to withdraw from it and hope thereby to avoid its stain (i.e., fundamentalism); (2) to embrace it and pretend it is no problem (i.e., hedonism); or (3) to approach it wisely and find Christ in it, or inject Christ in it if He is not currently.

      Option #3 was precisely my goal in this essay. And based on some emails and comments I got, I am not the only one who got value out of it. Thank God that He did not fear to hang around with prostitutes and thieves, in order to inject Him into their lives and thereby change them!

      Thankfully this need not be something which divides us.

      Thank you for reading, and I hope you continue.

  2. Very interesting you see the ironborn as similar to the American mindset. The most bloodthirsty, dishonourable and warlike group of people in the series.

    Says much about your worldview.

    1. Aaakker, I have to respectfully disagree with you in, well, almost every way. :-) All jokes aside, I see your point, but let me elaborate.

      First, I think you would have a hard time arguing that the ironborn are anywhere CLOSE to the "most bloodthirsty, dishonourable, and warlike group". The Astapor slave masters, the Mad King, and the Boltons are all MUCH worse than the ironborn...and really there isn't anyone other than the Starks who come out of the series as NOT bloodthirsty. I think you'd have a hard time arguing that the ironborn are significantly different than most other houses.

      Second, you make here a mistake called the Fallacy of Composition--you assume that because I said something is true of one part, that I am saying it must be true of the whole. In other words, just because one part of the ironborn reminds me of America doesn't mean everything about the ironborn reminds me of America. I do think (as I stated above) that the ironborn's system of government reminds me of ours: the kingsmoot is the only democratic selection process in the entire show. So of course it reminds me. Likewise they only with grumbling submit to the authority of their leaders, which again is like many Americans I know. This does not, however, mean that EVERYTHING about the ironborn reminds me of America! Likewise, I say that the thirst for freedom of the wildlings reminds me of America, but this does not mean EVERYTHING about the wildlings reminds me of America.

      With all due respect...you read far too much into that statement. My point is simply, as I state above, that the things I dislike about the wildlings and ironborn are exactly the things I dislike about myself.

    2. Perhaps you are right and I interpret your words to Black and White. My reasoning for my statement regarding the Ironborn, is that democracy is not their most important virtue/characteristic. It is their belief that might is right. And unfortunately that is the prevailing opinion of the US government regarding foreign affairs. Hence my association between the Ironborn and the US. And that has nothing to do with democracy.

      Than again, I never understood the American pride for their democracy. As a European I always thought the US democratic system is less democratic/honest than the ones in North-West Europe. I view the US democracy as a play with actors. So my first interpretation of any link between the Ironborn and the US is not Democracy or a sense of freedom.

      Basically, my views on Americans is very different than yours. To me the wish for freedom is not synonymous or the most striking characteristic for the US of A (and I have a relatively positive view of the USA).

      And there are characteristics in every tribe/family/country in the series that remind me of the US. Be it the scheming nature of the Tyrells, the hatred for slavery of the Starks, the Democracy of the wildlings or the warlike/violent nature of the Lannisters. Every tribe symbolises part of the prevailing American way. So why you specifically choose the Ironborn as an example just shows your worldview is differnt than mine (if you only mentioned the Wildlings, I think we would not have a discussion).

      But you might be right: I read more into it than I should/there is.

  3. Thank you for this article. I especially love this: "(1) to withdraw from it and hope thereby to avoid its stain (i.e., fundamentalism); (2) to embrace it and pretend it is no problem (i.e., hedonism); or (3) to approach it wisely and find Christ in it, or inject Christ in it if He is not currently."

  4. I agree that we need to respond as number 3. We are in the world even though we are not of it. We need to find ways to engage with those that are entangled in the culture of this world to bring the truth of the light of Christ to them. Yes, we all serve something, whether we realize or admit that truth.
    Thanks for bringing to light the threads throughout the series as I have not had the time to read or watch the series but interact with others that are. I like to speak with some intelligence and background when we talk in the future.