George Schmidt: Niebuhr’s Realism in ‘Game of Thrones’

game-of-thronesGeorge Schmidt, candidate for the Master of Sacred Theology degree at Union Theological Seminary, has written a complex and fascinating theological analysis of Game of Thrones. I read all of George R.R. Martin’s books in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I loved them and hated them. After reading Schmidt’s essay I think I know why.

When push comes to shove, I usually land in the “faithful, rather than effective” camp. I’m an idealist. If I have to choose between my values and an effective outcome, I generally choose my values. Because life without values is life without meaning — and life without meaning leads to despair and despair separates one from God. (Ask me about this tomorrow and I may phrase that all differently but I think you get what I mean.)

I’m not saying that I avoid effectiveness. I actually value it highly — because if God gives you a job to do, you should do it very well. But the foundational assumption is that the mission is carried out under certain parameters. So when Satan tells Jesus he’ll show him how to turn stones into bread with the implication that Jesus can fill the bellies of all the hungry poor, why doesn’t Jesus do it? Wouldn’t that be a highly effective way of carrying out the practicalities of God’s mission?

No. It wouldn’t. Because turning stones into bread comes with certain requirements. Namely, placing Satan’s name higher than God’s. And one of the foundational assumptions is God is God of all and we shall have no idols before God. Therefore, the means do not justify the end.

So back to Game of Thrones. As Schmidt points out, George R.R. Martin’s books take readers into a pea soup fog between realpolitic, Christian politcal realism ala Neibuhr, and the tragedy of mercy. Read Schmidt’s whole essay, but here’s an excerpt below:

… Placing traditional theodicy aside for a moment, the question after all this misery is simple: Why did Eddard die? At the outset, identifying Eddard’s death as a simple tragedy misses an important point that is often made by Christian realists. Tragedy, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed in The Irony of American History, elicits “admiration as well as pity” for a man like Eddard. We pity him for such a terrible finality while we admire his conviction and compassion for Cersei and her children.

However, tragedy does not account for the way in which, to quote Niebuhr once again, “virtues are vices.” This lack of dialectical thinking, according to which human agency is essentially either virtuous or sinful, is unthinkable in Christian realism. An idealist who quickly classifies an event as tragic fails to take into account the evil that is an “inevitable consequence of the exercise of human creativity”: the evil that is in the good.

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