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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Are You a Capriphile or a Caprichaun?: Sci-Fi, Ethics, and Religion

Caprica_S1_Poster_01“Some commentators have proposed ‘science fiction’ as the last fictional repository for theological speculation,” wrote Margaret Atwood a few years ago. “Heaven, Hell, and aerial transport by means of wings having been more or less abandoned after Milton, outer space was the only remaining neighborhood where beings resembling gods, angels, and demons might still be found.” (Read Margaret Atwood’s literary history of sci fi here.)

Caprica, the new sci fi TV series in the Battlestar Galactica lineage, is the latest brilliant playground of ethics, theology, and social gumbo on the small screen. After watching the first few episodes, I can confirm that I’m definitely a Capriphile or a Caprichaun or a Capricaner or whatever Caprica fans end up calling ourselves. Apparently, I’m not alone.

Over at Religion Dispatches, commentators Diane Winston, Anthea Butler, Salman Hameed, and Henry Jenkins are blogging on each Caprica episode under a series titled Capricology. The mix of commentators is great in itself. Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion. Butler is an associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Halmeed is an astronomer who also writes about Muslims and science. Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at USC.

They’re covering the cultural intersection of science and religion as well as the interwoven commentary on the body, artificial intelligence, paganism, original sin, immigration, and race. Here are some excerpts from their posts on Caprica‘s first episode:
Whereas most TV dramas are good guys versus bad guys, BSG and Caprica probe the passions that enliven us. The pull of temptation, the cost of obsession, the slog to redemption (yes, yes, and yes) and then the biggest question of all: Do you need to be a carbon-based life form to own and feel these? Teetering between “must-see TV” and bloated soap opera, BSG worked because the melodrama was grounded in the quotidian: model ships, dog tags, and toothbrushes. Now with all the imaginable artifacts that could draw us into Caprica’s odd collision of machines, mobsters, and monotheists, a newspaper—with ball scores, stock prices, and local weather makes it all so mundane, masking (as our own newspapers tend to do) the real stakes behind the stories.–Diane Winston

I was most taken though by the plight of Adama’s daughter, who is brought back from the dead not through an act of self-creation but against her will; who is inserted into an empty world, a purgatory space, which she doesn’t recognize and understand, and is abandoned there, treated as an unnatural abomination, as a monster, by her own father and forgotten by the man who created her. (Shades of Frankenstein, but also some suggestions here of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series Jane Espenson worked for before Caprica, where Buffy’s friends bring her back from the dead, like Lazarus, and she finds herself experiencing deep pain and trauma at being ripped from paradise and plunged back into our imperfect world. In fact, Espenson wrote “After Life,” a key episode in the exploration of this theme in Buffy. I hope the series will explore more fully what happens to this girl and how her experiences differ from Zoe’s.)–Henry Jenkins

The real genius of Caprica will be the weekly mind game Ron Moore and his crew are going to play with us about when life begins, and ends. Does life continue after physical “death,” and if life is not in a human body, is it really “human” after all? How does a new religious movement gain followers? What are the moral and ethical implications of a society that has lost its moral center and stokes its fear by creating the ultimate “protection force” that will eventually obliterate its creators? Most importantly, what does it mean to have a body? And how do you use it?–Anthea Butler

A belief in some sort of afterlife is central to many religions and it may have been pivotal in the origins of religions in the first place. How will this play out on Caprica, where the boundaries between what is alive and what is not are already getting quite blurry? Does it shape monotheism or polytheism in a particular direction? In addition to all this, we have the monomania (as Diane calls it) of Daniel Greystone that is leading him to create his own version of life-after-death—and the cost that humans will eventually end up paying 58 years later. As Henry pointed out with a comparison with Buffy, the issue of life after death is a fertile area of exploration for this series, alongside the psyche of suicide bombers.–Salman Hameed

Read more from Capricology: Television, Tech, and the Sacred.

St. Paul the Pacifist: A Christian Response to Torture

nguyenV. Henry T. Nguyen is an Angeleno and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who has “pretty much become a pacifist,” he says. He’s got his doctorate in New Testament and is an adjunct prof at several schools in Southern California. (He blogs at Punctuated Life.)

He’s written a great piece in response to the Pew study on Christians and torture (See Does Wearing a Cross Make You a Torture Supporter?). It was originally posted at Religion Dispatches.

I’m printing the whole thing here because I think it’s an important read.

St. Paul the Pacifist: A Christian Response to Torture
By V. Henry T. Nguyen

The recent Pew findings—that churchgoers, especially white evangelical Protestants, are more likely to believe that torture can be justified—have caused many commentators to wonder whether particular forms of Christian theology engender an acceptance of the use of torture.

In a recent article on Religion Dispatches, Sarah Sentilles suggests that Christian theologies and images of Christ’s crucifixion (essentially is an act of torture) have influenced some Christian communities’ understanding of torture as salvific, necessary, and justified. This view of torture is especially fueled by what is known as atonement theology: the view that Jesus’ death provided reparation for humanity’s sins against God.

So what would a Christian theological response against torture look like?

Most Christian theologies are rooted in the writings of Paul, who is particularly celebrated this year by the Catholic church on the bimillenial anniversary of the apostle’s birth; Paul provides the earliest interpretation of the meaning of the crucified Christ. People often forget, or are not aware, that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus himself explain the meaning of his own suffering on the cross. But Paul does.

And I believe that if we were to bring Paul into our current dialogue about whether Christians should support the use of torture, his response would be a resolute “No!”

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