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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Lenten Reflections on Marina Abramovic, Todd Bentley, and Performance Healing


Tip of the Hat to Vintage Jeannie‘s eclectic tastes that led me to performance artist Marina Abramovic and “Our America with Lisa Ling,” a new TV series on OWN. Both have prompted some esoteric reflections on Lent, Lenten disciplines, prophetic witness, and social healing.

From the Lenten prayer of St. Augustine: “O Lord, the house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.”

First, the strange world of Marina Abramovic. Abramovic, born in Belgrade, is one of the leading artists from the “live act” performance art movements from the 1960s and ’70s in Eastern Europe. The performance art and body art movements in Europe can be traced back to the Dadists in 1915 who created “anti-art” to shock and critique the values of a society that preferenced the pretensions of high culture while countenancing the brutality of World War I.

In Abramovic’s performance pieces, her body is the primary medium–taking her and her audience to the limits of emotion. She creates dangerous spaces. She says, “I’m interested in art that disturbs and pushes that moment of danger.” After the terrorist attacks in New York city on Sept. 11, Abramovic performed “House With an Ocean View” at a gallery in Manhattan in which she publicly mourned for 12 days, including fasting, weeping, sometimes tearing her clothes.

“For those twelve days, in perfect silence, she ate nothing and drank only water,” wrote art critic John Haber. “She had nothing with which to read or write. Nothing stood in the way of thought or sleep but lightheadedness and danger. She sought to ‘change my energy field.’ By the end, her flesh fed on muscle, just as in an earlier work, of incisions into her skin, muscle fed on flesh.” And hundreds came to the gallery to participate with her in the public ritual, her prophetic witness. So like Jeremiah weeping for an unrepentant people.

Last year, in preparation for a retrospective of performance art pieces at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Abramovic led a workshop at her farm in upstate New York called “Cleaning the House.” Participants slept outside and did not eat nor speak for four days. They engaged in a regimen of individual and group exercises, such as walking backwards in slow motion, counting grains of rice, and observing a single object for hours. The goal of these exercises was to enable them to become aware of their limits and to find their own “charismatic space.” They pushed their bodies and minds to learn something about their souls.

The trailer to the movie Marina (see above) tracks one of those workshops. Individuals are led through a series of exercises meant to sharpen their minds and shock their bodies. They go through a 4-day process of “cleansing.” Abramovic walks through the group with an “offertory basket” collecting everyone’s cell phones, IPAs, Iphones, etc.  They are asked to temporarily sacrifice communication in order to be present to themselves and their surroundings. They take a vow of silence. They sleep in the open, in the cold. They bathe in the river. They find a spiritual space where they can identify their own limits, the spiritual boundaries of another, and the impenetrable mystery that lies in the gap between the two. Participants come away completely transformed–shocked at how much more “human” they have become in just 4 days of intense study and training.

In “Our America with Lisa Ling,” the premier episode is devoted to exploring faith healing through Todd Bentley at Morning Star Ministries in Ft. Mill, South Carolina. Ling describes Bentley as a “rock star among faith healers,” and also points out he is a former drug addict whose adultery nearly derailed his ministry.

Bentley runs a school for would-be faith healers. Those who come are the addicted, the abused, the formerly incarcerated, the poor, the needy. With the praise band wailing in the background, Bentley – who looks like a biker in his black t-shirt, full-sleeve tattoos, and body piercings – mows down the line of the desperate, slaying them in the Spirit. It is powerful and pitiful, prayerful and spiritually pornographic.

It is also performance art: Bodies in space; the interacting of charismatic energies. Also with painful, though less dangerous, social commentary.

Ling visits two middle-aged sisters who have paid $600 each to attend Bentley’s workshops, hoping that when they bring their mother to one of Todd Bentley’s worship services she will be cured of her untreatable cancer. “Faith healing is,” Ling points out, “a multibillion dollar industry, and the sisters say these sessions are cheaper than medical treatments their mother’s insurance does not entirely cover.”

One commenter on the episode said, “Many turn to faith healing because they cannot afford treatment from conventional medicine (like the woman in the show with cancer who had to stop her chemo). There are many who want to go the route of conventional medicine, but when that is no longer an option for them, where do they turn? I hope that this show, and those like it, help others to see that we need to find ways of helping everyone have access to medical treatment (no matter what their financial situation may be).”

When the faithful are not cured of cancer or paralysis, Ling reframes (as people of faith have done for centuries in these situations trying to understand the mysterious ways of God). She looks at how the individuals have transformed their own lives with God’s help–turning away from drugs, leaving abusive relationships, gaining emotional and psychological strength–rather than emphasizing the somewhat suspicious snake oil of Todd Bentley.

At the end of the episode Steve, a man paralyzed for years who is convinced that the Lord will heal him through Todd Bentley, is not able to walk again. But when Ling kneels before him in his wheelchair asking how he understands what has happened, he instead pours out his prayers on her. He is compelled to release the spiritual energy built up inside him. He lays his hands on Ling’s head and she receives a peculiar annointing. All of which calls into question who or what was actually being healed.

Liturgy and ritual, stripping away illusions, prayer and healing, surprise and danger, temptations all are part of Lent. We experiment with who we are in our humanness, when masks are ripped away. We expose our wounds. We are vulnerable to Satan/hucksters selling us cheap grace.

Lent is a time to “Clean the House.” St. Augustine’s prayer continues: “My soul is ruinous, O repair it! It displeases Your sight. I confess it, I know. But who shall cleanse it, to whom shall I cry but to you?” We are such peculiar creatures. We choose such strange sins.

Arizona Adopts ‘Jimenez Crow’ Laws: Direct and Indirect Civil Disobedience

by NEPHTALI DELEON

Next week, Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 will go into effect.

This bill, among other things, requires local law enforcement to check an individual’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that said individual is undocumented. Another provision of SB 1070 requires immigrants to carry papers denoting citizenship at all times while in the state.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a suit against Arizona, citing the bill as discriminatory. (For more on the law and comprehensive immigration reform, please see Sojourners’ great campaign Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.)

As the action heats up in Arizona, we’ve got a “teachable moment” about what nonviolent direct action looks like when taken directly against an unjust law — as opposed to symbolic civil disobedience that often breaks a smaller law to highlight the injustice of a larger situation.

Will Travers’ article A Rare Opportunity for Direct Civil Disobedience in Arizona provides an excellent outline for this conversation.  Will’s a scholar of nonviolence with a degree from the University of Michigan. He works with the NYC-based band/nonprofit, Lokashakti, promoting peace and social justice through collective nonviolent action. Here’s an excerpt:

… Not since the end of the draft in 1973 has there been a law in the United States that seems to render itself so well to direct civil disobedience. Arizona SB 1070 requires non-citizens to keep registration documents on them at all times and forces police officers to inquire about immigration status during any kind of arrest or routine stop if they encounter “reasonable suspicion” that the person might be in the country illegally. In addition, the new law gives police leeway to arrest someone solely on the basis of there being probable cause that they may be undocumented, at which point they’re to be turned over directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

This basically boils down to the police in Arizona having new license to stop anyone looking remotely Hispanic — for no other reason than that they look remotely Hispanic — demand papers from them, and take them into custody if satisfactory documents are not immediately produced. Predictably this has led some people, such as Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony, to draw parallels to the lives of those in Europe forced to live under the Nazi regime. Additionally — and this concerns all of us — the new Arizona law makes it a crime to “transport or move,” or “conceal, harbor or shield” undocumented immigrants, reminding me more of something out of the Fugitive Slave Acts from this country’s dark past. Against such blatantly unjust, potentially far-reaching legislation, at least we’re armed with a chance for everyone to participate in its direct disobedience, instead of just abandoning our undocumented brothers and sisters to their fate.

In a relatively short amount of time, Martin Luther King Jr. became somewhat of an expert on unjust laws. In a speech he delivered before the Fellowship of the Concerned in 1961, King defined an unjust law as “a code that the majority inflicts upon the minority, which that minority had no part in enacting or creating, because that minority had no right to vote in many instances.” Although close to 50 years old, this definition holds up in modern-day Arizona quite well. The undocumented minority, having virtually no recourse to its voice being heard, is at the mercy of the majority — in this case that of the Arizona Senate — 60 percent Republican and 100 percent white.

King places upon his definition one condition: that the law the minority is compelled to obey is not binding upon the majority. This indeed rings true again, as one would have a very hard time imagining members of Arizona’s white community consenting to being stopped because of their skin color, questioned by police, and immediately forced to prove their legal status under penalty of detention. On the necessity for civil disobedience when faced with such a law, King writes in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that:

[A]t first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

While it’s difficult for me to speculate as to exactly how this unjust law should best be disobeyed, the inspiring example is already there of the five students and community organizers who staged a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office in Tucson after the bill’s April signing. Remarkably enough, three of the five were undocumented and knowingly subjected themselves to possible deportation, finally undergoing arrest, then detention by ICE, before thankfully being released the next day. …

Read Will’s whole article here.