Game of Thrones and the Pursuit of Perfection

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With over  10 million viewers tuned in to the premier, Game of Thrones has smashed viewership records while kicking off its seventh season.  As  per usual, the premiere of Game of Thrones has ignited what can best be described as raging dumpster fire threads all across Catholic-focused social media.  Opinions are widely polarized ranging from exuberant joy to abject horror at the show’s return. Game of Thrones has always had a track record of explicit violence and highly explicit sexual content, making it controversial both within Catholic circles and without.  But if you’re looking for either condemnation or encouragement regarding  whether you should watch Game of Thrones you will be sorely disappointed with what is about to happen here. Instead I am about to ask you a question that we should all ask ourselves as Catholics. Think of it as a spiritual gut check, and keep your answer in mind as you read through the rest of this blog. Ready for it? Here it comes:

What is it that you want to be?

Now some of you may have thought, I want to be (insert adjective). Thin, rich, happy, pious, humble, popular could all fit in there quite easily, and it wouldn’t be a wrong answer. In fact it’s a good start but I’m going to ask you to refine your answer. Put on your Catholic thinking caps, dust off your CCD classes, your catechism readings, and consider the question from  a position of faith. To help, I’ll  further focus the question.

As a Catholic, what is it that you want to be?

At the bare minimum I think it’s safe to say that most of us want who take our faith seriously want to meet the expectations and follow the rules of what we believe. To put it plainly if you’re going to be a Catholic who gives two figs about their faith the desire to be GOOD is usually there. The most basic motivation for being good is because we are afraid of the punishment sin incurs, but even that is usually not enough of a motivation to keep us on the narrow path. The next  might be because we want to obtain the rewards (Heaven) promised us for staying the course.  Better than just doing things to avoid punishment, for sure, but can we do a bit better?  I think so.  Instead of an external motivation for following what we believe, what if we believed that it would have a positive effect on the very core of our nature as people? Rather than copying what good people do because they get XYZ, what if we focused more on transforming ourselves  from the inside out because we become more perfected in doing so? Then being Catholic would be much more intrinsically valuable if we believed that we could find a more perfect version of ourselves by simply following the rules set before us.

Maybe you’re thinking something like “Well, YEA! Duh! everyone knows and wants that.” or maybe “Yea well it’s easier said than done.” If  it’s any variation of the two then my next question to you is:

What is achieving  perfection worth to you?

The world we live in is a pretty unforgiving one. The Devil doesn’t give us anything for free, and the pursuit of virtue is a pretty expensive venture. It’s easy to be vulgar, it’s easy to consume vast quantities of  all manner of useless, vapid, garbage.  They don’t call cheap thrills cheap because they’re rare and hard to come by. Hint: It’s because they’re everywhere, and anyone can access them.

In most cases the Church doesn’t outright forbid most of the stuff we call entertainment. It might give us some cautionary notes, but by and large it lets us discern what is acceptable according to the standards of our faith. So the knee jerk response in some of my Catholic brethren to condemn other Catholics who consume some of the more controversial  stuff to the hellfire, or slaps the “BAD CATHOLIC” moniker on them is an approach I find problematic. This should never be our response. Not only does it NEVER (I’ll repeat for emphasis…NEVER EVER) work to convince anyone you’re right it’s also utterly repugnant and lacking in any semblance of charity.

That being said, as Catholics that whole discernment process of the kind of entertainment we intake needs to be honest. And I mean…HONEST.  It’s easy to wave off people who tell you not  to like something that is infectiously likeable. Especially if EVERYONE ELSE LIKES IT.  But isn’t that always the way sin gets us? Because we become complacent. We become comfortable with moving that line of what is unacceptable further and further  out until sometimes, we lose sight of why we avoid certain things to begin with.

Because regardless of what we think is important now, let’s all keep in mind that the end goal isn’t how many seasons of a show we’ve watched, or how often we had something interesting to discuss with all our cool hip friends about the latest summer blockbuster. It’s whether we lived our lives according to  what would bring us closer to God and our ultimate goal which is eternal salvation.

That’s not to say we should have a strictly utilitarian approach to our every activity, or even constantly wander around with a puritanical fear of seeing or hearing things that might skirt that edge.  God rested and recreated as an example to us to do the same. But there should be a limit to what we expose ourselves to, and that limit should be informed by a well adjusted, sincere, Catholic conscience that actively seeks to BETTER ourselves.

So what does this have to do with Game of Thrones? When do we get to the “actual” point? Just bear with me,  I’ve spoken around the main topic because I think it’s important to be able to establish the fact that there are lines, that the need for entertainment is a natural and a licit one at the outset. But most importantly I want there to be no misunderstanding of WHY we’re here. Game of Thrones while wildly entertaining and masterfully written is still just a show…and a show that for many really crosses the line of what they consider gratuitous sex and violence.

Some people can understand why writers use devices like violence and sex in a story. They can see that it depicts the world in which these characters operate, the strength or weakness of certain relationships, the conflicts between  factions. All useful and normal things for any good story teller.  For those who haven’t,  I recommend reading a Flannery O’Connor short story called “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.  It is filled with a cast of deplorable unlikeable characters some of whom never get their comeuppance and features repeated violent acts.  It’s considered a masterpiece of short fiction, violence and all, because it makes a cogent point about the difference between professed morality and actual morality. I can see similar echoes of this in Game of Thrones, but it’s on a whole other level visually which can be both disturbing, and incredibly effective story-telling.

Similarly, Game of Thrones is also shamelessly explicit with the sexual  content. In certain cases  (the relationship between Cersei and Jaime for example) sex is shown to be something that says a lot about the characters’ relationships.  The fact that an incestuous relationship is a part of the story-line says more to me about unnatural attachments two characters might have a lot quicker than a slow unfolding of dialogue might. Does it say that incest is okay and should be something everyone does? Based on the characters involved, I would say definitely not. And it’s a bit hasty to say that just because such things exist within a story that they are being touted as acceptable behavior. Often a good storyteller will do a shocking thing to or with a character in order to make the larger point about the amorality and the utter lack of scruples within this (and maybe even our) society.

But you could debate until the cows came home about the use of sex and violence in Game of Thrones and whether it’s gratuitous, or whether watching it automatically makes you an immoral, heretical, lecher (it doesn’t, btw).  At the end of the day the question shouldn’t be is it too much? The question should be “Does this present an obstacle to me reaching my ultimate goal as a Catholic person?”

If you’re repeatedly struggling with temptations, sinful thoughts and actions that are being influenced by this show or any show…you’re missing the point of entertainment completely. Entertainment should at most have a neutral to positive effect on our morality. If you can’t handle images, and situations that lead you from the narrow path then you should really consider finding another way to entertain yourself.  Even those who are looking at shows like Game of Thrones, American Gods, Black Sails and any of a number of other shows with an artistic or literary eye. you should really take a minute to do a spiritual gut check. It is true that what you expose yourself to does become a part of your imagination.  Is this something you want to be a part of you? If achieving perfection is  really your goal…if bettering your spiritual life, and preparing yourself for eternity is that final achievement you want for your life as a Catholic shows like Game of Thrones will probably not help you to achieve these goals. The only leeway that exists is the degree of the effects we will allow it to have on us (and you’re not being honest if you believe that it won’t have SOME effect of some kind on you).  So lemme ask you again…

What is perfection worth to you?