But here we are in the 21st century, and religion shows few signs of slowing. People channeling and claiming the raw power of the gods is barely even surprising anymore. ISIS, for instance, is just our backdrop.
North Americans have an entertaining habit of working out our anxieties about religion on TV. And this season of “Game of Thrones” is as great a catharsis as secularization zealots can hope for.
The world of “Game of Thrones” definitely doesn’t seem secular: There are dragons, curses, undead frozen zombies, magical beasties of all sorts. But those things have only recently reemerged into Westeros and its world that was, until the beginning of the series, a rather reasonably secular age.
The political drama in “Game of Thrones” actually neatly parallels what goes on in the secular West. The capital lives in a kind of cloistered secular innocence, where games of power, intrigue, sex – oh, so much sex – have an almost innocent secular quality.
While the capital whores and gambles and drinks itself into comfortable complacency, the “White Walkers” (frozen zombies, for real) ride. Government, absorbed in an apocalyptic liquidity crisis (the parallels to our world getting eerie), dismisses reports from North of the Wall of this resurgence of presumed-dead religions.
There are whispers of dragons being reborn, but those modern folk doubt it. The Red Priestess and her Lord of Light make war in the south, and again in the north. Even the monstrous skeletal remains of once-upon-a-time dragons have long been removed from the throne room and buried under the Keep of the capital, King’s Landing. Secular complacency clings stubbornly to the empire’s elite.
At the center of power, magic is a myth. The gods and goddesses are a convenient trope, swapping in for social control a la Marx’s opiate of the masses. History is whatever the victors say it is.
If the “Game of Thrones” stories are any indication, then this is the preamble under which those mythical dragons will, quite literally, come home to roost.
“Winter is Coming” — the banner of the great House Stark — is a kind of genuine apocalyptic prophecy. It is a terrible, destructive herald, but also a revelation. Viewers of the show suspect that the Houses of Westeros, people who have made their petty wars and rivalries among themselves, are finally engorged on avarice and egoism and will fall.
Even King’s Landing, home of the rational, secular folk, is going to get swept up in this global resurgence of religion.
The secular West in our own world has been stunned in the past several decades by the global resurgence of religion. In Westeros, when the Small Council receives an actual hand of a White Walker (frozen zombie), the Hand of the King nearly quotes verbatim the CIA on reports of Shi’a Islam fomenting an Iranian revolution in 1979, dismissing it as “mere sociology.”
They got that one wrong. In fact, the better question, political scientist Daniel Philpott says, is not as much “why is religion back?” but “why did we ever think it went away?”
Sure, these parallels to our own political economy are also striking. King’s Landing is engaged in ruinous financial borrowing — and we can learn a few small (but significant) lessons in compound interest and international bond ratings of our own, too. But more important, George R.R. Martin frames the problem of resurgent religion in theodicy, the age-old question of how a good God could let bad things happen.
In a July 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Martin said:
And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture? Why do we even have pain? I was taught pain is to let us know when our body is breaking down. Well, why couldn’t we have a light? Like a dashboard light? If Chevrolet could come up with that, why couldn’t God? Why is agony a good way to handle things?
A one-time Catholic, Martin struggles painfully with theodicy in his stories, which are pregnant with a bitter lapse of hope. Every violation pierces the reader. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? What kind of world is it where this happens?
Martin wants us to hear this proclamation: this one. This world. That’s where these things happen.
You think the world of “Game of Thrones” looks ugly? Watch Syria. Read the wires out of Somalia. Read about Nigeria. Read about the Central African Republic or Nepal.
It makes sense that the “Game of Thrones” stories is apocalypse — and very religious, rival apocalypses at that. We’re left waiting for not merely the devastation of apocalypse — which is everywhere — but the revelation that is meant to accompany it: How can these new, and old, religions ever make sense of Martin’s visceral accusation of the gods? Trumpets will sound, dragons will roar, but will tears be wiped away, will the Lion lay down with the Lamb? That is the unlikely revelation the old gods are resurrected to prophesy.
In the world of “Game of Thrones,” all these seasons later, Winter is still coming. The provisional titles of the sixth and seventh books are “The Winds of Winter” and “A Dream of Spring.” “A Dream of Spring” sounds like feint stuff, in the midst of these rival world ending crises. What will get us first? White Walkers, the Lord of Light, the lords and ladies of King’s Landing, the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen? Or the Islamic State? Boko Haram? Iranian nuclear armament? Race and inequality riots? Global warming? Currency war?
We all live in Westeros now, and God and the gods are resurrecting rivalries all over the world for hearts and minds to make sense of it. Small wonder our trashy TV has joined suit.
Robert Joustra teaches politics and international studies at Redeemer University College, south of Toronto (Canada) where he is also director of the Center for Christian Scholarship. He tweets @rjoustra. Alissa Wilkinson is an assistant professor of English and humanities at the King’s College in New York City and chief film critic at Christianity Today. She tweets @alissamarie.