Just days after defending “Game of Thrones” against a friend who accused it of being actual porn, I watched, wide-eyed, as a most troubling sex scene played out on my screen. I was tempted to dial back my defense.
As a fan of the show, I see the explicit sex scenes. I see the violence. And I recoil. My defense of both of them, however, is that we’re supposed to recoil. No matter what people read (or see in the pilot), scant amounts of the boobs and the blood exist to titillate. Sex and violence almost always depict evil. Since I define porn loosely as something that exists only to indulge our lust for sex and/or violence, I can’t classify it as such. Even still, I understand the concerns people have about the dangers of seeing so much — no matter what its purpose.
Besides, the show offers so much more — namely, a fantastic story. One that turns familiar tropes on their heads (in “Game of Thrones” knights don’t rescue damsels from dragons. Damsels with dragons conquer the world) and one not afraid to let our favorite characters lose theirs. “Game of Thrones” speaks eloquently — if brutally — to our morality, our mortality, our humanity, our quests for power, our needs for purpose, for family, for hope.
However, “Game of Thrones” offers something else, something that caught me — a lifelong reader, student and lover of the Bible — by surprise. Watching “Game of Thrones” has made me a better Bible reader. Not despite the often despicable images — but because of them.
Hear me out.
As rough as the scenes in “Game of Thrones” can be, they are scenes similar to many in Scripture. Scenes of bloody battles and troubling sex. Scenes of torture and cruelty. Scenes of incest and sex between kings and queens with stomach-churning age gaps. Scenes in which women and the powerless have no ability or right to consent. To anything.
As surprising as it may be to some, that’s all in the Bible. Not that it’s all condoned in the Bible, but it’s there. Sometimes condemned, sometimes not. The Bible is a tricky book.
And though it sounds good to invoke the words of St. Paul and fill our minds only with “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely” and turn our eyes from violent and “pornographic” shows like “Game of Thrones,” the very things we turn from can help bring the pages of the Bible right to life. Yes, the brutal, broken often god-less world of “Game of Thrones” can help us understand the brutal, broken God-filled world of the Bible.
For instance: For years I struggled to understand why God would forbid David from building the temple because he was a “warrior” and “shed blood.” As I’ve read that passage in myriad worn and scrawled-in Bibles while lounging on porches or sofas, the words seem harsh. I mean, David showed his trust in God by killing a giant and chopping off his head when he was only a boy. God loved David’s mighty murderous warrior spirit.
Throw the guy a bone, God! Let him build the temple!
And yet, while watching “The Battle of the Bastards” last season, something clicked.
Oh, wait. Was David like this, God? Okay, then.
Because much as I love the guy, I wouldn’t want Jon Snow building my temple either.
Though surely better Bible-readers than I have understood this passage without benefit of HBO, we cozy and comfortable North American Christians have made sanitizing our Bible-reading a dangerous discipline. One that keeps us our faith tidy — but shallow.
So when others say there’s a reason the Bible leaves out so many gory and graphic details — that is, to spare our precious minds — I must disagree.
The Bible certainly doesn’t skimp on the eye-popping or stomach-churning details. We read of heads on stakes, foreskins in piles, and daggers engulfed in fat. The creepy, incestuous dance number that cost John the Baptist his head is told frank as frank can be. Flip open Leviticus — and drop your finger anywhere. The book isn’t shy.
Even still, where the Bible is telling, ‘tis true: it leaves much to the imagination.
I realized this last year as I reimagined and rewrote the stories of some of the Bible’s most heroic women. All of their stories were harrowing. All of them required me stepping far outside my comfy world, my cozy life, and opening my ears to things I didn’t want to hear, my eyes to things I didn’t want to see, my emotions to feelings I’d once tried to block.
But it’s through our imaginations, by allowing ourselves to enter their worlds, their stories, that we can truly know them — and their (and our) God. It’s only by truly entering the graphic and dangerous realities of their world that we can appreciate the faith of the people and the might of God.
Of course, the ancients hearing these stories wouldn’t have had to imagine much to fill in the biblical gaps. They’d have heard the stories and known. The violence and sex, the blood and the screams, the smells and the sounds weren’t far removed from their days and their nights.
These ancients would’ve understood why Mordecai chased Esther’s cart all the way to the palace after she was kidnapped by the king’s henchman. They’d have understood (perhaps lived?) the horrors that awaited the beautiful young girls heading through the royal gates. They got what a mighty miracle of her story was.
We turn Esther’s story into a makeover slumber party.
The ancients would’ve known not only what went on in the house of Rahab (that heroic prostitute or inn-keeper or maybe madame-ly combination of both), but they’d have understood the depravity at her inn and the abject terror she faced as she hid foreign spies, lied to the king’s men, got messages to her family and scrambled down a wall, running away — barefoot — as walls tumbled around her. They could feel the earth shake. Hear the screams.
We clap and sing fun kids’ songs about the walls coming tumbling down.
When we sanitize — when we fail to fully let the Scriptures breathe and bleed and scream and reveal what’s contained — we lose. When we disengage our imaginations and insist on a safe, easy, G-rated Bible, we not only zap the stories of God and his people of their power, but also of their heart. It’s much easier to “get” God — his anger, his broken-heartedness, his longing to save his people — when we “see” what he saw, and sees.
However imperfect the show is, however troubled some are by it, God bless it: “Game of Thrones” helped me do that.
Which is not to say, of course, that “Game of Thrones” is for everyone. It’s not for children. And it’s not for those for whom images stay trapped in their minds, haunting sleep and murking waking hours.
But “Game of Thrones” is for those of us who love a good story — one that taps into the best and worst of our humanity and the complex, shaky ground that is our morality, ones that keep us on the edge of our seats, holding on as we twist and turn with the plot. And “Game of Thrones” can be for those of us who want to engage the spiritual gift of imagination, who want help making the Bible come alive to get to know it — and its Author — better.
Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of eight books, including “Grit and Grace: Heroic Women of the Bible” (Sparkhouse Family, 2017) and “Known and Loved: 52 Devotions from the Psalms.” Caryn lives with her husband, three kids, and one rescued pit bull in the near-west suburbs of Chicago.