A pastor from Charlotte, North Carolina, recently wrote a post titled, “I don’t understand Christians watching Game of Thrones.” He equated watching sex scenes in the fantasy series with “looking at a woman lustfully” and reminded Christians that it’s their duty to “avoid any hint of sexual immorality.”
Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church and chairman of the Gospel Coalition, admitted he hadn’t seen the television series, but he had heard about it.
“Isn’t it also full of sex? Like lots and lots of incredibly graphic sex? I did a Google search for “Game of Thrones sex” and found headlines (I avoided images and only read headlines) about sex scenes you can’t un-see and the best sex scenes of the series and why Game of Thrones is so committed to nudity and explicit (sometimes violent) sex. Unless I’m mistaken, the series hasn’t taken a turn toward modesty in recent months. It seems to me sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of the series. And still, a good number of conservative Christians treat the series as must-see TV.”
How can “smart people, serious Christians, good conservative thinkers” watch such a thing, he asked—and why do they even have HBO in the first place? As a conservative Christian who has studied in the same religious tradition as DeYoung, let me help him and anyone else wrestling with this question understand why a Christian can watch “Game of Thrones.”
It’s True, ‘Game of Thrones’ Is Brutal
DeYoung admits he has never seen the series. I’m not going to beat him up for commenting on a show he hasn’t seen. He’s being faithful to his conscience, and as a pastor he can be informed about something without actually seeing it. I have watched the series, and I’ve read the books. He’s right, it has graphic sex scenes and nudity—but it also has violence, murder, war, theft, abuse, rape, torture, bad language, and some really gross scene transitions from body fluids to food.
How can a Christian watch such a despicable display of humanity? In two words: Christian liberty. I know DeYoung and others who agree with him might be rolling their eyes at this point, thinking, “How many Christians use ‘Christian liberty’ as an excuse to sin?” I actually agree with them: Many do. But we have to ask, Is there sin in this circumstance? If there isn’t, then Christian liberty applies.
Before we can make proper judgments, we must name sin for what it actually is, not what we assume it to be according to our own ideals, prejudices, and personal experiences. DeYoung focuses exclusively on the sex in “Game of Thrones”—not surprising because this is the one “sinful” category Christians often focus on. There is something about sex and eroticism that makes religious people more uncomfortable than just about any other sin. Never mind gluttony, gossip, rage, and countless other sins equally condemned in scripture—sexual immorality generates the most backlash and concern.
This focus on sex was a particular weakness of the Pharisees. Stone the adulteress. Don’t talk to the woman at the well. Don’t touch our Lord, you unclean woman! Sex is the particular obsession of the legalist.
Do You Also Watch Violent Movies?
I’m not calling DeYoung a Pharisee or legalist. I don’t know him. I am saying that all Christians need to reflect on their knee-jerk reaction to anything dealing with sex before making judgments about sin. One reason, is, as Paul said, they will be judged by the same standard they judge others. If the portrayal of sex in every circumstance is wrong, then so are all the other sins—violence, murder, lying, theft, etc.
Yet how many of these Christians feel fine watching murder mysteries, bank robberies, war stories with death and mayhem, police shows that display the violence of criminals? I think if they ask themselves why and how they can watch such “sins,” they will begin to understand how some people can watch sex in a television show and not sin.
I don’t dispute that sexual immorality is wrong, but is watching or reading a story about sexual immorality being sexually immoral? Is a Christian who sees a naked woman inevitably lusting after her? These are important questions when dealing with issues of Christian liberty because freedom in Christ is not freedom to sin. Christian liberty is freedom from the laws and rules of man so one can enjoy living freely in Christ. God determines sin and knows a person’s heart. No human being does.
The Pharisees were lawmakers and judges of others. They rebuked Jesus for eating and socializing with sinners. The Pharisees judged him, believing social association and exposure to those sinning was, in itself, a sin. Well-intentioned Christians who are sincerely concerned about purity are inadvertently acting just like Pharisees when they judge others in the same way.
Sin Is an Inextricable Part of Human Life
The fact is watching a story in which sex and nudity are part of the plot is not being sexually immoral. The viewer is watching the story as an observer, not to be titillated or to be drawn into sexually immoral thoughts, but to see the unfolding of a narrative with all its humanity intact—and sin is very much a part of the human experience. We read about it in every book (including scripture), we see it in every play and film. We cannot communicate through storytelling without portraying sin for what it is. In fact, we do a disservice to ourselves when we sanitize it.
DeYoung says we should be bothered by the darkness. He’s right. We should be disturbed by the darkness portrayed in film and literature—not because it’s being shown to us and we’re watching it, but because of what it is, the real themes being portrayed in fiction. If we never see the darkness in storytelling, why are we telling the story in the first place? Stories portray darkness, and we use our light to discern it within the context of the story, the characters, and the worlds that have been created. What is the point of light if there is no darkness? What lessons are learned, what catharsis experienced, without darkness?
When the Bible says to avoid all sexual immorality, it means engaging in it and intimately associating with it to such a degree that you are participating in it. It doesn’t mean avoid exposure to it. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, telling them not to associate with sexually immoral people, “Not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral.” He makes it clear that exposure to sexual immorality is not the same being intimate with it.
Some overly scrupulous Christians cannot imagine that anyone can see a naked person or watch two people have sex within an artistic context and not lust. The fact is, it is possible. DeYoung asks if Paul would have been cool if believers in his day watched simulated sex. Maybe, maybe not—there was a lot of public sexual immorality in the ancient world. Ever wonder what kind of “sinners” Jesus was socializing and eating with? I don’t know, but it’s something to consider.
Our Consciences Are Darker Today than Before
But, more importantly, shifts in social norms and exposure of certain behaviors impact our thinking and our consciences. The fact is that in our modern time, exposure to sexual imagery does not have the same impact on us that it did in the past. There was a time when a woman showing her ankles was considered inappropriate and erotic. Now, we see people in bikinis and don’t think twice. No doubt a Christian pastor in 1717 would have said these women and anyone looking at them are sinners.
We can debate whether this is good or bad, but the fact is, our society is not the same as those in the past (though compared to some, it’s purer). We aren’t living in the Middle Ages or the Victorian era or ancient Rome. What causes us to be tempted by the sheer novelty of it is simply not the same. Some might call this the “hardening of the conscience,” but only if it is actually leading us to sin. I concede that our modern society has become hardened to all kinds of actual sin, but I disagree that watching sin in art is always sinning.
DeYoung argues against this point: “I know some people will say it doesn’t bother their conscience or that it’s art or they can view sinful sex without participating in it themselves. But that doesn’t change what the Bible says about the importance of purity and the power of the eye. The fact is our consciences should be smitten; steamy sex scenes are not the kind of art for which we can give thanks.”
I disagree. One can be sexually pure and watch a sex scene within the context of a story. It’s not porn, which is purposely designed to draw in the viewer to transform the passive into active sexual involvement. Porn is about explicit sex. “Game of Thrones” is not. Watching Jamie and Cersei have sex in a non-porn like way is part of a storyline about incest and intrigue. The viewer can watch it without lust in his heart because the intent on the part of the filmmaker and the viewer is the narrative, not the sex. A person watching the tale unfold at home can remain sexually pure even as he observes these two characters engaged in a despicable act.
Telling the Truth Includes Telling About Evil
DeYoung says our consciences should be smitten and that steamy sex scenes are not the kind of art for which we can give thanks. He is making a wrong assumption here. Our consciences are smitten! We look at a brother and sister having sex and our reaction is “Wrong!” A well-told story that creates a moral framework within that given world will make them pay for their actions (and they do!). The viewer can give thanks for the lesson learned, the portrayal of human sin and its dire consequences.
One’s conscience need not be smitten about actually watching the story. You have done nothing wrong. On the other hand, if you watch it and delight in it, find no moral framework within the story or without, then, in this case, the conscience is truly hardened.
Through art we create worlds and characters that reflect our human condition. If we fail to portray humanity in truth, then there is no power in the story, no lesson to be learned, no mirrors to hold up to ourselves, causing us to reflect on our own condition.
If you are a Christian who is easily tempted by the imagery in a show like “Game of Thrones,” you must not watch it. Other Christians who are comfortable watching it should not force you to endure something that tempts you, and they shouldn’t ridicule you for knowing yourself and diligently guarding your heart.
Neither should they flaunt their liberty and cause you to stumble. By this, I don’t mean Christians should never talk about “Game of Thrones” because a weak brother might hear them. It has to be more personal than this. If someone tells you he doesn’t want to hear about the series, then don’t talk about it. If they’re in your house, don’t flip on HBO and have it blaring so they can hear. This is abuse of liberty and not loving your brother.
In the same way, those who are weak should not judge those who are strong. The fact is, Christians can watch “Game of Thrones.” It’s not sinful, it’s not bringing shame to their Christian testimony, and it’s not unwise. The series is filled with lessons for humanity in love, devotion, politics, family, and life. To judge them by the standard of your own fragile conscience is to proudly put yourself in the place of God, and “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”