Monday, September 18, 2017

Doubling Down on the Game of Thrones

A couple of weeks ago, Steven Christoforou did a "Pop Culture Coffee Hour" podcast that was originally entitled "Can Christians Watch the Game of Thrones?" He got a lot of negative feedback, because his answer to this question was essentially "Yes." He later posted an apology, not for the content of the show that contained the answer to the question, but for the title of the show, which he thinks is the main problem people had with that episode, because it was perhaps too "in your face." So he changed the name of the show to "Good and Evil in the Game of Thrones." The problem was not with the title. The question "Can Christians Watch the Game of Thrones?" is a perfectly good question. The problem was his answer, which he says he still stands by.

The answer to the question should have been "No!"

That could have made for a very brief podcast, but it would have been good if he had spent some time talking about the reasons why Christians should not watch such a show.

The Game of Thrones does not merely have nudity, it has pornographic sex scenes on a frequent basis, not to mention graphic gratuitous violence. I have never watched the show, and don't intend to, but when HBO is having to sue porn sites that are taking clips from the show, and using them as porn, I'm figuring it's porn. So we are not talking about Renaissance art here.

And Steven's podcast did not dispute the frequency or graphic nature of the sexual content of the Game of Thrones. For example, at about the 16:52 mark, his co-host Emma said:
" just focus on the fact that it has, um you know, like rampant sex scenes, or like extreme violence or something, doesn't do the show merit. ... you're not giving the show its worth, like you're just judging kind of, at, like, surface value or what you've heard about it ...but I don't think it's necessary, you know, like I don't think it adds anything to the show."
To which Steven replied:
"Well, yeah, I guess that is the question, right? ... because, like, you have to know your limits on some level, and kind of like you said, like if this is something that is going to be more of a stumbling block for you than anything else, yeah, totally withdraw or fast-forward when you need to fast-forward, or whatever. Um...but my sense is after watching for so long, and after kind of following this series that it's never really gratuitous... um..."
To which Emma replied: "I agree."

Then starting at the 19:39 mark, Steven said:
"But my sense is that it has always been necessary... it's always been part of the unfolding characters, and sort of their longer narrative arc, as we go from season to season, um... but that said, I mean, you know, buyer beware. If you're gonna watch this, be prepared for stuff that is difficult. Be prepared for stuff that's uncomfortable. Um... and if anything, you know like, because it's artistic, it's not gratuitous, it's part of this, sort of, like this artistic web that's being painted... like yeah, it helps to say something about the human condition. It helps to say something about sacrifice... to say something about sin... to say something about all of these things. So, um... it's there for a reason. And if you can take it, if you have the stomach for it, I do think it's worth it."
Then at the 20:30 mark, Steven said:
"You know... It's a great series, but if it's something that, you know, that causes you trouble or whatever, you know, be careful."
Then Emma interjected: "Yeah, absolutely, because it will pop up out of nowhere too."

To which Steven replied: "That's true. That's true."

So obviously, even if we were to accept the idea that you could navigate your way through a TV series with frequent porn scenes by simply fast-forwarding past those scenes, this shows that you obviously can't always see these scenes coming.

But aside from that, someone had to make these shows. Someone's daughter or sister, or son, or brother, had to film these scenes. And someday their children will be able to watch these scenes of their parents engaging in sex acts on the internet for themselves. How is this possibly OK?

Digging the Hole Deeper

To make matters worse, Fr. Andrew Damick and his usual Areopagus co-host Michael Landsman did a show together Steven and his usual co-host Christian Gonzalez (who was not on the original podcast in question) to deal with this controversy, along with an unrelated controversy involving a video that Fr. Andrew and Michael Landsman did together. Some people objected to that video, because Michael Landsman is a Protestant minister and they think that putting a Protestant minister on as a regular co-commentator was compromising the Faith in some way. Now, in the unlikely event that Fr. Andrew should ever ask my opinion about the format of his show, I would share my thoughts with him, but there is nothing inherently objectionable about talking with a Protestant minister about religious issues. It certainly could go in an objectionable direction, but on the other hand, if Michael Landsman eventually converts to Orthodoxy, Fr. Andrew will look like a genius -- and so that issue is all a matter of wisdom at this point, and reasonable people can disagree about it.

You can listen to this podcast here:
In the World, But Not of the World: Purity vs. Engagement (Pop Culture Coffee Hour Crossover)
Unfortunately, mixing these two issues together made for a meandering conversation back and forth between these two separate questions.

Now I should preface my comments by saying a few things. The only person in this podcast who said they watch the Game of Thrones is Steven Christoforou. Fr. Andrew and Christian Gonzalez both specifically said that they do not watch it. I don't think Michael Landsman said whether he watched it or not. Also, Fr. Andrew is a fine preacher, speaker, and writer, and most of his work is excellent. However, in this case, he went way off the mark. I suspect he did so, possibly without intending to go as far as he did, out of a desire to help Steven Christoforou dig himself out of the hole he was in, but instead he only mixed himself up with this mess, and dug the hole deeper.

Fr. Andrew acknowledged that the Game of Thrones contains graphic content, described it as having "people basically, like,  having sex on screen, [and] really, you know, very graphic violence" (17:20).

When it was pointed out that this conversation defended watching the Game of Thrones, Fr. Andrew Damick denied that this was true, however the entire half or more of the show that was dedicated to this topic was a defense of the original Pop Culture podcast, and of how someone could in good conscience watch a show despite such graphic content.

For example, at about the 26:00 mark, Michael Landsman said‏:
"And we should probably say that for some people, you probably shouldn't watch Game of Thrones."
To which Fr. Andrew replied: "Yeah right, yeah..."

This clearly was suggesting that some people can watch the Game of Thrones without it being a problem, and one could easily take it to mean that this would be true of most people.

In addition to this, at one point the graphic content of the Game of Thrones was compared with the Scriptures. Ignoring the fact that the Bible is not a video, and that descriptions of evil acts in Scripture are not written to titillate the reader, whereas there is no doubt that the porn scenes in the Game of Throne are there precisely for that reason -- a somewhat massive difference, making the comparison ridiculous at best.

Watching it was also compared with eating meat sacrificed to idols, which is not something that is inherently evil, according to St. Paul, and so would be a matter of conscience about which different Christians could reach their own conclusions.

Later on in the show, Fr. Andrew said:
"Just to reemphasize, we're not talking about becoming impure. The question is what actually renders you impure. You know...we're not saying... you know... OK watch Game of Thrones and go ahead and just imitate everybody on there..." (47:45).
The obvious implication here is that while you should, of course, not imitate what you see on that show -- watching it does not necessarily involve anything impure.

Men of Stone, Iron, or Flesh?

If, for the sake of argument, we assumed that Steven Christoforou is a one in a billion man who can watch porn scenes without it being a cause for temptation, the problem remains that other people had to sin to produce these films in the first place. And aside from that, all the rest of the male population is not likely to fare so well spiritually.

Here is what St. John Chrysostom had to say about the effects of watching lewd plays in the theater of his time:
"Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”?  “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me?  For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching?  Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass [catches fire].
Why do I talk about the theatre? Often if we meet a woman in the marketplace, we are alarmed. But you sit in your upper seat, where there is such an invitation to outrageous behaviour, and see a woman, a prostitute, entering bareheaded and with a complete lack of shame, dressed in golden garments, flirting coquettishly and singing harlots’ songs with seductive tunes, and uttering disgraceful words. She behaves so shamelessly that if you watch her and give consideration, you will bow your head in shame. Do you dare to say you suffer no human reaction? Is your body made of stone? Or iron? I shall not refrain from saying the same things again. Surely you are not a better philosopher than those great and noble men, who were cast down merely by such a sight? Have you not heard what Solomon says: “If someone walks onto a fire of coals, will he not burn his feet? If someone lights a fire in his lap, will he not burn his clothing? It is just the same for the man who goes to a woman that doesn’t belong to him.” For even if you did not have intimate relations with the prostitute, in your lust you coupled with her, and you committed the sin in your mind. And it was not only at that time, but also when the theatre has closed, and the woman has gone away, her image remains in your soul, along with her words, her figure, her looks, her movement, her rhythm, and her distinctive and meretricious tunes; and having suffered countless wounds you go home. Is it not this that leads to the disruption of households? Is it not this that leads to the destruction of temperance, and the break up of marriages? Is it not this that leads to wars and battles, and odious behaviour lacking any reason? For when, saturated with that woman, you return home as her captive, your wife appears more disagreeable, your children more burdensome, and your servants troublesome, and your house superfluous. Your customary concerns seem to annoy you when they relate to managing your necessary business, and everyone who visits is an irritating nuisance.
The cause of this is that you do not return home alone, but keeping the prostitute with you. She does not go visibly and openly, which would have been easier. For your wife could have quickly driven her away. But she is ensconced in your mind and your consciousness, and she lights within you the Babylonian furnace, or rather something much worse. For it is not tow, naphtha and pitch, but her qualities mentioned above that provide fuel for the fire, and everything is upside down. It is just like people suffering from a fever, who have no reason to rebuke those who attend them, but because of the affliction of their illness are unpleasant to everyone, reject their food, insult their doctors, are bad tempered with their families and furious with those who care for them. Just so those who suffer from this dread disease are restless and vexed, and see that woman at every turn. What a terrible state of affairs!"(Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theaters, emphasis added).
We have an epidemic of porn addiction in this country. The last thing we need to be hearing from leaders in the Orthodox Church is that watching a TV series with scenes that are undeniably pornographic is acceptable, in any way, shape, or form.

Rather than defending the original podcast, that podcast should be deleted, along with the subsequent podcast that defended the original one.


Fr. Andrew Damick has posted a further response on this on Facebook:
"A word of comment on our most recent episode ("In the World But Not of the World: Purity vs. Engagement"):
If what you came away from the episode with is the question of whether it's okay for Christians to watch "Game of Thrones," you missed the point.
Some folks who've missed the point actually accused us and our guests of promoting pornography! If that's what you think of us, I can't imagine a response to that, because nothing we say will sound legitimate.
That said, we all utterly reject porn. It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't.
Also, if the question of whether "Game of Thrones" really is pornography is what you came away with, you also missed the point. Of *course* if it's all just porn there's nothing worthwhile there. But that is actually part of what's debatable and isn't a given. None of us is saying that we should go exploring porn. But that's still not what our episode was about. 
So what was it about? 
It was about the question of how we interpret our world. It was about whether and how to engage and also whether and how to remain pure. 
Fundamentally, it was about the assertion that purity and engagement are not opposites. You can engage with the culture and also remain pure. 
There's certainly a lot of room to discuss what remaining pure requires and what good engagement looks like. 
This is why we paired up discussing the controversy around the Pop Culture Coffee Hour episode with the controversy that surrounded our video ("3 Bad Ways and 3 Good Ways to Talk Religion"). 
What I hope will emerge from what is now a meta-meta-discussion is that we really should ask people what they mean when they say something, especially if what they say sounds crazy to us. Sadly, not one of the comments we've received accusing us of supporting porn actually asked if that was what we meant. It was just easier to accuse fellow Christians of the unthinkable. 
At one point during all this, I had someone say to me, "Words mean things," given in response to my saying that I didn't mean what he was saying. But words *don't* mean things. *People* mean things. And if you're more interested in how you can interpret someone's words to mean things he rejects than in finding out what he means, then you've got a real problem. 
What this illustrates is how shows like The Areopagus and PCCH really are needed. Real engagement requires asking questions and finding out who the other person is, not just leveling accusations or blanket condemnation. 
As always, thanks for listening. And let's keep engaging. It's a little rough and tumble out there sometimes, but it's still worth it."
We have contradictory statements here that do not make sense. Fr. Andrew acknowledged that the Game of Thrones contains pornography -- he described the show as "people basically, like,  having sex on screen" -- which is pornography. And here he says that he "utterly reject[s]" pornography. The dictionary would suggest that if you "utterly reject" something, this means you absolutely and without qualifications reject it. However Fr. Andrew then says that if the Game of Thrones was "all just porn," he would "of course" reject it. So the question is, how much porn does a movie or TV show have to have before that utter rejection actually results in one not being able to watch it? If you really "utterly reject porn," and if words actually do have meaning, you would have to utterly reject a series that has regular porn scenes, and do so without qualification.

So why not just say: "Orthodox Christians should not watch shows which contain porn, because we utterly reject porn, and the Game of Thrones has that which we utterly reject"? Never in the entire course of the podcast he did on this subject did anyone on that show say this, and he still has not said it. He should say that this show is not acceptable, and say so clearly.

A Further Update:

There is now another Podcast which at the beginning spends time defending the original podcast. In this episode of the Pop Culture Coffee Hour, Christian Gonzalez, and Christina spent a few minutes discussing this, beginning at about the 3:05 minute mark. Among other things, Steven Christoforou's being a fan of Game of Thrones, and so "engaging the culture" by watching and then finding Christ in its stories was called "brave" and compared with Christ's descent into Hades. You can hear it for yourself here:
Episode 39: Taking a Walk Through Parks and Rec
One could, with equal justice, defend frequenting brothels with such arguments. Yes, we can and should see God's image in prostitutes. Yes, we can and should proclaim the Gospel to them. Becoming their customers and having sex with them is not how you do that. Likewise, watching and supporting shows with pornographic content is not how you "engage the culture" and bring light to the darkness. That is instead participating in the darkness. Pornography is inherently sinful. It is inherently sinful to make it, and it is inherently sinful to watch it, and that is the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Church.

For More Information, see:

Christians and Entertainment

The Text of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

The Audio of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

The Threefold Cord