St. Augustine on "Game of Thrones"

Several years ago I came across an article in Relevant Magazine entitled, "Should Christians Watch Game of Thrones?" (Game of Thrones is a popular television series noted for its extraordinarily graphic depictions of sex and savagery.) In this article, the author defends what is undoubtedly the mainstream position among modern American Christians: while we should exercise caution and discernment in our entertainment choices, even Game of Thrones is not necessarily off limits for mature believers. Since explicit content may "affect each of us differently," we cannot adopt a "one size fits all" approach. Furthermore, a blanket prohibition of Game of Thrones would be "extra-biblical and likely legalistic." Here the author cites the following dictum from St. Augustine: "Once and for all, I give you this one short command: Love, and do what you will." Applying this to the debate over Game of Thrones, the author concludes, "Love, and watch what you will."


Whatever you may think of this conclusion, one thing is certain: it severely mischaracterizes Augustine’s view on the matter.



A Fatal Violation of the Creed


According to Augustine, those who attend both the church and the theater mark themselves out as fake Christians who, unless they are reclaimed, "shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints" [1]. In another passage, after noting that many who join the church continue to attend the theater and commit various other sins, Augustine gives the following warning to new converts:


If you have come with the notion that you may do such things as in a secured position, you are greatly in error; neither will the name of Christ be of any avail to you when he begins to judge. … For He himself has foretold these things, and speaks to this effect in the Gospel: "Not everyone that says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father." … For all, therefore, who persevere in such works the end is damnation. Consequently, when you see many [Christians] not only doing these things but also defending and recommending them, keep yourself firmly by the law of God, and follow not its willful transgressors. … Associate with the good, whom you perceive to be at one with you in loving your king. [2] In short, Augustine apparently believes that those who attend the theater do not love God properly and are headed towards eternal damnation. He certainly has no qualms about taking a "one size fits all" approach. According to Augustine, "A good Christian has no wish to attend the public shows" [3].

Augustine, moreover, is not alone in his extreme opposition to the theater. In a lengthy tirade against the shows, Tertullian declares, The rejection of these amusements is the chief sign to them [i.e. the pagans] that a man has adopted the Christian faith. If anyone, then, puts away the faith’s distinctive badge, he is plainly guilty of denying it. What hope can you possibly retain in regard to a man who does that? When you go over to the enemy’s camp, you throw down your arms, desert the standards and the oath of allegiance to your chief. [4] In a similar tirade, Salvian declares, The spectacles involve a sort of apostasy from the faith, a fatal violation of the creed itself and of the divine sacraments. … You have once renounced the devil and his spectacles [in your baptismal vows], and therefore as a rational and intelligent being must recognize that in resorting again to them, you are returning to the devil. … The devil is present in his spectacles and pomps, and therefore when we return to the devil’s spectacles, we abandon our Christian faith. [5] John Chrysostom evidently preached against the theater all the time: "Each day I rend myself with crying out, 'Depart from the theaters,' and many laugh at us" [6]. In his instructions to new converts, he reminds them that their baptismal vows include a renunciation of the theater [7], and in one of his many sermons against the theater, he concludes with these ringing words: If you continue [to attend obscene shows], I will make the knife sharper, and the cut deeper; and I will not cease, till I have scattered the theater of the devil, and so purified the assembly of the Church. For in this way we shall both be delivered from the present disgrace, and shall reap the fruit of the life to come. [8]


Vain and Desperate Reasoning

What of the claim that a blanket prohibition of Game of Thrones is "extra-biblical and likely legalistic"? The fathers address precisely this objection. Tertullian, for example, declares, How vain, then – no, how desperate – is the reasoning of persons, who, just because they decline to lose a pleasure, hold out that we cannot point to the specific words or the very place [in Scripture] where this abstinence is mentioned, and where the servants of God are directly forbidden to have anything to do with such assemblies! [9] For the fathers, attending the theater was an obvious violation of the Christian call to holiness and purity. "Why," Tertullian asks, "Is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? … If tragedies and comedies are the bloody and wanton, the impious and licentious inventors of crimes and lusts, it is not good even that there should be any calling to remembrance the atrocious or the vile. What you reject in deed, you are not to bid welcome to in word" [10].


Such sentiments are expressed over and over again in the patristic literature. Theophilus of Antioch explains that since the stage dramas portray violence and adultery, Christians are not allowed to look upon them "lest our eyes and ears be defiled" [11]. Salvian likewise argues, "In the theaters no part of our bodies is free from guilt, for our minds are polluted by evil desires, our ears by hearing and our eyes by what they see. ... All other evils pollute those who perform them, not those who merely see or hear them. ... The indecencies of the spectacles alone involve actors and audience in substantially the same guilt. For all those who approve such performances and take pleasure in seeing them perform them through the medium of their sight and approval" [12].


What of the argument that we cannot adopt a "one size fits all" approach to Game of Thrones since explicit content may "affect each of us differently"? Chrysostom addresses this objection directly: "What then," one may say, "if I point to some, who are not hurt at all by their pastime in that place [i.e. the theater]?" … Even if you should not be hurt, you make some other more eager herein. And how can you not but be yourself hurt, giving occasion to what goes on? … If there were no spectators, there would be none to follow these employments. … So that even if in chastity you were quite unhurt (a thing impossible), yet for others’ ruin you will render a grievous account. … And in chastity too you would profit more, if you refrained from going thither. For if even now you are chaste, you would have become more chaste by avoiding such sights. Let us not then delight in useless argument, nor devise unprofitable apologies: there being but one apology, to flee from the Babylonian furnace, to keep far from the Egyptian harlot, though one must escape her hands naked. [13]


Note that while modern Christians typically eschew a "one size fits all" approach to Game of Thrones, they have no problem adopting a "one size fits all" approach to strip clubs. Chrysostom lambasts the similar hypocrisy of his day:


You in a market-place would not choose to see a woman stripped naked, or rather not even in a house, but call such a thing an outrage. And yet you go up into the theater, to insult the common nature of men and women, and disgrace your own eyes? ... Is it that when we are apart, then such a thing is outrageous, but when we are assembled and all sitting together, it is no longer equally shameful? Nay, this is absurdity and a disgrace, and words of the utmost madness; and it were better to besmear the eyes all over with mud and mire than to be a spectator of such a transgression. For surely mire is not so much a hurt to an eye, as an unchaste sight, and the spectacle of a woman stripped naked. [14]



Theaters Ancient and Modern


When I share these passages with my Christian friends, they often object that the ancient shows were somehow different from modern shows like Game of Thrones. Some claim, for example, that the fathers rejected the theater only because of its association with pagan gods. However, this claim is simply not true. As demonstrated above, the fathers' chief objection to the theater concerns obscenity, not idolatry. After Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman world, the fathers did not cease to condemn the shows. Salvian specifically excoriates the "monstrous folly" of those Christians who, instead of holding shows in honor of pagan deities, held them in honor of Christ [15].


Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the shows which the fathers rejected were different from Game of Thrones: they were often far less explicit! Consider, for example, Theophilus' statement that Christians were not permitted to see the shows lest their "eyes and ears be defiled." Here he is referring specifically to stage dramas reenacting sordid tales from Greek mythology. One can only image what Theophilus would have said about Game of Thrones, where the magic of modern technology brings the torture and rape to vivid life in our homes.



Conclusion


At this point, one may be tempted to conclude that the church fathers were simply too uptight about entertainment. Before we dismiss their words, however, we would do well to remember the wisdom of C. S. Lewis:


Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. [16]


Looking for a way to keep up your Greek or Hebrew? Daily Greek and Hebrew uses simple multiple-choice quizzes to guide you through the analysis and translation of one verse every day. Click on the image below to get started!


  1. City of God 1.35

  2. On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed 48-49

  3. Sermon on Matthew 20:30 38.17

  4. The Shows [De Spectaculis] 24

  5. On the Government of God 6.6

  6. Sermon on Acts 20:17-21

  7. Instructions to Catechumens 2.5

  8. Sermon on Mathew 2:4-5 7.8

  9. The Shows [De Spectaculis] 20

  10. The Shows [De Spectaculis] 17

  11. Theophilus to Autolycus 15

  12. On the Government of God 6.3

  13. Sermon on Mathew 10:7-9 37.9

  14. Sermon on Mathew 2:1-2 6.10

  15. On the Government of God 6.4-5

  16. Introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation


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