Showing posts with label Ben-Hur. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ben-Hur. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

What Catholics Can Learn from the Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones has been the biggest pop culture phenomenon in recent memory. The HBO TV series, based on the bestselling novels A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, captivated the imagination of audiences throughout the world for the better part of a decade. Regrettably, however, Game of Thrones is also a profoundly un-Christian story. Beyond the pervasive vulgarity, the gratuitous and often deeply disturbing sex, and the recurring shock value horror violence, the story presents a relentlessly pessimistic, cynical, even nihilistic view of life, of human nature, and of the world we inhabit. The supernatural world, moreover, as envisioned by the show, is at best amoral, but, one might say, is perhaps even more cruel than the world of humans and certainly offers no hope after the harsh vicissitudes of earthly existence. In fact, in the final episode, the show point blank denies the existence of an afterlife and suggests that the best humans can hope for beyond death is oblivion.

And yet, I must confess that I have spent many hours reading the books, watching the TV show, following online commentaries, and discussing the story with friends. Why? Because the story, for the most part, has been a well-told tale, narrated with great skill and compelling strength. Stories draw people in. The Game of Thrones phenomenon illustrates the immense power of a well-crafted narrative. Tyrion, one of the main characters of the story, puts it well in the grand finale of the show: "What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?... Stories. There is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it." At the heart of the worldwide popularity of Game of Thrones was the strength of the initial narrative structure. As fans felt that the quality of the storytelling declined over time, they complained bitterly. In fact, over one million fans signed a petition for HBO to remake the final season of the show, because they felt dissatisfied with the conclusion. Such is the power of narratives.

As a Catholic observer of the Game of Thrones phenomenon, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the story. I have loved the often masterful telling of the tale – but I have hated the forceful presentation of values and ideas so deeply contrary to my own. How, one might ask, can the Catholic Church counter such a popular cultural phenomenon? The answer, I think, is articulated in another movie, the classic film Ben-Hur, where Messala states: "You ask how to fight an idea. Well, I'll tell you how: with another idea."

The Catholic Church possesses the greatest story ever told, the story of Christ. For centuries, we have proclaimed this story boldly, persuading much of the world of its truth. Over the centuries, our story has inspired some of the greatest creative talents of humanity – composers, artists, architects, poets, and writers. Western Civilization was built upon the Catholic narrative and the Catholic culture that arose from that powerful story.

But in recent decades, our narrative fervor has abated. We seem little interested today in suffusing the broader culture with our story. Many of our own theologians have made a career out of doubting and deconstructing our own narrative. Our church art, moreover, has, all too often, become abstract and grotesque, possessing none of the beauty through which the sacred art of past generations could lift the faithful's soul up to God. Likewise, our church buildings, whose beauty once reflected the splendor of God's glory, now often feel more like meeting halls or parking garages than sacred spaces where we can encounter the Divine. Our once ethereal church music has, very often, been replaced with bland melodies, with even more bland lyrics, that tell very little of our magnificent story.

We no longer have a Catholic culture built upon our narrative. Instead, our lives are suffused by the culture of the world. The fact that a post-Christian story written by the ex-Catholic George R.R. Martin has resonated so powerfully with our increasingly post-Christian society is an apt metaphor for how far our culture has fallen from its foundations and for how far we as Catholics have strayed from the proclamation of our own story.

But it need not be so. We Catholics need only to remember our history – we need only to recall that we do indeed possess the greatest story ever told. We need to keep telling that story to ourselves, to each other, to new generations, and to the whole world. Let us reclaim our zeal for proclaiming the story of Christ. Let us create new art, architecture, music, poetry, and books that express the pathos, beauty, magnificence, and profound hope of our story.

Let us also foster the crafting of fictional narratives rooted in the power of our Catholic story. The immense popularity of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien shows the impact that Catholic fiction can have upon the world. Let us foster the Catholic novel, supporting and encouraging Catholic writers, young and old. Let us invest in Catholic filmmaking. The great success of recent Christian films shows the hunger our culture has for wholesome storytelling. Let us respond by creating Catholic movies to engage our society.

The story that can change hearts, that can save souls, that can transform the world has been entrusted to us. We must, therefore, proclaim it with fidelity, courage, enthusiasm, and love.

Photo Credit: Promotional photo for the Game of Thrones series.