Should Christians Watch Game of Thrones? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

Game of Thrones is a gritty television show filled with violence and sex, as well as some fantastic storytelling.  Whenever I talk with students about shows and movies we are watching, they are a bit surprised that I watch Game of Thrones.

My usual retort is that I read the books before they were cool!  I remember heading to the campus bookstore to pick up A Storm of Swords during my senior year.  That was not only the last good book in the series, but that was quite a long time ago!  Little did I know at the time that this fantasy series I was slightly embarrassed to be seen reading then would become tremendously popular in my thirties.

But the nudity!  Shouldn’t that be enough to preclude Christians from watching Game of Thrones?

(Interestingly, the violence is never really an issue as we American Christians love our violence. But anyway.)

The nudity and sex was the big reason John Piper recommended not watching the show last year.  Much of the nudity is unnecessary and, I assume, just there to further entice people to watch.  My evidence for this is the comment section of any review of the show, especially ones without any nudity, as person after person complains about the lack of skin.  Shouldn’t the story be enough to get viewers?

At the same time, this way of critiquing art seems a bit too simple.  When Christians approach a movie or show our response should be more thoughtful then counting bodies (nude or dead) and cuss words.  To judge a piece of art as good or bad based on such tallies misses so much.

An example of a better way to judge art is seen in this great article: “Think Religion is Dead? Just look at Game of Thrones.”  The author looks at what the story says about religion and how this reflects thinking about religion in our world:

What academics loftily call “the secularization thesis” is by now so dead it is almost disrespectful to speak ill of it. Here are its contours: Back in modernity, it was taken for granted that religion would gradually die away, replaced by the logical matters of reason and politics, something we should have managed by now. As we became more enlightened, we’d obviously become less religious, right?

But here we are in the 21st century, and religion shows few signs of slowing. People channeling and claiming the raw power of the gods is barely even surprising anymore. ISIS, for instance, is just our backdrop.

North Americans have an entertaining habit of working out our anxieties about religion on TV. And this season of “Game of Thrones” is as great a catharsis as secularization zealots can hope for.

The world of “Game of Thrones” definitely doesn’t seem secular: There are dragons, curses, undead frozen zombies, magical beasties of all sorts. But those things have only recently reemerged into Westeros and its world that was, until the beginning of the series, a rather reasonably secular age.

The political drama in “Game of Thrones” actually neatly parallels what goes on in the secular West. The capital lives in a kind of cloistered secular innocence, where games of power, intrigue, sex – oh, so much sex – have an almost innocent secular quality.

While the capital whores and gambles and drinks itself into comfortable complacency, the “White Walkers” (frozen zombies, for real) ride. Government, absorbed in an apocalyptic liquidity crisis (the parallels to our world getting eerie), dismisses reports from North of the Wall of this resurgence of presumed-dead religion.

When you watch a movie or show (or read a book or listen to music) do not turn your brain off.  Think about what the message is, what this story is saying and how it may relate to the real world.  This is part of what it means to “love God with all your mind.”

So, should a Christian watch Game of Thrones?   I do not recommend it to people for reasons far beyond the sex scenes – it is an incredibly dark and disturbing show on many levels.  Ultimately though, I cannot answer whether you should or should not watch this or that show.  Every person is different. Some Christians are so disturbed by violent images that they cannot watch many popular shows today that other Christians are okay with.  There are some things that are totally out of bounds for Christians, such as pornography.  On the other hand, much “Christian” art is totally absent of sex and violence but the stories are banal and just bad.

The choice is yours.   I think Matthew Paul Turner, in a response to Piper’s post, sums it up well:

Should Christians watch Game of Thrones? That depends on the Christian. It’s certainly not a show for everybody. At times, it’s violent. Sometimes it’s dreadfully slow. On occasion, it’s sensationalizes the sexual deviance of its characters. And there are dragons. But it’s also quite self aware. Many of its protagonists are very much aware of their demons. Sometimes they fight them. Sometimes they let them have their way. It’s very much a story about humanity (with dragons and zombie-like creatures called white walkers). And like most stories about humanity, there’s a lot of chaos, and occasionally, in the middle of chaos, clothes are optional.

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Should Christians be searching for further Experiences of the Holy Spirit? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

 

Is the baptism of the Holy Spirit an altogether separate event from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit upon conversion?

Follow up: Are the gifts of the Spirit as listed in 1 Cor. 12/14, for every believer or those whom have been baptized in the Spirit?

This is clearly a question of interest for Christians and not secular people.  Christian belief in the Trinity teaches that there is one God who exists as three equal persons.  The first person, God the Father, sends the second person, God the Son into the world.  Jesus then is the human face of God, God in the flesh (incarnation).  When Christians today put faith in Jesus and are baptized, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us (indwells).

But is there a further experience of the Holy Spirit we should expect?

Honestly, this is not an issue I’ve really ever worried about or thought about.  The ways the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit differ.  Some Christians parse out, or seek to systematize, these differences, leading to conclusions that there is a second blessing of the Spirit, a baptism of the Holy Spirit, at a time after conversion.  I think such nuances are practically unnecessary, akin to splitting hairs.

So my answer to the first question above would simply be a combination of “I don’t know” and “I don’t think it matters.”  When I read that question, it sounds like an attempt to mechanize the work of God in the world.  It is an attempt to take the messiness of a life lived following Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, and make it a formula.  Along with that, I think such debates are rooted in an over-emphasis on spiritual experiences and feelings.

Here’s what happens: A person is baptized as a Christian but does not feel any different.  So, they are told, they need some further experience in which they will be baptized in the Spirit.  But once that experience too comes and goes, I fear people wander through life looking for the next experience, and the one after that, and so on.  The danger is that such a Christian may feel something is wrong with them, for they do not feel like they did when they were baptized in the Spirit, or at that retreat or revival.  The truth is, there is nothing wrong!  It is just that normal life following Jesus is filled with lots of mundane moments and spiritual highs are not the norm.

Living with God is to live in a relationship and human relationships cannot be reduced to easy formulas.  Take marriage.  I enjoy cooking dinner and my wife greatly appreciates this.  You may even say that me cooking dinner = happy wife.  For me though, cooking dinner includes a vigorous cleaning of the kitchen afterwards.  I struggle to relax the rest of the evening if dishes are not cleaned or in dishwasher, table is not wiped, leftovers not put away.  Most times my wife is fine with this.  But there are times when my cleaning obsession irritates her.  She wants me to just leave the mess for later so we can take a walk with the kids or go out for ice cream.  In cases such as these my formula (cooking dinner and cleaning up = happy wife), actually fails and may lead to an upset wife.

If you allow a formula or a mechanism to replace a real relationship of love and communication, you are missing the life God desires for you.

In Jesus we have everything we need.  I do not think you need some further experience or indwelling or baptism of the Spirit.  You put your trust in Jesus and are charged to follow Jesus, to go into the world.  So just go and do it.  

The Spirit is your strength as you go, but the Spirit does not come in magical ways.  The Spirit is akin to fuel for the journey and I think we experience the Spirit in a million little ways – reading some scripture in the wee morning hours, worshiping with the saints on Sunday morning, sharing a beer with the saints around a cookout on a Sunday night, serving at a soup kitchen, dropping off food for a new mother or a grieving widow, helping a neighbor repair a fence, praying on the way to work…

The Spirit is always there.  We have all we need in Jesus.  Let’s not over think it (though late night theological debates about the Spirit are not bad, and can also be places to meet the Spirit). Let’s just go do it.

PS. I never answered the second question.  I think we are all naturally gifted in certain areas and not others but I also think you can pursue new gifts (as 1 Corinthians 12:31 says, eagerly desire greater gifts). But even here I think we ought to beware of simple formulas.  Not every spiritual gift is listed here.  Further, it would be a shame, though just like us living in a scientific culture, to take this beautiful poetic writing and make it a to-do list.

Why Does God Favor Certain People? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

I have heard this question posed many ways over the years.  Most recently I was having a, mostly friendly, discussion with an old friend on Facebook.  He was voicing many problems he has with Christianity.  One of them is that God seems favor white people.  I corrected him as far as pointing out that the majority of people in scripture were not “white” as the action centers on Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  For centuries after the Bible most Christians were located in this region, the idea of Christianity as a white religion came much later.

But beyond that, I knew what he was really getting at.  Why did God only reveal himself to the Jews?  What about people living in Australia or South America?  Its a good question.  I have a few thoughts that may point us towards an answer:

1. God’s special revelation to Israel/Jews did not mean they were God’s favorite – in actuality their election was for the benefit of the world.

When God called, or chose, Abraham in Genesis 12 the text says that “all nations on earth will be blessed through you.”  We see right away that God’s choosing of Abraham was not solely for his benefit, but with the hopes that the blessings would overflow to all people.  This hope was repeated to Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites.  Israel was actually warned against thinking their relationship to God meant they were God’s favorites and when they rebelled against God they faced the same punishment others faced.  Just one example, in Deuteronomy 9:4 God reminds them that they are not being given the land because of their own righteousness, they did not earn this gift.

Perhaps we may question God’s method, how God worked to bring blessing and salvation to the whole world.  Could there have been another way that might have worked better?  I doubt it, but I think that question is better focused since from the beginning of the scripture story we see that God does indeed care to be in relationship with the whole world.

2. Though other cultures did not receive special revelation, it does not mean God was absent

God was never absent from other cultures and anyone who desired to know the Truth was actually pursuing God.  We see glimpses of this in the scripture story as “outsiders” like Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth and Namaan (2 Kings 5) are seen to be welcomed into relationship with God.  The important thing in all those cases is that God accepts them based on their limited knowledge.  In other words, God accepts them for who they are.  They probably had a lot of wrong or false beliefs about God, but their desire to know God was most important.

There is a great verse in Amos 9:7 – “”Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?”  Here we see God reminding the Israelites that he has also worked among other peoples too.

Further, many of the early Christians believed that God was present in Greek cultures just as in Hebrew ones.  The Hebrews were prepared for the Gospel with the Law of Moses and the Greeks, they said, were prepared for the gospel of Jesus through Greek philosophy of Socrates and Plato.  The principle here is that wherever people find Truth they are finding God.

3. Those who “never heard” are not automatically doomed

I have been asked this question probably every year – what about those who never heard about Jesus?  Are they automatically sent to hell forever?  My answer – no.

The assumption of this question is that those who never heard were never able to believe in or accept Jesus.  They never said the right words or performed the right actions.  I am not going to say that these things are unimportant, but the danger in such assumption is we reduce a relationship with God to making sure we say the magic words perfectly.  God is not going to condemn people for not dotting their I’s or forgetting to cross their T’s.

In Hebrews 11 the author discusses people who had great faith prior to the coming of Jesus.  In the middle of the chapter we read: “13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance,admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.”  I think this passage helps.  These people, prior to Jesus, never were able to confess and believe “in Jesus.”  Yet they had a hope based on the limited knowledge they had.  I think we can apply this same idea to those who never heard.  

To put it most simply – we can trust that God is fair.  No one will be condemned for lack of knowledge.  God knows people’s hearts and what they desire.  God knows what people would choose if given greater knowledge.  In the end, we need to focus on what we know of God, on who God is revealed in Jesus, and I think we are on solid ground saying no one will suffer for all eternity because the message did not get to them clearly enough.

4. God desires a relationship with all people

Finally, and I am sure there is much more I can say, but I am a firm believer that the God revealed in Jesus truly is a God of Love.  God is so much better then we often imagine.  And God desires a relationship with all people.  When God visited this planet in the person of Jesus, not even death stopped him from accomplishing his mission.  I doubt, based on that, the geography of where Jesus’ followers are currently located will slow God’s Spirit down from accomplishing his.

5. God desires a relationship with you

I was going to end at four, but as I reread what I wrote I thought something more practical was in order.  It is important to take questions like this from the speculative to a more personal level.  We can spend all day ruminating over texts, trying to discern the fate of people in tiny villages on the other side of the world.

But in the end, the question facing us is what will we do with the person of Jesus?

Does God care about those people who have not yet heard?  Yes.

But God also cares about you, sitting right here talking with me.  We cannot do much, right now, about other hypothetical people but we can discuss you and I.  And the fact is, God loves and wants to be in relationship with both of us.

That’s what I’d want to leave a person with who asked this question.That’s what I’d want to leave a person with who asked this question.

Is God the Author of Sin? Part Two (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

So if God is all-powerful and creates everything, is God the author of sin?

My answer is no (and I think I have much of traditional Christian theology on my side).  God created humanity and gave humanity freedom and it was humans who chose sin.  Now some will not buy the difference there, they will simply say that since God is all powerful then God was the author of sin.  To such people I say, we will agree to disagree 🙂  I think, to use an illustration, that there is a huge difference between allowing a child who is learning to ride bike to fall and pushing her over.  In the same way, I think there is a huge difference between God allowing humans to choose sin and being the one who motivates them to choose sin.

Of course, if God knows the future and thus knows what humans will freely choose, is not God still guilty for allowing it to happen?  In other words, even if God did not put the idea in Adam’s head but merely knew what Adam would choose, God still could have stopped it.  And if we look at all the evil and suffering in the world, then we may say God should have stopped it.  If I know a terrorist will detonate a bomb and do nothing to stop it, even though I easily could stop it, most would say I am guilty of a crime.

Honestly, this question causes me to pause.  It causes me to pause because the world is an awful place much of the time.  How can a good and loving God look at holocausts and genocide and rape and violence and not step in?

If God causes it as some sort of ultimate determiner of everything, then God is a monster, no different then Satan.  If God allows it…that is where I struggle.  Why?  Why doesn’t God do more to stop it?  Its a tough question and it does not one any good to pretend it does not cut right to the heart of faith.  One answer that helps me a bit is remembering that I am finite and God is infinite.  Without all the information, I do not know.  In  my anger that God does not do more, I need to realize that perhaps God has already done quite a lot.  My daughter screamed and cried when she got shots as a baby, not understanding how much the vaccines would help her.  I imagine a lot of our suffering, if we saw things from God’s view, may be similar.

Beyond that, I look at the alternative.  If there is no God, then all those holocausts and rapes and genocides are pointless.  If there is no God, then suffering and violence just might have the last word.  But if there is a God, and further if this God is the God revealed in Jesus, then we have hope that a better day is coming.  Suffering is not the last word, resurrection and new life is.

To me then, it is a choice:

1. In the face of suffering and evil, I have a lot of questions for God but have confidence that Jesus showed the way to live and hope that when Jesus’ work is complete there will be no more evil.

2. In the face of suffering and evil, I reject God and despair because life is dark, hopeless and painful.

For a variety of reasons, I choose the first option.  Like so many questions, I do not think there is an air-tight answer nor do I expect all people with a rational mind to agree with me.  But, speaking from my perspective, which is all I can do, option one is much more satisfying.