How should Christians interact, respond to, or embrace pop culture? It’s a question that I wrestle with regularly, given that my interests include not only theology but also science-fiction.
And let’s face it, there are good ways and bad ways to interact with pop culture. Take Game of Thrones for example. The Song of Ice and Fire series is fantastic (even if I do have squabbles with the quality of A Dance with Dragons), and HBO has translated the novels into a highly successful television series. How do Christians, who appreciate the novels, respond to the television series especially given HBO’s propensity to “sex it up”? Not all of us are comfortable with the graphic sexual content of the show, and yet we still understand that there is something powerful to the narrative of the television series that cannot be ignored.
There are a plethora of examples of Christians responding to Game of Thrones (be it the novels or the television series) well, with thought, reflection and respect for the world that Martin has created. Here are just a few:
A Morally-Complex Game of Thrones
Ben Witherington’s review of Season One
My posts can be found here, here and here.
But then, every once and a while you come across an example of how not to interact with Game of Thrones. Take the article at Christianity Today. Jonathan Ryan attempts to contrast Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. Which is fine, so long as it is recognized that they are two very different worlds and worldviews. The problem comes when Ryan tries to compare Tyrion Lannister to Gollum:
Martin paints this grimness in the portrait of Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is a small and deformed figure born to a powerful and noble family in Westeros. Years of poor treatment and outright abuse leads Tyrion to drink more and more deeply from the corruption around him.If you’ve read Lord of the Rings, you can’t help but compare Tyrion to Smeagol, the hobbit who becomes Gollum after becoming corrupted by Sauron’s ring The difference comes in Frodo’s attempt to redeem Gollum. That attempt has no parallel in Martin’s world, nor is there anything like Gandalf’s admonition to treat Gollum with kindness. Tyrion has no Frodo, and he never will. No one reaches out to him; no one tries to save or redeem him.
Ryan fundamentally misunderstands and misconstrues the character of Tyrion. In fact, I would argue that Tyrion is in fact one of the most honourable characters in Westeros, with the understanding that the rules of morality in A Song of Ice and Fire are very, very distinct from the rules of morality in something like The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, it is this honour-in- spite-of-all-he’s-been-through that makes Tyrion one of the more beloved characters to readers (and viewers). The same endearment cannot be said of Gollum.
In trying to compare Tyrion to Gollum, the author overlooks all the good things that Tyrion has done. (There is now a note at the bottom of the article that the article removed an important plot point from the article because it would be a “spoiler” to those who are new to the series, but even eliminating discussion of the plot point does not mean that at this point in the TV series Tyrion fits well with Gollum).
First, a few comparisons. Gollum was consumed by lust for the ring. And it was this lust that transformed him into a hideous monster. Tyrion was broken and starved for affection because he was born deformed. His brokenness did not transform his appearance, but instead, his appearance and neglect actually gave him space to better see the complex politics of the world for what they were. Tyrion’s deformity meant that people left him alone, and underestimated him, and he used that to his advantage to study and to learn and to influence events in the kingdom (even if it was often only behind the scenes). For Tyrion, it’s not about gaining power, which is the drive of the rest of his family. Indeed, Tywin’s and Cersei’s quests for power are so single-minded that they don’t actually understand the bigger picture beyond their own ambitions. Gollum’s solitude, on the other hand, led to a devolution and little understanding of the world around him.
So what are some of the “noble” things that Tyrion does? (while I will try to remain vague, it should be noted that for some people, what follows might constitute spoilers).
Tyrion befriends Jon Snow. He rescues Sansa from a fate worse than death if she were to stay in King’s Landing. He protects the kingdom from Joffrey, by reining him in as best he can.
Does Tyrion do awful things? Yes. But while they are not inexcusable, they are understandable. Yes he kills two people close to him. But his action does not come from some kind of bloodlust, but rather from the raw emotion of being deeply betrayed and emotionally abused.
And as for Ryan’s suggestion that Tyrion has no Frodo, I would suggest that Tyrion does in fact have a Frodo, she just hasn’t been introduced in the television show yet (and I worry that she’ll be one of the characters that HBO drops in their attempt to streamline the novel). By the last novel, Tyrion is definitely on a redemption arc, as much as there can be a redemption arc in Martin’s universe.
If anything, Tyrion is the most human of all the characters in Martin’s universe, and I would suggest that the character of Tyrion could be a reflection and a jumping off point for discussing Christian understandings of the human condition, both in its brokenness and its value despite its brokenness.