Thursday, May 3, 2018

Augustine on Game of Thrones

I recently came across an article by Josh Hayes tackling the controversial topic, “Should Christians Watch Game of Thrones?” (For those who do not know, Game of Thrones is a popular television series famous for its extraordinarily graphic depictions of sex and violence.) Hayes 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.

What caught my attention in the article was Hayes' use of the following dictum of 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, Hayes concludes, “Love, and watch what you will.”

This caught my attention because I had just completed an extensive search for any reference to the theater in the writings of the church fathers. (I published the most relevant excerpts in an anthology entitled, Theater of the Devil.) Though I appreciate Hayes’ desire to apply sound theological reasoning to the question of entertainment, I am afraid that his conclusion grossly misrepresents Augustine’s view on the matter.

WWAS (What Would Augustine Say?) 

“Love, and watch what you will”? What Augustine actually said was this: “A good Christian has no wish to attend the public shows.” In another passage, Augustine explains that 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.” In yet 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. 
In short, Augustine believes that those who attend the theater do not love God properly and are headed towards eternal damnation. Modern Christians may of course disagree vigorously with Augustine on this point, but we cannot pretend that he did not say such things.

A Fatal Violation of the Creed 

It is important to note here that Augustine is not alone in his extreme opposition to the theater. Cyprian recommends that a certain convert be excommunicated if he does not leave his profession of training actors. The fourth century Apostolic Constitutions rules that those who do not give up the theater should be barred from baptism. In a lengthy tirade against the shows, Tertullian declares,
The rejection of these amusements is the chief sign to [the heathen] 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. 
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. 
John Chrysostom concludes one of his many sermons against the theater with these ringing words:
If you continue [to attend the 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. 
Elsewhere, Chrysostom reminds new converts that the baptismal vows include a renunciation of the theater.

Vain and Desperate Reasoning 

What of Hayes’ contention that a blanket prohibition of Game of Thrones is “extra-biblical and likely legalistic”? The fathers often address this sort of argument. 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! 
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 cruel, the licentious inventors of crimes and lusts, it is not good even that there should be any calling to remembrance the atrocious or the vile.” Theophilus of Antioch likewise 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.”

We should remember here that Tertullian and Theophilus are referring to stories enacted on stage with masks and props. One can only imagine what these men would have said to Game of Thrones, where the magic of modern technology brings the torture, rape, and prostitution to vivid life in our homes.

Useless Arguments and Unprofitable Apologies 

Finally, what of Hayes’ argument that we cannot adopt a “one size fits all” approach to Game of Thrones since explicit content may “affect each of us differently”? Again, this was an argument with which the fathers were very familiar and with which they had very little patience. Chrysostom’s words in reply to this argument provide us with a fitting conclusion:
“What then,” one may say, “if I point to some, who are not hurt at all by their pastime in [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? … [For] 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 chaster 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.

See also: An Ancient Argument against Violent Entertainment