A Rollicking Conversation on Game of Thrones and the Power of Media in Our Daily Lives

Does what we consume on a daily basis really matter? Nathan and Cameron suggest that it does and invite you into a conversation, beginning with a discussion of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Jun 20, 2019

HBO’s massively popular Game of Thrones recently went out with a whimper, according to most fans. Due to its highly graphic nature, the show continues to ignite heated discussions among Christians. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron discuss why they’ve chosen to forego the popular series, plus they take a look at how what we watch and consume has a power to shape and our imaginations and daily living.

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Cameron McAllister - @CamMcAllister7
Nathan Rittenhouse - @N_Rittenhouse1

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Please Note: Thinking Out Loud is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. This is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your cohost Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: Well, Nathan, “Game of Thrones” is officially over and I know that this is a subject of great interest to you, being a little tongue in cheek here. So full disclosure, neither Nathan nor myself have seen a single episode of “Game of Thrones”.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Are we even real people?

Cameron McAllister: Are we even real people? Are we even engaged in culture at all? Don't we care about what's captured the imagination of the nation? It is a full blown phenomenon of course, and there have been many very intense discussions about “Game of Thrones” within the church and actually outside the church as well. Also those last two episodes left a lot of folks pretty dissatisfied. There's this hilarious meme going around Nathan, I don't know whether you've seen it, but it's a horse, an illustration of a horse in different segments.

So the first...Well, most of the horse is just this gorgeously drawn painting of a horse and then the last, the head and everything, that final...the end of the horse is completely amateurish, very, very bad. So this was sort of this...and of course the reason for that was that George R.R. Martin, the author of the books...You know these are books first, right?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, yeah.

Cameron McAllister: So the books that preceded the television show, he's a very meticulous world builder, very deep fantasy, and just expends a tremendous amount of time and mental energy on each one of these books. So he's still not finished and he's a little bit older now too, so some people are...This is the nature of our fast moving world. People are actually afraid, "Oh no, maybe he's going to die before he completes the series and my entertainment will end."

It's kind of funny mindset when you think about it. But so needless to say the show had to go on HBO because that train had already left the station and so the HBO writers kind of took it from there, brought it to conclusion and by a pretty wide consensus most people weren't happy.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So we have national despair.

Cameron McAllister: We have national despair but the reason we want to talk about it a little bit on the podcast, even though we haven't seen it, and by the way not having experienced or done something has never stopped us from a discussion before on the show.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Absolutely.

Cameron McAllister: So let's wade in. So what I wanted to talk about here, Nathan in particular, and I think your thoughts are going to be very valuable here. You're a few steps removed from the culture in a way that I'm not on this one but-

Nathan Rittenhouse: and we should that to be that way, you have to intentionally be that way.

Cameron McAllister: You do. That's a very deliberate decision and to my mind a wise one. So when it comes to “Game of Thrones,” let me frame it like this before we get real controversial. We talk a lot these days about how we are defined primarily by what we love as Christians. Now, I think this is due in large part to the Augustinian recovery of James K.A. Smith. There are other thinkers who have been talking about this for a while, but Smith's cultural liturgies series beginning with Desiring And Kingdom really-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Kind of spread it out front.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, it really brought it back and I think those are tremendously helpful books. He's recovered that Augustinian anthropology, which says that, hey, what you love is a whole lot more important than what you think and what you think is important, but the primary defining feature is what you love. So the positive side of that is, yeah, so let's pay attention to what you love and let's look at the human...the affections and the will, but there's less attention paid to what deforms us. The stuff that we're consuming that actually can harm us. So before we get into all the complications there, let me just leave it there and kick it over to you.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Thanks.

Cameron McAllister: Set you up there for it.

Nathan Rittenhouse: We're setting ourselves up here for a real bashing for our lack of engagement but no condemnation for those who have seen it. Just some points of caution maybe and curiosity moving forward about how we choose what we think about, or what we spend our mental imagery on. I do believe that this actually...that people process images and ideas differently. I don't process them quickly at all. So especially with film, those things stick in my mind for a very long time and I have to think through them because when I'm watching something...When I'm reading something, I can digest it at the pace that I want to. When I'm watching it, I'm forced to digest it at a rate that the producer sets. So I have to go back through and think about that so some of that is as a function of that.

Let me see if this fits into that a little bit, when we were talking about what forms us and what shapes us and I think one of the reasons that even within the Christian circles, when you hear people talking about “Game of Thrones”, they say, "Oh, well he has great character development," and the idea of character development is one of the highlights of the series for a lot of people. So I guess the question we're flipping around then is how does “Game of Thrones” influence my character development? Or how does fill in the blank media entertainment influence my character development? I think this is basic of all technologies and multiple books on technology have been written about this as we think about...We often think, "Oh, the technology is neutral, it's the way that we use it."

I think it's John Dyer and his little book, “The Garden To The City” uses the illustration of saying take a shovel for example, is it good or bad? Well, you can use it to plant a tree or bury a body. So people say the shovel itself is neutral, but he says, what we don't think about is that using the shovel gives us calluses. So the tool isn't neutral. It forms us in some way as we use it. Now the outcome of that is different, but we still get the calluses from the shovel. So I think that maybe is where we're pushing into this, as we think about our entertainment selections, is in what ways are we formed as a character as we participate in certain forms of entertainment?

I think there are subtle things that I've seen even in my life that, whether I've been traveling or speaking or just really busy but haven't seen a lot of film for a while and then I watch a movie, they seem far more violent and graphic if you take a month off and come back to it than if you're part of a...just that's part of the routine of your life. So I think we catch those little glimpses and moments-

Cameron McAllister: You lose your calluses.

Nathan Rittenhouse: We lose our calluses, yeah. If we step away from it and come back. So is that kind of the direction that you're thinking about? Then if I can throw another one in and just another thought that I've had recently, it's interesting in that whole little story of Jesus, he feeds the 5,000, he's running around with the disciples and then they don't have any bread and they're talking to themselves about where to get bread. Jesus says to them, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees." They're saying, "Oh, well, because we don't have any bread." Wow, you guys really missed it here. Then he straightens them out and says, "No, I'm talking about the teaching of the Pharisees."

I got to thinking about sort of living in a culture where a lot of people, our generation especially, is very caught up on food, the whole foodie, eating healthy, sustainable, all of that and we're wildly fascinated about what we're putting in our bodies as far as food is concerned. Here Jesus is making a statement saying that what we put into our mind, we need to be more cautious of than what we put into our mouth.

That just, when you narrow it down-

Cameron McAllister: Raises the stakes, doesn't it?

Nathan Rittenhouse: It raises the stakes down a little bit there to think about Jesus saying the real difficulty here is not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean. That's the preceding part of that. But it's what comes out of your heart. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees. So I'm not saying, "Oh, HBO, they're the new Pharisees and watch out for the yeast."

Cameron McAllister: For sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But I'm just saying that it's a fascinating thing that Jesus...if we're talking about our formation as Christians with a goal of being conformed to the image of the son, that as Jesus is speaking, that he does caution us about being mindful of the...and it's fascinating that he uses yeast because yeast is so subtle. You can't even see it when you're making bread, or sourdough, kombucha, whatever it is you're brewing in your basement. You can't see it, but it has a radical impact on the outcome but you can't see it happening. So I think yeast is such an apt analogy as we think about our entertainment choices, or what we're engaging with culturally.

It's funny because we're doing a podcast about...talks about culture, but I don't know, those are just two images that popped into my mind as you were thinking about that, about our character formation and then the calluses as it were, and then Jesus's admonition there and caution about the yeast of our culture and what are the ideas that are seeping in and slowly fermenting and shaping and forming us into a direction we don't want to go.

Cameron McAllister: And the subtle ways that the process happens that we don't always take note of. Yeah. I think it seems to me, Nathan, that the reason I brought it up is because in my own life, I tend to want to major on the positive aspects and talk about how so much of what we see and what and what we find in our shows and our entertainment that has captured the imagination, that gives us really powerful insights and all of that. While I myself often overlook, or choose to downplay the fact that this is really affecting me quite deeply.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So can I make this a bit personal?

Cameron McAllister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Because I think it's fascinating that as you look at a lot of even pastors' blogs, Christian blogs, they're really saying, "Hey, I'm watching “Game of Thrones”, it's really helping me engage the culture," and that's seen as progress moving that actually you've been there and are coming back the other direction. I would say even three years ago, some of the...I mean a lot of the stuff that you've digested and watched and processed would have shocked a lot of people, let's say. You wrote about it from a Christian perspective, which was...I'm glad there are people like you who can do that. I think I'm just highlighting here that when you hear Cameron speaking of this, it's not because he hasn't run the full gamut of what is possible to see in the audio visual space as far as the depravity of man, but...So you have a different perspective on that coming, I think from that side of it and then raising some caution flags there.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah and there's a level of wisdom and discernment that comes in here because just some of this list territory is a bit ambiguous. You don't have clear scriptural protocol on what you can and what you can't watch, but you want to look at...So you want to ask whether you can in good conscience indulge in something, but you also want to…You just don't want to be naive about the fact that you are susceptible to deep influence, that this stuff is forming you, to know that it's forming you. I remember the first time I ever had a real visceral encounter with that aspect, the formative aspect of the art I was consuming, was when I was in high school and I was listening to a lot of really, really aggressive music. I mean, really extreme music that was celebrating murder, mayhem, mutilation. I mean just really, really extreme stuff.

Nathan Rittenhouse: We should talk about your Nordic death metal aspirations at some point as a child.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah that's right. Well, so this was the Nordic death metal aspirations phase. I remember one day, do you know, just getting into one of those normal high school conflicts and what came out of my mouth was so hideous and vehement and perverse and despicable and I just remember just that sort of my conscience awoke for a moment and it was just sort of that…See, what you're putting into your heart is taking root.

Now, here's where I know a lot of folks will get really nervous and they'll say, "Oh, okay so you're trying to pass off your moral responsibility on a bunch of death metal musicians in corpse paint and goofy apparel? No, but I am saying that there's a dual aspect here. On the one hand, you are responsible for your actions of course. These conversations always surface when they discover, for instance, the listening habits of school shooters. Remember when Columbine took place-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: A lot of attention was paid to the video games they were playing the music, they were listening to, they discovered Rammstein and Marilyn Manson albums in their rooms. So a lot of that ignited this whole controversy about that.

But the other aspect is yes, you're morally responsible for your behavior but what you're doing, and this is part of that moral responsibility, what you're filling your mind with, the images you're feeding on, or the imagery that you're feeding on, whether it's in music, it's all going in to your heart and it is taking shape and a lot of people here...I can say a few words about shows and movies specifically and yeah, along the lines of...The truth is, some of the stuff that I, that I do watch is challenging and some of it is confrontational and it may sound a little goofy for me to say this, but I do actually draw a firm lines in the sand and the older I've gotten, the more firm those lines become where I just...Part of it is knowing your own limits and thinking, "Okay, I have a threshold here."

Some people may be able to handle this and this is actually a very humbling experience, but I can't. So therefore I will not watch this. Full disclosure, I will not watch “Game of Thrones.” So I've had a lot of people try to get me to watch it and try and get way in, not going to happen. Another example of a pop culture phenomenon where I actually did watch because I had so many questions and I do think it was worthwhile, but it was a really tough one for me was “13 Reasons Why.” It took me a month to get through 10 episodes. I found that so incredibly painful to watch. So the lines that you draw here kind of look a little fine, but know your own limits but also, yeah, paying attention to so much pop culture and writing about it for so long gave me I think, a good weariness to it all.

I think in the past, there's a little bit of a reaction going on with people our age. Now, you're kind of an exception because you grew up in a different kind of community, Nathan but it used to be that the church was very much conservative, theologically conservative, Christian circles were very, very much on guard. There was a very, very strong caution. So the line was don't bury your head in the sand or else you won't be able to get into any conversations with anybody, you won't be able to engage. Well, we've swung from one extreme to the other. Now I think we're in danger of overdose. I mean, it's one thing to say, "All right, we've got to be careful," but ignoring this particular Ingmar Bergman film, I'm thinking about Francis Shaeffer here, would be to our detriment, there's some really profound stuff here. But it's another thing to say, "Well, we just need to watch all the things because after all, we have to be in the conversation."

I mean, Christians are set apart by what they do and also by what they abstained from as well. We need to recover that a little bit.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think my thinking on this is that actually a lot of the death and destruction and mayhem and violence actually exist in your zip code. This is a real part of human experience and we almost trivialize some of the brutality of humanity when we think of it totally in a fictitious realm. So if you think “Game of Thrones,” sexual violence of minors for example, that happens in our world and heinous, hideous, I mean even professional musicians recently, and so for me, my parents never sheltered me from the chaos and mayhem of real life and real brokenness. They did when I was younger, shelter me from the entertainment version of it.

Cameron McAllister: So you're pointing to a false dilemma here, a really good one.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I'm pointing to a false dilemma, saying you can be engaged with entertainment culture and not understand sexual violence, brokenness, death, murder-

Cameron McAllister: In your own community.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ...in your own...Yeah, in your own...So that's what I'm pushing...

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, that's great.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So we talk about FOMO, the fear of missing out, where we have to be...and so part of my, when you're talking to the beginning of intentional stepping back from some of that, is my fear of missing out of reality. So that's what I'm trying to shape as a Christian, of how do I deal with a real version of that that's happening in the world around me?

Cameron McAllister: And to say that, "Well, if you don't pay attention to this particular show that really majors on these mayhem aspects, that you're kind of going to be naive and you won't be in touch with reality is a completely false dilemma. It's silly.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think any pastor who's worth their salt knows about violence, death and destruction and mayhem-

Cameron McAllister: Oh my goodness.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ...and bears the burden of chaos in a community.

Cameron McAllister: Unlike any show could portray heinousness.

Nathan Rittenhouse: True. That's a really good observation, very sharp.

Cameron McAllister: That's in there.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think if I can...

Cameron McAllister: And I'm not saying it's “Game of Thrones” out here on the East Coast, but-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Sure, sure, sure, sure.

Cameron McAllister: But I'm just saying that there are elements of the things that we have qualms about in our entertainment that it doesn't take a fantasy writer to come up with that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Right. I think another aspect, and actually Ravi draws attention to this a lot and this is a very Protestant kind of orientation and I think it'd go too far, but I think it's very helpful and I think Ravi brings it up in a very wise manner. The nature of visuals, the nature of visual entertainment.

This is different again from reading. When you're reading, you pointed to the different dynamic when you're reading and the way you can digest. With visuals, there's an element of powerlessness that enters in because those visuals, they really...They go right past all of your...they can really go past the guards, so to speak. I mean, because they go straight past all of your critical faculties and go right to your heart. That's the power of visuals. That's the power of the imagination as well and so it can bypass a lot of your critical considerations. This is one of the reasons why...It's funny, here's a really hilarious little pop culture example. So my son Dylan, like lots of little kids, likes bouncy pop music whenever Heather has it on. So Heather and I both are...boy, I can't believe I'm admitting this on the show here.

Cameron McAllister: It's hard, it's hard but you can do it.

It's hard, it's hard. So both Heather and I like Taylor Swift's album 1989, it's a pretty good record. So anyway-

Nathan Rittenhouse: I just keep learning more and more things.

Cameron McAllister: Now you know that, yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: It's a big switch from Nordic.

Cameron McAllister: Right. That's the towering irony, I was actually working on a chapter of the book I'm writing, talking about that phase, the Nordic phase. As I listened to Taylor Swift. I thought, "This is a pretty big irony right here." So anyway, there's a song on that album, there's many...I mean pretty much all of them, but called Wildest Dreams. It's pretty much your typical modern romance fantasy all about majoring on those feelings of elation and romance that are totally fleeting. I mean, they're beautiful when they last, but if you're married, of course that's not the heart and soul of marriage, but it hit me.

I thought, "Oh my goodness." I looked at Heather, I said...because I can take the joy out of anything. But I just said, "You realize that so many of..." We've been dealing with a lot of friends who are going through terrible trouble in their marriage and marriage is ending and as we've talked to them, this is the very thing they think marriage should be. On the surface, when you actually take a few steps back and think, "Well, marriage should always be this Disney romance." That's ridiculous, that's so silly but on the other hand, it seems totally plausible and sensible to all of us because this is the stuff that we're feeding on. We watch The Bachelorette and The Bachelor and we listen to these silly songs.

Nathan Rittenhouse: It's got a catchy beat, man.

Cameron McAllister: And it's really catchy, but that's an example of, as funny as that sounds, how all of that, that message goes straight into your heart and if you're not aware of what's going on, if you're not spiritually aware, you're internalizing this stuff. Just like I did with the death metal artists when I was an adolescent, so many of us, what we're putting into our hearts and into our minds is forming us and I think even...and again, with regard to “Game of Thrones,” I'm not passing judgment on people who watch it.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Sure, sure.

Cameron McAllister: A lot of people I love and respect do watch it.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But we're also saying, you don't need to feel guilty if you didn't.

Cameron McAllister: Right and I'm also saying, let's be a little bit more circumspect about what we consume, what we watch, because it's forming us. I think it's good to remember that, I think we need to recover that habit of healthy caution and that caution has a lot to do with just the weakness of our own hearts. It doesn't have to do with necessarily casting judgment and aspersions and the spiritual elitism.

Nathan Rittenhouse: No, no.

Cameron McAllister: That's an abuse. That's not what we're talking about here.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I'm thinking about this, my...I mean, we have a job where we travel around and people ask us questions. I think I have still as a child, asked my mother more questions than I have publicly answered six years in the RZIM. I mean, saint points for putting up with me. But what was fascinating is I kept asking questions for a long time because she kept answering them. I remember at one point when I was...I mean, I was able to read so I was...but I was pretty young asking my mom, "What does it mean not to be conformed to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind?" And I'm like 10 or something maybe. So she's sitting on my bed tucking me in at night and this is the illustration that she gave and I can't get it out of my mind.

She said, "Well..." and this probably isn't the fullness of what she believes about this passage, but this is how she explained it to a 10 year old who should have been asleep. She said, "Nathan, in some ways our minds are like a lake and a lake has a stream coming into it and a stream going out of it and the water is always being renewed and there's always stuff coming in and there's always stuff going out. Part of what it means to be a wise steward of your mind is to be able to learn how to filter what comes in and what needs to go out. So there's always a body of water that's the same size but there's an input and an output there," and your mind is the same way, is what she was getting at. I still remember it 20 some years later, of saying that if our mind is like a body of water of the lake, what's coming in and what needs to go out. I mean, it's a simplistic, maybe, perhaps understanding that passage. It's a 10 year old version, but it was a pretty good one.

Cameron McAllister: No it's profound, yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So I think that plays in some to the thinking here of what we're talking about, of what do we want the contents of the lake of our mind to be, so to speak. That's where I think we're challenging you to go. What are the necessary inputs and what needs to go out, in order for you to...out of the overflow of your heart, your mouth speaks and that brings glory to God, what needs to be formed in us in that way. So hopefully this has been encouraging you, or challenging to you to make you think through this a little bit in a unique way. We certainly haven't figured it all out. That's why we're talking out loud about it and thinking out loud about it. So thanks for doing that with us. You've been listening to Thinking Out Loud, the podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.

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