They’ll Keep Watching – Youth Ministry, Scripture, and Game of Thrones

November 1st, 2017

In high school, I was a nerd.  I surrounded myself with all things sci-fi and fantasy, from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to superheroes and vampire slayers. I wore these interests on my sleeve, and most of us in my youth group did the same.  We loved our stories, and we talked about them, constantly. When I was in high school, Harry Potter was the craze, both in our group and in the culture at large.  Most (if not all) of my youth group was reading it.  But our faith community told us to stop: stop reading it, and stop talking about it. We were told the content wasn’t appropriate.  And with that, the discussion was over.  I wish someone mentoring me in the faith would have explored these stories with me, and had helped me unpack the themes and narratives I was immersed in.  I think this was a missed opportunity, and I think it is one that we are still missing today.

How many of us are watching Game of Thrones? Many people do, and I suspect a significant number of our high school students do; perhaps even a surprising number of middle schoolers do, too. For those who have never heard of HBO’s hit show, the series is set in the medieval fantasy world of Westeros, a continent steeped in political turmoil, constant warfare, magic, and dragons.  It is full of sex, graphic violence, rape, and murder.  And while our inclination may be to tell our students why they shouldn’t watch it, students that are watching will continue to do so regardless of what we say. And if we (the adults in the room) are watching it, we will likely continue to do the same regardless of what we think is appropriate for them– just as many of us kept reading Harry Potter when we were told not to.  

This is why we should be willing to talk about Game of Thrones.

We should talk about it because the show is so visceral in its depictions of reality.  Although dragons may not exist, rape and violence and war do. Despicable villains. While we may applaud the performance of an actor who terrifies and disgusts us, we watch in horror because the performance touches us in our spirit and we tell ourselves ‘Oh God, the world is like this.’  Not only is the world like this, the Bible is like this.  The Bible recounts the chaos that surrounds people striving for righteousness in a fallen world, as well as the horror that ensues when evil rulers go unchecked. The cultural fascination with Game of Thrones offers a window to talk about the reality we live in, and an opportunity to discuss those passages of Scripture that we hesitate to engage.  

When I chat with my youth ministry friends, it becomes apparent many of us are averse to teaching much of the Old Testament.  Such an aversion is not a mystery.  As Christians, we affirm that Scripture illustrates God’s revelation throughout history culminating in the person of Jesus Christ.  Scripture conveys to us the wonder and mystery of the Gospel, but it is conveyed through stories that often lack a “Moral of the Story” moment.  Life would be much easier if our sacred text was simple, concise, and direct.  It would leave little room for questions and doubt.  We could pack our youth rooms with teens as we preach easy answers to life’s greatest dilemmas.  But that is not the case.  Scripture depicts the evils of the world as much as it depicts the mercy and love of God.  

No doubt teaching the Old Testament is a challenge.  But it would change our conversations (and the biblical literacy of our students) if we were intentional about portraying the rise and fall of Israel’s judges with the same excitement as discuss the various battle on the fields of Westeros.  It would engage the imaginations of our teens (and perhaps our own) if we taught the monarchy of David as if we were retelling the scandal or betrayal that ended the most recent episode.  We could have new words for the painful and confusing passages of Scripture in which people are murdered or raped, and justice is not served. If we asked our students “Why is that in Game of Thrones?” the likely answer would be “Because that stuff happens.” Then when they ask “Why is that stuff in the Bible?” we can answer “Because that stuff happens.”  Scripture doesn’t shy away from the darkest corners of human existence.

Maybe GoT isn’t popular with your students.  But some other show or movie is; some other narrative is on their screens.  Maybe it is Empire, or American Horror Story, or even My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  And that story is connecting with the mystery and the pain of the human experience, and of the individual student’s personal experience. And we have a responsibility to engage that beyond showing movie clips that we loosely attach to Scripture lessons.

I’m not advocating that we should show our middle schoolers the most graphic content HBO has to offer.  It is up to us as youth leaders to use discernment.  We’re enthralled with the complexity of the stories we consume, yet we hold Scripture at a distance.  But complexity, moral ambiguity, and the struggle for justice speak to us deeply.  Why shy away from the Bible when it offers the same?

Dan Garrison Edwards is currently studying for his Master of Divinity at Palmer Theological Seminary in St. Davids, PA.  He and his wife, Libby, live with two cats and their dog, Murphy in the Southern Tier of New York.  When not fantasizing about being a Jedi Knight, he enjoys hiking and going to the movies.  You can catch up with Dan on Facebook and Twitter @ThePilgrimGeek.  For more musings on being a Christ-following nerd, visit his blog at http://www.nogginsquall.com


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