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Depravity in our hearts

We can set our minds on what is true and honorable amid a pagan culture


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From 2005 to 2007, HBO ran a series called Rome. It was the most elaborate and costly cable series produced up to that time, and in some ways it was excellent: brilliantly acted, historically rich, and lavishly detailed. The plot circled around the pivotal years leading to the assassination of Julius Caesar, who “bestrode the world like a colossus” (according to Shakespeare) before a band of conspirators, driven by motives venal and noble, brought him down. The Season One DVDs included fascinating historical notes about politics, Latin derivatives, and daily life on the streets of antiquity’s greatest city.

But in another way, Rome was awful. Pornographic graffiti popped up all over the sets, and the real thing featured prominently in the storyline. One instance of full-frontal nudity stood out among many instances of partial nudity, and the violence sometimes involved literal buckets of blood. Though HBO, as is its wont, sensationalized the sex and gore, scholarly advisers to the show assured us that life in Rome, ca. 40 B.C., was very much as depicted.

Into such a world Christ was born.

Since 2011, the most popular series on HBO is Game of Thrones. For those of us largely innocent of pop culture, it’s a dungeons-and-dragons fantasy based on a series of novels by George R. R. Martin, detailing endless intrigues between warring families who rule mythical kingdoms. The synopsis reads like a score sheet for the Wars of the Roses (one source for the novels), fueled by gruesome murders, wrenching betrayals, and casual, brutal, or multiple couplings. Every season ups the body count while the plot circles around an empty moral vortex.

Such might the world be (minus dragons) if Christ had never come. In fact, devotees of the show like to point out how illustrative it is of human nature unconstrained by conscience, philosophy, or religion. But even faithful watchers sometimes complain that Game of Thrones goes too far. In the notorious “Red Wedding” scene of Season Three, a pregnant woman was stabbed repeatedly through the belly. This season’s “they went too far” episode included the brutal rape of a character who had become a feminist icon. Novelist Martin defends the show with the such-is-life argument: “The true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.” Not for nothing is he called the “anti-Tolkien.”

The threat that some R-rated entertainment poses for Christians is not necessarily that it feeds our lust, but that it feeds our cynicism.

Though periodically an online reviewer or blogger will swear off the show forever, and Christians advise other Christians to stop watching, the seasons roll on: Five just concluded, and Six has begun filming. Fans have a year to anticipate the next “too far” scenario.

I’ve never seen an entire episode of Game of Thrones. That’s no credit to someone who sat through 12 episodes of Rome, but I couldn’t go for 13. Once Caesar was dispatched, only gore and skin remained, swirling around an empty vortex. The emptiness was getting to me.

About a hundred years after the actual assassination of Julius Caesar, a man sat in a prison in Rome and wrote, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable … if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” The city outside those stone walls was even more depraved, if anything, than the place gaudily depicted on HBO. He had encountered the graffiti and the bawdy street performances and vicious brawls. And Paul—“chief of sinners”—also knew the depravity in his own heart.

But Christ had come and filled the empty center. Paul now saw everything from that perspective. Rather than rail against gladiator games and pornographic plays, he directed his readers to truth, nobility, excellence, and the source of all those good things—born as a man to dignify men and women. Paul’s advice was not about seeking wholesome diversions, but about centering ourselves in Christ.

The threat that some R-rated entertainment poses for Christians is not necessarily that it feeds our lust, but that it feeds our cynicism. Jesus saw it all; He “knew what was in man,” and never became cynical. We should do no less.

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Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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