When John Piper published his article “12 Questions to Ask Before You Watch Game of Thrones” the internet went astir with discussion: those who watched the show coming to its defense and those who don’t finally having the definitive word that those who do shouldn’t. An article that could have spurred on a much-needed conversation about how Christians consume media, especially media featuring nudity, was cut short with the fiat of Piper. Piper’s own position is absolute; “I resolve never intentionally to look at a television show or a movie or a website or a magazine where I know I will see photos or films of nudity. Never.”
The position is admirable in its refusal to be hypocritical. Game of Thrones fans cannot claim he is just picking on them, he’s got National Geographic pegged too. Yet for many readers this black-and-white worldview is troubling. The argument precludes a whole host of ideas and question about film, art, nudity, lust, sin, etc. which are begging to be discussed, evaluated and considered. By supplying a black-and-white position of “radical abstention” Piper effectively ends a conversation which should rightly be full of ambiguities, nuance, and a variety of views. The radical “Never” ends the discussion, potentially alienates the voice of dissenting viewpoints and keeps the individual arguments which make up Piper’s position from being subjected to closer scrutiny.
Upon reading many of Piper’s arguments one is struck by how simplistic and confident they are. Piper has no problem making strong, definitive rulings on a variety of subjects. Regardless of what one decides concerning his conclusions, it is important to examine the underpinnings of his position and determine if these arguments are robust enough to support the radical conclusions Piper endorses. As such we need to take a step back from the immediate question of Game of Thrones and examine more generally some of the issues with Piper’s arguments. What to do with the pesky HBO show will wait, we’ve got a whole year to go till the next season anyway.*
1. The Cultural Relativism of Modesty
Perhaps the first point of questioning concerning Piper’s points is one of cultural relativism. Piper makes several arguments in which he either says or assumes that to appear nude before others is a sin (i.e. “They disobey 1 Timothy 2:9, and we say that’s okay.”). Yet to call this behavior sinful without qualifier raises a host of questions. Is nudity sinful all times and in all places? Is it sinful because of our cultural approach to nudity? Is it sinful in and of itself? Is it sinful because it is causing other’s to lust?
Piper’s statement is complicated because standards of appropriate dress and nudity have varied from time and place throughout human history. We are all familiar with the tribes of the Amazon rainforest, African plains, and southeast Asia where toplessness is a standard practice. During the pioneering days of the American west it was not uncommon for all the field-hands to bath together nude is a river or lake. In much of Europe it would not be uncommon at a pool or beach for someone to change into his or her swimware there on the beach without a single turned head.
Both from place to place and at different points in history there have been a wide variety of approaches to nudity. To say that such nudity is at all times sinful is to be insensitive to the variety of expressions throughout culture and history. There is not a one size fits all ethic towards nudity in our culture. There must be an element of relativism involved. This does not mean there is not a restrictive ethic of sexual propriety within Christianity but it does mean that perhaps it is problematic to say it is at all times in all place in all ways it is sinful to be nude in front of other people. It raises the question that perhaps more needs to be understood about the nature of the nudity being presented than just the very fact that there is nudity presented.
2. The Problem of “Daughters” and Patriarchal Ownership.
A common argument Piper uses within his article is “that girl is somebody’s daughter” or “that girl has a father.” This line of thought is often used to cause the viewer of nude images to realize that the woman whose body they are looking at has a father who cares about them is the same way the viewer cares for their own daughter, girlfriend, or wife. On the surface this seems like a humanizing argument, yet on close examination there are a few problems that present themselves.
There is a problem at the heart of Piper’s argument. It is not so much manifest on the surface but in a more subtle undercurrent of his position towards woman. Not being an egalitarian, Piper’s argument subtly supports a patriarchal approach to the subject of nudity in the arts. Piper’s theological position of the need for women to submit to their husbands and never have authority of a man cannot be ignored when we talk about the issues of female nudity. Once again, this may not effect ones ultimate decision about Christian consumption of media containing nudity, but it does have implications for the appropriateness of the arguments used in coming to these conclusions.
A significant issue underlining Piper’s arguments is that it ultimately supports a narrative of men telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. The problem with the “that actress is somebody’s daughter” argument is that it reinforces a narrative where the sexual prospects of the woman are the possession and right of the father. That her sexual conduct somehow reflects the status and economic vitality of the father. This model of the father as owner of his daughter’s sexual rights has been a patriarchal model of much of the western world. It is significantly important that as individuals living in a post-patriarchal society to recognize the inappropriateness of arguments and positions which continue to support this narrative.
In Piper’s article patriarchal ownership is not made explicit but rather serves as a subtle undercurrent within his framework. A woman’s sexual identity exists independently from the father and his concerns must take a back seat to that woman’s own decisions concerning her sexual identity and the use of her body. The “daughters” argument evokes a childishness, demoting the woman from being an autonomous individual and subjugating her to being a child under the protection and care of the patriarchal head. Once more, this does not mean that at Christian ethic of sexual propriety should not govern how woman conduct themselves, no less than how it governs how men should conduct themselves. Christian men and women are called to make ethical choices and ethical actions, to follow a Christian ethic in response to sexual expression, yet those choices and actions are each individual’s own, reflecting their own identity, rather than the extension of some patriarchal figure whose prospects carry more weight than that of the individuals themselves.
3. Victim Narratives and Autonomous Self Identity
This issue of patriarchy leads into another issue involving the use of “victim narratives” within Christian subculture. In both the “daughters” argument and when Piper says “Underneath all of this is male sexual appetite driving this business, and following from that is peer pressure in the industry and the desire for ratings that sell” there is a subtle narrative of victimization at work. It this thought form the actresses are cast as victims in the story. We imagine that on some level they much be being asked to perform and expose themselves against their will. They must have been coerced to do so in such a way that their fathers, mothers and closest relatives would desire them to be rescued from such a humiliating plight. This narrative is powerful because it allows those who oppose such forms of media to take on the role, ever so subtly, of the hero or rescuer who will save the weak victims of abuse from their plight.
Yet within the professional environment of HBO and Hollywood we have no reason to believe this to be the case.** For many of the actresses on Game of Thrones this role represents the pinnacle of their acting career thus far. They have worked much of their life and devoted much of their professional careers to reaching this level of success. In all my reading and watching of interviews — and this in a culture inundated with individuals coming forward to report misconduct — I have not come across any evidence of the filming of these nude scenes or any others being anything but professional. I have not heard stories of Emilia Clarke retreating to her dressing room after a shoot, breaking down in tears or having a panic attack because she was so mistreated and manhandled by the director, cast, or crew. Whatever judgment we finally make about Christian consumption of such media, we cannot use an argument of victimization to establish it. These are autonomous individuals making mature decisions about what they want to do with their bodies and to make them victims is to dehumanize them by imagining our own superimposed narrative for their lives trumps their own narrative and autonomous self-identity.
4. A Culture of Female Blame
Almost antithetical to the previous point above is the paradoxical issues of female blame within Christian subculture. While not directly addressed within Piper’s article, there is an underlying problem in the conservative Christian argumentation about nudity were women and their bodies are blamed for male sexual impropriety. In a Christian conservative culture where rape victims are told to repent and find their root sin that cause their assault and where the conversation of modesty is routinely framed as women needing to change their dress and appearance just at the mere possibility of ‘leading their brothers into sin’ we need to have resolve to refuse to entertain arguments which rely on unjust female blame. This culture of blaming women for the lack of integrity of Christian males is significantly problematic for discussing the issues of nudity in the arts.
This does not mean there are not guidelines for being modest. This does not mean that Christian men and women should not choose to embrace an ethic of modesty. Yet it means that modesty is not the gatekeeper of sexual propriety. A woman is not to blame for the sexual misconduct of those around her based on her dress or appearance. A woman is not responsible for her abuse or rape regardless of her personal attire. A culture where men are seen as not being able to “help themselves” and women are held responsible for male sexual impropriety makes it considerably difficult to have a measured and nuanced conversation about the issues surrounding nudity in art. If nudity itself is seen as the problem, or if the female form is ultimately blamed then we have inadvertently made a large leap from finding sinful actions the problem to finding physical forms the problem. This does not ultimately mean we should not be mindful of the things we choose to view but that we should be careful in how we articulate these choices.
5. Stories That Matter
Moving past some the problems in Piper’s arguments, it is important now to turn to what I believe to be the more fruitful element of discussing the broader question of nudity in art. Piper is quite dogmatic on the issue, saying, “There is no great film or television series that needs nudity to add to its greatness. No. There isn’t.” To many readers this clear black-and-white response is significantly problematic. It is a subjective judgment on the quality of art that raises a host of questions. Rather that being a nuanced discussion of nudity in art it is a clear conversation-ender. One wonders if Piper feels the same about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment or Michelangelo’s David, not to mention Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus or Ruben’s The Judgement of Paris. To say all nudity in art is created equal, and equally unnecessary and wrong, collapses the rich conversation into an overly simplistic black-and white declaration.
Piper uses the word “entertainment” multiple times within his article, and often in discussions surrounding this topic the word “entertainment” is used to describe the media which is being talked about. The problem with this word is that it overlooks the variety of ways in which media and art function within our culture. To entertain means to “provide (someone) with amusement or enjoyment.” When used to refer to the media in question the word carries a derogatory connotation, where the media is seen as something with no more significant purpose then to delight and amuse. Yet human beings have been telling stories for thousands of years. These stories function powerfully within cultures and serve much more than for mere entertainment. While entertainment is a function of some stories it is not the function of all stories — some stories are designed not to be enjoyed. And even among stories that are entertaining, this does not mean that entertainment is the primary function of these stories. Stories establish identities (founding myths), identify taboos, reinforce prejudices, reestablish community boundary lines, identify community values, reinforce common experience, reenact shared history, unify over common plights, reeducate around new information, defend existing worldviews, explore alternate worldviews, challenge shared assumptions, and on and on.
Within this wide variety of functions stories can serve within our culture we need to be careful in how we talk about nudity within the arts. Of all the subjects within these stories is the female form the one which is off limits? Within the spectrum of stories, from those who force us to watch things we would rather ignore to those which celebrate all the beautiful elements of life with its joys and delights there is surely a place to discuss the appropriate use of nudity. If we are to be mature and discerning in the stories we consume than we should consider there is art and film which features nudity in a variety of forms and explores topics and stories which are vitally enriching for the human experience. It is troublesome that our sexual urges would be so unchecked as to not be able to appreciate these forms of art without acting out sexually or becoming caught up in sexual fantasy.
Take for example last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. The film is a work of art and tells in brutal realism tale of a man enslaved in the American South, and it features a rape. While we could split hairs on how graphic is too graphic, whether the director ‘had’ to show what he showed how he showed it, all these questions do damage to actually experience the brutality of the story which is being told. A story that should be told. It is not just entertainment but a story that confronts us with the reality of what happened, of the problem of dehumanization, the tragedy of sexual assault. It is a story that matters. A story which should be told. Likewise, in Shindler’s List we see multiple shots of the prisoners being physically examined as they are herded like cattle, nude, into concentration camps. Struck with the atrocity of the scene we are forced to address the horrendous way humans have treated others when willing to dehumanize them on the basis of race. Once again it is a story which needs to be told and we should be mature enough to consume despite the presence of nudity.
I recognize these two examples cannot form a full picture of the use of nudity in film. Both these examples both feature nudity in a negative context, that of rape and abuse. They are both stories from tragic parts of our history which should not be forgotten. Yet there is another end to this spectrum. There are pieces of art and film where nudity exists to point to be beauty of the human condition and to celebrate to human experience. Within the world of dance, something with which I am woefully unfamiliar, the human form is a canvas with which a story is told with form, poise and movement. In this context nudity can be used to indicate life and growth, to remove the distraction of costume and clothes. Nudity can point to the innocence of Eden, as in Darren Aronofsky’s graphic novel The Fountain, or to the joys of love. To imagine that every appearance of nudity must be sexualized or result in some form of sexual impropriety is to read our own shortcomings onto something does not necessarily carry those faults.
This does not mean our culture does not have a problem with over sexualization in film and media. This does not mean our culture does not have a problem with its treatment of women. There is a rich conversation to be had about the ways in which sexuality, women, and nudity are treated within our culture. Yet by shutting down the conversation entirely by saying “There is no great film or television series that needs nudity to add to its greatness. No. There isn’t” halts the ability to consider the nuances at work with nudities portrayal in art and media. While there is certainly some, if not a large section, of nudity within film that exists because there is, as Piper says, a “male sexual appetite driving this business…and the desire for ratings that sell.” But it is overly simplistic to imagine this to be the only reason a storyteller might have for including nudity within their work. Stories should be evaluated by their significance to the human experience, their ability to speak truthfully about the world, the craft they demonstrate, and the messages they communicate. We should think critically about stories, what messages they communicate and how they function within our lives. There are stories that matter. Stories that change people’s lives. Stories that inform our worldview or challenge it. Stories that need to be told. Stories that mean things. And some of these stories include nudity.
6. Why Piper May Be Right Despite His Arguments.
Having gone through the above points I would hope I have highlighted some of the significant problems with Piper’s arguments and some of the issues which underlie his black-and-white declarations. I have not dealt with some of the other issues which I see at work in the article — heavy-handed religious language, shame based discipleship, overt dogmatism to name a few — which I find troublesome. Yet I would hope that those points I have been able to address would cause us to think more complexly about these issues, and to speak with more nuance and ambiguity when discussing them.
And I do think they should be discussed. At length and knowledgeably and with nuance, ambiguity, and grace. People who know me know I don’t jive with Piper. Both his Calvinism and his complementarianism place a large gulf between him and me. That said, I am glad that Piper was willing to raise a question it seems few others have been willing to touch. Reading his article I very much wanted to disagree with him yet I could not disagree that this was a discussion which needs to happen, regardless of what conclusions we come to. If we are so sensitive that we cannot have a conversation of the appropriateness of Christian consumption of certain media then perhaps we have bigger problems than just the nudity in Game of Thrones. It is important to think about these things, to think about the reasons we participate in them, to consider that maybe we should reevaluate our actions or preferences. It is unfortunate that Piper’s article was so dogmatic that rather then inviting conversation it shut conversation down. And it is unfortunate that many who read the article responded so defensively that they could not have a conversation about the merits of questioning watching the show.
I have not watch Game of Thrones. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book and am somewhere in the A Clash of Kings and am very much looking forward to finishing the series. The intrigue and characters and world and back-stabling, betrayal, and writing are all wonderful. My intention was always to watch the show after I had finished the book series (I’m a purist like that) but having considered this discussion I’m wondering if perhaps it would be better not to. I think there is a lot of nuance in the discussion and a variety of viewpoints but when I consider the specifics of Game of Thrones I wonder if perhaps abstaining may be a good decision. From all accounts it is a masterful show, one with rich characters, well told, intriguing, adventurous and the height of epic television. Yet as I have seen it discussed and with my knowledge of its mythos I am not sure if it is really a story that matters. In all the discussion of the show I have not heard anyone make a real defense of the value of the show or its commentary on the human experience or its worth as art. This is not to say such an argument could not be made. I’m sure it could be. Yet even then it would have to be weighed against the content of the show. Perhaps Game of Thrones is just entertainment. And maybe, despite the problems and weakness of his arguments, John Piper might be right and maybe I will read the books and stick to not watching Game of Thrones.
*For the sake of this article let us assume that television and film are a valid form of artistic expression. That they have the ability to rise to the level of high art, that some day there will be classic television shows on par with great novels, and that the consumption of television is, regardless of its artistic merit, a part of the modern human experience akin to how listening to radio drama was to a previous generation or oral storytelling or reading has been throughout much of human history. For the sake of this discussion we are not going to entertain the idea that television is a complete waste of time.
**If there is information to the contrary on this point I would be very interested in hearing of it.