April 10, 2012

Stories as Defining Religion this Passover

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:57 pm by chavalah

On this day, in the middle of Pesach 5772 when Jews continue to celebrate their freedom, “Game of Thrones” fans hear news that the epic television show will be renewed for a third season. (Apparently I think the unwritten eleventh commandment was Thou Shalt Watch Quality Television.) Shortly prior to this announcement, HBO released two new behind the scenes videos, including one that talks about the religious makeup in the fantasy land of Westeros this season. I’m embedding it here, as a follow-up to my last post about religion in this series.

One of the things I love about these descriptions of fake religions is what they’ve taken from actual religion in the real world. These beliefs and traditions come from a very human need that parallels our needs on Earth.

The Old Gods of the north might speak to pagan cultures on Earth, who find spirituality through communion with nature. Though, as a Jew, I am struck by the author’s comment that these gods don’t have names and “god-ordained” priests, similar to how mine doesn’t.

The Faith of the Seven is steeped in ritual, probably defined most by George R. R. Martin’s Catholic upbringing, though Catholicism is certainly not the only religion here that ordains holy leaders, personifies their deities, and fashions cultural events and institutions around them.

The Drowned God of the Iron Islands is a tough task master, appropriate for people who lead hard, brutal lives. Their “baptismal rite” even requires drowning and resurrection, common themes among some religions here. But also common to us is the belief in an afterlife where things will go a bit smoother for adherents.

And finally, the faith of the Lord of Light. A prophetic religion, it hinges on the story of a “prince who was promised,” (Azor Ahai), who will defeat the dark, icy, supernatural beasts of the far north with fire. The fight between good and evil (and the fervor of those who subscribe to that belief) are certainly pulled from Earthly relationships to religion. But I’d go further to argue that religions need stories, particularly those about saviors and personal identity, to survive.

Pesach might well be one of the strongest stories about the Jewish people. It bound us together—raising us from slaves and desert dwellers to a community with a purpose. It gave us a god, it gave us laws to live by, and it gave us a prophet, Moses, who would lead us to our homeland. Pesach is about when death “passed over” us, and for the first time we had a viable future, which has carried us for millennia, so not too shabby. 😛

I wouldn’t go so far to say that Pesach is a story about “good vs evil,” but rather the forging of a new community. We never aspired to be perfect. Our prophet, Moses, was so flawed that he was not even allowed to enter the Holy Land after 40 years of leading the people. This sense of bittersweet hope and futility makes my religion seem more real to me, something that more accurately describes the ups and downs of life. The point of the story is the journey. I can’t tell you which Westerosi religion agrees with that ideal, but I think that’s the purpose of the fantasy opus Martin is writing around them, as is the purpose of all great literature.

“Game of Thrones” season two is currently airing on HBO, Sunday nights at 9 pm EST. And for my fellow Jews, enjoy the Counting of the Omer, as we commemorate the “journey” between our Exodus from Egypt to the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Talk about a holiday that is really celebrating a narrative story. 😛

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1 Comment »

  1. […] up from where last I left off on Game of Thrones and religion, I question some broader themes and cite specific examples instead of looking at George R. R. […]


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