Watching Game of Thrones as a Christian

I once called Game of Thrones “torture porn” and refused to watch it. I had tried, several times, to watch it and it was filled with blood, gore, nudity, and sex — not something a Christian should engage with. The first time I tried to watch it I was on an airplane. I had it on my iPad and became mindful of a kid in the aisle seat one row back and across watching what I was watching. I had to turn it off. I was certain it was bad for my sanctification.

Last April, when I was in the hospital trying not to die, I got moved out of the ICU and placed on the cardiac floor. By at least 30 years I had to be the youngest person on the floor and the late twenty-something nurse at night decided I needed to stay up and watch Game of Thrones with him. I had been staying up watching Adult Swim. Despite protesting, the nurse turned it on and I was soon drawn into the show. Though there was a good bit of violence, the nudity had largely been left behind in the first season or so and we were beyond that.

With the run up to the premiere of season seven of Game of Thrones, I have seen several friends circulate this rather convicting piece from John Piper on watching Game of Thrones. And he largely leaves no room except to conclude that one should not watch it — at least had I started watching in Season 1.

Coming from a position of thinking it rather hard for a Christian to watch something like this, I have arrived at the position that I think it depends on why one is watching. Surely if one is watching for the nudity or violence then it would be terrible for one’s sanctification. Even now I watch Game of Thrones on a delay so I can fast forward through anything I think inappropriate.

The reason I watch Game of Thrones now is that I think it is probably the best scripted show on television. Daredevil Season 1 comes close to really capturing humanity in a similar way, but I see in Game of Thrones a lot of great morality tales woven together into a larger theme.

The good guy does not always win. The saint is often martyred while the sinner prevails. Evil marches ever closer and infiltrates while people deny it even exists. But there is a long running, simmering view that the bad will one day get their due. It is not just winter coming, but judgment.

Most shows on television foundationally believe in good people sometimes doing bad things. Game of Thrones had a lot of bad people often doing good things for bad reasons. It has good people doing bad things. And often it has the best people doing the best things only to wind up dead. There is a realism in the fantastic that more accurately captures the depraved nature of man than most shows. I cannot emphasize enough how well written the show is and how well the characters have developed over time.

I agree completely that watching Game of Thrones is not for everyone. I know people who at one time were obsessed with pornography and it has been a slow climb out of the sewer for them. I do not recommend they watch it. I know others who cannot take the sight of blood at all and I do not recommend they watch it. And I know Christians who are convinced watching Game of Thrones will send them straight to hell. I disagree, but I do not encourage them to watch it.

Were Game of Thrones to keep up the nudity and violence of the first season, I have no doubt I would not have been able to get into watching it. But the show changed over time as did my opinion of the show. Now I am excited to watch it and find that many of those most critical of it are people who have either never seen it or tuned out, like I did, in the first season unable to stomach it.

I see no harm in not watching it and see harm, with some, in watching it. But for many, even among Christians, I think they are on safe ground watching it if they are not just seeking the cheap thrills of violence and sex. Of course, your mileage may vary. But no, I do not think at this late stage in the great game it is bad for my sanctification. I think the show, at its core, is a good reminder that this world is fleeting, evil exists, and real redemption cannot come from man.

Christians in a Post-Christian Nation – The Benedict Option

American orthodox Christians are besieged. We are inhabiting an increasingly secular society in which atheism is at record levels. The Sexual Revolution has culminated in rampant divorce, millions of aborted children, and pervasive consumption of pornography. The LGBT movement has succeeded in winning the acceptance of mainstream society, and is seeking to cast conservative Christians out of polite society one wedding cake at a time.

Western civilization is entering a post-Christian Dark Age, argues Rod Dreher in his controversial and popular new book, The Benedict Option. This diagnosis is not just based on recent events like the 2016 election or the Obergefell decision, but on a steady decline of Christianity in the West over hundreds of years.

How are orthodox Christians (the author includes Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and conservative protestants) supposed to live in such dark times? Dreher finds his answer in St. Benedict and his rules for monastic living.

During the last days of the Roman Empire, Benedict traveled around Italy establishing insulated Christian communities, or monasteries, which provided a nucleus from which Christian civilization could survive the lawless barbarity then engulfing Europe. “These monasteries kept faith and learning alive within their walls, evangelized barbarian peoples, and taught them how to pray, to read, to plant crops, and to build things.”

“Benedict’s example gives us hope today,” Dreher continues, “because it reveals what a small cohort of believers….can accomplish” through living out their faith in Christ.

One of the main arguments hurled against Dreher’s Benedict Option is his apparent argument for Christians to forsake the secular world. How can we square Christ’s commission to make disciples of all nations with a call to retreat from society? Buying hundreds of acres in Montana, constructing a wall, and building the ideal Christian society is the stuff of Kool-Aid drinking doomsday cults.

This criticism, however, betrays someone who has not read past the book cover. “The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world,” Dreher points out, “but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is.” Instead of calling on Christians to form communes, Dreher is simply asking Christians to question how they participate in mainstream culture. After diagnosing the current state of modern society and reviewing the history of St. Benedict, Dreher spends the last two-thirds of the book addressing how modern Christians should approach politics, church, family, community, education, careers, sexuality, and technology.

In all of these areas, Dreher persuasively argues how modern Western society is based on ideas that run in direct opposition to Christianity. Drawing from the wisdom of St. Benedict and modern day monks, he gives strategies and resources for Christians to consider.

In politics, Dreher suggests that Christians focus less on the traditional fights in which groups like the Christian Coalition or Moral Majority have long engaged. “Benedict Option politics begin with the recognition that Western society is post-Christian and that absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future.” Instead, Christians should narrow their attention to matters of religious liberty. A robust First Amendment will give Christians breathing room to create their own institutions and society separate from larger secular one.

Two of the strongest chapters concern education and technology. After demonstrating the failure of public schools to appropriately pass on Western and Christian values to new generations, Dreher introduces the reader to the Classical Christian education model which is exploding across the country. He also addresses the negative effect that pervasive technology is having on our faith and family, and discusses ways in which Christians should consider restructuring their lives away from constant entertainment and immersion in pop culture.

Chapter by chapter, Dreher raises important questions and gives wise solutions to American Christians who may find themselves adrift. We must, he argues, reevaluate the assumption that a Christian can order his or her life towards Christ while also going along with mainstream culture.

But while Dreher’s message for modern Christians is a good one, it is certainly not new.

The Bible makes clear that Christians will find themselves at odds with the world. “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as ts own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world,” Jesus says in John 15:19.

In Romans 12:2, Paul also warns Christians, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

In Chapter 1 of The Benedict Option, Dreher likens the current trends of secularism, consumerism, materialism, and promiscuity to the Great Flood.

“Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to … stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”

Dreher invokes apocalyptic language to describe a society entering a new Dark Age. To be sure, recent cultural developments are discouraging, and the shattering of any American moral consensus over the last fifty years will challenge the American church in new ways. Secular, mainstream culture has always been broken, though. Christians have always inhabited a fallen world.

The storm has always raged. It may seem darker, the thunder more powerful, and the lightning more piercing than ever before, but it is still the same storm.

And our ark was, is, and will always be Jesus Christ.

When viewed in light of Scripture and 2,000 years of church history, the Benedict Option isn’t an option at all. It is a command to every Christian.

Cars 3 is Satisfying Redemption

Don’t question the Cars universe. It is what it is–if you can’t make the jump then don’t see Cars 3 (and you probably won’t anyway). But if you do enter in, you’ll be treated to a more human, more realistic, more redeeming film than many human, non-animated, grown-up films in theaters.

Cars 3 is a satisfying redemption of the Cars series, especially given the mixed-up unfunny comic spy disaster of Cars 2. But I think John Lasseter may have relied more on Planes: Fire & Rescue as inspiration for the emotional tone of the latest Cars film than the original 2006 version. This is definitely an adult kids movie, but there’s plenty for the kids.

I took my 7- and 6-year-old boys to see it along with my wife on Thursday night. We walked out slack-jawed, staying until the very last credit rolled (if you do, you’ll be rewarded).

The graphics are beyond stunning. Pixar has taken animated filmmaking to a new level–a summit that may have no higher peak–with its photorealistic (hyperrealistic, really) backgrounds, settings, and action. The cars may be cartoon characters, but everything else is as real as if they shot it on location. I don’t know–maybe they did and somehow stitched it into the movie, but whatever Pixar did, it worked.

It wasn’t distracting at all. If anything, it added to the realism of the movie. And yes, the movie is as real as it gets. Emotionally, thematically, and story-wise, Cars 3 delivers the goods.

(WARNING: Mild spoilers below.)

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is facing a kind of midlife crisis. A new generation of faster racers is on the scene, and McQueen can’t keep up. He wrecks in pursuit of his young nemesis Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). From there, the movie takes what could be a sappy predictable route, except it doesn’t.

After Rust-eze is sold to a billionaire intent on building a top-notch racing team, McQueen meets his trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). There’s a Rocky III feel here, and if writer-director Brian Fee went that way, it could have been a fair movie for youngsters. Instead, we veer off into The Color of Money, complete with Paul Newman

In fact, Cars 3 credits Newman with the Doc Hudson role, 9 years after his death, To go further into that juxtaposition would spoil the plot more than I’d like to. Suffice to say that Tom Cruise running from hustlers has nothing on Ramirez running from Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria).

The story of McQueen traveling back to the very real NASCAR’s north Georgia roots (the fictional “Thomasville” is really Dawsonville, Georgia–ironically though there is a real Thomasville in Georgia) and its cast of old racers led by Doc Hudson’s own mentor, Smokey (Chris Cooper), is as real as any sophisticated grown-up movie. And we also revisit the Radiator Springs characters, who thankfully stay in character. Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) has a great part, without overdoing it.

There’s no hamming it up or overacting in Cars 3, with the possible exception of Chick Hicks (Bob Peterson), who reprises his original role but in a whole new, obnoxious way. The movie just flows inside the river banks, with a few twists and turns so you don’t exactly know where the river ends up.

And the ending is definitely refreshing.

From here, Pixar could make more movies in the Cars universe if they so desired. Or they could wrap the whole thing and lose not a hair of integrity.

With Cars 3, the makers of the Toy Story trilogy have pulled off what Lasseter and Hanks couldn’t: a redeeming, satisfying package that might not be the end at all.

A Great Backpack for Photographers

I just spent a week in northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Over the past year, my wife insisted I needed a hobby other than cooking, so she signed me up for a photography class. I fell in love with it and have been investing in both learning and cameras and lenses. I switched from a Canon to Sony’s a7rii camera and now have several very nice lenses too.

Heading to Arizona, I wanted a backpack that could hold all my gear and would be convenient for travel. I actually bought several and sent all of them back except one. This one from Thule.

Thule may not be a company that comes to mind immediately for photography. I actually had not considered it. I was going with Manfrotto. But the Manfrotto bags had more tradeoffs than I wanted and couldn’t hold my 15″ laptop and 12″ iPad Pro. I wanted to take the bag on the plane with those.

The Thule bag did everything I needed and then some. It held four lenses, my camera, a flash, all the batteries, an ND filter, my laptop, my iPad, a magazine, my headphones, pens, etc. It had a top zipper pocket that was easily accessible going through security so I could drop in my keys and wallet. It fit well on my shoulders and had extra straps for hiking. It had a pocket and strap system so I could attach a lightweight Manfrotto tripod to it.

I love this thing. I could also sling it off one shoulder and get access to the camera section of the bag. It also stood up straight making it easy to access the zipper pouch.

Having tried a ton of camera backpacks and messenger bags, this is the one I recommend from personal use. In the Grand Canyon, I even managed to stuff in my kid’s jacket and a bottle of water.

The bag sounds massive, I realize, but it is very compact. It just holds a lot of stuff because it is so well designed. If you need a great travel backpack for a DSLR or mirrorless system, I cannot recommend this enough.

A review: “The Vanishing American Adult”

For months I have been anticipating the release of Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult. As a twenty year-old recent college graduate who is frequently embarrassed by my own generation, I was eager to read Sasse’s analysis. I was not disappointed.

“America’s youth are in crisis,” a brief snippet of the synopsis reads. “Raised by well-meaning but overprotective parents and coddled by well-meaning but misbegotten government programs, they are ill-equipped to survive in our highly-competitive global economy.”

“Many of the coming-of-age rituals that have defined the American experience since the Founding: learning the value of working with your hands, leaving home to start a family, becoming economically self-reliant–are being delayed or skipped altogether. The statistics are daunting: 30% of college students drop out after the first year, and only 4 in 10 graduate. One in three 18-to-34 year-olds live with their parents.”

I finished the book in one day, and was amazed at how relevant Sasse’s analysis is. From the beginning, Sasse makes it clear that the book is not “political.” It was refreshing to read a book addressing the problems in today’s society without being sucker-punched by the author’s political beliefs.

As a historian myself, I found great interest in Sasse’s discussion on some on the economic, educational, and societal changes our country has faced since the American Civil War.

Sasse does an excellent job discussing some of the problems of the American education system, pointing out that there is an important distinction to be made between “education” and “schooling.” I’ll have three degrees at the age of twenty-three, but after reading Senator Sasse’s book I took the time to analyze how my experiences in higher education has differed from my “schooling.” Sasse discusses some of his wife’s personal experiences as a teacher in the public school system, and how they helped shape some of the ways they parent.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking point of Sasse’s book is his discussion of the “segregation” of children and the elderly. Sasse points out that the elderly often go to retirement homes after they reach a certain age, and there is little to no interaction between society’s wisest and its children. As someone who spent a lot of time around my elderly family members as a child, I had not previously considered that the same cannot be said for most of my peers.

Other topics discussed by Sasse include parenthood, higher education, mortality (yes, you read that correctly), sex, and the economic decline of our nation. 

“Our democracy depends on responsible, contributing adults to function properly–without them America falls prey to populist demagogues,” the synopsis concludes. “A call to arms, The Vanishing American Adult will ignite a much-needed debate about the link between the way we’re raising our children and the future of our country.”

I couldn’t agree more.

You can purchase Senator Sasse’s book here

Sony Alpha: The Star Eater

If you follow me on Instagram you’ll notice it is both the one place I rarely engage in politics and also one of my hobbies has increasingly become astrophotography. I sit out in the quiet of the night and take pictures of the stars, nebulas, and planets. The picture above is one I took of the Orion nebula with a Canon 70D attached to my telescope. I’m just starting out and have a lot to learn. One thing I have learned already is that the Sony alpha series of cameras has been badly screwed up by Sony.

I have a Sony a7rii. I had a Canon 70D and once I got comfortable I realized that you date your cameras and marry your lenses. I already have an expensive Sony E-mount lens for an FS7 video camera so I figured I would move over to Sony for photography. I have not been disappointed except in astrophotography. But the disappointment leads to a greater concern with Sony.

Back before digital, photographers used film. Film had negative prints that were then used to render photographs. Fiddling with the negatives in various ways could enhance the picture in various ways. The digital equivalent is the RAW file. A RAW file captures all the information a digital camera sensor records and that file can be manipulated to pull out color from shadows or tone down exposure. The RAW should serve as a digital negative, giving you exactly what the camera sees.

Unfortunately, Sony has updated their popular alpha series of cameras. The result is that stars get eaten.

Sony, through a firmware update, placed an algorithm in its cameras that registers sharp, bright, small stars as hot pixels and tries to erase them. That would not be a problem if Sony just did this with a jpeg image file. But Sony has sought to do this in the RAW files, altering the RAW image itself, which is unusual in digital photography. The result is that many crisp photos of the night sky are now muddied and diminished. Sony’s algorithm confuses stars for hot pixels and erases them from the night sky.

This had just been a problem on long exposures on the “bulb” setting, but more recently Sony has carried the algorithm over to any exposure from 4 seconds and above on any setting. It may yield some great day time shots, but it renders the camera unusable at night.

That is unfortunate. I really love the a7rii. I hope they release an a9 version with sLog and I will gladly upgrade. But I cannot use my Sony camera at night for long exposures. The details I might otherwise capture are lost to an algorithm Sony told no one about and for which they provide no way to turn off. That is disappointing.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Very Funny, But the First Was Better

I took my kids to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and wish I had not. The jokes were more crude, the dick jokes more voluminous, and the sex talk greater than the first. The movie doubled down on the crudity and amped up the profanity to deliver as many laughs per minute as possible at the expense of plot points and consistency.

It was a very funny money. Chris Pratt does a great job as does Bradley Cooper as Rocket the Raccoon. The star is Baby Groot.

This second part is more focused on family building, both Peter Quill finding his father and the Guardians realizing they are a family. Unfortunately, the exposition on this takes up more movie than necessary and the movie lacks the depth of the first movie. This one is superficially entertaining and superficially funny. Nicole Perlman wrote the first movie and was superseded by James Gunn, who both revised the script and directed it.

Volume 2 is all James Gunn and we get a sense of what Nicole Perlman must have contributed by what is not there. What isn’t there? Moments that were all necessary. Great portions of this second movie could have been left on the cutting room floor.

The ending wanted to be the ending to the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, where for thirty minutes the movie said goodbye in various scenes. Same here.

The movie is worth seeing and 3D, as usual, is not necessary. You will laugh throughout. But you won’t leave the theater glad you saw it there and running home to pre-order it in iTunes.

My kids, eight and eleven, both agreed it was funny, but not nearly as good or entertaining as the first one. They also both agreed it had some really inappropriate moments and unnecessary language inappropriate for kids.

Honestly, though, the worst part was the pre-show. It was what more and more theaters are playing before movies, highlighting various shows on Hulu, TNT, etc. It was completely inappropriate for all the kids in the crowd. The level of sex, violence, odes to lesbianism, etc. were off the charts and make me wonder if I’ll be able to take my kids into movies in the future. Increasingly, I think not, or we’ll have to go claim our seats and then leave till the previews start.

This is what our local movie theater showed before what was billed as a kid friendly film. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, at least, was less explicit and funnier. It still could have been more appropriate. But it was enjoyable and the kids laughed throughout, even at the cartoonish violence.

This one is worth seeing, but you can wait for iTunes.

How We Monitor Our Kids’ Internet Usage

I get asked this question a lot and I have been heavily recommending others do what we have started doing. We got the Circle from Disney. It is super-duper easy to set up, let’s us monitor our kids time on devices, and even lets us provide restrictions and bonuses.

The Circle plugs into a wall outlet. Using an app on your phone, you connect it to your wifi. Then, as devices connect to your wifi, Circle detects each of them. You designate each device by its user or, if everyone uses it, by your home. Once you have the devices your kids use assigned to your kids, you can set limits. Those limits can be either or both total time limits or total time limits per app. So, for example, we allow our kids several hours on their devices a day, but we restrict how much of that time can be dedicated to YouTube Kids and Netflix. We then can set parental guards on top of that so even when they get into, for example, YouTube or surfing the web, the sites they can access are restricted.

You can even set time limits for things like Instagram, Minecraft, Snapchat, etc.

What’s more, Circle integrates with other apps. So, for example, if you use ChoreMonster to assign your kids chores, as they complete the chores you can give them more time on their Xbox, iPad, laptop, smartphone, etc. And it does work across devices. Circle can regulate the host of Apple products, an Xbox, Playstation, Wii, and any other device that connects to your internet.

I highly, highly recommend it. Even if you don’t want to add time or app restrictions, you can go into the app and see what your kids are actually doing and which websites they are connecting to. These days, parents really do have to keep an eye on what their kids are doing online because of how easy it is to get into something not appropriate for them.

Circle makes it very easy and I cannot recommend it enough. You can order it via Amazon here.