Religion has played an increasingly significant part in Season 5 of the HBO series Game of Thrones, with the ‘Faith Militant’ taking over the reins of power at King’s Landing, mostly unopposed. Yet Internet discussions indicate that some viewers have found this storyline unsatisfying, as the Sparrows are depicted as crazed religious fanatics, piously obsessed with driving out vice and immorality from the city. George R. R. Martin has described his inspiration for the Sparrows’ rise to power and reforming zeal as the Protestant Reformation, while also drawing on his own Roman Catholic upbringing, in conceptualizing the broader background of the Faith of the Seven in Westeros. Commentators have suggested that the Sparrows’ storyline might be more compelling if the motivations of the Faith Militant were portrayed more in terms of a grassroots religious revival movement, emerging out of protest against the inequality, violence, and corruption pervading Westeros. Perhaps. But what is also missing – at least in the HBO series (I haven’t read the books) – is any depiction of the Sparrows’ sense of a relationship with God or the divine (specifically here ‘the Seven’) and how this relationship then motivates their actions.
This absence of the divine in the portrayal of the Faith Militant maybe reflects the fact that God is something of a taboo in contemporary society, far more so than sex or violence, as sociologist of religion, Linda Woodhead, has commented in her research on religion in modern Britain. But, perhaps surprisingly, God has also been largely missing as an actor in both the sociology and the anthropology of religion. This is in part, as anthropologist Jon Bialecki has noted, due to social scientific disciplinary presumptions of ‘methodological atheism’, which, for the purpose of study, takes religious concepts and figures to be human externalizations, and brackets out the possibility of their having a divine referent. Within the sociology of religion, the study of God and sacred figures as social actors has mostly been avoided, out of concerns that this raises metaphysical questions beyond the empirical limits of the subject. Meanwhile in anthropology, relations with sacred figures have often been constructed as fetishistic in colonial encounters. Thus there has been a tendency in both disciplines to treat deities and sacred figures as projections of human needs, or as epiphenomena of broader social and economic processes, or to ignore questions concerning transcendental orientations altogether. Yet relations with supernatural beings are amenable to social scientific study, since they are always inevitably mediated by actions, symbols, gestures, rituals, and other things we can examine. In fact in recent years, there has been a growing interest among anthropologists in how individuals relate to the divine or transcendental.
This growing body of literature opens up an important direction for work in the broader study of religion, since to really understand the experience of faith means engaging with people’s different forms of sociality with sacred figures. This doesn’t mean entering into theological speculation. Rather, it suggests recognizing that any empirical account of religious lives, concerned with the reality of people’s lived experiences, needs to consider how these relationships with transcendental and sacred figures shape and are shaped by their relationships with other social actors. Also, to explore the material and embodied means by which these relationships are formed and experienced. Understanding the experiences of conservative evangelical Christians, for example, requires attending to their sense of relationship with God. Specifically, how their experience of God as pure coherence can lead them to both desire coherence and to become conscious of forms of subjective fragmentation within themselves, leading them to work to form themselves as oriented towards God and as ‘aliens and strangers’ in the world. This is somewhat different from some charismatic evangelicals’ modes of relationality, in which God is experienced less as a holy ‘Other’ and more as someone ‘who wants to be your friend’ anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann found in her research with the Vineyard movement in Chicago and Northern California.
The Sparrows come across as simplistic stereotypes in Game of Thrones in part because, as viewers, we can’t really understand their motivations, with their relationships with and devotion to the God of Seven bracketed out. Academic portrayals of contemporary religious lifeworlds can also seem flat when they fail to engage with the complex textures of individuals’ experiences of sacred figures in their everyday lives. For example, the ways they experience these characters as making demands of them, offering particular comforts, and exerting pressures on their other social relations. As Robert Orsi argues, many scholars of religion end up feeling somewhat dissatisfied with explanations of religion purely in social terms. This is not because they don’t believe in the value of such analyses, but rather because they fall short of the realness of the phenomena they are attempting to describe in people’s experience. Part of the challenge of the turn towards practice, embodiment and materiality in the sociology of religion is to consider these modes of sociality with sacred figures. A challenge that, as Orsi acknowledges, potentially unsettles established modern binaries of knowing, such as the real and imagined, past and present, and self and other.
Featured image credit: Jonathan Pryce as The High Sparrow, in the HBO series’ Game of Thrones. (c). HBO via Game of Thrones Wiki.