George R.R. Martin surely struck gold when he began writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted'” (Luke 18:9-14).

Marin’s volumes have been translated into more than 20 languages and have sold millions of copies, but the real success has come from the screen. The HBO series Game of Thrones has turned this category of fantasy novels into a global phenomenon. According to philosophy professor Eric J. Silverman, the show’s success lies in its exploration of an important philosophical question: Is virtue a sure path to happiness, or does finding happiness mean abandoning traditional moral values?

What would Machiavelli do?

G.R.R. Martin’s imaginary world is complex, fierce, lacking in moral balance, and populated by corrupt and unpredictable characters. Most of his heroes are not paragons of virtue because, as Silverman appreciates, the American author has avoided clichés about happiness and created characters who are so much like us. Contrary to the fairy-tale model, the virtuous hero—Lord Stark—doesn’t overcome all difficulties and live happily ever after. On the contrary, he literally loses his head pretty quickly. Those who persevere in the struggle for power, on the other hand, are unprincipled. Lord Baelish, one of the book’s Machiavellian characters, tells Stark at one point: “You wear your honour like a suit of armour… You think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move”.

In a corrupt world, the virtuous hero appears as a freak doomed to failure.

“You are an honest and honourable man”, Lord Varys says to the same Lord Stark. “Ofttimes I forget that. I have met so few of them in my life.”

The conspiratorial nature of the game of thrones is reminiscent of the title of a book by Stanley Bing: What Would Machiavelli Do? What would the famous Florentine diplomat and philosopher do in some of life’s most varied and challenging circumstances? Bing’s answer is brief and comprehensive: Machiavelli would do whatever was necessary to achieve his goal. “He would fire his own mother, if necessary”. In fact, both Martin’s heroes and Machiavelli’s political treatise, Il Principe, lead to the same recipe for success in life: elbow your way to success.

A materialistic world

In the 1980s, Madonna made her mark as a pop star with the hit Material Girl. The song’s chorus—”We are living in a material world / And I am a material girl / You know that we are living in a material world…”—spoke to young people about a girl for whom a life of luxury was more important than relationships based on honesty and pure emotion. The decades that followed only reinforced the materialistic culture. Surveys regularly and consistently show that people dream of winning the lottery, having better paid jobs and enjoying as much of what life has to offer as possible. In the words of Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism, today “happiness can be purchased at the mall, online or from a catalogue”. An individual’s state of well-being depends on his or her wallet or card.

Consider the following example. More than a third of American children between the ages of 9 and 14 would rather spend their time shopping than doing anything else. That’s the conclusion of a study cited by the Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media[1], and more than half believe that “when you grow up, the more money you have, the happier you are”. And although, as C.S. Lewis said, “selfishness has never been admired,” it is everywhere. Selfishness, individualism, and consumerism are the new dictators of the world, dictators that no one seems to want “removed from power”.

Don’t be so quick to throw stones!

“I believe I will be happier for having quit teaching. I will make more money. I will have more time. I will no longer sacrifice myself for the sake of others’ children”. These words are part of the poignant testimony of a former high school teacher in the US state of Georgia. After seven years of teaching, of giving her heart and soul to the process of educating younger generations, Jordan Kohanim gave up and surrendered her guns. She quit her job and went into a field that provides financial satisfaction. The reason? She was fed up with the crookedness of a system in which those with financial resources gave their children “unfair advantages”.

“This was not a decision I came to lightly, and I did not feel triumphant making it. To be frank, I never felt more defeated in my life“.

Defeat, yes, is the feeling many people have in a society where politicians talk about building a world based on values, but fight like hyenas for influence, positions, and money, and where even religious leaders, who preach about seeking the Kingdom of God, contradict each other with the same rush for hierarchical positions and money. And while on paper, in ethics manuals or books on how to live a happy life, materialism and selfishness can easily be condemned, in real life stories like Jordan’s show us that sometimes circumstances can defeat the individual. There are good people who have lost their innocence in the face of the tide of evil and corruption, and in turn have been caught up in the grind.

The Ring of Gyges

An ancient Greek legend tells of a shepherd named Gyges who, after an earthquake, entered a deep cave and found a golden ring with magical powers. The ring makes the wearer invisible. Gyges soon realises its benefits and uses the ring to fulfil his ambitions. He seduces the queen of Lydia and takes the throne by taking the king’s life. After all, wouldn’t he be a fool not to seize the opportunity? In fact, what reason would any of us have to be a moral person if there were no negative consequences?

What is an opportunist if not a person who sees the right opportunity and takes it, who elbows their way in, who hides behind the curtains and comes out at the right moment, who spins their web and waits for their victim to fall into it?

We find them everywhere, from Shakespeare’s characters to those in Disney cartoons, from the workplace to the next-door neighbour, sometimes even in the bosom of one’s own family or even in the mirror. They fight for money, or influence, or social advancement, or fame.

For many of these opportunists, elbowing their way is an attitude and state of mind, before it becomes a way or a method. And who can blame them if this is the way of the world? Family, friends, circumstances, and life as a whole have taught them (and us) that happiness, well-being and success in life depend on money and possessions. Which of us, if given the ring of Gyges, would find reasons and spiritual resources to act differently from the mythical shepherd?

Two men worship

Jesus’s famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to worship tells of two opportunists. The tax collector, like all tax collectors, had used his job to enrich himself at the expense of the poor. The Pharisee, though he passed for a spiritual man in the eyes of the common people, belonged to a social group that Jesus described as people “who loved money” and were hypocritical (Luke 16:14). In their own way, both were just opportunists, neither better than the other.

The surprise comes at the end of the story. The person who seemed to be the most corrupt and who, even in the eyes of the world, was no longer an honourable man—like the Pharisee—sees himself before God as he really is: a worthless man, miserable in spite of his wealth gained by stealing. The awareness of this reality shakes his being and challenges him to change. The opportunistic tax collector goes home “justified”. So what? Does justification pay the bills?

Mr Hollywood resigns

“Then, when He saw that the guests were taking the places of honour at the table, He told them a parable. So He said to them, ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat”. Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place”. Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted'” (Luke 14:7-11).

You might think that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person to give up position, money, and influence for a righteousness that belongs to the “age to come”. But the world is full of surprises…

Scott Neeson[2] had a salary of over a million dollars, a yacht, the latest cars and a luxury mansion in Beverly Hills. He had started from scratch, but by pushing himself and taking advantage of every opportunity, he managed to make a name for himself and a future in the glamorous world of film, eventually working for the famous 20th Century Fox studios. He went on to become a vice president at Sony Pictures, working with A-list stars Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford, and his life seemed enviable. Then one day Scott went on holiday.

“I’m going on a tour of Asia to relax,” said the man the media dubbed “Mr Hollywood”. Once in Cambodia, Scott was struck by the poverty of the place. The sight of children living around rubbish dumps like rats struck a chord he didn’t know he had. “I have so much and they have so little,” he thought. And he decided to help some of them. But which ones to choose and which ones to leave? Back home, without finishing his tour of Asia, Scott started a project to build a home for poor children in Cambodia. A year later, he quit his job, said goodbye to Hollywood and invested his money in a foundation whose mission is to provide food, clothing, shelter, and education for Cambodian children. By 2012, more than 1200 children had benefited from his help. Today, Scott says he doesn’t miss Hollywood. Sometimes he goes back just to raise money from generous donors, then returns to his charity work. The days when he was one of those who flocked to the places of honour seem so far away.

The conversion of the “Milwaukee Cannibal”

Jeffrey Dahmer is perhaps one of the most heinous serial killers in US history. When he was arrested in 1991 on charges of murder, paedophilia, necrophilia and cannibalism, the public was reluctant to believe that the charges against Dahmer were true. And yet they were. Between 1978 and 1991, Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys, in some cases going so far as to dismember the bodies of those he killed and consume parts of their flesh.

In prison, Dahmer asked to be given a Bible. He read it, and as the inspired thoughts of Scripture flooded his mind, Dahmer became a different man. He was converted. An important role in his conversion was played by Pastor Roy Ratcliff, who visited him regularly and talked to him about Christ. Dahmer eventually decided to be baptised and confessed his remorse for his crimes. The public did not react well to the news of the Milwaukee Cannibal’s repentance and conversion. Some were reluctant. A “beast” like Dahmer couldn’t sincerely repent.

Others were downright angry, arguing that Dahmer had no right to repent and ask for salvation. In fact, one member of the church Ratcliff pastored bluntly stated, “If Jeffrey Dahmer is going to heaven, then I don’t want to be there”.

In the book Dark Journey, Deep Grace, in which he tells Jeffrey’s harrowing story and of his conversion, Pastor Ratcliff writes: “How can a Christian hold that viewpoint? I don’t understand it. Does it come from a misunderstanding of the forgiveness of sin? Is forgiveness limited to those who are not very bad after all? Is there no joy in knowing that a sinner has turned to God?”[3]

Dahmer died in prison as a result of fatal blows from another inmate. When Ratcliff officiated at the funeral on 2 December 1994, he said, “Jeff confessed to me his great remorse for his crimes. He wished he could do something for the families of his victims to make it right, but there was nothing he could do. He turned to God because there was no one else to turn to, but he showed great courage in his daring to ask the question, ‘Is heaven for me too?’ I think many people are resentful of him for asking that question. But he dared to ask and he dared to believe the answer.”[4]

This is the miracle of God’s grace. A man who had received 15 life sentences could be justified and invited to sit in the places of honour, even though by human standards and laws such a man would have no rights.

Have they lost their minds?

What conclusion can be drawn from the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee and the parable of the Great Banquet? When a person repents of the wrong he or she has done and decides to live a new life by God’s grace, that person is placed in front of many who, like the Pharisee, believe they are entitled to the places of honour, but who, in God’s eyes, do not actually deserve them.

Everyone remembers the “cannibal” on the cross who asked Jesus to remember him in paradise. By human standards, he would have had no right to such a request either. Yet Jesus accepted his repentance and promised him eternity. At the same time, the cross was crowded with scribes, priests and Pharisees who couldn’t care less about the robber (or Jesus). Will they end up in Paradise too?

There is an interesting verse in Revelation: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge” (Revelation 20:4).

Should the tax collector judge the Pharisee? Should Jeffrey Dahmer judge the members of Pastor Ratcliff’s church? According to the verse quoted, this is possible (and astonishing!).

It is not only the temporary riches or fleeting successes of life that depend on elbowing your way in, but also the eternal destiny of each person. Justification may not pay the bills in this life. But it is certainly the key to the next. And it’s not worth missing out on paradise just because the thief on the cross will be there as well.

[1]“Juliet B. Schor, ‘Consumerism’, Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media, edited by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Sage Publications, 2007, pp. 216-217.”
[2]“Carlos Greer, Alicia Dennis, ‘Scott Neeson Left Hollywood to Save Kids in Cambodia’s Slums’, www., 7 February 2013.”
[3]“Roy Ratcliff, Lindy Adams, ‘Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Journey of Faith’, Leafwood Publishers, 2006.”

“Juliet B. Schor, ‘Consumerism’, Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media, edited by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Sage Publications, 2007, pp. 216-217.”
“Carlos Greer, Alicia Dennis, ‘Scott Neeson Left Hollywood to Save Kids in Cambodia’s Slums’, www., 7 February 2013.”
“Roy Ratcliff, Lindy Adams, ‘Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Journey of Faith’, Leafwood Publishers, 2006.”