Be Good, for Goodness Sake

The story of St. Nicholas is a reminder to us of how much the stories we tell matter

Ilya Repin (1844-1930), “Saint Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocent Men From Death”
Ilya Repin (1844-1930), “Saint Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocent Men From Death” (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

The legends of St. Nicholas are many, but one of the most delightful concerns him punching Arius on the nose at the Council of Nicea.

Except that (as Steven Greydanus reminded everyone a few years back) it didn’t quite go like that. If it happened, it probably wasn’t Arius who got punched; the punch was probably actually a slap; and — depending on whom you ask — it may not have been commendable of St. Nicholas to take matters into his own hands (literally).

But the story is still delightful, for several reasons. In the first place, its development from a 14th-century legend into a 21st-century meme shows ho, a good story gets better in the hands of Editor Time. In the second place, the corruption of the story is ironically recursive, inasmuch as St. Nicholas supposedly slapped an Arian over a corruption of the Gospel story.

Arius argued that Christ was of a similar substance to the Father (homoiousios), while the orthodox party argued that Christ was of the same substance as the Father (homoousios). The argument has major implications: if Christ is not of the same substance as the Father, he cannot be God.  A single vowel in Greek — the iota — distinguishes orthodoxy and heresy.

But iota (Anglicized to “jot”) is a little letter, and easily slips the mind. (Louis de Wohl includes a hilarious scene in one of his novels in which the antagonist Empress practices pronouncing homoiousios and homoousios in her bath to determine which sounds better, before casting her lot in with the Arians.) Falling into the habit of putting the tiniest little spin on one’s facts — just enough to impress one’s audience — is wickedly easy.

Wickedly easy. Thomas Aquinas argues that “a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind” (Summa Theologiae,  Aquinas’s case depends on Augustine’s analysis of human words as signs and ultimately reflections of the divine Word. Thus, a human being who lies, letting the word that proceeds from his lips distort the word in his mind, perverts the analogy of the perfect procession of the Son from the Father.  Every lie, every false jot, is a little blasphemy.

But it is tempting, in the service of the greater good, to neglect the jots that seem to injure our own case. For example:

Recently the actress Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones, Me Before You) gave an interview. Since Clarke had a negative experience filming some early scenes in Game of Thrones, Catholic outlets picked up on her remarks — but only on the brief negative portion. If you listen to the whole podcast (here: language/content warning), Clarke sounds as if she mostly enjoyed her experience on the show, regardless of its more risqué scenes. As she puts it, contrasting her younger self with her experienced self, “I’ve seen enough now to know what is actually needed.”  She also adds that, despite her discomfort in filming some early scenes, she was “protected by the show … in terms of the storytelling being at a very high level …”  Both the two interviewers and Clarke agree that judicious nudity is sometimes essential: in Clarke’s words: “it sort of makes it real, doesn’t it?” or, as her male interviewer says, “we’ve established the truth of the thing, the rules of it.”  Clarke replies: “Yeah.  And when I did the last nudity that I did for the show (which was walking through the fire the second time round) — yeah, I was like, ‘I am owning this, this is mine, they’ve asked me to do it, and you know what, I’m ... game.’”

In sum, Clarke focuses on the positive changes she feels have come to the film industry in the last 10 years. This is very different from the focus of the two articles where I first learned of Clarke’s interview; these focused on her crying in the bathroom, leaving the reader a very different picture of her attitude vis-à-vis GoT and morally dicey films in general.

Perhaps I am making heavy weather over a jot — and it is a jot which, after all, changes the story, making it simpler and more digestible. But less digestible stories are often true — and, once digested, they may prove more compelling and nourishing than standard pabulum.

Take this story, for example.

Moira Greyland is the daughter of Marion Bradley, who wrote the bestselling and recently filmed Mists of Avalon (based on the King Arthur legend). Greyland has recently begun speaking out against her parents’ abuse (here: content warning). Greyland writes:

My observation of my father and mother’s actual belief is this: since everyone is naturally gay, it is the straight establishment that makes everyone hung up and therefore limited. Sex early will make people willing to have sex with everyone, which will bring about the utopia while eliminating homophobia and helping people become ‘who they really are.’ It will also destroy the hated nuclear family with its paternalism, sexism, ageism (yes, for pedophiles, that is a thing) and all other ‘isms.’ If enough children are sexualized young enough, gayness will suddenly be ‘normal’ and accepted by everyone, and the old fashioned notions about fidelity will vanish. As sex is integrated as a natural part of every single relationship, the barriers between people will vanish, and the utopia will appear, as ‘straight culture”’goes the way of the dinosaur. As my mother used to say: ‘Children are brainwashed into believing they don’t want sex.’

Setting aside Greyland’s larger thesis, the basic point, upon which Greyland and her parents both agree(d), is that habituation is huge.  Children’s upbringing — in every area — has tremendous consequences for the rest of their lives. And trauma has tremendous consequences for everyone, children of course, but also teenagers and people in their twenties and thirties and … all of us.

Returning to Emilia Clarke, I think her testimony could contain a strong case for implicating Game of Thrones in cultural degradation — but it wouldn’t be the case found in the hot takes. The real case against GoT is not that Clarke felt pressured into doing her early scenes, but that she owns her final ones.  larke focuses on the lack of agency and the undue persuasion she felt as a young actress; she doesn’t draw the conclusion — though Moira Greyland could probably draw it for her — that those experiences may have colored the way she views morality today.

That’s a complex story, and “Clarke Finds Minor Flaws in GoT Filming” is not a catchy headline. But one complex truth is worth a hundred Santa Claus Punched Arius Memes.

Just ask the Jolly Old Elf himself, who — whether he even slapped an Arian or not — would almost certainly agree with Augustine and Aquinas on the importance of distinguishing truth from fiction, down to the last jot.