Vanquishing the Vikings … But on TV?

“After remaining quiescent for centuries in the narrow confines of the lands around the Baltic, the peoples of the North suddenly poured forth in a wave of conquering expansion… They had attacked Constantinople and Pisa and North Persia and Moslem Spain, while their settlements and conquests embraced Greenland and Iceland and Russia, as well as Normandy and a great part of England, Ireland and Scotland.”   ∼ Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe

It is certainly true that man cannot live by bread alone; it is equally so that he cannot live without it. Applying that sound principle somewhat loosely, I proposed to my wife this past summer that we watch a little television. “Chewing gum for the eyes,” I told her, quoting the comedian Fred Allen. Or, as they say in Spain, bread and bulls. (Much of TV, of course, is pure bull. And the bread, well, yes, it is a bit thin, isn’t it?) But because I wanted our bread to be buttered with heaps of blood and gore, I decided on Vikings, a series with enough plunder and pillage, mystery and mayhem, to keep the juices flowing for nearly forty episodes. A sure-fire solution for keeping boredom at bay as well.

Now before you pounce on me for philistinism, consigning me to the outer darkness where most television belongs, please know that I’d never even heard of the show, much less been inclined to see it, until I stumbled upon a newspaper column by Bishop Robert Barron warmly recommending it to everyone.

His reasons were strictly theological, by the way, which may be the fig leaf I’m reaching for here to justify our seeing it. What he liked about it, he said, was the fact that everyone in the series was religious. Both the Norsemen who spend an awful lot of time killing and looting, and the hapless English and French who appear no less busy being killed and looted, are completely—indeed, unselfconsciously—religious. “To be sure,” he adds, “they are religious in very different ways, but there is no one who does not take with utter seriousness a connection to a higher, spiritual realm.”

And so, most refreshingly, the spiritual lives of these people were not portrayed in any sort of abstract or merely perfunctory way. They were honestly shown to be in quite deadly earnest about First and Last Things. So central, in fact, was the element of religiosity, so much did it define and pervade their lives, that it was, Barron notes, “regularly embodied in ritual, prayer, procession, liturgy and mystical experience.” It was the medium in which they lived and moved, and they could no more escape from it than they could suddenly jump out of their own skins. From their decidedly pre-modern perspective, it was unthinkable that the universe they inhabited was anything less than a sacred sphere, a place suffused with a sense of the Other.

The Norsemen were not alone in thinking this. Everyone else on the planet did, too. “That God exists, that spiritual powers impinge upon the world, that we live on after we die, that a higher authority judges our deeds—all of this was simply the default of the overwhelming majority of the human race…”

Put it this way: they had not yet been secularized. Which means, of course, that unlike those for whom God is no longer the fire their hearts are warmed by, these were people nourished and sustained by constant contact with the divine, the numinous. Their lives were not “buffered,” to borrow a word used by the philosopher Charles Taylor (whose work Barron cites), describing the mind of modernity in which everything has become so hermetically sealed that even the least whisper of the transcendent cannot be heard. It is, Taylor has argued, the single sundering difference between ourselves and our forebears. Which is that they, our ancestors, “lived in an ‘enchanted’ world, and we do not…” The portals of the pre-modern self were thrown open, in other words, while ours have remained mostly shut.

“I must confess,” says Bishop Barron in his glowing account of the show, “that it was enormously refreshing to watch a program in which every single self was unbuffered.”

Yes, even when they are wreaking the most dreadful havoc upon the Christian folk of Northern Europe. (Achieving levels of butchery requiring an accountant to keep track of….) And on both sides, it should be noted, inasmuch as the series appears to be very insistent in providing equal showings of violence and iniquity. Neither Viking nor Christian, it seems, is to be given a free pass when it comes to the venting of blood and/or lust.

But here, I’m afraid, the writers and producers have shown something of their own highly buffered lives. For instance, the dark side of Viking life, which was really at the heart of the pagan mythos, tends to be balanced by equally bloodthirsty behavior by the Christians, whose frequent lapses into savagery appear no less surprising, or characteristic, than their Viking counterparts. And yet the latter’s display of sheer barbaric brutality in the service of the Norse gods was actually an intrinsic expression of Viking life. They were cruel and rapacious simply as a matter of course. The dark side eclipsed pretty much every other detail and facet of their lives. Period.

And isn’t that just where the deepest point of divergence may be found between the two peoples? Not that Christians were these wonderfully good and gentle souls upon whom the pitiless pirates from the North suddenly fell with unresisting ferocity. But that in a Christian universe there were certain unalterable standards to which all the baptized were expected to conform. It was an ideal whose perfection was to be found in the person and example of Jesus Christ, who actually came down from heaven to live among us. And who, by a special grace given to the Church he formed out of his own body, enjoined everyone to cleave to him as members of that same body. And thus he empowers us to live the life of perfection as he had first shown it to us. The whole point of Christianity, therefore, is to make saints of sinners, turning the wicked unwashed masses into so many heroes of God. Those were not the marching orders of the Viking warriors.

So much then for the distinctiveness of the Christian Story, which scarcely comes across in the series at all. In fact, there is almost nothing in the series, either stated or shown, to identify Christianity as something that might be regarded as morally superior, not to mention eschatologically more satisfying, than the blood and beastliness offered by the Viking alternative. Because, as the show makes abundantly clear, pretty nearly everyone is steeped in blood and beastliness. There are no heroes of God.

Unless, of course, you count the monk Athelstan, who, in one of the earliest episodes we see clutching the gospels to his chest while the Vikings stage their assault upon the inhabitants of Lindisfarne, most of whom they dutifully slaughter while looting and destroying the place. Taken into captivity, he will later turn apostate, only to return in a final embrace of faith at the climactic end of a sword. Not exactly your ideal candidate for canonization.

For all that the show is about the Vikings, why then must it follow that the treatment of Christianity be made to suffer? At almost every turn in the narrative, it seems, the viewer is given the impression that, really, if the religion of Christianity has so little to commend it, why should anyone profess to think it true? Certainly it gives one no apparent leg-up in the salvation sweepstakes. Especially if the exercise of virtue has anything to do with it since most of the Christians we meet are corrupt and avaricious and that only the most cynical appear to succeed. As for signs of genuine holiness, one searches in vain to find them.

At the beginning of Sir Kenneth Clark’s superb television series, Civilization, which was first shown back in 1969, he pays tribute to the Vikings, telling the viewer that despite their cruel rapacity, which devoured so much of Christian Europe, it was the sheer audacity of their sea-faring skills that finally endears them to us. Because it marked something altogether new in the Western world. Indeed, he says, “if one wants a symbol of Atlantic man that distinguishes him from Mediterranean man, a symbol set against the Greek temple, it is the Viking ship. The Greek temple is static and solid. The ship is mobile and light.” And, of course, it could (and did) go almost anywhere.

But surely there is another symbol, greater than anything produced by either Greek or Viking. And that is the Christian Cross, a sign of infinite expansion that, in the period of the Gothic dawn, became both a lance pointed at the heart of God and a weapon with which to blunt all those Vikings boats. And, yes, even to baptize not a few of the warriors who sailed them.

Regis Martin

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Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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