Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reflecting on "Vikings", and the Triumph of Christ over Paganism

The Middle Ages. It’s a fascinating period of history, full of legend, superstition and terrible hardship. The Roman Empire had fallen, western Europe was fractured and in a state of deep poverty, and the fledgling religion of Christianity had taken root, and would soon face the challenge of the armies of Muhammad, as both faiths sought to put an end to the heathen gods of ancient Europe.

On Feb. 27th, the History Channel will air the premier episode of season 2 of its megahit series, “Vikings”. I watched the first season completely transfixed. The show is incredibly well produced, with great acting and characters that are brilliantly cast, and the writing and pace of the plot are nearly flawless. Vikings has avoided the sex’d up, blood and guts stereotype of it’s genre and has instead displayed deeply human and insightful dialogue, while actually feeling educational. Then of course, there is the historical significance.

In reality, the Vikings were a brutally violent and pagan people, far more so than television or film could ever convey. Truly, if we were to see a parallel society in our modern age, the civilized world would brand such a society as vicious terrorists, and nations would form coalitions to put an end to such despicable acts of violence, robbery, destruction, rape and disregard for life that the Vikings showed their victims.

It is relevant that writer/creator Michael Hirsch has declared a strong affinity for the pagan world of the Northman, telling various media outlets, “I love their culture and I love their pagan gods”. He has voiced his doubts about the historical veracity of the English-written accounts of this era, as they come to us in large part through Christian testimony. So the program should be viewed in light of this openly stated bias. Indeed, certain episodes of Vikings make this disposition against Christianity very apparent. So some of what we are told is a reflection of the revisionist history so often sold in contemporary culture, where anything Christian is marginalized and belittled, and those who were historically and truly ‘in the right’ are re-made as the villains.

But despite all of this, Vikings gives us a rarely portrayed and fascinating look into the world of the barbarian. It was a world without Christ where the harshness of the ancient Scandinavian landscape spawned an equally harsh view of the gods, and what these gods expected of their followers. And so it is in the drama of this time and place in history that we see what so many cultures before the Vikings had attempted… to garner favor from their gods through acts of piety. Episode 8 of the first season, titled “Sacrifice” generated countless online discussions on the matter of human sacrifice.

For most of the secular, contemporary world, the idea of blood sacrifice is utterly foreign. We tend to think of sacrifice in modern terms, which typically is the giving up of one thing in order to get something else (i.e., “I’ll sacrifice my vacation plans this summer in order to get the house painted”). Or going deeper, we may think of the soldier on the battlefield or the firefighter or police officer who lays down his life in the service of his country or community, all noble and good. But the idea of sacrificing anything, especially the blood of an animal or, unimaginably, a human being to appease a deity is simply beyond our ability to fully comprehend.

And yet, for an astonishing number of people groups throughout the history of civilization, ritual sacrifice was normative. Whether agrarian, animal, human or child sacrifice, an quick online search shows the extent to which organized ancient and medieval societies, while mostly geographically and sociologically disconnected from each other, held to a deep and incredibly strong conviction that the gods (or devils, spirits, nature, etc.) demanded appeasement by sacrifice, often by human blood. The reason why this happened in so many isolated cultures is another subject that delves into demonology and the reality of the eternal conscience within every man. But suffice it to say, the practice of human sacrifice was everywhere in the world. From the Mayans of South America to the Celtic Druids of Ireland and Britannia; from the fire-gods of Hindu India and Canaan, to China and Russia and the Hawaiian Islands and Africa, the earth was awash in the blood of both animals and humans; sacrifices to the pagan gods of the ancient world.

In the Bible, we see God sending the people of Israel, led by Joshua, into Canaan with orders to wipe out, with absolute impunity and extreme prejudice, the inhabitance of the land. The reason for this God appointed mass-genocide? These nations practiced child-sacrifice to demon fire-gods, and the land was so stained by this deplorable violence that God gave the order to His people to extinguish every thing that had breath that dwelt there (see Leviticus 18:21-25).

The point is this: in answering the question of why this deified-bloodlust was so widespread, I believe we arrive at one of the most overlooked reasons that the pagan culture of the Vikings came to an end.

I recently saw a screensaver that shows an artistic rendering of a powerful Viking warrior holding his battle-ax. The text was “The 9 Virtues of the Viking” (or some such thing). Preceding this list was a statement that went something like this: “The heathen does not beg his gods for help. Instead, he honors them with his actions”.  Really? I was at once struck by the profound tone of condescension and the historical ignorance of such a statement. While foolish drivel like this may sound tough and sell a kind of superhero myth to the uninformed, it could not possibly be further from the truth, for who in this shattered world begs his gods for help more than one who lives with the conviction that he must shed the blood of men and beasts to find favor in the eyes of his idols of wood and stone? The reality is that the worship of any god is, within itself, an act of admission that we are mere mortals, incapable of forging our destinies with any hope and purpose in the absence of a power that is above us. Mankind has always begged the gods for help, and by some great mystery, we have always had an internal sense that it takes sacrifice to implore the gods to act on our behalf.

Within the pages of Scripture we see a type of this practice by ancient Israel. Though never involving the blood of humans, as that was punishable by death, from the time of Moses to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Bible bears witness to the slaying of what must have been hundreds of millions of animals over a thousand-plus year period by the ancient Hebrews. But instead of sacrificing to gods of wood, stone, air, water, sun, fire or fertility, this was a system of grain and animal sacrifice instituted by the one, true and living God of all creation. This, the world would come to see, was the only God, who had led his people out of captivity in Egypt with acts so terrifyingly real that the Bible tells of the surrounding nations being crippled with fear at the mere mention of their name. To the enemies of Israel, Jehovah was a real, powerful and living Deity, working history according to His will, and doing whatever He pleased. And what this God demanded of His people was sacrifice. Until…

As believers in God's Word, we know that it indeed does take blood to satisfy God and atone for mankind’s sins against the Sovereign of the universe. A sense of this truth has always existed within the heart of man. The sacrificial system of Old Testament Israel, we now know, was a precursor to the one, final Sacrifice that would end all blood sacrifices for the sins of men. This was in fact a human sacrifice, where God wrapped Himself in flesh, was born of woman, lived a perfect life, and was slain by sinful men so that we, in raising our ‘eyes’ and ‘looking’ upon this offering of flesh and blood, would have our debt to God paid in full, place our trust in this sacrifice and once again have communion with God in a restored relationship that will never end. It’s the greatest news in the history of history, and it has defeated paganism everywhere it has encountered it for two millennia.

Over time, the Vikings raids were thwarted by English and Frankish kings, with the last Viking raid coming in the year 1066. At this, the Northman began to gradually settle and intermingle with the people of England, and the far more desirable and hopeful message of a living and human God in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ was adopted by those who had formerly sacrificed in ignorance to the mythical Odin and Thor. To be sure, there were forced “conversions”, where overly zealous and fearful “Christians” sought to expunge paganism by the sword. But for the last 2,000 years, God has spread the good news of His Gospel to the heathen who longs for a better way, as His Spirit moves across the earth and down through history and declares to a broken world:

“I am the Lord; this is way, walk in it. Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things and say to them, “Be gone!” –Isaiah 30:21-22

“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand, and the earth swallowed them.” –Exodus 15:11-12

“From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name will be great among the nations”. – Malachi 1:11

"...for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation." -Revelation 5:9