At the prompting of some of my younger colleagues at Word on Fire, I spent time during a recent vacation getting caught up on the History Channel show Vikings. My friends had told me that Vikings, curiously, is the most religious show on television. They were right. Don’t get me wrong, there is enough violence, pillaging, plundering, sword-fighting, and political intrigue to satisfy the most macho viewers; but Vikings is also drenched with religion—and for that I applaud Michael Hirst, its sole writer and director. For this emphasis is not only historically accurate, but it also resists the regnant orthodoxy in much of the entertainment industry that characters should be presented as though they are indifferent to the world of faith.
First of all, everyone in Vikings is religious: the Northmen (and women) themselves, the English, the French, and visitors from distant lands. To be sure, 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. Moreover, their spirituality is not an abstraction, but rather is regularly embodied in ritual, prayer, procession, liturgy, and mystical experience. The ubiquity and intensity of faith in these various peoples and tribes calls to mind philosopher Charles Taylor’s observation that, prior to 1500 or so, it was practically unthinkable not to be religious. 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 prior to very recent times in certain pockets of Western civilization. Taylor speaks of the “buffered self” that has come to dominate today. He means the identity that is closed in upon itself, oblivious to a transcendent dimension, committed unquestioningly to a naturalist or materialist view of reality. I must confess that it was enormously refreshing to watch a program in which every single self was unbuffered!
Second, Vikings is extraordinarily instructive in regard to one of the most vexing problems of our time, namely, the clash of religions. When the Vikings first come ashore on the eastern coast of England, their initial contact is with the monastery of Lindisfarne, where they find, not mighty warriors, but prayerful, non-violent monks. They are both amused and intrigued. There is a particularly affecting scene in which the Vikings confront Athelstan the monk, who would come to play a crucial role in the series, and they discover that, of all the treasures in the monastery, he is most concerned with protecting a book of the Gospels. Facing down the swords, clubs, and firebrands of the Vikings, Athelstan hugs to his chest the sacred text. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful and beautiful manner of indicating the centrality of the Word to Christians. On another early raid, Floki, a kind of Norse mystic and ardent defender of Viking spirituality, enters a chapel where Mass is being offered. As the priest and people cower in fear, Floki strides to the altar, drinks some of the consecrated wine, and then spits the contents out. The Christian faithful gasp and shriek in dismay. The conquerors, of course, are puzzled, but they have learned a key lesson regarding Christian theology of the Eucharist.
And the learning moves in the opposite direction as well. Since Athelstan speaks their language, the Vikings carry him back to their home country, and the monk becomes, in time, a dear friend to Ragnar, the Viking king. From the pagan potentate, Athelstan hears the stories of Thor, Odin, and the other Norse divinities, and he learns to appreciate the spirituality ingredient in these figures and myths. Athelstan wears an amulet carved with representations of Ragnar’s gods, even as he coaxes Ragnar through the words of the Our Father. Lest this all seem like so much anything-goes, all-spiritualities-are-the-same-deep-down political correctness, know that the characters in Vikings remain deeply interested in getting it right religiously. After some dalliance with Norse religion, Athelstan definitively and joyfully re-embraces his Christianity; and Floki remains, despite plenty of contact with Christianity, an ardent adept of Viking religion. Moreover, Ragnar’s brother Rollo, who accepts baptism for cynical, political reasons, finds himself oddly but unmistakably changed by the sacrament. In short, we find all of the confusion, fascination, explosive violence, and truly creative dialogue that we might expect from a real confrontation between faiths.
I would like to close with a third and final observation, this time about Rollo. Though the makers of the series have fudged things a bit for dramatic purposes, the historical Rollo, in point of fact, became a convinced Christian and established himself as leader in the northwest region of present day France. Since he and his fellows were “northmen,” the area became known as Normandy, and Rollo’s great-great-great grandson was William the Conquerer, who would have an unsurpassed influence on the cultural development of Christian England. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II, who carries the title “Defender of the Faith,” is ultimately descended from William and hence from Rollo. As Athelstan demonstrates, Christianity has always, at its best, had the power of assimilation, the ability to adapt to itself what is good, true, and beautiful in other religions and cultural forms. How wonderful that Vikings manages to show this.
So if you’re a bit tired of the dreary secularism that dominates so much of contemporary entertainment and politics, I might invite you to watch a program that makes religion—and Christianity in particular—the central theme.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.