Sunday, April 6, 2014

‘Vikings’: Christians and Crucifixion

A year ago on Acculturated I wrote about the excellent new History channel series Vikings and its potentially interesting conflict between pagan and Christian values, as embodied by protagonist Ragnar and his captive monk Athelstan, respectively. That clash of civilizations quickly moved to the storyline’s backburner, but now that we are well into Season Two (with a third having just been green-lit), it seems to be rearing its head again – in a disappointing way, unfortunately.

Initially repulsed by the bloodlust of the Northmen, Athelstan developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in the course of his captivity, apparently backsliding from his Christian faith and gradually assimilating into pagan culture. In the recent episode “An Eye for an Eye,” he is taken prisoner yet again, this time by the Christian, Anglo-Saxon enemy of Ragnar and his seafaring raiders. A bishop condemns Athelstan for his apostasy, and he is tortured and nailed to a cross.

At this point, I did a mental double-take. Crucifixion? Certainly other cultures – most notably, of course, the ancient Romans – have carried out this monstrous punishment on Christians (and others). But, student of the Middle Ages that I once was, I never heard of Christians perpetrating it themselves, even in the heart of the aptly-named Dark Ages, a particularly savage time in European history (not that human savagery has abated that much). Considering that Christ’s torturous death on the cross is at the very heart of the religion, it doesn’t even make theological sense that believers would turn around and inflict it themselves. That’s not to say that the Church throughout history hasn’t been guilty of other cruelties. But crucifixion?

Researching this online, I stumbled across A.J. Delgado’s take on this same Vikings episode. She had exactly the same response as mine, and even reached out to a world-renowned medieval history professor about it. His response? “I know of no instance in the history of Christianity in which any Christians crucified others, even apostates.”

Of course, we’re talking about television drama and not a history lecture. Hollywood always plays fast and loose with historical fact, sometimes out of storytelling necessity and sometimes for political reasons. But this was a fairly eyebrow-raising deviation from historical truth, partly because it was so unnecessary. The bishop and his soldiers could have punished Athelstan in any number of bloody ways that would have been more historically correct, and the storyline wouldn’t have suffered for it.

So why choose crucifixion? And why hammer home the point (if you’ll pardon the pun) by depicting Athelstan as a Christ figure himself – flayed, crowned with thorns, and clad only in the familiar white cloth around his loins? Throw in a stereotypically fat, corrupt bishop, and it seems that Athelstan’s crucifixion was simply designed to paint Christians as cruel hypocrites, merciless crucifiers themselves.

This is disappointing but predictable treatment of Christians onscreen. In a recent article (written prior to the crucifixion episode) entitled “Vikings: A TV Series – and World? – Without Real Christians,” my friend Steve Pauwels urged the filmmakers to move beyond anti-Christian clichés. If they “really wanted to take the innovative route,” Pauwels wrote, “they’d feature an occasional Christian character who modeled strength of spirit and integrity.”

It doesn’t look like Athelstan, who was ultimately rescued from the cross, will be that character. In an interview, George Blagden, the actor who portrays the monk, suggests that Athelstan will continue to struggle with his faith: “As Season 2 progresses, there's a fantastic scene where Athelstan explains his conflicted mind… how Athelstan survived in this purgatory-type world between two religions.”

Fair enough, but the show is missing an opportunity to do more with this, to add some depth to its lead Ragnar, a compelling antihero driven by greed and a lust for power, unable to commit to one wife. How much more interesting his character might be if Ragnar occasionally wrestled with his own pagan faith as Athelstan wrestles with his; if something of the monk’s Christian theology sowed a seed of doubt in Ragnar’s own; if it caused him to change the way he looked at his wives, his slaughter of innocents, the direction of his leadership.

Vikings is one of my very favorite current shows. But as long as the only character who wrestles with his belief system is the Christian, the series will lack a dimension that could elevate it above the mere carnal entertainment of swordplay and sex.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/1/14)