Religious Interactions, Pop Culture, & Historical Imagination (Spoiler Alert)

Religious themes currently permeate the film and television industries in the United States.  The film Noah still floats toward the top of the charts leading to interesting conversations about authenticity and scriptures.  Close behind Noah, the film God’s Not Dead highlights the struggle of a religious devotee encountering religious antagonism on a university campus.  Also in the top 25 currently is the movie Son of God (and for some reason I keep wanting to add Captain America: Winter Soldier in as a civil religion movie.)

In addition to these films, television series seem especially interested in engaging religious themes.  Take for instance, Fox’s The Following in which a serial killer has recently appropriated a sectarian group of religious adherents for his own diabolical objectives.  The Following, based from a Marxist “opiate of the masses” view of  religion, interrogates many of the negative traits of religiosity with devotees chanting “there is no redemption without blood” before they perform sacrificial murders.  Or as another example, HBO’s True Detective develop characters who engage philosophical and religious themes throughout the show.  (See my friend William Simpson’s post on religionnerd.com).  These are just a few samples of religion on display on the big screen and the flat screen right now.

As interesting as these examples are (and they really are interesting), the History Channel’s series Vikings is developing some unique plot lines regarding historical interreligious interactions.  For those not familiar with the series (and I’ll attempt to be extremely brief and vague), Vikings is historical drama (many disagree with just how historically accurate the series really is), which traces Scandinavian explorations westward in hopes of finding treasures in England.  As a word of caution, the series is exceptionally violent with nearly ever episode containing bloodshed and fighting.  And as the series is now in Season 2, religion plays an ever-increasing role in the plot’s development.  [Spoiler Alert: When discussing any ongoing television series or movies, there is a risk that some portion of the plot will be revealed unintentionally. It is not my intent herein to spoil the plot lines, and I do my best to avoid plot revelations; however, in the following discussion certain plot elements and developments are discussed regarding Vikings.]

On the surface level, the show presents the interactions of Anglo-Saxon Christians and those of the Scandinavian Norse religion in the 8th and 9th centuries.  The producers highlight several distinctive features among the two cultures.  For instance, in the most recent episode, a scene pans back and forth from a contemplative/structured Christian wedding ceremony juxtaposed to a celebratory Norse wedding ceremony.  Admittedly, much of what is known historically about the Vikings comes from literate Anglo-Saxon Christians of this time period who portrayed the Vikings as blood-thirty savages (and quite possibly embellished their stories). Yet within this series, the leader of the Norse tribe, Ragnar Lodbrok (played by Travis Fimmel) displays an intense curiosity for the Anglo-Saxon culture.   So much so, that he makes the decision to kidnap (not kill) a Christian monk by the name of Athelstan (played by George Blagden). Eventually, Athelstan becomes a consultant to Ragnar as well as a close family friend.  Having to live amongst the Scandinavians, Athelstan learns to respect the culture including the Norse religious belief system.  The former Christian monk learns to fight along side of his Norse family and is eventually officially welcomed into the community by Ragnar.

Upon his return to England, Athelstan experiences great personal religious conflict because of his experiences with the Norse communities – for Athlestan cannot discount the Norse traditions and his experiences.  And this is further complicated when King Ecbert (played by Linus Roache) confidentially shares with Athelstan a storehouse of ancient Roman writings, statues, and religious relics.  King Ecbert admonishes Athlestan, “Your job is to preserve these works and fragments for all eternity.”  Ecbert’s appreciation, and indeed his desire to preserve non-Christian artifacts, illustrates a longing to reconnect with the land’s ancient pre-Christian heritage.

Much of what happens with the majority of interreligious interactions in Vikings reminds me of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God.  Wright’s work traces the social evolution of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam suggesting a need to continue evolving to include a global citizenship and salvation.  Foundational to his argument is the historical reality that religions have been both antagonistic and co-existent in the past depending on the context.  For Wright, interreligious interactions progress, evolve, and transform:

What starts as a tactical ploy, as grudging coexistence, can for various reasons evolve into a truer, more philosophical appreciation of tolerance – an appreciation, even, of the beauty of diverse belief.  Having a pragmatic, selfish reason to coexist with people can be the first step toward thinking about them in a nonselfish way. (Wright, 199)

Within the Viking series, the religious interactions are embedded in the social interactions.  Like Wright’s analysis, the tactical ploys and the political self-interests exist. Yet its not that religion is a Marxist manipulation, but rather a lens for understanding the world.  As the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons continue to war and pillage throughout the series, there are glimmers of hope that warfare between the groups will cease in the future.  Like our contemporary world, there are subtle exchanges between characters and communities that increase cultural awareness, create relationships, and break down the initial barriers.

All of these plot developments cause me to remember that positive interfaith relations take time (usually after a period of tension), are relational (typically on an individual level first), and are productive in the end (leading to social acceptance, cooperation, and integration).

Does Vikings represent actual, historical interactions? Loosely at best. But, does Vikings give us a glimpse (even if historically imagined) into early interactions between two communities separated by geography, culture, and religious lenses? Yes. And it is fascinating.  It remains to be seen how the writers and producers will further develop the religious themes within the series.

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