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Vikings: A TV Series — and World? — Without Real Christians

The History Channel‘s dramatic series Vikings has just kicked off its second axe-wielding, village-plundering season. It’s apparently a ratings winner, and there’s no denying it’s an example of skillfully crafted, aesthetically high-quality storytelling. Filmed in Ireland, mostly out-of-doors, Vikings is visually compelling, well-acted by an internationally credentialed cast, and reliably boasts engaging plot-lines with dazzlingly brutal battle sequences. 

If the writers of this series had more guts and creative ambition, however, and if they really wanted to take the innovative route, they’d feature an occasional Christian character who modeled strength of spirit  and integrity. That is, an occasional Christian character who acted like an authentic Christian. Yeah, I get it — over the course of two centuries “the church” has provided its share of hypocrites and weaklings, too often failing to live up to its own luminous ideals. Then again, welcome to the human race.

So far, though, Vikings has conspicuously left out that followers of Jesus Christ, historically and demonstrably, have also been “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13, 14) — on balance, a palpable force for good, a beneficial influence in most places they’ve turned up: founders of orphanages, hospitals, schools, universities, and charitable organizations unnumbered, protectors of the helpless, tamers of violence (chivalry, “Just War” theory, etc.), conscience-pricking confronters of the powerful, vanquishers of slavery. On and on the favorable ecclesiastical catalogue could go.

In his 1995 study, author Thomas Cahill even persuasively styles Middle-Ages, Christianity-shaped Ireland civilization’s “Dark Ages” savior.

Where does any hint of this easily documentable information survive in the History Channel‘s account of Ragnar Lodbrok and his bloody-minded adventurers? Instead, the only elements of Christendom to which viewers are treated are befuddled, corpulent priests, an apparently apostate wimp of a former cleric (Athelstan) or unscrupulous, Christianized (though plainly not Christian) kings whose single concern is crass power. Again, of course such have existed over the course of two-thousand years of Christian experience. Take any sizable cohort of fallible people and you’ll find all manner of bad apples. But that’s never been all that has comprised the church’s fraternity,  never the only sample of what the teachings of Jesus Christ have produced on earth — not even close. Students of honest history will discover this — so far, TV enthusiasts whose knowledge of the past is limited to Vikings will not.

Granted, the program’s eponymous protagonists aren’t exactly portrayed in incandescent terms. A recent episode, for instance, features a band of the marauders’ discovering a British family cowering in an underground hideaway — whom they unhesitatingly proceed (off-camera) to massacre. A moment later, there’s a glimpse of the brutes unceremoniously dragging off two or three shrieking nuns — presumably, not for ladies brunch. All the same, the series’ tone somehow manages to suggest a certain, guilty admiration for Ragnar and his fellow Scandanavian despoilers is in order. Admittedly, their focused ruthlessness, joie de vivre, intrepidity — particularly contrasted to 2014’s effete, metrosexualized society– can be arresting.  

Still, overall the Norsemen repel me – the glorifying of pagan cruelty and sadism is not my tankard of mead. But be assured, there’s nothing impressive about any  Vikings’ player even loosely affiliated with the crucified Savior. Up to this point at least, producer Michael Hirst and the series’ writers have guaranteed as much. It’s so drearily predictable from an entertainment industry which requires sneering at all-things-traditional, particularly all-things-Christian.

I’m minded of widespread reaction back in the misty days of the 1990’s when two popular sit-coms – Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne and Ellen DeGeneres’ Ellen — tackled homosexual themes. Ooh, how cutting-edge! How breakthrough!, the glitterati cooed. 

Meanwhile, one contrarian wag (Bill Kristol, perhaps?) quipped what was, even in that comparatively tamer time, the obvious: nowadays, a truly courageous artiste, an authentically defiant artistry worth the appellation, would introduce a conservative Christian character and portray him equitably. 

Around that same period, my wife and I became pretty serious  fans of NBC’s groundbreaking medical drama ER (small-screen launching pad for current stars George Clooney, Julianna Margulies and Noah Wylie). It was a franchise we faithfully patronized until its third or fourth presentation of cardboard-cut-out pro-life or Christian characters. These creepily robotic, dead-eyed losers bore scant resemblance to the oodles of life-reverencing, Bible-believing individuals we’d known for decades: joyful, sensible, pleasant folks who also happened to recoil at the extermination of pre-born human life.  At that point, exasperation forced us to bail on ER.

I recall fuming at the moral and aesthetic waste of talent. Was it really so impossible to cobble together a once-in-a-while cameo respectfully representing an orthodox, faith-oriented perspective?

Fast forward several years and behold! Pop culture’s Christ-allergic status quo endures. Vikings, unless its framing changes appreciably — and soon — serves a subtle exhibit of today’s fashionable and untiringly noxious drumbeat: Christianity has been a regrettable and embarrassing stain on human development. 

This narrative, mind you, impudently and imprudently disregards  hard, historic facts; those “stubborn things” John Adams warned about a couple centuries back. And it prompts a yeasty question: What would a world look like if untouched by the declarations of Jesus, a globe minus the presence of the imperfect but vital believers He left to represent His way? 

The ages are spangled with those who named the name of Christ and who — look at that! — winsomely went on to live accordingly: first-century disciples feeding the poor and rescuing Rome’s abandoned babies, Christian abolitionists raising a cry against chattel slavery (the UK’s Wilberforce and his Clapham sect, America’s Charles Finney, the Tappan brothers, the early Quakers), guardians of orphans (August Franke, George Mueller), advocates of imperiled widows (William Carey), champions of sexually abused children (Amy Carmichael), caretakers of a nation’s diseased and deformed (Mother Theresa), civil rights firebrands (the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King), premier global relief organizations (Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Compassion International). 

All these? A mere paltry smattering of history’s more well-known, Christ-energized altruists. For millenia, literally millions of anonymous others have self-effacingly bettered life for struggling, endangered multitudes. I’ve had the privilege of personally interacting with a handful of them — honorable, gracious, intelligent, successful, worthy of emulation. A far cry from the unflattering and unreflective caricatures in which Vikings — as so much else of modern culture — seems to studiously traffic.  

The overwhelming majority of these Jesus-lovers will never have a TV series devoted to their philanthropic exploits – but they should. And although most television aficionados don’t know these believers’ names, Someone else surely does.

Image: Courtesy of:×01-brothers-war-season-premiere/

Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.