My God is Better than Yours!
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt 5:44)
“You are Pagan! We have a better God on our side!” Thus the stage is set for “The Last Kingdom”, BBC America’s rendition of Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Stories” currently available on Netflix. Aside from costume anomalies pointed out by my friend Lars Walker, the show is worth watching for the interplay between Christianity and Norse paganism set up by Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s older brother when he first encounters the Danish invading force.
Bernard, a modern literary master in the art of historical fiction, uses Uhtred as a Forest Gump-like character to tell the story of King Alfred, the champion of Christianity, in the making of England. Uhtred is a Saxon nobleman that develops Stockholm syndrome, after being raised by the Danish warlord who killed both his older brother and father.
So it is that Uhtred sums up the appeal of Norse paganism saying, “Danes have a hunger for life.” He means it as an insult to the Christian manner of life typified by King Alfred, who is known for his restraint when it comes to the pleasures of this world. It is a manner of life that Uhtred and the other Danes find repulsive and confusing. This confusion is expressed by the Danish warlords Guthrum and Ubba in the wake of Saxon victory when Alfred restrains his blood lust and sues for peace with the Danes even offering to feed them for the winter so they don’t starve to death. When Guthrum asks Alfred why he would do this if he really thinks the Viking forces are too weak to attack, there follows a profound dialogue:
Guthrum: “If you believe us weakened, why seek peace?”
Alfred: “It is the Christian in me, the will of my God.”
Ubba: “Oh, there will be no talk of gods.”
Alfred: “God. There is only one.”
“The will of my God.”, Alfred answers. It isn’t that Alfred doesn’t have a hunger for life. It is that this hunger is tempered by the love God has for all humanity. Alfred takes to heart Christ’s admonition to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Everyone has a lust for life, and it shows in us Christians, too.
There is always a temptation to return insult with insult and to take what you can while the getting is good, with little to no regard for anyone but one’s self. Yet, Alfred in the face of incredible violence, and danger sees opportunity for more than earthly victory, a victory that can only come by showing mercy. And thus sharing the mercy that God expressed for all when, while we were yet enemies of God, He showed love and mercy reconciling us to Him in the death of his Son. (Rom 5:10)
A greater God, indeed! Yes, in the end the Christians beat out the pagans. Guthrum is baptized after the battle of Edington, 878. Yet, it isn’t in earthly victory, or in the ability of Christians to meet pagans sword-for-sword that proves Him to be greater, but Jesus’ love for life that shows itself in mercy even as His strength is shown in forgiveness.