It’s true. I’m a sucker for most things Viking (though, as you can probably guess, I’m not so fond of all the pillaging, raping and murdering). Now, thankfully I come by this inclination honestly. I’m Swedish and, therefore, must have Viking blood running through my veins. Plus, look at my name. A Dane not only implies someone from Denmark, but also a Viking raider. So, I guess my love for Viking lore was fated (as Bernard Cornwell would say using the Old English, “Wyrd bid ful āraed” – fate is inexorable). And this fate has revealed itself in many ways. I’ve steered a Viking longboat. I have a stone from a Viking grave on my mantle (it’s next to the Viking ship my grandfather made for me). I have a rune stone keychain depicting how King Harald Bluetooth became a Christian, and I have three Lewis Chessmen (they are also on my mantle!). As a result, when I watched the first episode of the Netflix series, The Last Kingdom, I was hooked.
The Last Kingdom is two stories. First, it is the story of England in the 9th century. Danes (Vikings) control most of the country, but one kingdom still remains Saxon. That last kingdom is Wessex, and it is ruled by King Alfred the Great. Alfred’s dream, however, is to unite all of the kingdoms of the land under one king and to form a Christian nation, England, but he is hard pressed on every side and his dream seems beyond his grasp (that part of the story is historically accurate). The Last Kingdom is also the fictional story of Uhtred (son of Uhtred). Uhtred was born a Saxon nobleman in Northumbria, but was abducted by a Viking warlord when he was twelve years old after his father was killed in battle. Although Uhtred is taken as a slave, he quickly proves himself to the family and is adopted as one of their sons. The Norse way of life is everything Uhtred ever wanted, and he delights in his new Viking identity and family. But then, tragedy strikes. His family is murdered in an act of revenge by another Dane. Uhtred escapes, but the Danes think he is the culprit and want to kill him. Uhtred becomes a man without a people, without a home, and without an identity. He is neither Dane nor Saxon. Through a series of events, he finally makes his way to Wessex and offers his sword to Alfred. And while Alfred accepts Uhtred’s sword, he never fully trusts Uhtred. After all, he is a heathen. And that becomes the emotional conflict of the series: Alfred needs Uhtred’s skills as a warrior, but he can’t embrace him because of his beliefs in the old gods. The Last Kingdom is a story of discovering one’s identity, of justice, of prejudice and fear, of the forging of a nation and the character of its people. It’s a story of redemption, fate, love and doing what is right. It’s a great story, but this is not a series for everyone. There is a lot of violence and gore, some sexual situations, some very strong language and some disturbing plot twists. And yet, the series is well-written and well-acted, with beautiful cinematography. And while all those things compel me to like the series, it is the characters in the story that win the day for me, whether that person be Uhtred or Finan, Alfred or Aethelflaed, Father Beocca or Father Pyrlig (and let’s not forget Hild), or Leofric or Ragnar. The bottom line for me is that The Last Kingdom is simply a great story.
But we are not here to talk TV. One of the things that I love about The Last Kingdom is that it constantly is talking about Christianity and the church. Now, I am willing to bet that some of those depictions are historically accurate, but I would also guess that some of them reveal the perspective of the show’s writers, directors and producers. But in either case, what this series says about the church is worthy of our consideration because many of those same perspectives that existed in the 9th century still exist today. For instance, in the first season, King Alfred and Father Beocca have this conversation that sets the tone for the series. Alfred asks Beocca: “Regarding the conversion of the pagans to Christianity, how do we decide what is proper: to enlighten them or to kill them?” And Beocca answers: “Spreading God’s Word is, of course, our mission, but I fear that the true pagans must first witness and feel God’s power.” What a question! And the answer is not much better. But let’s ask this same question in today’s vernacular: “When it comes to Muslims living in countries like Iran, Sudan, Syria, and other countries that sponsor terrorism, would you rather we send missionary after missionary into their lands and invest millions of dollars in attempts to share Christ with them through whatever means available or should we beat them down with military force and drone strikes?” Many in the church today would choose the second option without blinking an eye. After all, maybe if they feel our (God’s?) power, they will be far more open to talking about Christianity. Now, I use that just as an illustration. My goal is not to get into political or international issues, but to use The Last Kingdom as a springboard into talking about how we should view our neighbors and how we should go about reaching them because, as I said, the show is quite relevant to life today.
Let’s start that conversation with Lady Aelswith (played brilliantly by Eliza Butterworth). Lady Aelswith is King Alfred’s wife and is a strongly religious (Christian) woman. She hates Uhtred for the simple reason that, in her mind, he is a soulless pagan (in her theology, anyone who is not a Christian has no soul). Now, Alfred also dislikes Uhtred, but he sees his value as a warrior and as someone who knows how the Danes think, but Aelswith sees no worth in him whatsoever. She simply hates him. Four conversations bear repeating here.
When praying with Uhtred’s new wife, a Saxon named Mildrith, Aelswith says (without ever asking how Mildrith feels about Uhtred): “I’ve missed you, Mildrith, and I prayed for you each day. Poor thing.” Mildrith asks, “Why do you think I am poor?” Aelswith responds: “Living with the man they foisted onto you, the pagan. Having to take his seed and the like. God will bless your loyalty. But with luck, he will fall in battle, and soon.” (Season 1, episode 4)
Aelswith’s scorn for Uhtred boils over when Uhtred interrupts the king during prayers and, worse, is brandishing a sword while doing so. While, clearly, this is a punishable offense, Aelswith wants more than what is just and fair. As Alfred returns to his prayers, she interrupts him, saying, “[Uhtred’s] interruption cannot be allowed to go unpunished. It must be death.” Alfred responds: “Peace be with you, my dear.” But he takes her opinion of Uhtred to heart. (Season 1, episode 5)
Later, when Alfred nears death, Aelswith fears the future, especially if Uhtred is allowed to advise and influence Edward, the heir to the throne. And so, she prays, saying: “Lord God, give me strength and guidance to do your work. If it is right and proper to rely upon the heathen, albeit for violence, show me a sign. Help me—I want my son to remain untarnished by heathen ways. I wish him to be God’s king, pure, a pure king.” (Season 3, episode 8)
And last, as Alfred lies on his deathbed, Aelswith protests his recent decision to pardon Uhtred for assaulting the king, a crime that made Uhtred an outlaw. But Aelswith cannot accept that Alfred pardoned him; and so, she says, “Lord, forgive me, but what you have done is wrong. By pardoning the outlaw, you have opened the door for Uhtred to become Edward’s advisor. Edward cannot be God’s king and England cannot be God’s country if it is a pagan that guides him and us. Why are the Danes forever at our door? Because we are being punished, lord, for the presence of these heathen.” (Season 3, episode 9)Okay, Aelswith is a jerk, but how do WE respond to the unchurched in our lives? My guess is that we view them in one of four ways. We might view them as the enemy and blame them for all that is wrong in America, hoping that soon they will either “fall in battle” or get hit by a truck (an Aelswith perspective). We might view them as useful for certain things, but we won’t let them get too close (an Alfred perspective). We might embrace them fully and welcome them, even though we realize they espouse a much different worldview (a Mildrith perspective). Or we might not even see them—they are invisible to us because they don’t travel in our circles, and we certainly would never travel in theirs. They are “soulless,” and we could care less about them or their suffering (a modified Aelswith perspective).
Quiz time: Which one of those four approaches best describes you? [Pastoral insertion: Here’s why I love The Last Kingdom. It makes me think about such things; and I figured if I was going to think about it, you ought to, too!]
But how does God want us to see the people around us? God calls us to love our neighbors (Mt. 22:39). More than that, Jesus’ love requires us to act. We cannot simply wait for the Uhtreds in the world to come to us to strike up a relationship; we need to go to them. We need to befriend them. We need to find places where they hang out and hang out there as one of Jesus’ sent ones. [Pastoral Insertion: Here’s why I hate The Last Kingdom. I see how Aelswith and the church despise, mistreat, look down upon, and abuse Uhtred; and I become enraged. How can the church treat people like that? How can the church hate people I love—even if, in this case, they are only fictional people? This show irritates me to death because it hits way too close to home!]
But the Aelswith’s of today’s church just don’t hate the unchurched because they don’t believe the same things as they do; they hate them because they don’t look the same as they do. At times, we see this today as immigrants—some of them brothers and sisters in Christ—try to gain access into the US to escape horrific suffering in their home country. And the response of the church? Anger. Rejection. Hatred. Indifference. And self-righteousness. Sadly, in many cases, the church today may be willing to love their neighbor, but only if that neighbor looks and acts and speaks like them.
After Alfred dies, the Lady Aelswith commissions two nuns to pray for her and for Alfred. She says to them: “I would like 17 candles lit on my behalf; and at each shrine, I would like you to pray. And no mumbling! The Lord wants to hear your full hearts.” I think we all ought to pray very clearly that we as a church would never be a church of hate, but that we would always be seeking new ways to welcome those who don’t believe, those who look differently than we do and those who struggle in their faith. And we need to pray that such a change would start with us. More from The Last Kingdom next week. Thanks for reading.