One of the things that you’ve got to love (got to love) about the Vikings (aka, the “Danes”) is their spectacular names. There was King Gorm the Old, Harald Bluetooth, Sven Forkbeard, Ivan the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Kierkegaard. Okay, Kierkegaard wasn’t a Viking, but he was a Dane. And like the Vikings, he had a problem with priests and pastors and the church. Now, to be fair, when he had a problem with the church, he wrote a scathing critique; when the Vikings had a problem with the church, they ransacked it. But maybe that’s just “tomayto, tomahto; potayto, potahto.”
We’re looking at the Netflix series, The Last Kingdom (please note, this series is not for everyone and is rated mature for gore, language and some nudity and some awful church practices). The Last Kingdom is the story of a Saxon (read English) born, Dane (read Viking) raised warrior who rises to become King Alfred’s greatest warrior in his calling to unite all of England under one (English) king. Uhtred is a man of two peoples. Unfortunately, neither side trusts him. To the Saxons, Uhtred is a heathen (they often call him, Uhtred the Godless). To the Danes, Uhtred is a traitor (they often call him, the Dane Slayer). And Uhtred himself often struggles with knowing who he is. Is he English or Danish? A Christian or a pagan? A hero or an outlaw? Based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell, this series is an intricate blend of fiction and fact. In particular, while the specific accounts about the church in the series are all fiction, the underlying attitudes toward the church are not. And that is not a good thing because, in many cases, the church is awful. Consider these three snippets (if you want to skip the snip, you can just read the bold type and get a feel for things).
(1) The church and its pastors are seen as incredibly self-seeking and insensitive: Uhtred and his wife, Mildrith, owe the church a huge debt (a debt created by Mildrith’s father and that Uhtred unknowingly acquired when he married Mildrith). Alfred hoped that the assumption of the debt would force Uhtred into compliance. Uhtred complicated matters even more when he killed one of his farmworkers for stealing. The family complained that Uhtred broke the law and needed to pay the family for the wrongful death (as viewers, we know the man was a no-good thief that deserved to die). Alfred sent a representative of the court (Odda the younger) and a bishop with a letter to Uhtred, demanding that he resolve the issue. Unfortunately, Uhtred is not at home when they arrive; and so, the letter is delivered to Mildrith on her estate.
Odda: “Mildrith, it is with great reluctance that I must serve you with this letter for your husband. Upon his return, he must pay the family for killing Oswald or face confiscation of his property.”
Mildrith: “Which is also my property.”
Bishop Alewold (said smugly): “Take consolation, lady, that should your land be confiscated, it is the church that’ll benefit!” (Season 1, episode 6)
(2) The church and its pastors are seen as utterly corrupt and heartless: Brother Godwin is handicapped. Regardless, he is rather unattractive and unkind. He is approached by Aethelwold who seemingly knows the weaknesses of those around him and bribes Godwin (Aethelwold is bitter because although he is the previous king’s son, his father gave the throne to his brother, Alfred; but that is what happens when you are a drunk, a reprobate and a fool). Aethelwold’s plan is to discourage Alfred’s son, Edward, from assuming the throne if Alfred dies, by discrediting Uhtred as one of Edward’s advisors. Aethelwold comes to Brother Godwin saying:
Aethelwold: “Brother Godwin, do you see that girl there? She could well be fond of you.”
Brother Godwin: “Fond?”
Aethelwold: “Fond as in fondle. Fondling. And often.”
Brother Godwin: “You have my attention, Lord.”
Aethelwold: “Uhtred is not the man to guide Prince Edward. He is wild, ungodly. Holy ground has been disturbed, Brother Godwin. Holy ground.”
The holy ground that they are speaking of is the gravesite of Uhtred’s wife, Gisela, who died and was buried in a Christian cemetery while Uhtred was off fighting the Danes. But upon his return, Uhtred dug up the grave so that he could lovingly care for his wife’s body in the way she wanted, a pyre, and not a cold grave. And so, under the cover of darkness, he attended to his wife’s last request; but in so doing, he violated holy ground. He was brought to Alfred to defend his actions.
Aelswith: “There has been a desecration. You were seen.”
Alfred: “The graveyard is blessed holy ground. And you do not have the right nor authority to break this ground.”
Aelswith: “You were seen willfully disturbing the peace of the dead.”
Uhtred:” I disturbed no one but my wife. If I have done wrong, I apologize.”
Brother Godwin: “If I may speak, Lord? The woman Gisela was a pagan and did not belong in holy ground. By removing her, Lord Uhtred was undoing what shouldn’t have been done. Her presence would have poisoned the soil. I believe the dead are well rid of her.”
Uhtred: Rid of her?”
Brother Godwin: “I speak the truth. Gisela was a pagan and adulterer. The souls in heaven are rejoicing that the heathen Gisela has been taken from the earth and burnt!” (Season 3, episode 2)
(3) The church and its pastors are portrayed as above the law because God is on their side. Abbot Eadred has always hated Uhtred and sees him as his rival as the power behind the throne. To help secure the army of Uhtred’s fiercest enemy, his uncle Aelfric, Eadred kidnaps Gisela (Uhtred’s lover) with the intent to marry her off to Aelfric. And so, with violence and cruelty and hatred, he finds Gisela and forces her into an unjust and illegal marriage against her will. We pick up the scene where the Abbot breaks into the abbey where Gisela is hiding and says:
Abbot Eadred: “Seize her!”
Gisela: “No! No! No!”
Abbot Eadred: “Hold her fast. Stand beside her, we shall have her married.”
Gisela: “You have no right!”
Abbot Eadred: “I have every right, and you will be quiet.” We shall have her married to Aelfric right now.”
Gisela: “I will not marry against my wish! You cannot. . . .”
Abbot Eadred strikes Gisela with his open hand.
Nun: “Do not strike the poor girl!”
Abbot Eadred (to Gisela): “Do as you are told and as God commands!” (Season 2, episode 3)
The Abbot performs the wedding and pronounces Gisela and Aelfric husband and wife (although Aelfric is not there, a proxy stands in for him–and no vows are spoken). When Uhtred breaks up the wedding, the Abbot insists he is too late and Gisela is already married. They quarrel. Uhtred warns him repeatedly. The Abbot refuses to stop, and Uhtred kills him. To which several people exclaim:
Hild and a nun: “Uhtred, no! He is a man of God.”
Me: Really? This evil scum was a man of God????
Now, there are a lot more scenes where the church is portrayed as insensitive, greedy, self-seeking and arrogance. Kierkegaard criticized pastors (and this is only a partial list, for the whole list see Tietjen, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians, chapter 4) because . . .
- No matter how good a pastor preaches, his sermons always speak far better than his life.
- Pastors rarely do what they tell others to do in their sermons.
- If the choice was to preach the truth and be unpopular, or water-down the gospel and be popular, pastors will always choose the popular path.
Meanwhile, The Last Kingdom criticizes pastors for being particularly evil. I fear both may be correct.
Here’s today’s question: What do we do with the sin of the church? Six quick answers.
First, the church must not cover up their sin(s) or make excuses for it. Let’s face it, the church today is a wreck. There are hundreds of cases of abuse of power, cover-ups, sexual misconduct, adultery, embezzlement and a host of other very ugly things. Sadly, most of the institutions where these sins took place (the church, parachurch organization or school) decided to cover-up or ignore the problem rather than deal with it. I heard recently of a victim of a sexual predator (alleged) who was told that the church would not take steps to investigate the matter because the victim had failed to follow Matthew 18 and talk to the predator first. In one easy move, the church invalidated the victim’s feelings and her story and sided with the predator. That is absolutely horrendous. When there is sin in the church, we need to shout it from the rooftops and call it what it is.
Second, the church should do everything it can to make sure we never appear greedy or self-seeking. It seems to many people that the church is constantly asking for money. And where does most of this money go? Most of it goes toward our salaries, then to our facilities and then towards the purchase of new thermometers so that we can have our next fund-raising drive. A few facts may help solidify this point (this data is taken from Tithe.ly website): (1) Churches received $124.52 billion in donations in 2018 [can I ask, do you feel we made 124 billion dollars of impact with that money? I certainly don’t!] (2) The average church spends 49% of its money on its personnel and 23% on its facilities, and only 11% on missions. (3) On average, 61% of a church’s missions budget is spent on local missions. Those numbers sure make it sound (to me at least) like the church is all about money and its own wants and needs and not about the needs of those outside of the church. To the world, this looks like the church is greedy and self-centered, uncaring and self-absorbed. And that is not a good picture. In light of this, I recommend two best practices, both of which I am sure you are familiar with at our church. First, the pastor should never know who gives what. This protects him from being influenced by the “big givers.” Pastors should help construct the budget and have a clear sense of where giving levels are, but they should not know details. Second, pastors should invite people to give (giving, after all, is part of our discipleship and gratitude), but they should balance giving to their church with giving to other worthy causes. The focus should always be on giving, but not necessarily giving to us (or worse, since the pastor’s salary is connected to the offering, giving to me!).
Third, the church must care for and show sympathy for those who are hurting, even if their pain is a direct result of their sin. We usually do not protest at funerals (although some do), nor do we call people who are suffering ugly names (although on occasion we do that, too). And we usually are not completely heartless, but we have our moments. And while we may rarely call people bad names to their faces, we certainly know how to fill our church auditoriums with denunciations of this type of sinner or that. That is not completely true. Many times, we give ourselves sacrificially to helping people who are suffering (but usually they are in other countries, not the people down the street). Here’s what I believe: If the church wants to advance the kingdom of God in our world today, we will need to start by showing compassion for people who are hurting, regardless if they are “sinners” or not. People are people, and they need God’s love (and God’s love flows through us his people).
Fourth, we need to make sure that our pastors cannot be bought. Now, I want to assure you that most pastors today cannot be bribed, but unfortunately, they can be swayed by a host of non-monetary things, mostly by popularity polls. Pastors would rather be accepted and liked; and if they can do that by NOT preaching the Bible, they will do that every time. Once upon a time, we said that the pastor’s calling was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but when the comfortable pay your salary, it’s hard to do much afflicting. We need to free our pastors to speak the truth, regardless if it makes us feel uncomfortable; and we need to thank them every time they do so, so that they will be empowered to do it again.
Fifth, the church (and its pastors, in particular), needs to stop claiming to be Christians; and instead, let their lives speak for them. Christ followers should never claim that they have a deep spirituality or boast about their love for Jesus. If either one of those things is true, let someone else say it about them. Christ followers should also never excuse their actions by boasting of their forgiveness, by claiming a special relationship with God, by appealing to a “special” calling (to sin so that grace may abound) or by arguing that their sinful actions were totally misunderstood (after all, they are a pastor, an elder, a Sunday school teacher or whatever – how could they sin like that?). Instead, when we sin in public, we need to confess our sin publicly and ask for forgiveness. Being a Christ follower means confessing our sins a lot.
Last, the church needs to excel in humility. Every sin of the church in The Last Kingdom can be traced to the sin of pride. So it is in the church today. Sadly, our churches today are filled with arrogance, self-righteousness and a horrific sense of superiority. How can the church make any inroads to the world today when it is convinced it is so much better than the people in the world? Instead of self-righteousness and pride, Jesus’ church ought to be categorized by love, peace, compassion, goodness and humility. If we did that, we wouldn’t need 124 billion dollars. We could win the world with the few dollars we have in loose change. Augustine said it this way: “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.” What the church needs today, almost more than anything else, is humility.
There’s a lot of sin in the world. We all know that, and we gladly confess its sin. What we don’t like to talk about or admit is our sin. But if we are going to be faithful to the gospel of grace, we need to start right there. We need to confess our sin–our greed, our arrogance, our hard-heartedness, our propensity to sin, our desire for applause and our self-righteousness–and act accordingly. I hate seeing scenes in The Last Kingdom where the church behaves badly, but there is something far worse. I hate seeing such blatant sin in the church today. But there is something even worse. I hate seeing sin in my own life. May we all learn from bad examples and chart a new course of love and grace and goodness and humility so that the world can truly see Jesus in us. The Kingdom of God is the only kingdom worth defending, and we defend it primarily with deeds of love and mercy and lives that follow Jesus.
More from The Last Kingdom next week; but next week, a positive example. Thanks for reading.