Brutal Christianity: Alfred the Great

MARCH / APRIL 2017: BY CHARITY BISHOP

In the second episode of the BBC’s The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling Saxon Stories book series, Alfred the Great turns to his priest, Beocca, and asks whether they ought to spread God’s love to the pagans or kill them. Beocca pauses, considers, and says he believes the pagans must first feel “God’s might” (though violence) before embracing “his love.”

Alfred struggles to reconcile his faith and impression of God with the world around him and his own physical needs. His fight between temporal and spiritual desires is real, as is the questions he asks of his faith. More of a philosopher than a warrior, troubled by severe abdominal complaints, Alfred is frustrated at his own physical and spiritual weakness; though he prays, seeking guidance and asking for relief from temptation, he finds pretty handmaidens difficult to resist. After Beocca catches him with one, he asks plaintively, “Why must it be a sin?”

While Alfred nurtures a dream of a “single united England” rather than scattered individual kingdoms, he wrestles with faith, the nature of sin, and what to do when confronted with a culture brutally opposed to his own. His question to Beocca underscores the whole of his character and makes him no different from any other believer wrestling with moral and spiritual issues across the centuries, sometimes depriving self to reach a higher state of holiness. Alfred is troubled that no matter how much he prays, his body still craves physical pleasure; since the priests base their philosophy in Plato’s idea of divorcing the physical realm to attain spiritual holiness, he has no one to reassure him that such desires aren’t sinful in the right context.

The story is set in a period of violence, with the Danes brutalizing England. Upon hearing stories of a saint that survived a dozen arrows, the Dane fills the priest who insists the story really happened with arrows and when he fails to survive, decides the Christian God a fake. Alfred has Danes camped on his borders prepared to attack Saxon cities; they’ve taken London and the neighboring kingdom and intend to have his as well. He’s faced with how to deal with them – torn between rationality, his desire to serve God, and the natural inclination of humanity, which is violence and distrust for anything unfamiliar or different from its own practices. The terrible irony is that Alfred’s society doesn’t much differ from the one inhabited by Jesus centuries earlier; a nation under brutal occupation, and a people defined by cultural, societal and individual biases, where the Israelites would no sooner help a Roman or a Samaritan than the Saxons would help a Dane.

The Saxons look to Alfred for leadership as a warrior rather than a philosopher, a role he struggles to fulfill; but the moral questions he asks are similar to the ethical challenges Christ laid out to his disciples. Nothing Alfred asks has an easy answer, nor does he expect one; he simply wants to begin a dialogue. Jesus didn’t offer black and white answers; he answered questions with more questions in order to force his audience to think. Since their societies are similar, Alfred could be capable of much greater insight into Christ with advisors who truly followed Christ and adhered to his teachings and method of spiritual instruction. (Imagine if Alfred had a priest who told him moral parables, and challenged him to treat situations as individual opportunities to show God’s grace to his enemies.)

Unfortunately for Alfred, by this point in history Christianity had ceased to be about a way of life built on love and forgiveness, and was a series of creeds and rules built around a hierarchy with punishment for sin and violence used to “force” societies into submission. The subversive movement Jesus started to challenge the religious and secular authorities had become a globalized religious empire. The religion created around Christ, in many ways non-representative of Christ himself, hinders Alfred from the thing he seeks, a higher union with God and deeper understanding of human nature. It demands things of him that may violate his conscience, because the Christianity of this period is built of violence, ritual and fear, rather than love.

It’s easy to watch or read this story and see an anti-Christian undercurrent, as there’s no Christian not mocked within the narrative; the Christians are naïve, brutal, scheming or idealistic fools, soon killed owing to superstitious nonsense. Rather than avoid or condemn its bias, I believe we should embrace it, accept it as sincere to the historical timeline, and use it not as a judgment on true Christianity, but a judgment on a version of Christianity that is anti-Christian itself. The “Christianity” on display throughout history is so far removed from Christ’s teachings that it doesn’t deserve the title; Christ himself said that many do his work, who do not know they do his work.

The history of Christianity is shameful, full of intolerance, brutality, cruelty, persecution, superstition, and fear; and while there were individuals who strove to fulfill Christ’s mission on earth and live according not to the creeds of a religious institution but to his words, the movement of Christianity after the disciples’ time was political and bore little resemblance to Christ’s philosophy of life. When we pretend anything else, we deny the evils purveyed in our Lord’s name. Rather than reinvent the past (by acting as if this never happened) or ignoring it, we should face it, own up to it, and illustrate the ways these practices were wrong, because if we deny the bloody history that accompanies our faith, we may fall into the same temptation to ignore modern day abuses or practices that also contradict Jesus’ teachings.

You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it… and our faith today, and how we show it to the world, should bear no resemblance to the religion of Alfred the Great, other than that we’re unafraid to ask difficult moral questions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and literature, but alas, she must make a living, so spends her days doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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