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Beowulf: Anti-Christian Bias, Nordic Jesus Christ, or Mistaken Interpretations?

Steve Biodrowski of Cinefantastique Online asked me if I had seen Beowulf, and whether I had an opinion on allegations he has heard that the film contains anti-Christian bias. Although the film looked intriguing because of its high-quality computer animation, I had not seen the film and was not able to form an opinion, but I used the occasion of Steve’s query to pick up and watch a copy of the film yesterday. What follows in this post is not a review of the film, but rather commentary on differing Christian interpretations of the film as it relates to positive and negative depictions of Christianity or incorporation of Christian ideas.

I searched the Internet yesterday to familiarize myself with Christian interpretations of the film and I found two views at opposite ends of the interpretive spectrum. On the one hand Christianity Today magazine included a review of the film that was very positive, so much so that it makes the claim that, “Screenwriters Gaiman and Avery have actually taken the spiritual imagery even further, heightening Christianity’s clash with the pagan Norse religions and orienting a plot that is shot through with biblical imagery.” The review goes further and states that “the animators’ inspiration was simple—a six-foot-six, incredibly muscular, Norse Jesus Christ.” On the other end of the spectrum National Review Online posted commentary with the title “Anti-Christian Crusade,” and the subtitle “Beowulf the latest installment in Hollywood’s attempt to reconfigure history.” With these radically different interpretations in mind as the film relates or doesn’t relate to Christianity, what are we to think of this artistically and technically beautiful piece of cinema that takes realistic computer generated animation to a new level?

The film, like the ancient folk epic upon which it is based, reflects a sixth century A.D. Anglo-Saxon culture, including the paganism of the time. In my viewing the film only included three direct references to Christianity, including two specific references and one general reference from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first direct reference comes in the form of a question near the beginning where a query was made of the king which he dismissed as to whether sacrifices should be made not only to the Norse gods of paganism but also the “new Roman god Christ Jesus.” The second reference comes toward the end of the film where Beowulf as king laments the loss of the time of heroes, battles, and monsters. In Beowulf’s view the “Christ god has killed it leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs…” The general reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition comes with a reference to the “sins of the fathers,” an allusion to an Old Testament passage which refers to the sins committed by the fathers visiting their children if they are not addressed properly by the fathers themselves.

With these three references to Christianity, which of the two interpretations of the film’s treatment of Christianity seem most accurate? The positive assessment, or the negative one? I’d like to argue that neither does justice and that another view is in order. Taken in the historical and cultural context of the story itself, the remarks made by the characters in relation to Christianity make perfect sense and seem to be a natural way in which sixth century Norse pagans, steeped in heroes, monsters, and battles, and deities that engaged in such exploits, would have reacted to Christianity and its offer of a new, suffering god and way of life advocating pacifism. Taken in context the remarks seem quite natural to the story and do not seem to reflect anti-Christian bias. On the other hand, in my view it is also a great stretch to see the film as inclusive of biblical imagery, and there surely is no support for the notion that Beowulf is modeled after a “Norse Jesus Christ.” The latter claim is reminiscent of Christopher Deacy’s concern over the frequent and inappropriate appropriation of Christ-figures in films where they do not exist. The reason for these differing interpretations is clear: If film viewers interpret cinema in light of their presuppositions about Christianity and popular culture, then these presuppositions will result in the divergent interpretations we see represented by Christians along an interpretive spectrum.

I’d suggest a third interpretation is more accurate, and that is that the film simply represents a modified form of the ancient story that reflects both the elements of its original historical and cultural context, but with modifications that enable it to communicate to a contemporary audience. The references to paganism and Christianity should be interpreted in this light, with the emphasis placed upon understanding Christianity as interpreted by sixth century Norse pagans rather than by alleged anti-Christian filmmakers in the twenty-first century. Beowulf provides an example of the need for Christians to be more careful in how they interpret film, allowing the film to speak on its own terms before moving to engage it in light of the viewer’s presuppositions.

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There are 5 Comments to "Beowulf: Anti-Christian Bias, Nordic Jesus Christ, or Mistaken Interpretations?"

  • B-Sol says:

    I did enjoy Beowulf very much, and I have no beef with Christianity, but I found it fairly obvious that the film does put forth an anti-Christian bias. Certainly, pagans in the era of early Christianity would’ve viewed the new religion as King Beowulf does, that much is true. But the filmmakers didn’t have to highlight that aspect. By choosing to include that commentary, I think they made their viewpoint clear. The attitude of the film seems to be nostalgic for an era of true heroism and legend, the idea being that Christianity emasculated Western man and brought an end to the era of classical heroes. I have no pro-Christian outrage toward that view, but it was fairly obvious to me that it was there. I guess I also know a thing or two about Neil Gaiman, who has no love for modern day Christianity.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    I appreciate your concerns about the film, and I reference these elements in my post, but I suppose I still need a case for this being anti-Christian rather than flowing from the story and the historical context of the epic. Regardless of Gaiman’s views in the real world, I didn’t see this surfacing in the film itself.

  • B-Sol says:

    I guess I just approach this sort of thing with the attitude that the filmmakers had a choice of which elements of historical context to include. They didn’t need to reference Christianity at all, but they made the specific artistic decision to do so, and in the specific way of mentioning the hero’s disapproval of it. That says something to me. There had to be a reason for it, it’s not an arbitrary decision.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    B-Sol, thanks for your further thoughts. For me the alleged anti-Christian bias case still has to be made. Simply because the author included elements disparaging of Christianity that could be found in a sixth century CE Nordic pagan context does not necessarily mean the filmmakers were attempting to make anti-Christian statements if the comments follow naturally from the context of the time and story. This may be problematic and it may not, but I need a better argument than what I have seen advanced by folks on the Internet thus far. For me this is another indicator of the difficulties Christians have in interacting in balanced fashion with pop culture.

  • Taliesin_ttlg says:

    Beowulf, in my opinion, is not anti-Christian or pro-pagan but, more so, captured a point where society was shifting from one set of beliefs to another.

    There are direct mentions of Christianity that you didn’t mention. In the mead hall we get Unferth, at the beginning, telling someone of the new Christian faith – he is evangelising. It is Unfirth who then suggests praying to the “new Roman god Christ Jesus”, as you mentioned, and then – at the end of the film, has become a priest of the new religion.

    To suggest a bias against Christianity ignores a historical truth – christianity was not always there – and is potentially pro-christian in the fact that it shows the integration of christian beliefs in a non-violent way.

    Just my two-penneth worth.

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