In a recent conversation with some Word on Fire colleagues, I brought up the ubiquitous nature of Viking culture present in media and film. Sure, the trend of Scandinavian minimalism in home design and a romanticization of the Nordic economic models is apparent in my generation, but I’ve also noticed the allure of the culture of the long-dead warriors known to us as the Vikings. A popular History Channel series, a Marvel Comics tentpole character, and the uber-successful video game series Assassin’s Creed now put the Viking age in its focus. Even fitness equipment and coffee mugs now feature Nordic aesthetic elements and heavy-duty construction.
Why Vikings? Why now in the twenty-first century?
“Well sure! It’s symptomatic of our vacillating culture of masculinity!” asserted one colleague. “The beards and tattoos and ruggedness of the Viking is a reaction to the coffee-shop hipster, which was a reaction to the manicured Jersey Shore / Boy Band of the 2000s, which was a reaction to the grunge flannel of the ’90s, which was a reaction to the glam rock of the ’80s . . .”
“Alright, I get it!” I stopped the conversation before we ended up going all the way back to the rebelliousness of the Roman tunic. I certainly think there’s a dimension of the outer-physicality of Viking culture that appeals to me, especially men living in such a sedentary time of cubicles and COVID. Bearded warriors throwing heavy objects in Strongmen competitions appeals to the outer trappings of strength and masculinity, certainly, but I would contest there’s a deeper ache that’s calling to men than the solely aesthetical—the threefold call to religion, brotherhood, and adventure.
Underneath the fashion trends, there’s a religiosity in Viking culture that Bishop Barron has articulated and discussed before. We all have that God-shaped hole and for most of our peers who drink from the cultural well of nihilism and scientism, that ache for divine meaning and purpose has nowhere to go but to New Age practices and even Scandinavian gods. The Vikings, for all their brutality, lived and fought under a spiritual ethos that guided all of their activity. As Bishop Barron notes, “The ubiquity and intensity of faith in these various peoples and tribes calls to mind philosopher Charles Taylor’s observation that, prior to 1500 or so, it was practically unthinkable not to be religious.” The default setting of our ancestors was that a spiritual realm guided, judged, and called us out of ourselves in every hour of existence. Worship of something unseen was not only reasonable but utterly necessary. This runs counter to the modern notion that only what can be placed under a microscope can constitute what is real. To the radical shutting out of the divine in today’s world, modern man, unsurprisingly, rebels.
Perhaps there’s some unconscious acknowledgment of the brutality of the world in the Viking ethos with which we are re-identifying. It’s kill or be killed in a pre-Christian world—cancel or be canceled in a post-Christian one. Commandments and morality have been discarded as antiquated or regressive; charity for the other is often regarded as a weakness in the fast-paced com-boxes of internet attack. Human life may be discarded if it is conceived in what is thought to be the wrong place or the wrong time. With this ethos, what is left to do but throw down your gauntlets, pick up your ax, and maraud with the rest of the crowd?
For the Christian, however, we know well the call of Christ to the path of nonviolence. Truth can stop the power of a mob’s scapegoating and disarm the bloodlust, and sometimes this path takes the greatest courage of all. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a large crowd of his supporters walked fifty-four miles along the highway from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965, peacefully facing resistance and violence, and giving witness to the world that “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” The Vikings knew that there were things worth fighting for and that the will to fight manifests itself in one way or another. J.R.R. Tolkien himself drew from the Nordic mythos and the courage of their warriors as inspiration for his epic work, The Lord of the Rings, and subsequent works. Whether society acknowledges it or not, men still yearn for that chance to test their inner strength in the face of adversity and injustice, to fight and not to count the cost.
The Vikings didn’t adventure alone—they made their quests with their brothers, and this idea of belonging to a clan or a tribe is attractive to the isolated men and women of modernity. The Vikings were on the move constantly, traversing the seas to Britannia or marching through the European continent, not as lone rangers but as a defined unit. The morality of pillaging notwithstanding, the modern ache for brotherhood and community, particularly in a time of pandemic, is keenly felt among all of us, but perhaps, especially men. The COVID pandemic has only increased the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in our generation, and the need for the Church to respond to this crisis. Parishes and men’s groups can help men to connect to one another and experience a sense of belonging, of being seen, known, encouraged, and tasked with specific missions within their local communities. St. Teresa of Kolkata affirmed, “Stay where you are. Find your own Kolkata. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely, right where you are.”
Something about Viking culture speaks to the unmet needs of modern men, offering—if only in the mind, for some—a transformative journey in the face of a hostile world, trusted brothers at the ready. But this inner calling to something greater, which finds some expression in the modern revival of Nordic culture, can only truly be answered in a life devoted to the God-man Jesus Christ, and the apostolic adventure he offers. We in the Church should be reading these signs of the times so as to provide men with a framework necessary to form brotherhoods anew and to embrace the Christian life as the greatest quest known to man.