Posts Tagged ‘heathenism’

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Vikings: A History” by Robert Ferguson

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

This book took me a full two weeks to read through.  I expect that’s hardly a good beginning to a review meant to encourage a reader, but this is a book by a writer who is doing a bang-up job of wrestling a coherent historical narrative from a collection of unreliable sources about a pre-literate culture.  Unreliable because many of the stories the Vikings told about their own history were written down long after the events they describe (when they are describing actual historical events).  And many of the poets who were part of that heathen culture had their own poetic axes to grind in praise (or condemnation) of their Viking chieftains.  The other accounts were written down by non-Vikings, and a lot of folks in western Europe and the British Isles had reasons to dislike the violent heathens from the north that were raiding their monasteries.    Fortunately for us, the author Robert Ferguson has the trustworthy mix of interest, knowledge and skepticism to give us a comprehensive tale of the Viking culture.

The reason we care about the Vikings is because they had a tremendous cultural impact on Western Europe, not just as raiders, but as settlers who, over time, became a part of the lands they first set foot upon as invaders.  If you descend from a Western European or English/Irish bloodline, then Vikings of some stripe are in your family tree.

Besides painting an illuminating portrait of the culture of these northern seafaring raiders, The Vikings gives an even more profound glimpse into the centuries-long process of European Christianity displacing Viking Heathenism.  This is a powerful tale that any of us can relate to.  For it turns out that Christianity was the wave of the future, and became heavily identified with civilization and progress and as such was used as a tool of control by cagey chieftains, kings and bishops.

In this role Christianity had the advantage of central control, which naturally appealed to a leader of unruly tribespeople.  Heathenism (and Viking culture, in particular) was much more egalitarian.  Yes, there were priests and shamans and tribal chiefs, but leadership was by mutual consent of the led, and religious practice was an individual as much as a communal affair.

The Vikings, it turns out, were everything we thought them to be: violent, vain and warlike.  But they were also a people of laws, honor and rough humor.  And it turns out that the brutality that the Vikings visited upon the monks and monasteries of England and France was a response to religious violence visited upon their heathen brethren by the representatives of Christ.  The Christian religious leaders had decreed that the killing of a heathen did not count as murder, and a particularly bloody massacre of a community of Vikings became well known throughout the northern lands.  The Viking age was launched, in so small part, as a religious war.

Of course we know who “won” that war.  Ferguson’s book confirms earlier suggestions that the Norse pantheon had fallen from its earlier heights to become the subject of more coarse ridicule than serious worship.  In short, the stage was set for a change.  Not that the rank and file gave up their idols easily.  Far from it.  Throughout the Viking age, the battle raged back and forth with monasteries (and cities) burning to the ground as often as heathen temples.

In the end, this is the story of human culture and it’s evolution from a larger tribal identification into the beginnings of nationhood and national (over cultural) identification.  Though I found myself getting lost in the lists of unfamiliar names (a bit like reading parts of the Old Testament), the human stories are compelling, heartbreaking and enlightening.  The Vikings in this book are living, breathing, modern humans like you and me, living out their ethics and aspirations in their turbulent, colorful, tragic and dramatic times.

I recommend this book.  It’s a good way to get to know your heathen great-great-grandparents!

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “The Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The "rev" having a "mountain top" experience!

After a Sunday morning hike part way up Tortugas Mountain, I sat on a jagged boulder under a cloudy, early Fall sky.  The wind was rising and falling in that blustery kind of way that marks a shift in the seasons.  I watched the cars pass below me on the paved road that snaked around the base of the mountain, and heard their distant hiss.  I looked at the Organ Mountains to my east, and the Mesilla Valley to the west.

I began to think of the many times in my life when I went outdoors to pray.  I spoke out loud the names I had prayed to before, to see how they felt in my mouth (and to check if they had any residual charge in my psyche): “Heavenly Father”, I said, “Lord Jesus”.   Then I said: “Speak to me Holy Spirit: show me that you’re real”.  At that moment, a wind came up, whistling past me.

It was just the kind of coincidence that had helped — in the past — convince a young believer (me) that God was real.  It was perfect.

My rational brain politely intervened, reminding me again of the power of confirmation bias when it came to our natural cognitive tendency to connect two random and unrelated events into a uniform narrative.  I decided to conduct an experiment.

“Oh Holy Hamster” I said.

Nothing.  Not a whisper of a breeze.  (Obviously the wrong deity).

I tried another: “Oh Sweet Baby Llama — speak to me”.

There was only the whisper of a breeze.  But I knew what to do.

“Oh Sweet Baby Llama, you whisper so quietly that I can barely hear you.  Speak to me, oh Baby Llama, oh sweet Baby Llama.”

And the Sweet Baby Llama answered me in a blast of wind that surely could have come from no other place than the divine breath of the creator (llama).

Except of course the wind had not come from the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven.  It was a local random (meaning non-intentional) weather phenomenon with completely natural causes that we understand because we live in an age of science.

But setting that aside for the moment, these are the kind of thought/action/belief experiments that give us chills as children and adults: The first time you get up the courage to ask a Ouija board a question; ask Jesus for a “sign”; sit down in front of a palm reader at a psychic fair; or ask the wind to answer.

C.S. Lewis described the terror of this kind of moment where one suddenly is confronted by a force one was chasing without really ever expecting to catch up with:

“There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” — “Miracles” C. S. Lewis

But this time I did this “test” without that twist in the base of my esophagus.  It was a rather playful interaction between my conscious, formerly-believing mind and the world that is so random as to be almost always cooperative with our whims.  Combine that randomness with an evolved brain hell-bent on making sense out of EVERYTHING and, voila, you’ve got the Sweet Holy Baby Llama speaking to one of his (or her?) believing children through a seasonal cold front moving across the face of the planet.

I know this seems silly.  But many a believer has done this trick on themselves, and walked away from it encouraged by a seeming confirmation of their beliefs.  The famous scientist Francis Collins had just such an experience where he came across a waterfall on a walk that had frozen into three distinct streams.  In that tableau he saw the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Clearly none of us humans is completely immune.

What’s unfortunate is how easily we take these things seriously.  There are figures on the national stage right now (who think they should be President) who see messages from God in hurricanes and earthquakes.  We may as well determine national policy based on the reading of goat entrails and the casting of runes.  There is no practical difference (though there is clearly a huge social difference as a majority of Americans are much more sympathetic to theism than voodoo).

The thing I’m not telling you about my “prayer” to the Sweet Baby Llama is that I had years of training in how to make something as innocuous as a breeze into the voice of God.  I attended many a prayer meeting where I learned to speak in tongues, where I learned that familiar cadence of spoken prayer that includes a lot of space fillers, so that one can basically create an endless prayer that can carry you until SOMETHING happens that can be taken as a sign.

It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are trained and duped so easily.  One comfort to our acceptance of our bald credulity is the fact that it happens to almost all of us.  Belief is truly natural to our brains.  Even some of the writers of the Bible recognized this, using it as a proof of the existence of God:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (New International Version.  Copyright 1984.  Emphasis mine)

We do have a sort of “eternity” in our hearts.  We understand the passage of time and our the mortality of all physical life.  So why should it be surprising that a living being, once conscious of his existence, should not wonder whether or not that existence could (or should) continue outside of the physical world it inhabits?

It’s hard not to see the thread of human longing that is woven through all of our belief systems.  In this way the battle of ideas that was the war between the heathen Vikings and the Christian Kings of Europe was not a triumph of truth over falsehood, but a displacement of one model of belief by another, seemingly more “modern” one.  This process continues unabated.  For those to whom the God of the Bible is a bit too archaic, they can simply transfer their desire for transcendent beings to Aliens or benevolent spirits in a universe that desires our good.

Even people who assent to the reality that mind and spirit are purely products of the human brain are loathe to abandon more spiritual conceptions of life.  So deep is this need for belief that believers are rated higher in happiness than non-believers.  The hard, cold reality of life is that the hard, cold reality of life is easier for us to take when we can believe that there is an intelligence behind it all that is kindly disposed towards us.  But in the words of Michael Shermer:  “I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

There is no denying that staring the void in the face is discomfiting.  So is the contemplation of our own eventual death.  Yet somehow we humans — cursed as we seem to be above all other life on this planet with a conscious awareness of our own mortality — somehow manage to go about the business of living, wresting pleasure, accomplishment and satisfaction from our lives.  There is a certain wonder in this.  The life of an individual ant seems meaningless to us, but would we feel the same if that ant was building an opera house, or conducting genetic research to find cures for diseases that were attacking her fellow ants?  Probably not.  We’d think her noble.

And so we humans, believing or not, soldier on.  Helped and comforted by God, the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven, a general sense of agency in the universe or the appreciation of our capacity to courageously accept our lot as evolved living organisms on a spinning planet of rare life in a vast universe.

t.n.s.r. bob