In a disturbing sequence early on in “The Northman,” Robert Eggers’s brutal new Viking revenge epic, a band of entranced berserker warriors raid a Rus village. The ensuing slaughter is depicted in realist detail. At one point the film’s protagonist, Amleth, played by Alexander Skarsgård, rips out an enemy’s throat with his teeth.
In the raid’s aftermath, everyone but a handful of adult villagers — deemed healthy enough to survive the winter as slaves — is rounded up and locked in a house, including the children. A pair of berserkers casually toss torches on the thatched roof as those trapped inside scream and beg for their lives.
More or less the whole film is like that, and it’s not that fun to watch. But amid all the mud and smoke and butchery, and elaborately rendered scenes of pagan witchcraft, we get a harrowing glimpse of pre-Christian northern Europe. Whatever else Eggers is trying to do in “The Northman,” he makes no effort to gloss over the breathtaking violence and pitilessness of Viking culture.
In fact, it’s hard to sit through the film without feeling a sense of profound relief that Norse paganism was supplanted by Christianity. The Catholic monks who ventured into Scandinavia in the tenth century brought a radical new religion that proclaimed something revolutionary to the pagan mind: a loving God who made man in his image, conferring an inherent worth on every person, even the weak and powerless — slaves, women, children.
Eggers probably didn’t intend it, but “The Northman” is a powerful reminder that western civilization arose directly from Christianity, and depends on it for its vitality. Had the Catholic Church failed to convert Europe, the continent would have languished in paganism just as surely as the indigenous cultures of the Americas did. There would have been no St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, no Magna Carta, no philosophy or theology, and no American Founding.
All of which to say: we are today living off the interest of Christianity, drawing from the deposit of faith that lifted the West out of paganism. Our civilization, with its insistence on individual rights and due process and enumerated powers and the rule of law, relies above all on a specifically Christian understanding of man and society and the cosmos. That’s what John Adams meant, for example, when he said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
To note this is also to admit what by now should be obvious: the interest is running out. We are no longer “a moral and religious People,” and there is a real danger that without Christianity our civilization, along with our system of government, will atrophy and die.
That is not to say we will revert to pre-Christian paganism, to berserker raids on hapless villages and the demonic rituals of pagan seers. But post-Christian societies will begin to lose those ideas and principles that made western civilization distinct from the rest of the world, and all that had come before — things like freedom of speech and conscience, inalienable rights, the equality of man, the consent of the governed.
Indeed, this process is already underway. Consider just one example from back in February, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when the world’s attention was fixed on Canada, of all places. There, under the guise of health and safety, a supposedly liberal government carried out an unprecedented and terrifying crackdown on peaceful protesters and their families.
Nothing could have better illustrated the corruption and decay of a once-tolerant and free society. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the epitome of an enlightened liberal, showed us what sort of tolerance we can expect from post-Christian liberal governments in the West.
Peaceful protesters were not just arrested, their bank accounts were seized, assets frozen, and legal defense funds locked down. They were told their livelihoods would be taken from them, their trucks and licenses confiscated. At one point, government bureaucrats threatened to take their children if they did not comply. The message from Trudeau’s government was clear: shut up and go home, cease your protesting, or we won’t just arrest you, we will ruin you utterly.
I thought of those Canadian families as I read an essay by Francis Fukuyama in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal about how the world is “clearly evolving toward equality and freedom,” and that despite some setbacks, liberalism will win out in the end. He waves away the massive counterfactual of communist China, where a decidedly illiberal modern civilization has taken root, and tries to console his readers with empty platitudes about history’s “progress toward justice.”
Nowhere in his long essay, though, does Fukuyama even once mention Christianity’s role in creating and sustaining the liberal principles he thinks will somehow endure on their own. Either he does not know or refuses to admit that our entire conception of justice and freedom springs from the Christian religion, without which they become merely justifications for rule by brute force.
His error — an error shared by all our liberal elites — is to attribute the success of western civilization to the progressive improvement of human nature and the advances of modern technology. But human nature has not improved. It is fixed and fallen, and that will never change. We are all, in a way, berserkers. We always have been.
But Christianity gave us a way out through the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christianity heralded the possibility of the redemption of our fallen natures and conversion to “a more excellent way,” the way of love, which is Christ and His Kingdom. Whatever progress we have achieved since then is a result of that more excellent way. If we abandon it, as we are now doing, what awaits us is a post-Christian civilization every bit as brutal and violent and unjust as the pre-Christian world of “The Northman.”
John Daniel Davidson is a senior editor at The Federalist. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Claremont Review of Books, The New York Post, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter, @johnddavidson.
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