By now, the oft-recurring negative portrayals of Christianity in major Hollywood movies have become hackneyed and predictable. The recent rendition of Beowulf only reinforced this trend. The same subtle depictions and motifs present in movies from decades past were once again present, a favorite being the attempt to try to depict pagans as “open-minded” and “free-spirited” peoples, or, quite anachronistically, as medieval counterparts to the modern, secular, liberal. The idea being that pagan peoples — unencumbered by the suffocating forces of Christianity — were/are happy, passionate folk, able to live life to the fullest.
Beowulf’s opening scene depicts King Hrothgar and his thanes in an utterly bacchanalian setting: carried in a litter, privates barely covered in a loose toga, inebriated and cheery, Hrothgar declares to the festive crowd that it’s time to party and “fornicate.” (As to how well-grounded these representations are to the original text, see John Miller’s Beowulf the Movie Star.) Simultaneously, a sullen (and we soon find out cowardly and conniving) Unferth, his adviser, perfunctorily explains to a bystander the advisability of embracing Christianity — all while urinating. When Unferth later suggests to the convivial Hrothgar that perhaps he and the people should consider praying to the “new god,” Christ, a sobered up Hrothgar rejects the suggestion with disdain. Finally, this same Unferth, the only advocate for Christianity in the movie, just so happens to also be the only one in the pagan kingdom who not only keeps, but constantly beats, a slave — an oblique reminder of the tired charge that Christianity is somehow responsible for slavery.
Released two years ago, The Kingdom of Heaven, which is set in the Crusading era, followed precisely the same anti-Christian paradigm. The opening scene portrays a callous priest gleefully informing the hero of the story, Balian (heroic, we ultimately find out, primarily because he’s wary of Christianity) that his suicide wife is doomed to hell (while he proceeds to steal her cross — not for its intrinsic value, of course, but because it’s made of silver). All the “bad guys,” such as the Templars, have big red crosses painted on their tunics. Of course, the fact that these same red crosses still adorn hospitals and ambulances, and what that implies, is altogether missed. (Similarly in Beowulf, Unferth, the primary antagonist of the tale, is also the only one who wears an extremely large cross around his neck). Whenever these marauders want to engage in some nefarious scheme against the Muslims — who are always portrayed as noble and fair-dealing — they cynically holler, “God wills it!”
Additionally, there’s King Arthur, released in 2004. Again, Arthur, who according to all records (legendary or otherwise) was Christian, now, just as with Kingdom of Heaven ‘s Balian, is portrayed as being ambivalent towards, and cautious of, Christianity. Conversely, the blue-painted pagan Picts are shown as a free-loving people who simply want to live and let live, while the Church in Rome is a hypocritical and oppressive force, constantly out to exploit.
So, according to these films and their subliminal messages, we are to understand that all pre-modern Christians who were zealous over their faith were (and thus still are) all hypocrites — or worse — while all truly good “Christians” were (and still are) discreet, indifferent, skeptical, and cautious of Christianity, such as Balian and Arthur. Furthermore, according to these films, all non-Christians were either liberal, and laid back (e.g., pagans), or noble, upright, and truly pious (i.e., Muslims). That the pagan peoples habitually engaged in barbarous practices, such as human sacrifices, cannibalism, and slavery is ignored. As well, the fact that Muslim law (both then and now) is characterized by extremely draconian measures, such as stoning fornicators, subjugating non-Muslims and women, and, under certain circumstances, still sanctioning the institution of slavery is, of course, never mentioned. Nor is the fact that Christianity abolished things like human sacrifices, and the fact that its ultimate law is to love God and one’s fellow man (Mark 12:30-31).
Another ubiquitous notion in these films is that Christianity, which at one point Beowulf contemptuously calls “the weeping religion of martyrs,” is an effete faith that all “true men” — warriors such as Beowulf — eschewed. This concept goes as far back as 1981 in the movie Excalibur, where a chrome-doomed (and extremely animated) Merlin lamented that “The new god comes to drive out the old gods.” This in fact is a well entrenched motif, best given intellectual grounding by the many writings of Freidrich Nietzsche, who maintained that Christianity is the religion of the weak, while atheism, paganism, or even “Mohammedanism” — anything, really — is more conducive to the cultivation of manly virtues.
So again we are to understand that virile pagan peoples — such as the rowdy Vikings of the 1999 film 13th Warrior, who sarcastically explain to their upright Muslim companion that they are in need of “many gods” — were aware of the debilitating effects of strict monotheism, and by extension, Christianity, and thus wanted nothing to do with it.
But this leaves the question: If Christianity was, and is, some sort of un-masculine religion, meant to sap the “aristocratic” class of their manhood and arête — that is, manly virtue and excellence — why then did the ruling warrior class of Europe ever come to accept it in the first place? Why did the warrior emperor Constantine embrace Christianity in the 4th century? Who forced him — the persecuted Church and its anchorite fathers? They had no authority; it is only due to Christianity’s intrinsic appeal that it spread — to both the people and their warrior-leaders. Following Constantine, there have been a number of heroic leaders who chose — not through coercion or any pressing need — to embrace Christianity: such as the Carolingians, including Charles “the Hammer” Martel, who Christian civilization owes no small debt for its existence (battle of Tours 732) and his descendants, most notably Charlemagne. Had these staunch Christians not defended the borders of Christendom from both pagan and Islamic forces, there would be no Western civilization of which to speak.
At any rate, while Hollywood can appear to be on a crusade to defame Christianity, it would do well to remember that it is because of Christian civilization that they are even able to make movies in the first place.Not only is Christianity fundamentally responsible for what many a Western liberal takes for granted — that is, the freedom and advancements of Western civilization — but also for much of the historical record from which movie-makers are able to exploit, warp, and subsequently rake in millions, was compiled by Christians. It is no small irony that the one single solitary manuscript that contains the text of Beowulf was written by a monk, and preserved in a monastery for centuries.