Gunnar, Viking Theologian of the “Hanging God”

One of my favorite authors is Stephen Lawhead. His novels largely center on medieval themes with a tactful Christian undercurrent. Lawhead weaves together religious and secular themes in a way that forces one to look at the Christian faith outside of familiar language and trappings.

His novel Byzantium is set in medieval Ireland and recounts the journeys of a young scribe, Aidan, living in an Irish monastery. He is chosen by the order to accompany some monks to Byzantium to present a gift to the Emperor. The journey turns out to more than he bargained for. Along the way Aiden is captured and enslaved by Vikings, and his trek to Byzantium takes a long and distant detour, filled with adventures and a lot of spiritual growth on Aiden’s part.

At the end of the book, Aidan is back safe and sound in his native land when a lookout sees the Sea Wolves (Vikings) approaching. The abbey is in a state of panic, scurrying about to hide the treasure. They send Aidan to meet them, hoping his familiarity with Viking ways and facility with their language would dissuade them from sacking their peaceful abbey.

As they come closer, Aidan recognizes one of the Vikings as his old friend Gunnar. Soon, he is reunited with those who first enslaved him and then came to be his close friends.

As it turns out, the Vikings have come to Aidan’s land not to plunder and pillage but to seek out their friend. Throughout their journeys together Aidan had opportunities to respond with Christian love to those who at first meant him only harm.

The Vikings come bearing a very expensive gift (a solid silver embossed book cover)—only it is no gift but a first installment of a trade agreement. They want to build “a church for the Christ” and they want Aidan, who introduced them to Christianity, to come back with them to oversee the project.

Since his journey’s end. however, Aidan’s struggles have brought him to a point of despair and unbelief, and he chides his visitors for trusting in a God who “cares nothing for us.”

Gunnar responds that it is their gods who “neither hear nor care.” What makes the Christian god different, Gunnar explains to Aiden, is that he came to live among the fisherfolk and was hung up on a tree to die.

“And I remember thinking,” says Gunnar, “this Hanging God is unlike any of the others; this god suffers, too, just like his people….Does Odin do this for those who worship him? Does Thor suffer with us?”

Gunnar, as an outsider, zeroes in on something distinctive about the Gospel: the Christian God is a “Hanging God,” who does not observe suffering from a distance but takes part in it.

A suffering God is a disorienting thought, if we let it sink in for a moment. It is also logically inexplicable. If true, however, it is, as Gunnar concluded, “good news.” In our darkest moments, we are not alone.

[This post is an edited excerpt from my Ecclesiastes commentary published by Eerdmans last October and was originally posted on my previous website, "A Time to Tear Down," in July 2011. ]

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    The vulnerability of God in Christ who comes near, hangs on the cross alongside his sinful pity is at the heart of our beautiful Gospel. We truly do have a marvelous Hanging God. Over the last few years I’ve been coming to see the beauty of a the inverse, not opposite, truth of the God who is beyond his hanging, the Impassible one who became passible in Christ for us. I wrote a little piece summarizing some of Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent work on the doctrine of impassibility about some of the confusions connected to the classic doctrine. http://derekzrishmawy.com/2012/09/25/the-beauty-of-the-impassible-god-or-is-god-an-emotional-teenager/
    I’ve found that people think they have to accept one or the other–the Hanging God or the Impassible God. I’ve come to believe that the beauty lies in the fact that they are one and the same–the Hanging God is good news because his hanging moves on to resurrection by virtue of his impassibly divine life.

    Anyways, great piece. I’ll probably have to go look up this book now.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    I loved “Byzantium” and Gunnar’s heart radiated throughout the book.

    I would like to respond to the hanging theology, but to put what is written below on the internet will seem odd, as it’s an excerpt from my book and out of context from the blog format. But at some point this baby will be out in the world, so I might as well test the waters, if you’re okay with me sharing this page or two from a chapter called, “When We Close Our Hearts.”

    The book I’m writing is not a memoir, nor is it a personal testimony to Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, there is much of both included to drive home salient points in what I’m communicating to readers. The book’s objective is to help people dealing with chaos, and in particular the burden of loving someone suffering from an addiction or mental illness, be it a parent, child, spouse or friend.

    …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

    When I read my mom’s letter every time I get to the line, “I am sorry I was such a terrible mother,” I cry because she was far from a terrible mother. She was simply mentally ill. When she wrote that she loved me too much to cause me any more grief, I weep because in that statement I recognize that my mom gave birth to me twice: when she delivered me and when she took her own life. She sacrificed her life in order that I might live. Everything in her suicide note indicated that she hoped I would be free of her burdens and no longer weighed down by them. Her final words to me carried no trace of manipulation or self-pity but instead reflected a mother’s love wanting nothing but happiness for her child and an easier life.

    When people are suicidal the last thing we want them to think is that they are a burden or that the world would be better off without them. The shame one feels when depressed is profound enough without these additional thoughts. And yet in the end, this is what my mom thought and this is something I have to live with and grieve. I carry with me the guilt that I couldn’t somehow save her but I also hold within me her sacrifice that infused me with life because of her profound love.

    When it comes to love there is a selfless quality to it. John 15:13 states, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” When I stumbled upon this scripture after my mom died, I suddenly understood the power of Jesus’ death. Jesus laid down his life so that the world could live; my mother laid down her life so that I could. While I might be grossly distorting the gospels (and I am in no way advocating that people should take their lives), my mother’s suicide revealed something to me about the crucifixion that I had never previously understood. I suddenly saw that the sins of the world were redeemed through Jesus’ death and resurrection. This meant that my life, and my mom’s life for that matter, could be saved, for I do not doubt for a minute that Jesus picked my mother up at the end of her life and took her home with Him.

    Growing up Catholic, I had been taught that Jesus loved me but I didn’t really understand what that meant. Yet when I looked at the image of a cross and wedded it with the knowledge that my mother had taken her life in order that I might live free from the burden of her mental illness, I suddenly understood the crucifixion as the ultimate act of love. My mom had become the sacrificial lamb. This knowledge hit me on a cellular level, coursed through my veins, and ultimately transformed me. Stunned by the unnerving presence of love, like all the clichés I dropped to my knees in awe of this amazing grace. In that moment I was saved. I was redeemed. All the years of anguish and worry and heartbreak were being washed away. The years the locusts had eaten were going to be restored. Jesus healed me in that moment with his touch, as he had the lepers, the prostitutes and the blind. I was a female Lazarus being raised from the dead. Grafted into the vine, I had new life.

  • Dorfl

    How historically accurate is the book meant to be? I ask because in the Hávámal Odin describes how he was hanged from a tree, a legend I’d expect Gunnar to be aware of. Odin admittedly didn’t die and come back, but he did suffer.

    I ween that I hung on the windy tree,
    hung there for nights full nine.
    With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was
    to Odin, myself to myself.
    On the tree that none may ever know
    what root beneath it runs.
    None made me happy with loaf or horn
    and there below I looked.
    I took up the runes, shrieking I took them
    and forthwith back I fell.

    • Matthew B

      I was wondering about this too. It’s such an interesting parallel. (I would imagine that a viking might be struck at the difference in motivation.)

      • peteenns

        What is the significance of Odin hanging like this? I don’t know enough to make an intelligent statement here. What is he hanging for?

        • JLMerkling

          Odin hung on the tree in order to obtain knowledge of the Runes, a source of knowledge and power.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odin
          Hávamál

          In Rúnatal, a section of the Hávamál, Odin is attributed with discovering the runes. In a sacrifice to himself, the highest of the gods, he was hanged from the world tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, pierced by his own spear, in order to learn the wisdom that would give him power in the nine worlds. Nine is a significant number in Norse magical practice (there were, for example, nine realms of existence), thereby learning nine (later eighteen) magical songs and eighteen magical runes.
          One of Odin’s names is Ygg, and the Norse name for the World Ash —Yggdrasil—therefore could mean “Ygg’s (Odin’s) horse.” Another of Odin’s names is Hangatýr, the god of the hanged.

        • Dorfl

          Honestly, I’m not sure. It seems that being hanged gave him some sort of esoteric wisdom, including teaching him the runic alphabet*, as mentioned in the quote above. Most Norse myths have the problem that they don’t give very much context to explain why the gods do the things they do. You have the full text here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Poetic_Edda/Hávamál if you want a go at figuring out why Odin wanted to be hanged.

          Whatever Odin’s motivations were, I would have expected Gunnar to be aware of the story, so I don’t understand why he would find the concept of a “Hanging God” to be completely novel.

          *Which raises the question: would the runic alphabet have become longer if Odin had stayed hanged for longer?

          • peteenns

            My guess is that Gunnar is commenting on the Christian God as hanging to identify with humans. I was wondering if this was Odin’s motivation, too. Actually, in general, I am wondering if here are ancient stories of “gods suffering to identify with humans.”

          • Dorfl

            If I remember correctly, the Aztec gods choose to be executed because that was – for unclear reasons – necessary to create humanity. That, and Prometheus, are the only non-Christian examples I’m aware of where gods choose to suffer for humanity’s sake.

            On the other hand, most pagan gods tended to be much, much more anthropomorphic than the Abrahamic god. Marvel’s use of Thor as a superhero is really not that far away from the spirit of the original religion. So it’s not really clear that the Norse gods would need to do much to identify with humans.

          • peteenns

            And in the Enuma ELish, humanity is made from the blood of the god Kingu who was slain by Marduk.

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  • Jason

    I haven’t read much Christian fiction due to a lot of it being fluffy or just horribly written. I would like to give Lawhead a go though and was wondering which novel/series might be a good entry point into Lawhead’s work?

  • http://robert.epictales.org Robert Treskillard

    Excellent review of Lawhead’s novel, as well as of the important points of the plot where it relates to Aidan’s Christian faith and the conversion of the Vikings. Byzantium is an excellent book about his journey of faith and the surprising turns that happen in his road.

    The only suggestion I would give would be to add a “spoiler alert” to the beginning for those who haven’t read the novel yet!

    • peteenns

      Oops……

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    I stumbled across this passage today in Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book, “She Who Is” and thought it spoke eloquently of Christ’s suffering for us. “Closer to the point is the reflection of another woman who spent endless days and nights on a hospital ward with her tiny, sick daughter, helping the nurses with the other babies when she could. It was a dreadful exposure to the meaningless suffering of the innocent. ‘On those terrible children’s wards,’ she writes, ‘I could neither have worshipped nor respected any God who had not himself cried out, ‘My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?’ Because it was so, because the creator loved his creation enough to become helpless with it and suffer in it, totally overwhelmed by the pain of it, I found there was still hope.’


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