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. ]

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