It’s no secret that literary texts can express a worldview, but I’m very interested in the way worldviews combine and mingle in the literature we read in the first English literature survey.
Many of the texts in this course (written approximately 600 A.D. to approximately 1780) were written or recorded by people who held explicitly Christian beliefs. Of special interest, though, are those Anglo-Saxon texts that were recorded just after the (re) Christianization of southern Britain in the sixth and seventh century.
Occasionally (as in the case of “Beowulf,” which was almost certainly transcribed by a Christian priest in the copy we have), pre-Christian Germanic material is only partially merged with the scribe’s Christian perspective. More interesting is the way the Christian material shows the mixing of the warlike honor culture of the Anglo-Saxons and the Catholic culture of the priests who wrote the works.
Christ and the Cross
“The Dream of the Rood,” an Anglo-Saxon poem (date of composition is unknown), is an interesting early example of this cultural encounter. An unknown narrator describes a dream, but part of the story is told from the point of view of the cross (the “Rood”) on which Jesus Christ was executed.
The cross relates the crucifixion in this way:
“Then I saw the Lord of mankind hasten with stout heart, for he would climb upon me. I dared not bow or break against God’s word when I saw the Earth’s surface tremble. I might have felled all foes, but I stood fast. Then the young Hero stripped himself—that was God Almighty—strong and stouthearted. He climbed on the high gallows, bold in the sight of many, when he would free mankind. I trembled when the Warrior embraced me, yet I dared not bow to earth, fall to the ground’s surface; but I must stand fast. I was raised up, a cross; I lifted up the Mighty King, Lord of the Heavens. I dared not bend.”
Christ as a Hero and Warrior
A number of ways Christ is described are unfamiliar: He is talked about as hero and warrior, and His identity with God Almighty, Lord of the Heavens, is stressed. People familiar with the New Testament account see a very different set of metaphors and incidents described there: the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the image of the sacrificial Lamb of God, the sheep silent before its shearers.
All of the scriptural metaphors emphasize the purity and innocence of the sacrificial victim; the poem’s metaphors emphasize the strength of Christ and his heroic task, depicted in epic terms.
Christ as epic hero in this poem displays the characteristics valued by non-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture—strength, determination and ability to perform superhuman tasks. To me, this raises interesting questions: Does each culture that encounters Christ picture him in terms most congenial to what the culture most admires? How does that picture shape a culture’s response to the Christian message? In what ways do we feel the Anglo-Saxon picture of the crucifixion distorts the person and work of Christ, if, in fact, it does?
Christ in Pop Culture
Ultimately, this leads me to think critically about the images of Christ most popular in our culture. We tend to think of Christ as friend, confidant and helper. More, we tend to downplay the violence of the crucifixion in our depictions and the heroic necessity of freeing us from captivity to sin (with the notable exception of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which was greeted with a fair amount of criticism for just that realistic depiction of violence, among other things).
If we feel that “The Dream of the Rood” falsifies the picture of Christ to some degree, then we might critically examine our own views for their possible shortcomings, and consider the way our own cultural presuppositions color our image of the Savior.
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“Dream of the Rood.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. A. 8th ed. (2006), page 28.