Christ And Thor

I recently saw the new silver screen release Thor, and it got me to thinking about the fate of the (truly) Western religions that existed prior to the advent of Christianity. One of the first things that inuitively occurred to me is that the Thor of the film is remarkably Christlike for a pagan deity, and my intuition was confirmed today by someone knowledgeable in the Norse religion:

To anyone schooled in Norse mythology, the Odin of the movie is almost unrecognizable, except for his long beard, lack of one eye, and possession of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse (which provides an extremely cool special effects moment). Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is wise and good, full of benevolence and cherishing a horror of war. He’s kind of like a professor of English or some social science at an Ivy League university—wooly-headed enough to throw away the gods’ greatest weapon at a moment of dire military threat.

The Odin of the Vikings was most of all an extremely powerful magician, a wizard—not the nice kind of wizard like Gandalf, though he was one of Tolkien’s inspirations for the character, but the old kind of wizard—treacherous and murderous, with lies on his lips and blood under his fingernails. He delighted in war for two reasons—one in order to feed the wolves and ravens that were his familiars, secondly in order to fill his hall, Valhalla, with heroes who would stand with him at Ragnarok, the last great battle. To this end he raised heroes up and then brutally betrayed them. He was also, according to the eddas, a sexual predator and a known deviate.

The difference between these two Odins, I think, is suggestive of important—and generally unrecognized—elements in western culture. The script writers have confused Odin with the Yahweh of the Jews and Christians. It doesn’t even occur to them that a high god could be anything but kind and peace-loving, since we all have so thoroughly internalized Christian suppositions that even people who reject the Christian religion—and I assume that a large proportion of the people who made this movie do—can’t conceive of a religion founded on darkness and brute force and the domination of the weak by the strong.

In an odd plot element (I’ll try not to spoil it) Thor submits to a Christ-like humiliation for the sake of others. This is something that would have never been said of him in the old religion, except as a joke. Even Thor has grown richer through acquaintance with Jesus.

These thoughts in turn reminded me of an essay I re-read at least once a year, by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, “Christ and Nothing” on the effects Christianity has had on what remains of paganism:

Even our ethics are achievements of will. And the same is true of those custom-fitted spiritualities — “New Age,” occult, pantheist, “Wiccan,” or what have you — by which many of us now divert ourselves from the quotidien dreariness of our lives. These gods of the boutique can come from anywhere — native North American religion, the Indian subcontinent, some Pre-Raphaelite grove shrouded in Celtic twilight, cunning purveyors of otherwise worthless quartz, pages drawn at random from Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, or that redoubtable old Aryan, Joseph Campbell — but where such gods inevitably come to rest are not so much divine hierarchies as ornamental étagères, where their principal office is to provide symbolic representations of the dreamier sides of their votaries’ personalities. The triviality of this sort of devotion, its want of dogma or discipline, its tendency to find its divinities not in glades and grottoes but in gift shops make it obvious that this is no reversion to pre-Christian polytheism. It is, rather, a thoroughly modern religion, whose burlesque gods command neither reverence, nor dread, nor love, nor belief; they are no more than the masks worn by that same spontaneity of will that is the one unrivalled demiurge who rules this age and alone bids its spirits come and go.

And indeed, when one listens to how modern Odinists (yes, there are still people who worship the old Norse gods) present their religion, it is evident that these religions have been reshaped in light of the conflict with Christianity. For example:

WHAT OF THE GODS AND GODDESSES?

Odinism is a polytheistic religion. We believe in and honour the life-giving and bountiful gods and goddesses of the Odinic pantheon, whom we refer to collectively as the High Gods of Asgarth, or as the Æsir and Vanir. Our gods are true gods, divine, living, spiritual entities, endowed with power and intelligence, able and willing to intervene in the course of Nature and of human lives. It behoves us to seek their goodwill and succour through prayer and sacrifice. But the gods do not require us to abase and humble ourselves; they do not seek to make of us craven slaves. Odinists therefore do not bow or kneel or kow-tow to the gods, but address them proudly like free, upstanding men and women. Odinists regard our gods, not as our masters, but as firm friends and powerful allies.

It seems hard to deny, when faced both with the subtle re-presentations of ancient religion, and with their largely fringe status in modern society, that Hart is right when he says that:

With Christ came judgment into the world, a light of discrimination from which there is neither retreat nor sanctuary. And this means that, as a quite concrete historical condition, the only choice that remains for the children of post-Christian culture is not whom to serve, but whether to serve Him whom Christ has revealed or to serve nothing — the nothing. No third way lies open for us now, because — as all of us now know, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not — all things have been made subject to Him, all the thrones and dominions of the high places have been put beneath His feet, until the very end of the world, and — simply said — there is no other god.

I haven’t found many descriptions of the spirit of our age superior to this one.