‘Vikings’: L.A.’s Bishop Barron Looks at Religion in the History Channel Drama

AthelstanIn his latest post at his media apostolate Word on Fire, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop (and media maven) Robert Barron takes on the History channel historical drama “Vikings,” which show the clash between the pagan Vikings and medieval Catholics in England and beyond.

Says Bishop Barron:

Don’t get me wrong, there is enough violence, pillaging, plundering, sword-fighting, and political intrigue to satisfy the most macho viewers; but Vikings is also drenched with religion—and for that I applaud Michael Hirst, its sole writer and director. For this emphasis is not only historically accurate, but it also resists the regnant orthodoxy in much of the entertainment industry that characters should be presented as though they are indifferent to the world of faith.

There is a particularly affecting scene in which the Vikings confront Athelstan the monk, who would come to play a crucial role in the series, and they discover that, of all the treasures in the monastery, he is most concerned with protecting a book of the Gospels. Facing down the swords, clubs, and firebrands of the Vikings, Athelstan hugs to his chest the sacred text. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful and beautiful manner of indicating the centrality of the Word to Christians.

Here’s Hirst, quoted in in a story at Christian Today:

“It was one of the motivating factors for me writing it! I wouldn’t have wanted to write the show without the spiritual aspect. It’s something that always interested me,” he told Entertainment Weekly in an interview. “The Tudors was about the Reformation, and the destruction of the Catholic faith, and I was deeply interested in that.”

Hirst added that paganism is something that he’s been interested in for a long time, since there are different aspects to it – there is Roman paganism and Scandinavian paganism, which he considers “richer.” The writer said that the sagas tackling paganism are so “bonkers” and compelling, both weird and absolutely wonderful at the same time.

“I’m not making a point particularly, except I’m saying that these people genuinely hold these different beliefs. This is what Christians believed at the time. This is what Scandinavians believed at the time, and very powerfully. I don’t think you’ve ever seen on TV before what pagan practice was. This is the best we know of it,” he said.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Hirst (who isn’t Catholic) has given a place of prominence to Catholicism, and in a positive and fair-minded way.

As Hirst mentioned in the above article, he was also was writer and executive producer of Showtime’s 2007-’10 historical drama series “The Tudors,” which traced the romantic and political adventures of King Henry VII, who forcibly separated the English church from Rome.

Sitting-front (left-right) Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Callum Blue as Knivert. Sitting-middle (left-right): Blathnaid McKeown as Princess Mary, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Queen Katherine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII, Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, and Gabrielle Anwar as Princess Margaret. Standing (left-right): Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas Moore, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, Kris Holden-Ried is William Compton and Steven Waddington as Edward Stafford - Photo: Francois Rousseau/Showtime - Photo ID: em-tudors-portrait_group_of_ten

Sitting-front (left-right) Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Callum Blue as Knivert. Sitting-middle (left-right): Blathnaid McKeown as Princess Mary, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Queen Katherine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII, Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, and Gabrielle Anwar as Princess Margaret. Standing (left-right): Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas Moore, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, Kris Holden-Ried is William Compton and Steven Waddington as Edward Stafford – Photo: Francois Rousseau/Showtimeand political adventures of King Henry VII, who forcibly separated the English church from Rome.

It was the first retelling of this story that I’d ever seen that gave his first wife, the Spanish-born, staunchly Catholic Queen Catherine, her due.

As her husband sought to put her away, claiming their marriage was invalid and their daughter was illegitimate — in order to marry Protestant Anne Boleyn — Catherine defended her honor and her rights as a Catholic spouse and a queen. And to her death, she never wavered in the Faith.

From a story I wrote on it in 2007:

“We felt her story needed to be told,” says executive producer Ben Silverman (who has just taken over as NBC’s new entertainment co-chair). “It was so informative of Henry’s genesis, where he came from and the relationship that begat all this. It makes more sense if you really delve into it.”

“She’s usually pretty quickly dispensed with,” says Showtime entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt, speaking of Catherine, “and Anne Boleyn gets most of the attention. (Writer/creator) Michael Hirst, in doing his research and getting into the story, could create characters. That’s one of the virtues of playing it out, and not having to do it in one quick miniseries.

“We could really see Henry and Catherine. He didn’t hate her. In fact, in the beginning, he cared a lot for her. It was just a weird situation, because he was forced to marry her. Then he falls in love with somebody that he really gets attracted to, and the rest is history, as they say.”

In “The Tudors,” Hirst also didn’t shortchange Catherine and Henry’s daughter, fervently Catholic Princess Mary, who later, as Queen, tried to reestablish the Faith in England. She failed — and in no small measure because of her own personal issues and excesses — but Hirst made her a well-rounded character, took into account the terror and uncertainty of her upbringing, and made viewers understand her passion.

British history may dismiss her as “Bloody Mary,” but truth be told, her efforts to restore Catholicism were no less “bloody” than those of her father and her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, to blot it out. But, as they say, history is written by the victors.

Now, Mary and Catholicism aren’t treated nearly as fairly in the two feature films Hirst wrote about Elizabeth I, “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” In the first one, Mary is portrayed as mentally unstable and cruel; in the second one, the “Virgin Queen” is depicted intentionally substituting herself for the Virgin Mary — but then, writers have a lot less control in  movies, so who knows what Hirst actually wrote?

Aidan Alexander as Joffre Borgia, David Oakes as Juan Borgia Joanne Whalley as Vanozza dei Cattanei, Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, Lotte Verbeek as Guilia Farnese, Francois Arnaud as Cesare Borgia, and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia in The Borgias _ Photo: Mark Seliger/SHOWTIME_ Photo ID: TheBorgias_gal_PR09_AltarHORIZ

Aidan Alexander as Joffre Borgia, David Oakes as Juan Borgia Joanne Whalley as Vanozza dei Cattanei, Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, Lotte Verbeek as Guilia Farnese, Francois Arnaud as Cesare Borgia, and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia in The Borgias _ Photo: Mark Seliger/SHOWTIME

Hirst also produced the 2011-’13 historical drama series “The Borgias” for Showtime. Created by Neil Jordan, it was a sumptuous and racy retelling of the story of Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI, considered by many to have been one of the most dissolute pontiffs.

But at the same time, the Borgia family also produced a saint, Francis Borgia, Rodrigo’s great-grandson (yes, Rodrigo’s sins included fathering illegitimate children).

Rodrigo is depicted as a sexual libertine and capable of intrigue and violence, but at the same time, one gets the definite impression that he believed in God and the Faith and knew he was sinning, while constantly trying to justify his behavior. There were positive aspects to his papacy, but it’s hard to imagine a more flawed man sitting in the Chair of Peter.

From a story I wrote in 2011:

At the same time, most people in Renaissance Rome had religious faith, and that included Rodrigo Borgia. He may have been a deeply flawed man and a frequent, if conflicted, sinner, but he was not a poseur pope.

“If you know history,” Jordan says, “it says that once Rodrigo Borgia was elected pope, he was suddenly overawed by the responsibility. He bought his way into the thing, and you feel, of course he expected to win.

“But he never really imagined what it would be like to stand where St. Peter’s bones were, and where every pope before him stood, and to be genuinely — as he believed and everyone believed at the time — God’s representative on Earth.”

Lastly, “Vikings,” “The Tudors” and “The Borgias” are not even remotely suitable for children, both because of violence and sexual content (especially “The Tudors” and “The Borgias,” since they were on pay-cable Showtime). What’s depicted is not inaccurate for the time nor the story being told, but they’re definitely something for older teens at the minimum, followed by a lot of family discussion.

Images: Courtesy History

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