Sunday, December 18, 2011

Open Table’s Lessons and Carols service today was our own version of the traditional service that alternates scriptures and carols. We modified the usual readings to include poets like Wendell Berry, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and John O’Donohue and thus put contemporary writers in conversation with the songs and sages of old. After all, God is still speaking!

For two of the lessons, we heard excerpts from The Heliand in lieu of scriptures from Luke. My introduction to these readings is based on G. Ronald Murphy’s Forward to his translation of The Heliand.[i]:

For 2000 years, the story of Jesus’s birth has been retold for many different cultures. One version is found in The Heliand, also known as the Saxon Gospel, written in the early 9th C. An anonymous religious poet rewrote and reimagined the events of the gospel as if they had taken place and been spoken in the author’s own country and time, which was the chieftain society of a defeated people, forcibly Christianized by Charlemagne: the Saxons. The Heliand integrates Northern European magic, fate, and warrior virtues of the Dark Ages with the Christian gospel story. This is not a translation but a reimagination of the Gospel that suggests how a German warrior society adapted the Christian story for their culture. This oddly charming, sometimes jarring excerpt can remind us of the cultural filters that color the way we understand the Jesus Story in our own times.

Passages from The Heliand used in our Lessons and Carols service included the following, based on Luke’s nativity story.

“Then there came a decree from Ft. Rome, from the great Octavian who had power over the whole world, an order from Caesar to his wide realm sent to every king enthroned in his homeland and to all Caesar’s army commanders governing the people of any territory.… It stated that all warrior heroes were to return to their assembly place, each one was to go back to the clan of which he was a family member by birth in a hill-fort….The good Joseph went also with his household, just as God, ruling mightily, willed it. He made his way to his shining home, the hill-fort at Bethlehem. This was the assembly place for both of them, for Joseph the hero and for Mary the good, the holy girl. This was the place where in olden days the throne of the great and noble good King David stood for as long as he reigned, enthroned on high, an earl of the Hebrews.

“I have heard it told that the shining workings of fate and the power of God told Mary that on this journey a son would be granted her, born in Bethlehem, the strongest child, the most powerful of all kings, the Great One come powerfully to the light of mankind—just as foretold by many visions and signs. . . And it came to pass just as wise men had said long ago: that the Protector of People would come in a humble way, by his own power to visit this kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took Him, wrapped Him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid Him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though He had the power of God, and was the Chieftain of mankind. There the mother sat in front of him and remained awake, watching over the holy Child and holding it.”

“What happened became known to the horse-servants. They were outside; they were men on sentry duty, watching over the horses, the beasts of the field: they saw the darkness split in two in the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards in the fields. Those men began to feel fear in their hearts. They saw the mighty angel of God coming toward them. He spoke to the guards face to face and told them not to fear any harm from the light. “I am going to tell you,” he said, “something very wonderful, something very deeply desired. I want to let you know something very powerful: Christ is now born, on this very night, God’s holy child, the good Chieftain, at David’s hill-fort. What happiness for the human race, a boon for all men! You can find Him, the most powerful child, at Fort Bethlehem. He is there, wrapped up, lying in a fodder crib—even though he is king over all the earth and the Ruler of the world.” Just as he said that word, an enormous number of the holy army, the shining people of God, came down to the one angel from the meadows of heaven, saying many words of praise for the Lord of Peoples. They then began to sing a holy song as they wended their way through the clouds toward the meadows of heaven.

“They soon found him, the Chieftain of Clans. They praised God the Ruler with their words. The lady, the holy girl, his mother, kept in her mind and in her heart whatever she heard the men saying.

“Many heroes, the earls, very intelligent men, spoke on the eighth day with God’s girl, saying that the Child should have the name “healer” just as the angel of God, Gabriel, said in truthful words when he, as God’s messenger, gave this command to the woman. The mother, the loveliest of ladies, then fittingly brought up the Chieftain of many men, the holy heavenly Child, on love.”

For those interested in learning more about The Heliand, I provide more background and some thoughts about the benefit of reading the Bible through another culture’s lens.

Who Were the Saxons?

If you are a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or can recall reading in high school or college the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, you will be comfortable entering the world of The Heliand with its Germanic warrior culture, magic powers, secret runes, and feudal allegiances. The Heliand, which means, “the Savior,” is a 9th century rendition of the Gospels for an audience closely related in time and heritage to the audience of Beowulf. The hearers (I don’t use the term “readers” since this was likely a poetic song collection performed in mead-halls and monasteries) were recent converts to Christianity as a result of Charlemagne’s conquest of the Saxons.

In the 8th century, the Saxons, who lived in what is now Northern Germany but some of whom had migrated to what is now England four centuries before, were forced to convert to Christianity over a thirty-three year period of brutal military campaigns led by the Frankish emperor Charlemagne. On one day alone in 782, over 4,500 Saxon captive men were beheaded for refusing to accept Christianity as a tree sacred to the Saxons was desecrated and destroyed. Clearly, the Saxons were not a people who would easily leave behind their Saxon gods and religious practices. It is hard to imagine an audience that would be more resistant to hearing the “Good News”—and yet this was the challenge the author of The Heliand faced.

Who Was the Original Writer and What Was The Writer’s Purpose?
Little is known about the anonymous author of this work. Some scholars, like translator Father G. Roland Murphy, speculate the writer was a Saxon monk (partly because of influences of commentaries by Venerable Bede and Rabanus Maurus) who lived in the monastery at Fulda, founded in 744. Others suggest he was a layman and a scop (bard) because of some theological errors and because of his extraordinary skill with Germanic poetic devices like alliteration, kennings, litotes, caesuras, and powerful imagery. Certainly he was familiar with Saxon culture and perhaps had been a warrior. Probably the composer drew from Tatian’s Gospel Harmony or a similar work rather than directly from the four Gospels themselves. Probably the poem was composed around 830 C.E. under the reign of Charlemagne’s son. This epic poem was most certainly written to be sung or chanted to the accompaniment of an instrument, as musical notations are discernible in extant manuscripts.
The author’s purpose was to render palatable to a conquered people the religion of their conquerors. Whereas Charlemagne had believed in conversion by conquest, the poet of The Heliand believed in accommodation and contextualization of the Christian message and indeed sympathized with this brave but defeated folk. Thus, the author “imagines how Jesus would have acted, and what he would have said if he had been born in Saxony instead of in Judea, and in the process he manages to repeatedly affirm the validity of Saxon culture” (Hayward p.o. 3). Great sensitivity, tolerance, imagination, and skill were required for this cross-cultural transmission. The author of this conflated, cross-cultural re-imagination of the Gospels had two primary challenges: 1) present the story of Jesus in understandable terms, consonant with their culture and 2) present the God of the conquerors in sympathetic terms, as if he had been a Saxon chieftain. Although the author unfailingly sympathizes with the Saxons, he also finds ways to encourage them not to vacillate in their new allegiance to Christ—and perhaps to the Frankish king.

What Did the Audience Value and Believe?
To appreciate the scop’s challenge to transform forced converts into real converts, we must consider the differences between the Christian culture and the Saxon culture. You may remember from your study of Beowulf the Germanic warrior codes of loyalty and courage, the retributive practice of wergild (blood money), the ritualized art of boasting, and the concept that Wyrd (Fate) controls all life. Immediately we see that these values conflict with Christian concepts of cultivating peace and humility, “turning the other cheek,” and doing the will of God. In addition, hierarchical Saxon nobles, who were the primary audience for The Heliand, may not have appreciated Jesus’s reversal themes that blessed the poor and pronounced “woe” to the rich and mighty. In addition, the North Sea tribes worshiped multiple nature gods like Woden and Thor, who differed greatly from the monotheistic Christian god. Saxon gods, though powerful, were not immortal, and they were themselves controlled by Fate and Time. Also in conflict with Christian teachings was the Saxon practice of human sacrifice to appease the gods, and Christian missionaries reported horror at seeing bodies of both humans and animals hanging in sacred groves until they decomposed. The Saxons would have to overcome many cultural hurdles to accept the Christian God with sincere commitment.

Synopsis of the Opening “Songs” of the Text
The text is already familiar to us, of course. And yet it is also a new story. The Heliand places Jesus into the Saxon culture of the Dark Ages, but it comes to us as a translation of a translation of a translation. We have, after all, received this translation through several mediations: From the oral culture of 1st century Palestine where the story originated, to the Gospel writers of late 1st – 2nd century Mediterranean culture, to the Roman Church culture that produced The Gospel Harmony and other sources for The Heliand, to the 9th century Saxon culture—the Jesus story comes now to our 21st century American culture, which already knows a different version of the story via a different route. Thus, when we read this text, we are not only reading a story about Jesus’s life, but we see refracted in that story the lives of the audience for whom The Heliand was written, and we see our own culture stand out in greater relief. Perhaps in looking at the Gospel through another culture’s eyes, we see more clearly what is essential about the Gospel message. We might even question what parts of our understanding of the Gospel have been created by our own culture. My summary of the text will focus mainly on cultural variations on the Gospel story.

The first song of The Saxon Gospel provides a novel introduction to the Jesus story. First we meet the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who have been taught “God’s Spell” and which they must now compose and sing. They are presented as heroes and bards. Next we learn that God authorized Roman imperialism (a way of reminding the conquered Saxons to remain loyal subjects of the Franks?). And then the eventual warrior companion of the King of Heaven, John the Baptist, is introduced with his own nativity story.

The next few songs about John’s impending birth and the parallel story about Mary’s pregnancy establish early on that the Christian god, unlike Saxon nature gods, is not controlled by but rather is in control of Time and Fate. Thus, the Christian god is superior. Today’s readers will note that not only Mary but all good women in The Heliand are beautiful, and not only Joseph but all good men are brave and wise. The unorthodox (Docetist) treatment of the incarnation (13). Finally, the writer casts Mary and Joseph of “good family lineage, of David’s own clan” because both Charlemagne’s successor and the Saxons believed in a strict social hierarchy.
The Saxon Nativity omits the shepherds, probably because they were too lowly to be associated with the birth of the Chieftain. Since it was unfathomable for Saxons to deny a clansman lodging, the author does not even mention (presumably because he cannot explain it) that Mary and Joseph were denied room in the inn.

The Heliand converts the Wise Men to the Three Thanes from the East who are soothsayers and who seem to validate Saxon culture by implying God spoke to and used other pre-Christian people. However, the author subtly inserts an admonition that the Saxons, like the Wise Men, should not revert to old beliefs (26, footnote 44). Throughout the story, people who are “clear minded” are praised in such a way that affirms the importance of remaining true to Christianity and not falling back into paganism.

Questions for Reflection on the Nativity Story via The Heliand

What do we learn about the Saxon culture by reading the Gospel on their terms? What are their values and which values seem to accommodate Jesus’s story easily and which values seem to make acceptance of Jesus and his message difficult? Where are Saxon and Christian values at odds? What do we learn about the Gospel by reading it this way? There have been many attempts over the years to take the Gospel story into new cultures, not simply to translate the words of the text into a new language but to transfer the story imaginatively into a very different culture that may have different underpinning values and assumptions. What are the benefits and problems with these kinds of cultural accommodations in Gospel paraphrases? What historical or current examples can you cite that show Christians have ridden roughshod over other cultures? Conversely, can you think of examples where Christianity has so accommodated a culture that Jesus’ way has all but disappeared into a cultural soup?

Murphy, G. Ronald, translator. The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. (Thanks to Dr. Diane Lobody for introducing me to this fascinating transliteration of the Gospels!)

Category Nativity Story
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