In Stephen Lawhead’s novel Byzantium, the Irish monk Aidan has a conversation with a group of Vikings in which he explains who Jesus is and what He has done. In this, Lawhead has provided a great example of what contextualization should look like when evangelizing those who inhabit a different thought world than our own. Note carefully Aidan’s terminology as well as how he carefully responds to the Vikings’ assumptions about manhood and deity. While fictional, this is quite helpful and moving. Here is the conversation:
“You respect this god of yours,” said Leif, cocking his head to one side.
“He does that,” Gunnar assured him, taking some pride in this fact. “Aeddan has not ceased making prayers to his god since he came to us. He even makes prayers over our supper.”
“Indeed?” asked Ragnar wonderingly. “Scop never does this. He was of the Shaven Men, I am told. Is this something your god demands of you?”
“It is not a demand of the god,” I replied. “It is -” I paused, desperately trying to think how to describe devotion. “It is a thing we do out of gratitude for his care of us.”
“Your god gives you food and drink?” hooted the one called Jarn. “Now I have heard everything!”
Talk turned to whether it was worth a man’s time to hold to any gods, and which ones were best to worship. Leif insisted that it made no difference whether a man worshipped all of them or none. The debate occupied them for a goodly while, the ale vat supplying the necessary moisture when throats grew hoarse from argument.
Finally, Ragnar turned to me. “Shaven One, what say you? Is it that men should obey the old gods or give them up?”
“The gods you are speaking of,” I replied carelessly, “are like the chaff thrown to the pigs; they are the dried grass knotted and burned for kindling. They are worth less than the breath it takes to speak out their names.”
They all stared at me. But the ol was making me feel expansive and wise, so I blustered on. “The sun has set on their day, and it will not rise again.”
“Hoo! Hoo!” cried Jarn derisively. “Hear him! We have a thul among us now. Hoo!”
“Quiet, Jarn,” growled Ragnar Yellow Hair. “I would hear his answer for this question has vexed me sorely many years.” When silence had been enforced, he turned to me.
“Speak more. I am listening.”
“The god I serve is the Most High God,” I told them. Jan snorted at my presumption, but I ignored him and blundered on, mangling the few words at my disposal, but pushing on regardless. “This God is the Creator of all that is, and ruler of all Heaven and Earth, and of the unseen realms, both above and below. He is not worshipped by way of stone images or wooden idols, but in the heart and spirit of those who humble themselves before him. It is ever his desire to befriend and welcome the people who call upon his name.”
Leif spoke up. “How do you know this? Has anyone ever seen this god of yours? Has anyone ever spoken to him, eaten with him, drunk with him?” He took a long pull on his cup. The others reinforced themselves likewise.
“Ah!” I answered. “Many years ago, this very thing came to pass. God himself came down from his Great Hall. He took flesh and was born as an infant, grew to manhood and astonished everyone with his wisdom and the wonders he performed. Many people believed and followed him.”
“Wonders?” sneered Jarn. “What are these wonders?”
“He brought dead people back to life, restored sight to men born blind, gave the deaf to hear. He touched the sick with his hands and they were healed. Once, at a wedding feast, he even turned water into ol -“
“That is a god worthy of worship!” cried Leif enthusiastically.
“Heya, but the jarls and truth-singers of that land could not abide his presence,” I continued. “Despite the good things he did and taught, the skalds of the kings feared him. So, one dark night, up they leapt and seized him and dragged him before the Roman Magister; they accused him falsely and demanded that he be put to death.”
“Ho!” shouted Gunnar, growing excited by the tale. “But his followers raised the battle cry and descended upon the Romans and slew them. They cut off their heads and hands, and made a feast for the crows.”
“Alas,” I informed him sadly, “his followers were not warriors.”
“Nay? What were they then, jarls?”
“Neither were thy lords. They were fisherfolk,” I told him.
“Fisherfolk!” hooted Jarn, who acted as if he had never heard anything so funny.
“Yes, fisherfolk and shepherds and the like,” I replied, “Thus, when the Romans seized him, all his followers scattered to the hills, lest they should be caught and tortured and put to death also.”
“Ha!” laughed Ragnar scornfully. “I would not have run away. I would have driven them down with my spear and axe. I would have stood before them with my shield and fought them like a man.”
“What happened to this God-man?” wondered Gunnar.
“The skalds and Romans killed him.”
“What are you saying!” cried Leif, aghast with incredulity. “Is it that this god of yours was killed by the Romans? If he was truly creator of the world, he could take any form he wished. Why did he not change himself into a fire and burn them up? Could he not seize them and crush them with his mighty strength? Could he not send the death wind among them and slay his enemies in their beds?”
“You are forgetting,” I said, “that he had become a man and could do only what a man might do.”
“He let them kill him?” hooted Leif. “Even my hound would never allow such a thing.”
“Maybe your hound is a better god than the one Aeddan worships,” Jarn suggested maliciously. “Perhaps we should all worship Leif’s hound instead.”
“Is this so?” demanded Ragnar, frowning with concern. “He let the Romans kill him? How could this happen?”
“The Roman warriors chained him and took him out; they stripped him, tied him to a post, and beat him with the iron-tipped lash,” I said. “They beat him so hard the flesh came off his bones and his blood covered the ground. Even so, he did not cry out.”
“That is manful, at least,” put in Gunnar, much impressed. “I am certain Leif’s hound could not do that.”
“Then, when he was already half dead, they laid a timber door post on his shoulders and made him carry it naked through the city, all the way to Skull Hill.”
“The Romans are cowardly dogs,” spat Ragnar. “Everyone knows this.”
“The Romans took him and laid him on the ground…” Putting aside my cup, I lay down and stretched myself in the cross position. “While a warrior knelt on his arms and legs, another took up a hammer and spike, and nailed each arm and leg to the timber beam. Then they hoisted up and stuck the beam in the ground, leaving him to hang there until he died.”
My listeners gaped.
“While he hung high above the ground, the sky grew dark. The wind blew fierce. The thunder roared through the sky-vault.”
“Did he turn into a storm and strike them all dead with thunder-bolts?” wondered Gunnar wistfully.
“Nay,” I said.
“What did he do?” asked Jarn suspiciously.
“He died.” I closed my eyes and let my limbs go limp.
“It is just as well,” sniffed Jarn. “If your god is so weak and useless as that.”
“Odin once sacrificed himself in such a way,” Ragnar pointed out. “He hung on the World Tree for nine days and nights, allowing his flesh to be consumed by ravens and owls.”
“What good is a dead god?” asked Leif. “I have ever understood that.”
“Ah, now you have hit upon the most important point,” I told them. “For after he was well and truly dead, the skalds caused him to be taken down; they put him in a cave and sealed the entrance of the cave with a huge stone – a stone so big not even ten strong men could shift it. This they did because they feared him even in death. And they made the Roman warriors to stand guard over the tomb lest anything should happen.”
“Did anything happen?” Ragnar asked doubtfully.
“He came back to life.” I leaped form the ground, much to the astonishment of my listeners. “Three days after he died, he rose again, and broke out of the cave – but not before he had descended into the underworld and freed all the slaves of Hel.” I used their word, for it very nearly signified the same thing: a place of tortured souls.
This impressed them greatly “Heya,” nodded Ragnar in approval. “And did he wreak vengeance on the skalds and Romans who killed him?”
“Not even then did he demand the blood price. In this he showed his true lordship: for he is a god of righteousness, not revenge – life and not death. And from before the ages of the world he had established loving kindness as the rooftree of his hall. He is alive now, and for ever more. So whoever calls upon his name will be saved out of death and the torment of Hel.”
“If he is alive,” demanded Jarn scornfully, “Where is he now? Have you seen him?”
“Many have seen him,” I replied, “for he does often reveal himself to those who diligently seek him. But his kingdom is in heaven where he is building a great hall wherein al his people can gather for the marriage feast when he returns to earth to take his bride.”
“When is he returning?” asked Ragnar.
“Soon,” I said, “And when he returns the dead will come back to life, and he will judge everyone. Those who have practiced wickedness and treachery against him, he will exile to Hel where they will mourn for ever that they did not heed him well when they had the chance.”
“What of those who held to him?” asked Leif.
“To those who’ve shown him fealty,” I explained, “he will grant everlasting life. And they will join him in the heavenly all where there will be feasting and celebrating for ever.”
My listeners liked this idea. “This hall must be very big to hold so many people,” observed Gunnar.
“Valhalla is large,” offered Ragnar helpfully.
“It is bigger than Valhalla,” I said confidently.
“If it so big, how can he build it by himself?” wondered Leif.
“He is a god, Leif,” answered Gunnar. “Gods, as we know, can do these things.”
“Also,” I added, “he has seven times seven hosts of angels to help him.”
“Who are these angels?” asked Ragnar.
“They are the champions of heaven,” I told him. “And they are led by a chieftain called Michael who carries a sword of fire.”
“I have heard of this one,” put in Gunnar. “My swineherd Helmuth speaks of him often.”
“He cannot be much of a god if fisherfolk and swineherds can call upon him,” scoffed Jarn.
“Anyone may call upon him,” I said. “Kings and jarls, free men and women, children and slaves.”
“I would not hold to any god my slave worshipped,” Jarn insisted.
“Has this god a name?” asked Leif.
“His name is Jesu,” I said. “Also called the Christ, a word which means jarl in the tongue of the Greekmen.”
“You speak well for this god of yours,” Ragnar said; Gunnar and Tolar nodded. “I am persuaded that this is a matter worthy of further consideration.”
Stephen Lawhead, Byzantium. (New York, NY: Harper Prism, 1996), p.162-166.