As the Christian faith spread throughout Europe its message was received by many disparate tribes. These various groups found identity in ethnic distinctions of shared language and culture. While often serving as barriers or diplomatic challenges, these differences sometimes played key roles in how the gospel was received and spread among a people. The Saxon Gospel provides one such example.
Einhard tells us that the conflict between Charlemagne and the Saxons was a long and bloody affair, marked by repeated Saxon capitulations and rebellions (part 7). The Saxons are characterized as faithless in keeping their agreements, humbly surrendering and then returning to their native religious practices (part 7). Einhard describes "the worship of devils" (part 7) among national religious customs which the Saxons were forced to renounce in favor of "acceptance of the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion and union with the Franks to form one people" (part 7).
Reading from Charlemagne’s General Admonition, we are able to draw out several other perceived practices of the indigenous Saxon religion: various forms of divination, from augury to soothsaying, to the interpretation of dreams, sorcery and consultation with familiar spirits are all practices attributed to the Saxons and forbidden under Frankish rule (paragraph 65). Cannibalism and human sacrifice are added to this list of alleged practices in the Capitulary for Saxony (paragraphs 6, 9). Saxon traditions appear to have been steeped in magical arts. Yet it is through this very distinctive that early missionaries attempted to bring the Good News of Jesus to this people.
The Heliand or The Saxon Gospel was an attempt to use the cultural specifics of the Saxons to retell the story of Jesus in a way that would be easily understood within the local frame of reference. The Heliand begins by recasting the gospel as "secret runes" (271) and tells of how the evangelists were chosen to "chant God’s spell" (271). God is recast as Chieftain, a tribal leader over the family of humanity (Heliand 271). In light of the Saxon reality of small fortifications, the cities of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth are described as hill-forts and ancestral homes of various clans (Heliand 272). When recounting the death of Jesus, the cross is replaced by a gallows tree to reflect a more familiar method of execution (Heliand 278). All of these embellishments were designed to give a sense of relevance to the Saxons’ way of life.
Though the narrative was recast to incorporate the milieu of everyday Saxon reality, Jesus’ instructions of peace remain the same: praying for one’s enemies, living in love, avoiding the swearing of oaths, and quelling violence by avoiding vengeance all remain key to the Christian message. The resurrection of Jesus through "the Chieftain’s power," while adapted to the societal structures of the Saxons also remains completely recognizable within a Christian context.
One question that arose for me as I read The Heliand was in the speech of God’s angel at the empty tomb, who claims that it was the Jewish people who tortured and crucified Christ the Rescuer (280). Crucifixion was a Roman invention and carried out, even in the gospels, by Roman soldiers. It would be interesting to trace the roots of the claim here – that the Jews were the actual agents of execution – back through Christian written history to note exactly where this train of thought began. Why are the Romans often absolved from any role in the Crucifixion?
Issues of cultural relevancy remain pertinent to the Church today. Far removed from the environs of first-century Palestine and the customs of the Jewish people, modern hearers of the Gospel are often lacking in cultural context for understanding the specifics of Jesus’ ministry as relayed by the New Testament texts. We too are faced with the task of presenting the central truth of the gospel in fresh and relevant ways.
As we continue to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, we must find ways to speak the language of those we wish to reach, establishing the relevance of our message in a world completely saturated with marketing. One way of doing this is to continue to look for cultural inroads, using contemporary trends and, where appropriate, engaging the shared traditions and customs of a particular people group. Even while speaking the language of our own culture, the messages of the Sermon on the Mount – loving one’s enemies, avoiding temptation, breaking the cycle of violence by refusing to avenge insult and injury – remain central to Jesus’ teaching and valuable instruction for our particular context.
Charlemagne. "General Admonition."
Charlemagne. "Capitulary of Saxony." 1996. 12 November 2007. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/carol-saxony.html>.
Einhard. "The Life of Charlemagne." 1999. 12 November 2007. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/einhard.html>.
"The Heliand." Readings in World Christian History. Ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004. 271-280.