What is it about modern man and our notion that there will, and always should be, constant progress, that we are actually entitled to this progress, to a long and trouble-free life, or that we are the masters of any of it? What has made us so certain that our culture and civilization could never fall as Rome or as the Anglo-Saxon civilization did?  The Anglo-Saxons of old were highly aware that their world was fragile and could fall. As the chaos of recent events in America has shown us – we are not vaccinated against the destruction of our modern civilization. That same awareness has begun to dawn in our minds too. We have been shown in terrifying 24/7 coverage just how close we have come, and yet we are still careening down that path.  As 21st century apologists, we can learn something valuable from ancient Christians as we face our own unknown future. Grappling with staggering hostility, and ideologies as contrary to our understanding as a foreign language, has made many people, Christians included, unsure of how to proceed. Operating under the assumption that any given culture is known by the work of its poets, in particular its elegies, its laments for loss, it is clear that ancient Anglo-Saxons held a cultural worldview very different from the post-Christian worldview of the American modern.

It is not that we 21st century folk never experience pain and suffering; we have and do, and our current events are a disturbing and scary example of that, but the modern Westerner tends to avoid the discussion of suffering, death and eternity, at all costs while the ancient heroically embraced it. Moderns tend to think it is a cosmic injustice when bad things happen that are a normal part of the natural world, but human beings, whether ancient or modern, are always more open to hearing the Gospel when faced with their own mortality. Herein lies the challenge to the apologist: how to best use this dolorous and uncomfortable topic to bring 21st century unbelievers, besotted with competing heresies, focused on self, and overburdened with technology, to Christ.

As apologists, we can reach back to these ancient poets and focus on their literary use of pagan heroic ideals, connecting the Anglo-Saxon’s awareness of their mortality and eternity, and their longing for something transcendent – to those same longings in the modern heart.  The people in this ancient culture that spanned roughly 600 years (410 to 1066 AD) were lovers of war, building a culture on heroic ideals, and telling tales of the deeds of warriors was a common and revered form of entertainment for them. With that boasting of heroics came an acute awareness of their own temporal existence. This made them a people who were open to seeking truth and a transcendence of the afterlife within the natural world they inhabited. The post-Christian American in the current culture of the West exhibits almost no desire to imagine his culture could also be in peril of coming to ruins, that is until now.

The Anglo-Saxons were well acquainted with sorrow, violence, conquest, political instability, disease and death, and none of it came as a surprise to them. Look at us now; we modern Americans are swiftly becoming acquainted with the same things: isolation, anxiety, violence in our streets, the COVID-19 pandemic, and political vitriol that shakes our Republic to its core. The unknown poet of “The Wanderer,” a ninth or tenth century Old English elegiac poem found in an anthology called the Exeter Book, laments:

Mindful of hardships, grievous slaughter,

the ruin of kinsmen, the wanderer said:

‘Time and again at the day’s dawning

I must mourn all my afflictions alone.

There is no one still living to whom I dare open

the doors of my heart . . .

wherefore those eager for glory often

hold some ache imprisoned in their hearts.’[1]

The unknown writer continues further on into the poem with, “Nothing is ever easy in the kingdom of the earth.”[2]  Nothing is easy for any of us right now either. We read these words and now, more than ever, they resonate with us as we sit on our sofas or porch swings, not in a happy-autumn-evening sort of way, sipping tea and watching the sunset after a productive day at work, but with a quarantine-induced foreboding that we “must mourn my afflictions alone.”[3] Translator Kevin Crossley-Holland explains how the writer of “The Wanderer” had been in one of the most cherished relationships in Anglo-Saxon heroic culture, that of a ‘retainer,’ or servant to a lord-warrior. A man who attended his lord in battle, and was rewarded with inclusion in feasting and post-victory celebrations in the mead hall as well, enjoys his position and riches by association. When his lord dies, so does the servant’s place in society, and in this dramatic monologue he is expressing sorrow and grief at being cast into exile and longing for meaning in his life.[4] How many moderns, both Christian and pagan, are currently in a place of ‘exile,’ quarantined away from their familiar places of power or association in society, groping around for some sort of meaning to what they hope is a temporary state?

Anglo-Saxon elegies resonate with the lament of the exiled, the inevitability of loss of connection, and with longing for transcendent truth, beauty, and goodness. In Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Dr. Holly Ordway makes a case for the modern’s deep sense of longing for a righteousness and goodness they cannot even identify, something they desire beyond any natural and earthly pleasure, an “ache imprisoned in their hearts.”[5]  She states that we have a “desire for meaning and beauty in one’s life – and also a profound desire for justice, peace, reconciliation, and love in one’s society, over against the daily injustices, conflict, hatred, and instability that we see in the news and in our own families and neighborhoods.”[6]

Unlike our ancient forebears, up until recently we have lived in remarkable stability and relative peace, so most of us would not feel a connection with the message recorded in “The Wanderer.” In other words, we have trouble relating to a worldview in which there resides an acute awareness that there is no exemption from suffering and death. Our current culture is steeped in the idea that we are entitled to a life free from suffering, a painless death, peacefully slipping into eternity at a ripe old age, after a life of prosperity, health, and happiness. Yet there is still that nagging sense of longing unfulfilled; and this is where the apologist can and should be ready to step in with the story of eternal security.  Ordway asserts, “Longing has an important place in imaginative apologetics, both because of its very existence, which challenges the naturalistic paradigm, and because we can point toward God who is the fulfillment of that longing.”[7]  What an opportunity we have as apologists! The world has virtually come to a standstill. People are stuck in their homes, tiring of the reruns on TV, and are stirring with longing for real answers because the inherent uncertainty in life can no longer be ignored.

A year ago, no one in America ever expected 2020 to be the way it is right now. Violent mobs roaming the streets, people screaming their pain and confusion, and burning down whole communities. We have a scary virus that holds us captive in our homes, and political and ideological division sowed quietly for years sprouts up like bad wheat, threatening to destroy the fields we are meant to harvest.  This happens in ‘other’ countries, not ours, these types of events have never been our societal “norm,” but it is tragically becoming that.  None of these terrible things would have taken the Anglo-Saxon by surprise.

The Anglo-Saxons witnessed the rise and fall of empires, suffered under brutal conquests and raids, fought bitter wars, buried kings, and experienced a vacuum of power and a breakdown of security in Britain when Rome left to wage war on behalf of their own homeland. Compare this to America, which has enjoyed relative security and tremendous progress since the 1783 Treaty of Paris proclaimed our nation fully independent and the war won. Ordway asserts, “Christians in medieval through early modern eras were much more comfortable with the facts of death . . .  But as our technological and medical prowess has grown, so too has grown a tendency to avoid facing the inevitable reality of mortality and suffering.”[8] The rise of technology, giving moderns unprecedented power over their lives, has made them less dependent on God, or even willing to acknowledge Him – until a tragedy happens.

Although modern America has weathered wars, including on our own soil, she has never known a cataclysmic shift in power that disrupted the lives of her citizens to the point of total obliteration of the government, our main power structure that instills this false sense of security. Until recently, almost no one in America would consider the possibility of anything about our culture being fleeting the way the “Wanderer” saw his own world:

Here possessions are fleeting, here friends are fleeting,

Here man is fleeting, here kinsman is fleeting,

The whole world becomes a wilderness.[9]

Keep in mind that an elegy is a lament, so it can be depressing if it were not for the search for eternal hope that also springs up in these poems. “The Wanderer” was not the only lament in the Anglo-Saxon canon that lamented the ruination of their world. Another elegy titled, “The Ruin” states:

the works of the giants decay.

Roofs have caved in, towers collapsed.[10]

We saw this happen literally on 9/11 in living color on our televisions when great towers we had built and thought would stand were laid low.  Since then as the years have passed and the character of our culture has drifted further from God, we have seen a life we always considered invincible begin to crumble and burn in the chaos of 2020.

The elegy, “The Seafarer” also seems to reflect today’s post-Christian Western state of mind and being:

Days of great glory

in the kingdom of the earth are gone forever . . .

weaklings thrive and hold sway in the world.[11]

Our modern culture is full of weaklings that do not value history or the past the way ancients did. While the worldview of our current culture has not till now allowed it to consider the ruination of the life we know – the Anglo-Saxon’s knew it was an inevitable scenario for them, and they were willing to face the hardships that befell them as an expected part of life, yet the Anglo-Saxon believer put his hope in the Lord:

So it is that the joys

of the Lord inspire me more than this dead life,

ephemeral on the earth. I have no faith

that the splendours of this earth will survive for ever. . .

the gold a man amasses while still alive

on earth is no use at all to his soul,

full of sins, in the face of God’s wrath . . .

Foolish is he who fears not his Lord:

death catches him unprepared.[12]

We assume our way of life will continue on, and exponentially improve, as long as there is “progress,” technological and otherwise. That we will continue to amass wealth while ignoring the Creator of our souls. That assumption is what presents a huge challenge to modern apologists. For if the people we hope to evangelize believe they can keep juggling the plates by their own power alone, why do they need God?

Most modern pagans (and even some Christians) assume that humanity’s efforts are sufficient, but sufficient to what most do not even want to discuss! Suffering, death, and eternity are socially uncomfortable topics that most people want to distract themselves from with social media, entertainment, and the ideology du jour until the moment passes. Apologists must be willing to wade into the waters of sinister and terrible things that happen to our unbelieving culture, apprise ourselves of the heresies and lies this culture is held captive by, and unflinchingly proclaim Christ crucified. Ordway states:

“We can’t really convey this great truth if we just stand on the outside and say Happy Jesus Things. We need to tell stories that show our need for rescue and redemption, and that there is no place so low, no state of weakness too profound, no state of desperation so deep that God cannot find us and rescue us.”[13]

We could say that even though we have experienced terrible things here like 9/11 and other acts of violence, most modern Americans stringently still avoid thinking or talking about death – that is, until 2020 and the seemingly apocalyptic things happening around us. As independent, autonomous Westerners, we have deceived ourselves into believing that we have the power to say when, where and how death will come to us. But death, or the impending possibility of it – has a way of opening the ‘eternity’ conversation up for people. When people are in danger or near death, they often become much more open to talking about the Gospel. As apologists, we must arm ourselves with truth, strapping on the sword of the Spirit as ancient Anglo-Saxon’s wore a literal sword at all times. We must be ready to offer true security to a seeking world. The ancients understood this more than we do as revealed in “The Wanderer” elegy’s final summation:

It is best for a man to seek

mercy and comfort from the Father in heaven where

security stands for us all.[14]

The ancients understood much more readily than moderns do that their world was temporal, and those realizations made them open to discussing, writing about, and embracing what to do about their eternity. We have trouble believing that ‘ruin’ of a civilization could happen to our culture – and we are fully shocked when it does. The instantly accessible, 24-hour a day coverage made possible by technology – leaves the modern with a unsatiated hunger for more, a longing for meaning, and leaves them with no time for truths to percolate in their minds and bubble up in their souls.

The value of ancient writings for moderns is a richer and slower perspective. On the whole, the American modern has exchanged this for cheap, fast information, instant snapchats and memes of shallow meaning. Progress has left post-Christian Americans empty and devoid of deep meaning – and they are ripe to be harvested, to listen to deeper meanings, to have shown to them words with compressed meaning as found in the elegies of old . Let us not be timid to unfold these for them, like opening a dusty treasure box to reveal a jewel of great value. Scripture and ancient poems about God and His sacrifice for us must be revealed to them, and with that, Christ our Warrior-King who redeems us from exile, and with whom we will share eternal riches and glory.

Citation Information

Sandra G. Hicks, “Death and Redemption for the Modern Heart: What We Can Learn from the Anglo-Saxon Elegy,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 97-110.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///death-and-redemption-for-the-modern-heart-what-we-can-learn-from-the-anglo-saxon-elegy/

[1] “The Wanderer,” in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 50, lines 6-11.

[2] Ibid., 52, line 109.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] Ibid., 50, line 18.

[6] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 132.

[7] Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, 132-133.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World, 52, lines 111-113.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Ibid., 55.

[12] Ibid, 55, lines 66-69, 102-104, 107-108.

[13] Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination 116.

[14] Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World, 52, lines 119-121.