The Anglo-Saxon Evangel by Douglas Wilson


The Anglo-Saxon Evangel

The Beowulf Poet Was a Shrewd Christian Apologist

B eowulf is not just an artistic gem. It is also a profound example of a potent apologetic for the Christian faith. Both the pagan and Christian elements in the poem are obvious, and I want to argue that the poet placed these two elements in tension deliberately, and that he did this to accomplish a very shrewd apologetic for the Christian faith: a kind of catechesis for a people who were recently pagan, and who still had to deal with pagans around them.

The poet is not like one of those backsliding monks at Lindisfarne, sternly rebuked by Alcuin for paying attention to the ancient heroic tales. Speaking of a minor character in Beowulf, Alcuin asked:

What has Ingeld to do with Christ? The house is narrow, it cannot contain both. The king of the heavens will have nothing to do with heathen and damned so-called kings. For the eternal king rules in the heavens, the lost heathen repines in hell.

Our poet is no conflicted monk, reading James Joyce under the covers at night with a flashlight. A thoroughly Christian poet is not showing us this paganism to say, “See, pagans can be noble too—even without Jesus!” Rather, he is refusing to engage in a fight with a heathen straw man of his own devising. He acknowledges the high nobility that could be present in that culture, but then bluntly shows us that same nobility at the point of profound despair.

The effect is extremely potent. Instead of saying that nobility is possible without Christ, the poet shows that such nobility does not keep a people from being utterly and completely lost.

Though a heroic poem about pagans that never mentions Christ, Beowulf is the opposite of syncretistic compromise. It is written to highlight the treachery as a way of life that afflicted these pagan societies from within, and the greed and plunder as a way of life that afflicted them from without (whether they were the marauders or the victims).

Our poet shows us this pagan hopelessness in a period of history just before their conversion to the Christian faith. He is recounting the testimony of his people, and, just as with modern testimonies, the sin is highlighted. But it is art to conceal art, and he leaves us hanging just before the explicit moment of conversion. His original listeners knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Beowulf’s Partial Victory

In the poem, the Danes are afflicted by a monster named Grendel, who has for twelve years had the run of their great hall, Hereot, at night, killing many of the Danes, but their elderly king, Hrothgar, cannot deliver his people. Beowulf, a young Geat adventurer, arrives and volunteers to fight the monster (the Geats were a tribe from what is now Sweden).

Douglas Wilson is the minister of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and a senior fellow of theology at New St. Andrews College. He is the author of Reforming Marriage (Canon Press), The Case for Classical Christian Education (Crossway), and other books, most recently Letter from a Christian Citizen (American Vision), a reply to Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation. His weblog can be found at Douglas and his wife Nancy have eleven grandchildren.

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more on literature from the online archives

30.4—July/Aug 2017

Soul Comforter

on Emily Dickinson & the Source of Our Hope by Josh Mayo

30.5—Sept/Oct 2017

The Unforgotten

on Costly Grace in Breece D'J Pancake's Flyover Country by Casey Chalk

32.2—March/April 2019

The Problem of Pity

Misguided Mercy & Dante's Infernal Purgation by Joshua Hren

more from the online archives

22.8—November/December 2009

The Origin of Aesthetics

Looking for Beauty & Justice 150 Years After Darwin’s Classic by Charles Taliaferro

19.4—May 2006

Liberalism as Religion

The Culture War Is Between Religious Believers on Both Sides by Howard P. Kainz

32.2—March/April 2019

The Aura of Science

Flight from the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West, Volume II by Paul Gosselin by Louis Markos

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone