Vision: Ride Upon the Storm
Denmark and Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) are inseparable in the world of theology. Kierkegaard defined Christianity in Denmark, and his style was ironic, existential, introspective, and reflective, always railing at the institutional church; always confronting his inner demons. Where science looked to objectivity, faith looks to subjectivity, he would say. Faith is found in the emotions of a life lived and choices made. Kierkegaard agonises, for instance, as Abraham makes his way up Mount Moriah. What was he thinking? What was Sarah feeling? His greatness was found in his uncompromising and passionate nature, and his insistence that faith did not fit well with comfort and social norms, or indeed, a State Church.
Kierkegaard was the child of an austere father who felt he was cursed, and this suspicion of cursedness fell like a pall over Søren’s life. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Adam Price’s Danish religious drama brings us a contemporary Danish Lutheran priest, Johannes Krogh, whose family go back 250 years in ministry, and where there seems to be a similar family curse. In a late-night boozy conversation, we hear there is a rumour that the Danish poet Grundtwig was far too friendly with a nineteenth-century ancestor, Mrs Kogh, and that that is why there is enduring madness in the pastor’s family, a madness that seems almost quintessential to his faith, and is to become all too evident as the story unravels.
Ride Upon the Storm is religious and Kierkegaardian to the core. The story is hard to tell without giving away its secrets. Few dramas tell the inner life of the Christian so well, so passionately, and so fiercely. I can think of Rev (BBC), a very different English drama, and the movie Of Gods and Men. Like Rev, Ride deals with the nitty gritty of life as a pastor in an institution imploding and diminishing, and as the Church hierarchy is culling churches and blaming those at the coalface. Like Of Gods and Men, Ride unveils the deepest longings and ironies that faith exposes, even in unbearable pain.
Johannes (also the name of the anti-hero in Kierkegaard’s Diary of Seducer in Either/Or) is the patriarch: regaled in the traditional Danish priestly ruff and robes. He is arrogant, ambitious, irascible, an alcoholic, and an occasional womanizer. But this is not an exposé of the Church; rather a revelation of holiness in the midst of frailty, and an exploration of the depth of emotion that religion provokes. Johannes carries his treasure in a jar of clay.
He has two sons, August and Christian, and a beautiful, generous, and long-suffering wife, Elizabeth. They are also passionate people who chafe under his patriarchal influence but seek to find their own voices in stunning but sometimes tragic paths. Their lives spiral at times out of control, as though propelled centripetally by Johannes’ toxic/faithful mix of belief and madness.
Indeed, by the end of the first episode we know that oldest son Christian, who is theological to his core, but is ambivalent about his calling in the Church, has plagiarized his dissertation and will later sleep with his best friend’s partner and become a Buddhist. Was the burden of being his father’s child too much, we wonder? The second son, August, is a talented and passionate pastor, who carries the family’s religious DNA, and is already married to the loving but agnostic Emilie. But is he too good? They are all acting out deep scripts of father/son and sibling rivalry – shadows of Cain and Abel, of Abraham and his seed. “To those who have will be given,” Christian taunts August.
They cannot make decisions outside those scripts. We wonder, how can faith be so free and yet so bound? In the first episode, we see Johannes almost get elected as bishop, until at the eleventh hour, he reveals his real heart about Islam. Yet we are rooting for him because he has already revealed his passionate and deeply felt faith. We have witnessed a tender pastoral conversation with a dying and unbelieving man who is afraid of what is to come. We have seen him leave his own family celebration without a second thought, on hearing of the man’s death, and to visit his widow. But in his disappointment, he spirals into despair and alcohol. Elizabeth seeks her own way, covering for him and his madness, loyal and loving and in the end branching outside the script in a way that few others in the family are able to do.
We are taken so far beyond the usual secular banter of strengths and weaknesses, of strict no-go boundaries which might render someone unfit for ministry, but only because of the love that is evident at his core. We walk a fine line of course; we are not asked to endorse the lechery and despair, only to walk with him and to understand it. We see the corrosive acid of a church or any other ministry run as a business and ignoring its prophetic core.
The series is dense with meaning. Johannes leaves the bishop’s election, staggering in his disappointment, saying, “Don’t you notice me at all /Don’t you notice all the things I do”? His quarrel is with God. But before he left his church for the announcement, he had kissed the face of Christ on a cross, and had said, “walk with me.” He had asked a crucified man to walk with him; and here, he was also suffering, also misunderstood, also preaching a purer gospel, and being shunned for that. We get it.
August serves as a chaplain in Afghanistan. Did he really choose this, or did he shun the society church he was offered, because of his father’s and brother’s envious provocations? At one particularly perilous point in August’s service, his mother senses his danger and the whole family prays, even as August is praying with his men. We are invited to be open to the witness of the Spirit’s synchronicity – not an answer to evil, but certainly a response. Ride explores the moral perplexity of war, the speed with which young lives are lost so carelessly, and the particular anguish of the priest, especially in combat. This becomes an anguish which doubts its own salvation. Ride reveals the shadow action casts on life far away from the scene of battle.
There are thrilling scenes (slight spoiler) – Johannes playfully caressing the grandson in the waters of the baptismal font, and then, on an impulse, whimsically and recklessly completing the act. You watch aghast, sure of the consequences, but egging him on as well. You wonder, why does it matter if a child is baptized if a parent doesn’t believe at all in God or the spiritual? Deep questions are raised and never dogmatically answered.
Adam Price wanted to show that religion is more important even than politics, and more riveting as well; if we talk about religion, we might not kill one another, he thinks. He is the writer and producer of Borgen which brought us the thrill of Danish politics, and re-enacted for us the strange but attractive umwelt of Scandinavian soul. Ride digs even deeper to themes that are both local and universal at the same time. Ride shows that faith is far from controlled, and formal; rather it is open to the Spirit’s searing, to extravagant love, to agonizing decision-making, to powerful inner turmoil. And all because of something quite nebulous, up there, suggests Price.
The outward chattels of faith are all ancient. The austere robes and the enormously ornate Church interiors, and yet the faith-questions are intensely contemporary: how do we deal with Islam now that Muslims are our neighbours – or partners in battle – and not the “Infidel” of 500 years ago? How do we deal with madness? Is it possible to contact the dead? Is there a hell? And how should a pastoral interview with a dying man go? There could be few better lessons in pastoral ministry than Ride. And yet, although there are Christians writing for Ride, Adam Price himself is only a curious unbeliever. Most of us could not do this, proof surely that the Spirit is working in the world.
In a further real-life twist, the Guardian (Jan 30, 2019) reports that Lars Mikkelsen, the agnostic star of the show, and son of communist atheists, who soconvincingly plays Putin in House of Cards, and the psychotic Troels Hartmann in the Killing, apparently sought baptism himself near the end of the filming. Ride then, has done something most churches cannot. It has revealed the meaningfulness and healing power of faith acted out in a troubled world. I am so grateful someone thought it was worth the millions of dollars it must have cost. Ride shows us the power of television to unmask the subtleties of the subjective world so important to humanity and to belief. Watch it on Lightbox and scrounge around for Series 3 (on TVNZ on demand for a while). And when you are done start reading some Kierkegaard as well.
Hoggard-Creegan is co-director of New Zealand Christians in Science (NZCIS),
and author of "Animal suffering and the problem of evil.