Although I believe The Last Kingdom is one of the best shows on Netflix, I only selectively recommend it to people. It’s not a show for the kids, as we might say, nor is it particularly happy. Favorite characters are liable to suffer disappointments and even death more often than thriving and worldly successes, and the main character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is a stubborn man who—in the early years of his character arc, at least—tends to drag down those around him more often than he lifts them up. In short, it’s a hard show to watch, and it’s often difficult to cheer for Uhtred as he is frequently in the wrong. But part of what makes The Last Kingdom so compelling is how Uhtred struggles, and the way in which he is so often bolstered through his struggles by a man, a priest, Father Beocca. This father carries Uhtred from birth onward, to the moment Father Beocca takes his final breath. Father Beocca is, in many ways, both the heart and soul of The Last Kingdom, and what we observe in his interactions with Uhtred is a true example of spiritual fatherhood.
Based on a series of books by Bernard Cornwall, The Last Kingdom is set against the backdrop of the Norse invasions of still-divided Anglo-Saxon England during the mysterious and chaotic years of the 9th century. The main conflict is wrapped up in how the divide that runs through the country of England runs also through the heart of Uhtred—born a Saxon, but raised a Norse warrior. It is a gripping story in no small part because Uhtred (played by Alexander Dreymon) is a man of two peoples, and therefore also a man of no people. In a world where to belong to a people is to belong also to their God or gods, to be divided as Uhtred is means that the division of his self runs to the core of whatever faith he holds at any moment of the story, as well. Exaggerating this division of self and driving forward this main conflict is the fact that Uhtred is an orphan.
Early in the first episode of season 1, Uhtred witnesses his birth father fall in battle to the Danes, propelling him to the position of Lord of Bebbanburg. Uhtred, only a boy, is unable to claim his position and is taken by those same Danes as a slave—and later learns that his uncle has usurped his claim and wishes him dead. The Danish warrior, named Ragnar, who stole him from the battlefield, then ransoms Uhtred from his uncle’s claim on him, adopting him as a son (and saving his life). But Ragnar later dies to a scheming rival, setting Uhtred adrift to claim his own destiny. So by the time Uhtred is a young man, he is an orphan twice over, having lost his birth father and his adoptive father.Too often “dream bigger” has been the mantra of Evangelicals, as if when Jesus spoke the Great Commission, what he really meant was, “Go big, or go home.”
But Uhtred has a third father—a priest named Father Beocca who has known him since his birth. Beocca (Ian Hart) baptized him as an infant at Bebbanburg and, when Uhtred’s older brother was killed by the Danes, Beocca re-baptised Uhtred as “Uhtred”—giving him a new name (the name of the heir of Bebbanburg) before God and man. Beocca witnessed the death of Uhtred’s father on the battlefield, and he not only saw how Uhtred was betrayed by his uncle but was also the one to warn Uhtred of his uncle’s treachery. Beocca does everything in his power to save Uhtred’s life, even if it means that the boy is taken to be raised by pagan Danes. Beocca goes on to serve King Alfred the Great in Wessex, telling the child Uhtred he will wait for him there—not knowing it will be many years before he will see Uhtred again.
By the time Uhtred and Beocca do reconnect, Uhtred has indeed been brought up by the Danes to be a pagan, abandoning the Christianity of his youth. But Beocca is convinced that God has a plan for Uhtred, and he is determined to bring Uhtred back into the Christian faith. Uhtred, however, is determined that he will not be Christian again. And like most Danes, he views the dying God of the Christians as foolishness. His desire is to reclaim Bebbanburg and achieve the highest Danish virtue of a great reputation. He has no need of Christianity to do these things. But Uhtred does not need to be a Christian for Beocca to still view him as his spiritual son. Beocca knows God has called him to be Uhtred’s spiritual father, and fatherhood is not something one abandons even when the child wanders from the fold. One could say especially when the child wanders from the fold. In the role Beocca takes in Uhtred’s life, he adopts him as a father would and becomes like Christ to him.
Father Beocca displays a confidence—a confident hope—that God is who he says he is, and that whatever he is doing in Uhtred’s life, he will hold him in his hands, and it will be for his good. The hope Beocca holds for Uhtred is grounded in his faith in God and God’s nature, not in Uhtred’s nature or abilities—although he thinks much of Uhtred as a man and loves Uhtred like his flesh and blood. His hope for Uhtred is an example of what Eugene Peterson writes in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Peterson writes, “[Hoping] means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time.” And Beocca must have a great deal of this long, obedient faith in God when it comes to Uhtred, for Uhtred is determined in his rejection of the hope that Beocca holds unwaveringly over him.
Even though Uhtred rejects Beocca’s Christianity—the faith of his youth and of the Saxons who lay claim to half his very self—he cannot help but love Beocca in return as Beocca loves him. For Beocca’s spiritual fatherhood with its expectation, hope, and faith in God’s goodness tethers Uhtred to him with a compelling love. Although Beocca does call Uhtred to repentance at times, he more often acts as a steadfast advocate for him before God and between Uhtred and God and other men who would judge him for his impiety in an age when being impious comes with heavy judgment. In this, too, Beocca’s service to Uhtred is of a different sort than that of his service to Alfred, King of Wessex (played by David Dawson) to whom Beocca is sworn in service as a priest. This becomes especially important when Uhtred offers his sword in service to Alfred the Great, for the two come into constant conflict with each other.
Alfred—weak in body—sees that he must be strong in his rule. Thus, he is a just king, and his justice is rigid, leaving little room for mercy. He sees this as necessary to build and unite a strong England. But Uhtred, raised by the Danes, is wild and impetuous, impious and frequently lawless. Between Uhtred and Alfred, Beocca acts in the place of Christ for Uhtred, often mediating in such a manner as to save Uhtred’s life—even when Uhtred should (according to Alfred’s justice) be killed. Beocca behaves as a priest should, acting as Christ, mediating for one who deserves death. “I will be his soul—I will be his conduit to God,” Beocca tells Alfred in one scene, advocating for Uhtred, and begging Alfred to trust him, if not Uhtred himself. Beocca takes ownership of Uhtred’s soul before God and man.
Taking responsibility for Uhtred’s body and soul is a role Beocca commonly plays in The Last Kingdom, even though Uhtred is a fully grown man. It is the role of a father for a son, but Uhtred doesn’t fully grasp how precious Beocca is to him until early in the fourth, and most recent, season of the show. Uhtred comes to believe he has a chance of retaking Bebbanburg from his treacherous uncle at last. He is, by this time, a father himself, and his own son is grown to a young man. He invites Beocca to return to Bebbanburg to fight for the fortress with him—to return to their home, where it all began. Beocca initially refuses, feeling himself too aged for such battles now, and before Uhtred rides out, Beocca blesses him: “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” he says. Instead of recoiling at the Christian blessing, Uhtred tearfully accepts it. “Thank you,” he says. “Father.” Uhtred has called Beocca “Father” many times, as one would a priest. But this time, an understanding passes between them. Beocca is his father—his true father. Spiritual sonship has surpassed the bounds of blood.
At the last minute, Beocca joins them on the road to Bebbanburg. He has learned Uhtred is bringing his son, and Beocca wants to help him be a better father. At Bebbanburg, during the fighting, Beocca throws himself in front of Uhtred’s son to take an arrow meant for him. At the last, he gives his life so Uhtred will not suffer the loss of his son and heir.
Uhtred goes mad with grief and struggles for days to put to words how Beocca’s death makes him feel. It sets him adrift as he hadn’t been since he was first orphaned as a child—far worse, even. He needs his liegeman, Finnan, to help him express the ways in which Beocca was his father in order to start coming back to himself. The loss of Beocca, Uhtred’s third father, cuts him deeper than the loss of either of the two fathers before him for Father Beocca owed nothing to Uhtred and had no reason to give him time, attention, or love. He saw all Uhtred’s flaws, but stayed prayerfully by his side anyway. He called Uhtred to return to Christianity, but did not abandon him when Uhtred refused. He raised him up, directed his path, and saved Uhtred’s life more times than he could count. Beocca compelled him to sonship and displayed the love of Father God for him. In the end, he gave his life for him.
But I think there is more to it than that. In Uhtred’s grief is a sense of holy fear. For the love of God is always greater than the love of man, and even though Uhtred does not believe in the same God as Beocca, when Beocca dies, Uhtred loses the greatest love he has ever known—and he fears that not only will no one will ever love him like that again, but he will never be able to access that love again. Now it comes to it at last: he will have to go straight to God himself. He can no longer rely on Beocca to advocate for him.
In the movie Inception, the character Eames (played by Tom Hardy) memorably pulls out a grenade launcher during a battle, looks at Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Arthur, and says, “Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” (In Inception, while in a dreamscape, if you can dream it—essentially, you can actualize it.) He then launches a grenade at the men attacking them, and everyone is duly impressed. Too often “dream bigger” has been the mantra of Evangelicals, as if when Jesus spoke the Great Commission, what he really meant was, “Go big, or go home.” Build monolithic churches large enough to welcome in the lost. Create multi-site campuses and celebrity pastors. Spread wide, but not deep. Have a Big Vision, Big Calling, Big Flock. God does not give us a spirit of fear, so “Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darlings.”
But I want to counter this: Father Beocca’s model is better. In a world caught on fire with the zeal of uniting all of England under Christianity, Beocca’s chief concern was Uhtred of Bebbanburg. We, too, live in a world of big dreams, so we must not be afraid to dream smaller. If you are a pastor, teacher, or leader, ask God to give you a calling to disciple just a few people. Maybe God will call you to pray for, preach to, and lead one person to Christ. Maybe God will remind you that your congregation is made up of individuals—maybe God will even call you just to be a sower, a weeder, a tiller of the soil. Are you prepared for a long obedience in which you never see the fruits of your labor? Spiritual adoption requires faith in God’s nature, and a very “long obedience in the right direction.”
Father Beocca regularly reminded Uhtred of God’s love and faithfulness to him, but he died without seeing Uhtred come to faith in Christ—without any assurance that Uhtred would ever believe in the God to whom Beocca dedicated his life. But that doesn’t matter, because Uhtred is not in Beocca’s hands—he’s in God’s hands. Beocca could die with the assurance that he ran his race faithfully; he acted as a spiritual father to Uhtred of Bebbanburg, demonstrating the love of God the Father, who loves without condition and never leaves nor forsakes his children.