God speaks to me in Norwegian. This will seem treasonous to my Swedish compatriots, so let me explain. Way back, I spent a couple of years waiting tables on a 600-passenger cruise ship on the Norwegian Sea, where the sparsely furnished staff cabins — located on the lower levels, underwater — featured two elementary amenities: a life vest and the Holy Bible.
I'll be honest: It's hard to take God seriously in Norwegian, especially in the guttural mountain tongue that was official on the ship. Still, having mostly slumbered my way through Religion 101 back in high school, those late-night Bible sessions were a personal record in religious immersion.
Safely returned to dry land two months later, I was surprised by the feedback when arriving home and telling the other father I've been brushing up on the Gospels: "Son, I'm not sure you should be reading that book."
So why would my dad, a Lutheran priest, be opposed to my reading the Bible? "You can read it," Gunnar continued ... "But what it means will depend on who you are."
It is a quintessentially Lutheran idea of the individual as alone in front of God.
He didn't need to tell me: After all, both my parents had forced upon me a first-hand experience of Christian cluelessness when moving the family from Stockholm to Sweden's Bible belt a decade earlier. That little southern town was thick with nonsense on the religious question — on both sides: the Christian fundamentalists with their heavily armored certainties and judgments; and the hard-boiled atheists who worshiped "reason" over fantasies … punkt slut ("and that's that").
Uninspired by the view on either hill, I adopted what appeared the only reasonable stance: that your religious experience is none of my business.
It is a quintessentially Lutheran idea of the individual as alone in front of God. But it comes at a price, which Gunnar reminded me of recently in very 2021 terms: "Martin Luther never wanted to form a new church; he wanted to drain the swamp."
The swamp in the early 16th century was the Roman Catholic Church. Luther's opposition to the Church's corrupt practices, and his claim that salvation could be reached through faith and by divine grace only, ended up splitting Western Christianity in two. Shifting the interpretative authority from the Church to the individual meant that Protestantism would grow into an open-ended argument that today is exploited by traffickers in utopian promises, get-rich-quick schemes and conspiracy theories. A survey conducted in late January by the conservative American Enterprise Institute reports that 27% of white evangelicals believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump is leading a covert war against a cabal of pedophile Democrats.
The Swedish Christian right has started swapping notes with the U.S.
Of course, long before the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, the American evangelical right has become increasingly radicalized, funded by right-wing organizations, major corporations and lobby groups to rally people behind the idea of what can only be interpreted as a Christian theocracy.
I got a close-up view of it during the two years I lived in the States, that perfect convergence of faith, profit and party politics that seemed to be particularly American. But according to Gunnar, the Swedish Christian right has started swapping notes with the U.S. — recruiting new members, organizing in universities, politically and online.
Though it has yet to spread widely across society, the prerequisites are in place: Sweden has over the last half-century progressively turned away from collectivist ideas towards individualism, far-right political forces have risen in pace with the growing income disparities, as ancient prejudices are dusted off in search of new scapegoats.
So how do we balance the freedom to interpret our own lives with the risk of ending up in alternative realities? Still sweating it out down there in the Swedish Bible belt, Gunnar doesn't have the answer. But he left me with this thought: Dogma is always shaped by people, and right and wrong will never be the sole province of religion.