From Iceland — Religion by Numbers

Religion by Numbers

Published January 12, 2007

Religion by Numbers

In 1949 artist Dan Robbins birthed a concept allowing millions of Van Gogh novices into the sacred portal of the creative world. It is called Paint by Number. Each painting kit contains a colourless sketch in which each distinct area of the picture has a specific number. The artist’s job is to match each number with an intended colour provided in the kit’s instructions. If you follow the numbers, a beautiful image will appear right before your eyes. Practically anyone can be fooled.
Numbers can provide valuable insight on the presentation of an image, the livelihood of a corporation or even the religious standing of a nation. These powerful symbols have been trusted throughout history to represent the truth in the most objective manner possible. However, can the mere vision of numerical data truly reflect the faith of thousands of hearts? Statistically speaking, Iceland carries the title for having the highest percentage of Lutheran Christians of any country in the entire world. On paper this country’s inhabitants are almost as religious as the citizens of the Vatican City, the residence of Pope Benedict XVI. Nevertheless, after living here for almost half a year my eyes and ears tell me that religion seems to be playing a game of Hide and Seek. Which leads me to question, where does religion show its face in the life of this society?
Through my own personal investigation it seems that most Icelanders do believe in God, or some form of higher power; however, the practice of that belief is not a top priority. In order to find out what’s important in someone’s life, two things to examine are their wallets and calendars. Time and money happens to give an incredible amount of insight as to what people rank as imperative in life.
The Sunday before Christmas, my husband and I went to church and the traffic, as it is every Sunday, was nonexistent. At church that day, one of the topics introduced was why church attendance was so low in Iceland and what it would take to get people more active in their beliefs. The topic stayed on my mind for a while and followed me into the car after we left. After church we headed over to Smáralind to shop for gifts, and as we entered the parking lot I quickly got my answer as to where people spent their time and money. I could have sworn half of the country was present busily shopping for Christmas, you know, that day we honour to celebrate the birth of Christ. Yes, it was a week before Christmas and the crowd was understandable; however, what would those same people be doing on any other Sunday afternoon? Can it be that church is only a thought on the most important events in people’s lives; the memorable baptism, that perfect day of wedding bliss and the ceremony that allows them to finally rest in peace.
To understand a bit more about the national church I attended a Lutheran service on the first day of the New Year. As I approached the sanctuary the sign on the door read, “Silence please, service in session.” That immediately gave me an inclination of what kind of atmosphere I would be joining. I strategically chose a seat six rows from the front to obtain an observable view of the congregation, the choir and the priest. The church itself was statuesque and quite breathtaking. Regal organ pipes, high ceilings, luminous candles and archaic statues all gave it a very holy ambiance. During the sermon (spoken solely in Icelandic), the only word I could actually make out was “Jesus,” but I could still easily get the sentiment of the priest’s effect on the parishioners around me. People were clearly listening and engaged, yet caught in a spiritual methodical process. Everyone did what they were supposed to do, which included sitting very still, listening quietly, standing, sitting again, looking forward as the chorus sang angelically in the rear and reciting their lines at all the correct moments. By nature, the Lutheran sector of Christianity tends to be on the conservative side. The mood is very solemn except for the omnipotent voice of the priest delivering the reading of the sermon. Although, I’m used to a much more “call and response” church setting, where the congregation expresses themselves with alacrity at will, I respected the traditions of this Lutheran service. Meanwhile, with all due respect, I can also certainly comprehend why so many people feel that a weekly dose of this quiet Biblical lecture cannot meet their needs as a person living in the 21st century.
In approaching Icelandic people about their rationale for low church attendance, the recurring reasons given were that one, it’s just too boring, two, the church has not reached out to embrace modern times and lastly, that the lessons in church are not applied to the way people realistically live their lives. Church is considered to be a sanctuary where all believers should feel welcome. It is a domain where people should leave feeling spiritually fed. Church used to feel like an obligation to me until I found a place that nourished my soul. Each and every time I attended the sermons directly applied to my life because it was delivered in a personal and narrative manner. Now I yearn for church each week and I feel empty without worshipping with others in the presence of God. Fortunately for me, my options were plentiful when I sought out a place of worship. It’s unfortunate that a country that’s 84 percent Lutheran has a meagre 10 percent church attendance level. Maybe it’s because people feel as if their options are limited and they cannot find a place that provides purpose and guidance as they evolve and grow in the world.
To put it rather simply, the real evidence of our belief is in the way we act and treat one another. Although it seems arduous to treat everyone as if we were encountering Jesus Himself, it is the only proof we have to be judged upon. If you do say you are a believer, how well do your actions separate you from an unbeliever? Belonging to a church is only one of many ways you can convey your faith. How many times have you done all you can to help someone in need or forgotten yourself to put the needs of others before you? I didn’t intend to take us back to numbers, but these are the only ones that really matter. And if we can get these percentages right at the end of the day, we’ll create much more than just a pretty picture, we’ll mass produce an even greater tomorrow.

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