Lars Petter Sveen Christmas memories of a Christian child growing up in an atheist family. His father wouldn't even allow a star on their Christmas tree, so coming out as a Christian was going to be difficult. Producer: Phil Pegum. Translated by Deborah Dawkin.
My Father's Belief
I grew up in a small place on the West coast of Norway called Fræna. My father and mother both went out to work, so I had to go to nursery, but the only available nursery was Christian. But my father was an atheist and an outspoken critic of Christianity. He was dubious, if not downright antagonistic towards the idea that his middle son would learn to pray and sing songs about Jesus and Zacchaeus up in his sycamore tree. But since there was no alternative, off I went.
When I came home that first week and demanded that we sing grace at table before supper, father put down his knife and his fork and leaned back in his chair. He looked across the table at the fried Pollack and onions and boiled potatoes as though he were giving them a close inspection. Then he looked up at me.“OK,” he said, “you go ahead and sing.” I folded my hands and sang about how when God steers the boat all will be well, on the way to the kingdom of heaven.Nobody else sang: neither my father or mother, nor my two brothers.When I’d finished, my father picked up his knife and fork and proceeded to peal his boiled potatoes. My older brother shook his head.“Do you really believe there’s a man sitting up there in the sky?”To a six-year-old boy it was a pertinent question. And I thought: no, not really. It’s impossible. And so I shrugged my shoulders, and that was that. That was as far as God and Jesus came into our family. The boat had to turn around and find another route up to heaven.
It wasn’t until later, when I was twenty-one, that I rang home and told my mother and father that I’d become a Christian. I was a living in Bergen at the time, one of the largest cities in Norway. I was a student and I’d read Søren Kierkegaard. Mother started to cry down the telephone. I was suddenly reminded of something she’d said to me as a boy. I’d asked her if she could think of anything that would cause her to turn her back on me, to reject me? She’d come up with three things: If I got a tattoo, if I was homosexual, or if I became a Christian.When I called home that day, I’d committed two of those of crimes; I’d had a tattoo done and become a Christian.“OK, I see,” said my father, laughing a little at my mother’s tears.I tried to explain, but it was extremely awkward. How do you explain to your father, over the telephone, with your mother yelling and sobbing in the background, why you have become a Christian?“You’ve gone crazy,” she screamed.Father tried to hush her.Christianity was brought to Norway by the Viking King, St Olav. St Olav died in 1030 at the battle of Stikklestad, but a year later – according to the Sagas - when they opened his coffin, his body was intact and his nails and hair had continued to grow. And so he was declared a saint. To this day you find St Olav on our silver spoons and in our national anthem. Norway even has a day named after him. There are many stories describing the brutality of his quest to impose Christianity on the people. But we all need to create figureheads and heroes, and the Norwegian nation chose St. Olav, glorifying him and taking him to their hearts.Father wasn’t going to buy that. For him, King Sverre, who lived from 1150-1202, was the great hero. During his reign King Sverre was often in conflict with the Pope. It was King Sverre, according to my father, whom the nation should revere. A king who stood up to the pope!He took me aside once and said:“Actually, I wanted to name you after King Sverre.”This reaction against, or hatred for what Saint Olav and Christianity had done to our country, found expression in other ways in our home too. Father often read us the Norwegian folktales collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe. Tales of trolls and giants and magic, that had their roots far back in time. Stories that, according to him, held no less truth than those in the Bible.And he was also passionate in his desire to tell my brothers and me about the Norse gods and the Sagas.
When it thundered we knew that people of old had believed that Thor was riding across the sky in his wagon and striking his hammer. In our imaginations we saw the powerful and one-eyed Odin, the beautiful, ill-fated Baldur, and the terrible jaw-gnashing wolf Fenris.
My favourite was always Loki. The trickster, a cunning demi-god, with giant-blood in his veins, who regularly cheated and betrayed the gods. When I see the Marvel films about Thor and the Avengers now, I can’t help but feel sympathy for Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki. It’s not easy to explain that to my children. For them Loki is nothing but an evil super-villain. But for me he is a complex figure, the most human of all the gods, who encapsulates the battle between good and evil within us all.
It wasn’t that my father believed in the Norse gods, or that he encouraged us to. Nobody believes in the Norse gods any longer, but they are nonetheless deeply rooted in the Norwegian psyche. What was important to him was that we should know and preserve our history and heritage.
Father, like any good atheist, had a strong preference for scientific explanations. Yet he often told us stories that were far removed from anything based in reality or fact. Early one June morning as he sat out in the garden eating breakfast with my brothers and I, he told us where the dew in the grass came from. It is a long story in which Loki’s evil trickery has resulted in the death of Baldur. This story contains many explanations for natural phenomena, including why the salmon is long and slender. And the dew? In a quest to bring Balder back from the underworld every single thing in the world has to cry. Even the rocks and the flowers and the grass cry. Which is why there is dew in the mornings, everything is crying to bring the beautiful, much loved Baldur back from the dead.
None of us believed in the story, but we all remember it. And now, whenever I run across a lawn in the early morning and feel my shoes getting wet, I think: the world is crying.
Since Fræna was such a small community, it was common knowledge that our family weren’t Christian. In the eighties the word atheist was foreign to many people. I felt that all the mothers kept a close eye on me when I visited my friends’ houses or went to birthday parties. Once I was sent home from a party for using a mild swear word “steike” – one of those words generations of kids have used just because it sounds so good, but it’s pretty harmless. Another time a friend wouldn’t let me see what he was reading, because his mother came into the room and said “don’t show that to Lars Peter, he doesn’t believe in things like that.”
But the other kids swore as much as I did. And most of my class seemed even less interested in our bible classes than I was. When my father decided that I should be taken out of bible classes and be taught “livssyn” – classes that explored varied beliefs and philosophies – it seemed pretty cool. My friends called me over and asked me how I’d managed to get let off. Perhaps they could get out of bible classes too?I grew up and was proud of my father. My friends and I went to school, played football, watched films, played, ran about in the forest and went fishing. Nobody talked about Jesus, nobody ever said I ought to go to church more often. Religion simply wasn’t an issue. And neither was it an issue at home – I’d put God aside, and I certainly never sang grace again. I grew up and I was proud of my father because I could see he was well liked. He was a popular teacher at the secondary school where he taught. He conducted the local choir that often sang in the church on special occasions. He’d even help out at my football club, despite his total disinterest in football.
My father may have been a well-liked man in the community, but the school’s board, and some of his colleagues, were deeply suspicious of his beliefs. He was a member of the Norwegian Humanist Association, who argued for secular education and rituals. An organisation who suggested that baptisms should be replaced with naming ceremonies, and Christian confirmation replaced by civil confirmation. And who fought for the rights of students to be allowed, if they wished, to be released from bible classes and to choose to attend “livssyn” classes instead.
These things are taken for granted in Norway now, and bible study has largely been replaced with something more like my old classes in “livssyn”. But in the eighties, when Father first arrived, the ideas he expressed were unusual on the West coast of Norway, a religiously conservative part of the country.
When Father received a visit from a well-known TV personality who was active in the Norwegian Humanist Association, the Headmaster refused to let the students meet him. Father was given strict orders that a man of that sort wasn’t to be allowed anywhere near the classrooms.
During staff meetings Father was often heavily criticised by colleagues who thought that his “unchristian talk” didn’t belong in the school.
But time moves on. And when the wall fell in Berlin in 1989, it wasn’t just Europe that opened up, but Norway too. Norway shares a 120 mile border with Russia to the North, and with the fall of the Soviet Union an external political pressure was lifted. In turn this caused some of the old restrictions within Norwegian society to be loosened. This had a huge impact on the status of Christianity in Norway. In many ways Father was a forerunner of that change. But how to interpret it, when your own son has become a Christian?
Father has never confronted me about my beliefs. Now and then our different perspectives on life, as he calls them, spark off against each other. When he and my mother come to visit us and we sing grace, he sits in silence. And this is a man who usually can’t resist breaking out into song. When we decorate the Christmas tree in my childhood home, he still refuses to have a star on the top and insists on having a light there instead – the light that symbolises the turning of the sun.
Recently my oldest son declared that he no longer believes in God. I asked my son why, and he replied that his granddad had told him about the Norse gods. Granddad had said that human beings have always invented gods in their need to believe, and that Jesus just happened to be the Christian god. “So I don’t believe in a God,” said my son, “it’s all just an invention, whatever.”
I let it pass for now. He’s bound to struggle with his beliefs. I let it pass, because my father has always let me go my own way. Throughout his life he met with opposition to his beliefs. And throughout his life he fought for our right not to have other people’s beliefs forced on us. Perhaps that’s why he gave me the freedom to doubt my way to my own beliefs.
After all, when, as a little boy, I asked to sing grace at table, my father let me do it. He didn’t tell me to be quiet. He told me to go ahead and sing. And if I look very carefully now, the little light at the top of the tree looks just like a shimmering star.