- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

Several years ago, I spent Easter weekend in Iceland, where I encountered a unique custom known as the “hymns of the Passion.”

Starting in Lent, the first of 50 hymns are read or sung each evening on the radio. Composed in the 1650s by Hallgrimur Petursson, a fisherman, poet and pastor, they are meditations on the travails endured by Christ. Lengthy works, or sagas, are an Icelandic tradition.

The hymns are sung in the country’s largest churches by celebrity soloists. On that Good Friday, a reporter from Morgunbladid, a Reykjavik newspaper, took me to one. It was a marathon songfest where all 50 hymns were sung continuously to a packed house for hours on a rainy, miserable day.

Similar to other Nordic countries, the dominant religion in Iceland is Lutheranism, but only 10 percent of Lutherans attend church. Pentecostal and charismatic churches are the fastest growing in that cold country, helped by visiting Canadian evangelists from the “Toronto blessing” movement who dropped by in the mid-1990s.

Iceland has plenty of volcanic fire underneath its clashing tectonic plates, but spiritually, things have sputtered more like tired candles in recent decades.

That may be changing. Iceland’s financial collapse last fall has left its 90-percent-agnostic population questioning its materialistic ways.

“All over the island, Icelanders are seeking to reconnect with deeper values than the consumerist frenzy that has had the nation in thrall for over 15 years,” wrote Tobias Munthe, a staff writer for the magazine Iceland Review. Its winter issue also interviewed musician Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir, who said values have been “flushed away” in Iceland.

Its people “don’t know what’s right or wrong,” she said. “We still want to believe in the old sagas but no one knows them because no one has the time to read them. They’re working too much to buy Jeeps!”

That’s true. Many Icelanders I met were holding down at least two jobs. On that gloomy Good Friday, however, people did take the time to listen to the doleful Passion hymns, trying to squeeze repentance into busy schedules.

I spent Easter morning with a small charismatic Lutheran congregation meeting in a storefront. I recently e-mailed their pastor to see how they’re doing. They’ve grown to 260 members — a decent size in a country of only 304,000 people — in their own building.

“People are more open to Christianity now after the disaster than before,” he wrote back. “They see now they cannot rely on money and material things as they had thought.”

Icelanders have always had an independent Viking spirit. Founded by rebels who didn’t want to submit to King Harald of Norway in the ninth century, it was the last European country to accept Christianity in A.D. 1000. Although one of the world’s most livable countries, it has soaring rates of alcoholism, out-of-wedlock births and suicide.

Yet 17 years ago, Pentecostals founded Omega TV, a Christian station. Radio Lindin, started 14 years ago by Assemblies of God missionaries from the United States, now has 12 transmitters. Icelandic religious leaders I’ve interviewed say they never had “great awakenings” such as have occurred here in the United States. Some day, they hope, a religious revival will come their way.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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