Written by Clara Kernodle
Iceland is a place of frequent catastrophes; earthquakes, floods, famines and volcanic eruptions occur often. Icelanders, proud of the “land of fire and ice,” speak of these events casually, as if merely indicating a monument beside the road. The villagers who live near powerful, half-asleep volcanoes place survival over comfort and are lucky to be alive. As recently as the year 2000, a massive earthquake devastated infrastructure and buildings. A flood in 1996 destroyed part of the Skeiðará bridge, severing a transnational highway and twisting the two-inch-thick supporting steel into something like the St. Louis Arch. The infamous eruption in 1973 on the Vestmannaeyjar permanently changed the face of these southern islands, while the most powerful Icelandic volcano, beside which our group is staying for five days, has been due for an eruption for 40 years. There is little comfort in technological protection or the impressively strong infrastructure, for as the Icelanders say, the earth is powerful when it is angry.
Explaining the lack of religious faith, then, is not easy. Iceland has been officially Christian since 1000 AD and has practiced state-run Lutheranism since the Reformation in the 1500s. On paper, Iceland is 85% Christian. In reality, the church is irrelevant. The guide for our Harding University in England (HUE) group, Jóhannes, said that this 85%, shriveled from close to 100% in the 1970s, rarely attends Sunday service. Many prefer to worship at home or go on a morning walk instead. It is the story of Western and Nordic Europe (Jóhannes said with a shrug), which has suffered for a century from a dramatic fall in Christianity. No one is concerned about this, and some celebrate it. The message of The Reykjavík Grapevine, in an edition I picked up at the grocery store, affirmed that the morality of the Christian age is gone, and the enlightenment of neo-pagan narcissistic thinking has arrived.
Despite what the Reykjavík newspapers say, Iceland is not yet a godless country. It will be difficult to completely reject the God of creation when surrounded by his sweeping plains, monstrous roaring waterfalls and the neighborhood ice giants: glaciers. There is a small surviving parish life, bolstered by a growing movement of Lutheran Free Churches separate from government control. There is yet hope when Christianity is not invisible. Small white, red-roofed chapels appear on the Reykjanesbraut road every few kilometers; one such chapel sits on the highest populated point in Vík, South Iceland, just a few hundred meters from our group’s apartments. Though the Vík i Mýrdal church was locked when friends and I hiked up to see it, I was able to enter and observe another parish on the island of Vestmannaeyjar. The Stafkirkjan is a small Lutheran parish given by the Church of Norway in 2000 to commemorate a millennia of Christianity in Iceland. Built from black timber and encircled by a moss-covered stone wall, Stafkirkjan was tiny: a windowless nave with half a dozen pews and a chancel containing an altar, priestly vestments and well-worn liturgical books. While the size of the parish, the only one on an island with 5,000 inhabitants, could have been disheartening, the visit was instead hopeful. Entering through the heavy front door, I realized I was not alone: an old man, cap on the pew behind him, was already inside, kneeling in prayer.