What do literature and Christianity have in common? A lot, according to priest Thomas Hør Nørager. An arker investigates and is seduced.
The sun is baking, and the sound of crunching glass reaches me from beneath my sandals. I am walking up Nørrebrogade in the direction opposite of the swarm of smartly-clad teenagers that, beer in hand, are making their way to Copenhagen’s most hated love-child: the Distortion festival.
I, instead, am headed to church.
Stefan’s Church is located further up the long main road of Nørrebro, nearly out of reach of the thumping bass and the packed streets of the festival. Today’s service is a short one, only half an hour, between 5 and 5.30 on a Wednesday. The church is cool and still, with only a handful of people inside. Everyone, even the priest, grin at the contrast to the world raging on on the other side of the door. The only similarities: Singing, and beer. Stefan’s Church, after all, is a very progressive Lutheran institution.
One of the priests in this church is called Thomas Hør Nørager. Thomas sports Doc Martens, an undercut and an earring to go with his gown, and his sermons often weave literature into their reflections. He is the reason I sometimes wind myself out of the trappings of modern, secular society and head to this outdated sanctuary. I am not an especially well-versed or well-read Christian, if I am a Christian at all. But I do love literature, and I am, I must admit to myself, also seeking some kind of meaning which modern society seems to have stripped bare from its instrumental machinery.
Fast forward six months, and I am biking in the biting cold during rush hour, in the direction opposite of everyone else. I have arranged an interview with Thomas this early Friday morning to ask him about the ways he connects literature with Christianity, and how both of them relate to the concept of “Growth”, this year’s theme for København Læser festival.
Thomas receives me in his office, a small room beneath the roof of an old brick building next to the church. The office is sparsely but neatly decorated, with a wooden writing desk and different Christian motifs on the wall. Spring water sits spartanly on the coffee table. Thomas unfolds his answers like he unfolds his sermons, with a clear idea streaming through the long sentences and artistic pauses at the right moments. The relationship of literature to Christianity is clearly a topic he has thought about before.
“To me, literature and art are the true heirs of the universe that was begun in the core of the biblical script … In a way, the biblical narrative is the core novel for the whole of Western culture and Western thinking.” Thomas and I speak in Danish, but the English translation make his words sound more religiously dogmatic than their Danish counterparts, some of which could easily have been spoken by a professor of literature at university.
“Literature, when it is true literature, continues the movement that was started in the biblical script. The movement that asks what it is like to be a human in the face of truth, in the face of eternity … The first time I connected Christianity with literature was when I realized that literature, art, weren’t just an illustration of the biblical universe, but an unfolding of this universe, an interpretation, a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human.”
Throughout the conversation, it becomes clear that Thomas puts heavy emphasis on Christianity’s acceptance of human complexity and human fault, its radical idea of complete and utter forgiveness without judgement, and the extraordinary concept that God should have descended into this worldly chaos in the form of a man, something which Thomas calls “the complete solidarity with even the most insignificant human.”
For these reasons, Thomas also sees Christianity as the antidote to an ideology centered on growth, or “vækst”, as it is called in Danish. These two terms do not overlap completely; whereas “growth” can denote not only economic but also spiritual and personal growth, “vækst” has a more quantifiable meaning and is usually only used in economic, societal or biological contexts. There is a general consensus that Denmark is in the middle of a decidedly “vækst”-oriented period, in which governments, institutions and individuals have internalized the neoliberal consensus of striving towards greater, better, and faster … without quite knowing toward what things or why those things should be greater, better and faster. And with the consequence of a stressed-out workforce practicing individual mindfulness in their scarce spare time.
“I would actually say that the Bible and literature in some way represent a notion of anti-growth … In traditional religion, politics and philosophy, the human must rise through the ranks to become authentic, true, pure. But in the biblical universe, everything that represents the good and the true and the beautiful steps down and meets humanity in all its ambiguity and complexity. This is like the artist. According to Albert Camus 1, the role of the artist, as opposed to the one of political and philosophical and religious demagogues, is to describe the human world, or the human, instead of judging it.”
“… the novel becomes the place for the absolution of humanity. It understands but does not judge.”
Exactly this non-judgemental attitude is pivotal in Thomas’ interpretation of literature and Christianity. The non-judgement inherent in Jesus’ statement from the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” is also present in the novel. “The art of the novel is its ambiguity. It is the place where humans are revealed in all their complexity. Where we cannot pass clear-cut verdict because there is always a new angle from which to view humans and their existence. In this way, the novel becomes the place for the absolution of humanity. It understands but does not judge.”
To Thomas, therefore, it is also not coincidental that the first creative act of God was the Word. “When we talk, when we write, we are in the process of continual creation. Creation is therefore not firmly fixed. Poetry, understood as the lyrical connection between words and the challenging of syntax and morphology, is in some form or another perhaps a divine thing. In this way, the universe of good literature, like the universe of the bible, is not predetermined. It is open, open for tangents in all possible directions.”
Throughout this conversation, my inner academic is yearning to ask a myriad of critical questions: About the very idea that literature should somehow be rooted in the Bible, what consequence this interpretation has for non-Western literature, and the concept of universality that coats all his claims. But I don’t. The reason I know of Thomas in the first place is because I decided, once upon a hot day in June, to go to church. I had been invited by a friend, but now I find myself drawn to this space, and drawn to Thomas’ literary interpretations despite my many doubts and questions. Quite simply, I think it is beautiful. In a world where everything is measured in productivity and progress, I find it liberating to be in a space in which the human being, in all its many forms, exists in and of itself. And with something bigger.
The few times I have been to church, and this conversation with Thomas, is part of my own growth. Part of a searching for something with deeper meaning than simply the next stepping stone to the next job, or achievement, or calorie burnt. It puzzles me that I should be finding something that looks like an answer in what many, myself included, consider to be an antiquated institution. But I would much rather find it here, in a belief that every human is worth something, than with a psychologist, or mindfulness therapist, or yoga instructor – all simply tools to make us capable of living like productive robots without succumbing to the stress of overwork and the chaos of meaninglessness that is capitalism. The Church, in my view, is as anti-capitalist as it gets. So I could ask a heap of critical questions, but instead, I ask Thomas why he decided to become a priest:
“A great artwork belies all judgement. In this, the artist bows as deep for the most significant person as the most crooked of criminals. It is my belief that the impulse to absolute instead of judge, this impulse of charity, is born out of Christianity. And if the Christian narratives are not retold and retold and discussed and retold, then we will be sawing off the branch on which literature, art and humanity, in all its complexity, rests.”