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True community may be more edgy and uncomfortable than we imagine

It seemed an odd decision at the time. Holidaying in the white heat of southern France but taking a book on the ice cold of Scandinavia. The Almost Nearly Perfect People: behind the myth of the Scandinavian utopia by Michael Booth (Vintage, 2015) was an almost nearly perfect read: informative, witty, entertaining. Who knew that polls appear to show more Icelanders believing in elves than believing in God? Or that peaceable Sweden is one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers? Or that Bluetooth is named after the Viking king Harald Bluetooth. Seriously; look it up. I was more aware of Norway’s oil export wealth, which contrasts with its own commitment to renewable energy and makes it, in Booth’s view: ‘the wily drug pusher who refuses to touch its own product’.


Most people’s current experience of Scandinavia is limited to box sets of The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen; dark lands of sensible knitwear, detectives on the autistic spectrum and politicians brushing their teeth obsessively. Mine is only extended by one sleep deprived weekend in Copenhagen. Despite this, commentators frequently pontificate on the Scandinavian model, which shows unusual levels of equality cohabiting nicely with some of the world’s happiest people. Denmark tops the lot, having the world’s happiest people and the world’s highest rate of taxation, challenging Anglo-American assumptions about freedom and redistribution. The evidence surrounding Nordic social democracy is contested, naturally. Sometimes it feels like economics is riddled with confirmation bias; the instinct for interpreting data in a way which confirms our preconceptions. No wonder Keynes called it the dismal science.


It was the Danish culture of hygge which caught my attention. There is no direct translation to be made. It is often described as cosiness, but some feel this is too shallow a description for the sense of protective, fun-loving community which friends and family find in eating and drinking together. Denmark’s formal tourist sites depict hygge as a way of building well-being and connection to others, whether it is gathering round the Christmas tree and the log fire with family or drinking by the water on a late summer evening with friends. There is something alluring about the idea which challenges the way people restrict the time they spend idling together in the era of digitally mediated relationships. Booth, however, is more sceptical.


He sees hygge’s preference for middle ground consensus and the avoiding of deep or difficult topics as self-congratulatory and deplores the ‘petit bourgeois smugness of it all’. Small talk rules; there is no equivalent of Paris’ intellectual café culture. He also dislikes the exclusivity of hygge, which makes it hard for those on the outside of a peer group to find their way in.


I have no way of knowing whether Booth’s criticisms are valid but I like the idea of a safe social space where people aren’t point scoring or evaluating others; however, he identifies specific risks for all tight-knit groups, of which the local church is one.


Fellowship in Christ is properly grounded in a deep, intuitive sense of the equality we share; we are loved the same and we seek to offer the same measure of love to all. No-one is excluded and we approach God in worship on level ground. These blessings are profound and lasting, but they can induce sloppiness in those who take them for granted. As Christian fellowship intensifies, instead of helping people to look outwards, drawing more people into the blessing, it can lose sight of the outsider. Their exclusion may be subtle but is keenly felt. The measure of a local church can be made in how many people stand alone on the fringes as refreshments are served after the act of worship. We have all made lazy mistakes this way.


The other risk in close fellowship is that people avoid the airing of difficult issues, assuming the boat should not be rocked. The willingness to explore deep issues honestly should be a characteristic of fellowship, but is eschewed in order not to upset the hygge, the cosiness we feel. Plenty of churches fall out among themselves over issues of secondary importance; it is probably no coincidence that, in failing to tackle and negotiate bigger questions, it lacks the resources and, critically, the perspective to handle the merely routine.



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