One nation Under God and a lot of stress

By Alyce M. McKenzieProfessor of Homiletics Perkins School of Theology, and Patheos.com My 21-year-old son got home 3 days ago … Continued

By Alyce M. McKenzie
Professor of Homiletics
Perkins School of Theology, and Patheos.com

My 21-year-old son got home 3 days ago from a semester spent in Copenhagen, on a study abroad program sponsored by Southern Methodist University (where I teach and he attends). He showed us pictures from the 10 European countries he’d traveled to between January and May. He told us about courses he’d taken in urban design, global economics and the Holocaust, trips he’d made to Carnival in Venice, a death camp in Germany, canoeing in Sweden and skiing in the Alps. He told us about his life with his Danish host family who invited him to dinner frequently and took him on field trips. Back in our suburban Dallas home, his American father grilled steaks on the patio and I wondered how long it would take him to get bored with suburban Texas life after life in Copenhagen.

Our convenience oriented, car-driven culture in suburban Texas is a far cry from life in Denmark — which, according to my recently returned raconteur, features some of the following: riding a bike or walking just about everywhere. having lights that go on and off automatically, recycling all glass bottles, drinking tap water, being able to let your baby in its stroller bask in the sun a bit while you go in and pick up a few groceries for tonight’s meal, beautiful public spaces, green parks where people enjoy leisure time, high-speed andd clean trains, not being obsessed with work to the point that family and leisure are devalued, and, by all accounts, a happiness factor that exceeds ours. And Matt mentioned something called hygge (hoo-guh), which I had never heard of.

I felt motivated by our conversations to do a little research on Danish culture online and, sure enough, Matt’s perceptions seemed on target. Danish cultural etiquette is marked by modesty, punctuality and equality. Attempts to assert oneself over others are viewed with suspicion. It turns out that hygge , which translates “coziness”, or, more accurately, “tranquility,” is a complete absence of anything annoying, irritating, or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle and soothing things. Hygge is associated with family and close friends. It has to do with sitting with candles lit on a cold rainy night or eating a leisurely meal together on a long summer evening. Hygge is a deeply valued traditional concept of Danish culture.

This started me wondering why, in the Bible belt, my own life doesn’t have as much hygge as the Danes. I discovered that someone has written about this very question. In his 2008 book, “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Tell us about Contentment,” Phil Zuckerman (who lived in Denmark from 2005-2006) seeks to account for the fact that Denmark and Sweden have such high contentment quotients in light of the fact that worship of God and church attendance are minimal. His book is, in part, an attempt to counter conservative Christian pundits (Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, William Bennett, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Weyrich) who swear that a society without God is hell on earth. No, says Zuckerman, based on his experience in Scandinavia. Life in an irreligious democracy can actually be quite pleasant and civil. Denmark and Sweden are strong, safe, healthy, moral, prosperous societies. Unlike countries that have had atheism forced up them by threatening, violent political regimes (China, Albania, the former Soviet Union, Albania) these two countries have evolved into pockets of minimal religious observation of their own accord.

Through observation and multiple interviews with Danes from varied occupations, Zuckerman seeks to discover the “unique contours of the world views of secular men and women who live their lives without a strong religious orientation.” Many are “cultural Lutherans,” who have their children baptized and confirmed and who marry in the church because it is the traditional “thing to do.” But they tend to operate out of a rational, scientific worldview, not invested in questions of the holiness of the Bible, the reality of the resurrection, or the existence of heaven or hell.

How, wonders Zuckerman, do they deal with questions about the meaning of life and the approach of death? His basic findings are that Danes seem to focus on gratitude for the pleasures and gifts of life right now: family, work, and the beauties of the natural world. They are more interested in their family, home, bikes, careers, weather, and favorite British or Brazilian soccer players than questions of the meaning of life and the existence of heaven and hell. Many of the people he interviewed did not seem fearful about the fact of physical death or particularly curious about whether it was the end of life or if there was an afterlife. They seem to accept both death and the unpleasantness and loss that life can bring as part of the way things are.

It is interesting to see one’ own life (in the context of one’s culture) through the lens of someone with recent, firsthand experience of another cultural context. I know that I am driven by the Protestant work ethic in my vocation as a Professor of Preaching, always striving to learn more and speak more effectively and teach others to do the same. I spend just about all my time thinking about the meaning of life and the significance of the Bible and better ways to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I derive meaning, joy and purpose from my faith. But it’s hard for me to look up from my list of things to do long enough to live in the moment or bask in relationships. It’s hard for me to shift my focus from goals to gratitude for the gift of life in the here and now.

As we sat at a stoplight at a busy intersection in our day of errand running, Matt said, “I feel more stressed since I’ve gotten back.”

“I can see why,” I said. After a pause, I asked him, “Is there anything about life here you prefer to Denmark?”

“Well, Denmark is not a perfect place. They’re provided with a lot and it can tend to take away initiative. We have lots of initiative here. We like to get things done here. And life is more convenient.”

Living in Denmark has had an impact on my son. I predict that he will seek a life that is more communal and relational than the life of individual-achievement-at-all-costs that is a popular version (or perversion) of the American Dream. I don’t think he’s going to lose his initiative, but I think he is going to seek a life that is more about experiencing hygge and less about being harried. As for me, well, this essay is not about me.

Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and Patheos Expert.

Written by

  • twmatthews

    This is a very good column Alyce and I can imagine it was very difficult for you to write since, based on what you said, many of your assumptions about Europeans turned out to incorrect. It takes guts to write about what you thought and how much of it turned out to be wrong.We Americans believe because we have the biggest economy with the most “things” that we do everything better than everybody else. But it turns out we don’t and whereas conservatives will rail against President Obama claiming he goes around apologizing to the world, the bottom line is we believe we do things better. We believe that our health care system is the best. That our religion makes us more moral. And our economy gives us more stuff.Most of these assumptions with the possible exception of more “stuff”, prove to be false. And as a people, even with strong faith, we are less happy, less satisfied with relationships than lots of other countries.We will probably continue to work harder than the rest of the world (I own a small software company and I haven’t taken a week of vacation since 2005) and accumulate more stuff. But unless I’m wrong, the “stuff” or the bigger house has nothing to do with happiness and if I’m understanding the essence of your column, being faithful or religious also has nothing to do with happiness.The kinds of things that seem to keep Americans from being happy are probably irrelevant to most Europeans. For example, a friend of mine who is a member of the Lutheran church (a faithful, conservative member) is very stressed by the change in policy where the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) will start to openly welcome into the church, committed same sex couples.I viewed this change as good news. My friend and many other conservatives, view it as an affront to God; to the point where they may change churches. What we seem to make a big deal of today, because of a (misguided) belief that what we do here affects us in the afterlife, certainly causes stress, discrimination and additional suffering. Most atheists that I know view acceptance of other people different from them as positive. Most faithful people don’t accept others willingly and thus are far less happy with their lives and their environment, than nonbelievers. It looks like your son uncovered similar trends — that these godless people were more accepting, as moral and had better relationships than the god-fearing faithful he is most familiar with. It’s too bad more Americans can’t uncover this information.

  • WmarkW

    In “While Europe Slept” by Bruce Bowser, he makes the point that northern European nations could have generous welfare states because they could design them around the cultural values of their homogenious populations, and knew how to provide for the needy without dis-incentivizing work.Then, large numbers of Muslims immigrated there without the same background, and turned welfare into a lifestyle. Our society has barriers based on the fact that some people think society owes them; and the alleged debtors want to keep away from their unacknowledged creditors. Automobile suburbia is probably the most obvious manifestation of that cultural rift.

  • areyousaying

    One nation encumbered by the small and shallow Abrahamic god whose followers bully:- back alley abortions- hiding pervert priests- pre-emptive war- capital punishment- racism- political and religious intolerance- homophobia- torture- trampling on the First and Fourth Amendments while worshiping the Second including bringing guns to church- murdering abortion doctors- submission of women – hateful, anti-gay venom spewed at funerals of our fallen service members- praying for the death of the President- electroshock torture and shunning of gays- discrimination”Under god” in America means under the bullying oppression of a Palin/Donohue white-supremacist theocracy.

  • presto668

    fishcrow:Statements like this frighten me because it tells me that the *only* reason you are not out there right now raping and murdering your way across the countryside is not because it’s morally wrong, but because your afraid of what will happen to you after you die.You’re saying that you are fundamentally an evil person and only the fear of God’s punishment is what’s keeping you in line.”They’re lotus eaters.”I’ll take a lotus eater over someone like you, thanks.

  • tyree230

    Again, someone visits another country, enjoys themselves after being shown the best of that society (why would anyone show the worst parts of their homeland) and immediately assumes this is a far better place than the US. So many people make these foolish comments yet do not move there to enjoy that wonderful lifestyle permanently. No country or society is that good, Scandinavian countries are artificial constructs, insular and homogeneous. Many of the obligations other countries (U.S)are absent in countries like Denmark. This allows them to live this ‘wonderful’ life with their high ‘happiness quotient’. The irony is even with all these benefits, their society still suffers appalling levels of suicide, alcoholism and brain drain for those with ambition that is stifled within their borders. Denmark is simply one of the countries living off the advances, innovations, wealth and protection of the rest of us.

  • Athena4

    I hate to use Wikipedia as a source, but sometimes it comes in handy:Denmark’s mixed economy features efficient markets, above average European living standards, and high amount of free trade. Denmark ranks 16th in the world in terms of GDP (PPP) per capita and ranks 5th in nominal GDP per capita.According to World Bank Group, Denmark has the most flexible labour market in Europe; the policy is called flexicurity. It is easy to hire, fire, and find a job. Denmark has a labour force of about 2.9 million. Denmark has the fourth highest ratio of tertiary degree holders in the world. GDP per hour worked was the 10th highest in 2007. Denmark has the world’s lowest level of income inequality, according to the UN, and the world’s highest minimum wage, according to the IMF. As of June 2009 the unemployment rate is at 6.3%, which is below the EU average of 8.9%.Denmark is one of the most competitive economies in the world according to World Economic Forum 2008 report, IMD, and The Economist. According to rankings by OECD, Denmark has the most free financial markets in EU-15 and also one of the most free product markets.Denmark has a company tax rate of 25% and a special time limited tax regime for expatriates.[64] The Danish taxation system is both broad based (25% VAT, not including excise, duty and tax) and has the world’s highest income tax.

  • haveaheart

    How is it that the people of “Denmark and Sweden have such high contentment quotients in light of the fact that worship of God and church attendance are minimal”?This is a wonderful example of how spirituality, not religion, guides people to the best in themselves.Zuckerman’s finding that “Danes seem to focus on gratitude for the pleasures and gifts of life right now: family, work, and the beauties of the natural world” reinforces the importance of being actively and consciously grateful for all we have in life — both good and bad. His other critical findings, that “Danish cultural etiquette is marked by modesty, punctuality and equality” and that “attempts to assert oneself over others are viewed with suspicion,” highlight the other indispensible ingredient of real spirituality: humility.Gratitude and humility are what make people good, kind, moral, and thoughtful. And they’re the two qualities most lacking in American society today.

  • klinger1

    There was an interesting article in the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry about a year ago arguing that happy countries breed atheists. Basically it said that in countries with higher GDP, more equality, and more education (eg, Scandinavia), people generally become less religious. The United States is kind of the exception to the rule–unless you believe that the somewhat harsher life here in the US (as described in the article) drives people to religion more.Scandinavia and western Europe in general is a good demonstration that people can lead generally moral and peaceful lives without religion to guide/scare them into behaving decently.

  • chandragupta

    I am an immigrant to the USA, I believe in God ( but not the God defined by religions including my own, Hinduism)and yet I am quite content and full of hygge. I experimented with atheism and agnosticism. Christianity and Islam never had an appeal, in fact the two cults insult God more than any other cult. The OP writer’s son will learn to love the USA if he lives in a foreign country long enough. Is not the grass always greener across the big pond?

  • bobmoses

    LOL. Another America-bashing liberals takes time to bash religion.Change the title of the blog to “OnLiberalViews”. It is a joke. Then again, it is edited by Meacham and Quinn, two of the most incompetent “journalists” of the day, so we should expect it to be as pathetic as Newsweek or Meacham’s liberal propaganda show on PBS.

  • bobmoses

    “Statements like this frighten me because it tells me that the *only* reason you are not out there right now raping and murdering your way across the countryside is not because it’s morally wrong, but because your afraid of what will happen to you after you die.”Now that is an idiotic comment. Just admit that you have contempt for any who don’t share your intolerant views.

  • barferio

    Really Bob, goon first class, tell us all about how much you respect those who disagree with you?This is always the first defense of the right wing nutjob – attack your enemy by accusing him of that which you are mostly guilty. Distract attention away from your own retardation by claiming anyone who doesn’t believe as you do does so out of lack of respect.You aren’t fooling anyone, what really interests the audience is – are you fooling yourself?

  • spidermean2

    “Paradise Lost”. It’s true that many parts in Europe are pleasant. The Bible describes it so.But all these will be lost and turned into dust. You can blame it in their hypocritical view about God.It’s all in the Bible. It is a sort of a paradise but it will not last that long.America is the blessed country. Because of it, the rest of the undamaged world will turn into paradise themselves.Europe will never regain its former glory.It’s sad that people can easily be duped with crazy doctrines like EVOLUTION. THE FRUIT OF THAT STUPIDITY IS VERY DEVASTATING.

  • DwightCollins

    suicide is big in that area of the world…

  • barferio

    there is no Europe in the bible you stooge. None of the countries existing today, or for that matter a thousand years ago existed at the time your little bible was written.And America as we know it today was created largely by Europeans. There certainly is no America in your bible.Tell us, o prophet of doom, where in your bible does it mention Europe or America?The ignorant savages who wrote your bronze age myths didn’t even know there was a continent on the other side of the Atlantic, if any of them even knew there was an Atlantic ocean.What a silly little person you are.

  • spidermean2

    “The Eagle has landed”.Only the literate on this present generation understands what it means. Does it describe America which landed on the moon? Of course, you idiot.Sure, you won’t understand the Bible coz it’s not for morons like you. You are a pest to this world so stop spreading your disease.

  • solsticebelle

    Religion is the most destructive force on earth. And unlike Texas, I’m sure that Denmark doesn’t have text books that rewrite history based on their warped religion.

  • spidermean2

    Yup, there was no Europe and Italy was part of Africa.”And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band.” (Acts 27:1)

  • spidermean2

    solsticebelle wrote “Religion is the most destructive force on earth.”You forgot the word FALSE as in FALSE RELIGION. It only takes a missing word for the statement to be moronic.Probably some missing brain cells too.

  • spidermean2

    “Paradise Lost”. It’s true that many parts in Europe are pleasant. The Bible describes it so.But all these will be lost and turned into dust. You can blame it in their hypocritical view about God.It’s all in the Bible. It is a sort of a paradise but it will not last that long.America is the blessed country. Because of it, the rest of the undamaged world will turn into paradise themselves.Europe will never regain its former glory.It’s sad that people can easily be duped with crazy doctrines like EVOLUTION. THE FRUIT OF THAT STUPIDITY IS VERY DEVASTATING.

  • spidermean2

    Yup, there was no Europe in the Bible and Spain was part of Africa.”Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company.” (Romans 15:24)

  • krankyman

    My mother in law emigrated from Sweden in the late ’50s.She has three sisters. Two have already successfully suicided themselves.The third, who is married to a very successful artist, does not lack for material things but is in a constant state of deep depression.And my mother in law? A devout Christian who does not suffer from such troubles.From what I know of my wife’s Swedish cousins they certainly don’t live in a non-religious paradise. Most live a life of quiet despair. I suspect much the same is true of the Danes.

  • staterighter

    Having lived in Europe and had Danes and Norwegians working for me I can tell you a few things that the tour books don’t cover. Alcoholism is rampent, all were low-level alcohoics and drank beginning at noon and earlier on weekends. In my small organization I had two suicides in three years, one husband and one wife. Your son’s statement on lack of initiative is right on, I spend countless hours facing “union” workers who expected to be given everything rather than earning it and forget working overtime (anything over 35 hours a week). They are beautiful places and remind me of parks but I will ask you to go and find out what they have contributed to in the way of science and culture, little if anything. They don’t have to they live in Utopia.

  • bigsprgs

    suicide is big in that area of the world…POSTED BY: DWIGHTCOLLINS | JUNE 4, 2010 7:56 AM——————————-This Christian says: I expect the high latitude and the long, dark winters better explain the cause.

  • thebump

    Atheists choose to have no future.

  • IgnorantHillbilly

    Denmark does have a god — it is called the state. They have the highest income tax in the world (59%); plus they have a 25% VAT. No wonder the suicide rate is high — these people are not free — they are enslaved to the state. I prefer the God of the Bible; he is restrained; he only demands 10%.

  • minco_007

    Funny how the usual suspects get the blame in America. Immigrants, innuendo ala some people think society owes them, etc. Christians in America are responsible for some of the most reprehensible crimes against other peoples in this nation. We are also most segregated on Sunday Morning. Christianity has some of the most vile, KKK,Neo Nazi, Skin Head, Seperatist,Militia, Extremist hate groups amongst it’s members. They all sit together on Sunday Morning. One of the main consequences of Hate is Decay! Religion has done nothing to undo this immoral defect of human conscience carried by so many in America. Many of you believe you are entitled to a subservient class. Therefore absolving you of responsibility or at a minimum providing you the avoidance of accepting responsibility. You would not Hate, Discriminate, exploit, if immigrants were not here. This notion only highlights your intolerance of other humans and the failure of your Religion to live up to it’s Creed.

  • schnauzer2

    Denmark does have a god — it is called the state. They have the highest income tax in the world (59%); plus they have a 25% VAT. No wonder the suicide rate is high — these people are not free — they are enslaved to the state. I prefer the God of the Bible; he is restrained; he only demands 10%.

  • palmtree2001

    Y’now . . . Just about anyone who’s ever travelled anywhere on this planet realizes that there are different – and not necessarily bad – cultures and societies. People choose to live the way they do and with exposure to other ways, folks can then make an “informed consumer decision”.What’s tough is to listen to untravelled people making judgements on other societies.. . . or maybe I’m wrong and every single facet of the United States is absolutely perfect . . . . . . but I don’t think so.

  • jenn3

    Does the writer believe that US citizens don’t read the foreign press? I’d hazard a guess that she does, because her lies reflect a perception of Copenhagen is at least 15 to 20 years out of date. No one in that city would dare to leave a child outside a shop, and any sense of cozyness is for one is behind closed doors in a particularly save neighborhood, and those are becoming few an far between in that city. Islamic gangs run roughshod over the streets, and the police have been intimidated by left wing extremist groups that align with them. This past winter, a Lebanese shop owner was slaughtered, halal style, by an Islamic gang, elderly women are increasingly threatened and knocked over on the sidewalks, gang rapes against Danish natives are rampant an kidnapping, breaking and entering, gun fights (using ak-47s) between rival gangs are common occurrences.Police have been threatened with having their homes burned down, to intimidate them from investigating crimes and arresting perpetrators. There are many “no go” areas in the city. It’s no longer the laid back, fun loving city that it once was. Anyone can google these facts for themselves, the foreign press reports it, even if our US MSM refuses to.I’m not surprised a writer for the WaPo, who is attacking Christianity, isn’t troubled by her need to lie. She despises a religion that is based on loving one’s neighbor and being good to one another. Apparently such concepts are alien to her.

  • spidermean2

    Europe is not to be envied. It is a Doomed continent. That is in the prophecy. You can blame it on their worship of the idiotic EVOLUTION. Some parts in America will have the same fate – the liberal EVOLUTIONIST part. Particularly the Northeastern liberal Democrat states.Rich but doomed nonetheless. “Paradise Lost”. It’s their story.America will rule the world and that is the prophecy. It’s all in the Bible.

  • spidermean2

    Much of the blessings Europe have today is due to America’s protection. Europe never had a peaceful coexistence within themselves. They were self-destructing and killing each other for hundreds of years thru-out their history.In a few years their Doom is coming. It’s all in the Bible.

  • Athena4

    “They are beautiful places and remind me of parks but I will ask you to go and find out what they have contributed to in the way of science and culture, little if anything. They don’t have to they live in Utopia.”The Nordic countries not contributing to science or culture? Are you totally clueless, or just listen to Glenn Beck too much? For starts:

  • sdl63

    The way a people or society practices its faith should in itself not condemn God and religion. I shudder at the screaming, unscrupulous evangelists; money-hungry, exclusive congregations; twisted interpretaion of scripture. None of these are about God or true faith. Because they are driven my humans, most institutions fall short of their original intent whether it be government, church, or education.

  • thebump

    “Denmark and Sweden are strong, safe, healthy, moral, prosperous societies.”They are also tiny and, notwithstanding sizable immigrant populations, vastly more homogeneous societies demographically, culturally, economically, geographically and otherwise. Comparisons to the USA ought to be approached with extreme caution.

  • probashi

    Fishcrow June 4 12:25 PM”But if there is no afterlife or final judgement then it doesn’t really matter what we do in this life. It all becomes a matter of preference, and so any judgement you make on their life or anyone else’s is relative.””After life”? Well, some of you believers in Second Coming, Armageddon and such have that under control, do you?I’ll take the Nordic countries’ compassionate approach to society’s maladies any day over our system. Not perfect but certainly better.

  • shaheed-yahudi

    .