The godless North

There’s a documentary tv series in Scandinavia (I haven’t been able to find out if it’s Swedish or Finnish or etc) that did an episode about a US fundamentalist Christian preacher bumbling around Scandinavia getting shocked about how unlike him they are.

Pastor Marty McLain, who describes his religious belief as deriving from a literal interpretation of the Bible, was given the opportunity to see how secular Scandinavia is by a documentary series called The Norden.

What he found came as a shock, apparently. (He could have just gone to New York or Seattle and been shocked there. I suspect he doesn’t get out of Georgia much.)

McLain, who’s favorite expression is “wow,” is wowed a lot. Almost no one he talks to on the street seems interested in God. One guy puts it bluntly: “If there is no god, why should I believe in him?” Ouch.

A few highlights:

  • While interviewing several members of a church in Copenhagen, McLain makes the mistake of assuming that, given their faith, they must be homophobes like he is. After he laments the fact that the oppressive government made Denmark’s churches perform same-sex marriages, the Reverend had to awkwardly tell him that neither he nor anyone else at the church had a problem with gay people. McLain’s pained expression is priceless.
  • He runs into a man on the street who (finally!) says he believes in God. Excited, McLain asks if he is a Christian. The man tells him, no, a Muslim. McLain: “A Muslim!”
  • An excruciating discussion with a humanist over coffee ends with the humanist telling McLain, “In short, I have no need of a god. To put it bluntly.” McLain stares off into space, his mind melting.

Something else I noticed from the excerpted highlights I watched – the guy seems not to grasp, or at least let himself be at all affected by, the fact that he is in other people’s country speaking a foreign language. He makes no effort whatever to talk clearly out of consideration to these polite hospitable people who are kindly speaking his language in their country. He mumbles and slurs and gabbles just as casually as if he were at home in his suburb of Atlanta talking to the wife & kids. It’s rude. It’s rude and unthinking and provincial. That kind of thing always makes me cringe when I’m in a non-English speaking place, the way Americans expect everyone to adapt to them.

While the show is shot with the Georgian pastor as the focus, if we inverse the perspective things get quite a bit sadder. It’s impossible to tell just what these secular people make of the shellshocked American staggering around their country, unable to cope with the idea that they don’t believe in Adam and Eve. It must look to some like a time traveler from an ancient era, confused by the progress we’ve made. We can only hope that they are generous with their assumptions. It would be embarrassing to think that they consider this guy a representative of all Americans, because between the “homosexuality is a sin!” and “There’s no proof of evolution, you weren’t there!” all I can say is, “Wow.”

I know. He’s embarrassing. So complacent, so confident, so ill-informed.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    When I was in my late tweens/early-to-mid teens, my parents had us belong to a small Southern Baptist church in the MidWest. Once, a couple on their way to become missionaries to India stopped by to speak to our church, and my parents invited them home to our house for dinner afterward. That’s the noon meal, in case you aren’t in the know about midwestern churchspeak.

    Anyhow, the white couple arrived. My father, who worked for the major university in town, had invited an Indian couple (Indian from India, of course) to join us.

    At one point, Mr. Missionary asked the Indian couple if they had hot food in India. The Indians looked at each other, perplexed. The Indian woman ventured, “…cold food?” We could all see that they were wondering if this dipstick had the idea that people in India didn’t cook!

    Mr. Missionary then said, “No, hot food. Hot food! HOT food!” Louder and louder, as if the problem was that they were hard of hearing! I swear he sounded like a rooster!

    At this point, my well-traveled father stepped in, saying, “Curry – chiles – pepper – hah hah hah” and fanning his mouth as if it were burning. The Indian couple smiled.

    After everyone left, my father couldn’t hide his horror at the appallingly low quality of people the church was choosing to sending overseas with a goal of converting the locals. From what we saw, all this ninny was going to accomplish was to offend and insult everyone he met. And the Christians were paying for this incompetence!

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    I’m sure that the first thing that McClain did when he went home is to write his representative/senator to demand that the US immediately train it’s nuclear arsenal on Scandinavia.

  3. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    FSM damnit! As if we weren’t already dying to move to Scandinavia badly enough…it’s like a non-fictional Heaven on Earth. Though I’m not sure if my wife (or I) could hang with the winters.

  4. says

    I haven’t been able to find out if it’s Swedish or Finnish or etc

    Well, googling around, it seems to be a production of Svenska Yle, the Swedish-speaking branch [1] of the Finnish national public broadcasting. The video does say “Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle 2014” at the start, and “Religion är viktigt för mig”, which appears in one graph, is Swedish.

    The Yle website for one trailer for The Norden [2] also says “In co-production with DR, NRK, RUV, SVT”, which are the Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish national broadcasters, respectively.

    [1] Since Swedish is an official (minority) language in Finland.
    [2] For a different episode. There’s apparently six episodes a 28 minutes.

  5. grumpyoldfart says

    A typical “fish out of water” documentary that was probably created in the editing suite. There is probably lots of video showing people happily agreeing with the preacher, but it wasn’t used because it didn’t fit the story-line the producer/director was pushing.

    I can imagine the producer/director occasionally taking the preacher aside and planting the idea that expressions of surprise and bamboozlement were helping to make the documentary into something very special – and the gullible preacher thinking to himself, “Well I better do the same sorts of things during tomorrow’s filming.”

  6. Abdul Alhazred says

    The slight run in with the the Muslim is most significant. That is the likely future of Scandinavia, not the present humanism. I mean “just plain” Islam not the radical crazy stuff.

    The future belongs to those who show up for it.

    Just an aside: Love those Elizabethan collars on those Danish pastors.

  7. Sili says

    A typical “fish out of water” documentary that was probably created in the editing suite. There is probably lots of video showing people happily agreeing with the preacher, but it wasn’t used because it didn’t fit the story-line the producer/director was pushing.

    Oh, they exist alright, but “lots” is not right. You have to look for them, and the rest of us do consider them rather embarrassing.

    While I don’t know how literalist they are, Moses Hansen, Faderhuset and Søren Krarup are what we’d call Fundamentalist over here, even if the last one probably wouldn’t embrace the label.

  8. photondancer says

    grumpyoldfart – I’m Scandinavian and frankly, I think you’re wrong. The Scandinavians are probably the most secular people in the world. As Sili says, the deeply religious people you think are everywhere are actually rare nowadays.

    The wonderful Humon, as always, gets it right: God hates Sweden, not to mention Easy ways to make Nordics uncomfortable. My own parents refused to tell me whether they believed or not.

    I was initially inclined to deny your claim about the coaching but upon reflection I’m not so sure. The sense of humor up there is quite dark. Anyway, I really hope SBS find the funds to pick up this series!

  9. Decker says

    The slight run in with the the Muslim is most significant. That is the likely future of Scandinavia, not the present humanism. I mean “just plain” Islam not the radical crazy stuff.

    You’re probably right.

    The Pastor didn’t find any queer haters or creationists because he was looking in the wrong place. One wonders, did he not visit Malmo?

  10. Crimson Clupeidae says

    He mumbles and slurs and gabbles just as casually as if he were at home in his suburb of Atlanta talking to the wife & kids. It’s rude. It’s rude and unthinking and provincial.

    And so very, very typical.

    I’ve lived overseas a couple different times, and I always made an effort to learn the local language, partly because I love to visit out of the way places where they might not actually, you know, speak much English. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interjected and offered to translate with my rather poor (German, Japanese), more out of sympathy for the locals, than out of any consideration for the US (it was always USians) tourists.

  11. says

    sonofroj @ 13 – are you sure about that? I see it treated as part of Scandinavia for at least some purposes. I know Finnish is a different language group, but that’s a different issue.

  12. Dan says

    I think everyone should try to make an effort to learn the local language, but languages are really hard for some people (like me) and they may really be trying their best even when you think they don’t care. No excuse for mumbling etc however if they can speak clearly.

  13. says

    Dan – but that’s all I’m saying. I’m just saying speak your own language, that is a foreign language in the country you’re visiting even though it’s also the widely-used lingua franca, clearly and reasonably slowly.

  14. OlliP says

    If the show will be available to viewers outside Finland, it can be viewed here . Search for the title “The Norden”. DrMcCoy @ 6 has the production info. Yle Areena has past shows viewable for a limited amount of time, so better check in regularly if you want to see it.

    @Ophelia 15, sonofrojblake @ 13 is correct. The language group contains Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Islandic (and Faroese I think), but not Finnish. If you are talking geography, Scandinavia contains Sweden and Norway. If you want to include Finland in the group, you should use the term “Nordic countries”. It hasn’t caught on however, so many people use “Scandianvia” in stead.

    The name of the show “The Norden” has the Swedish word for the Nordic countries, “Norden”, in it. It is problably the same word in Danish and Norwegian also, except in Swedish you sing it, in Danish you say it with a hot potato in your mouth, and in Norwegian you say it so fast that you will have stopped talking by the time anyone notices you spoke. If you say it in Finland the people will look to their feet ashamedly admitting that they don’t speak Swedish, though many of us actually do.

  15. OlliP says

    I guess it’s a bit like New York or Washington. You will not find almost anyone in the Nordics distinguishing between Washington state and Washington D.C.
    Most people have no idea that there is a state that has the same name as the capital, and those that do don’t bother. Since most of the people they talk to will not know that there is any other Washington than the capital.

  16. says

    Ha! Very true – which gives people in Washington state the chance to trick people into thinking they’re in Washington DC and thus perhaps Close to Power. “I’m a lawyer in Washington” sounds much less exciting if you know it means a suburb in Washington state.

  17. Katydid says

    THIS is what pisses me off about Americans (disclaimer; I am one, born, as the song goes, in the USA). This self-isolated idiot can’t possibly take a half-hour on Wikipedia and actually learn something about the culture he’s going to visit?!? Nope, he’s so arrogant and so cloistered in his self-imposed self-righteous arrogance that he’s shocked that his is not the only way, and in fact many, many people are completely happy and productive citizens without his beliefs.

  18. NitricAcid says

    He probably thinks he *is* speaking clearly. That’s how all the people he usually speaks to talk, right?

    Just like the thinks he doesn’t have an accent.

  19. GuineaPigDan . says

    I watched the full episode and although I didn’t understand the VO, the segments in English were enough to get the narrative across. At least the pastor didn’t freak out like that hyper religious woman on Trading Spouses. Still, it is interesting to see the cultural divide between countries. I wonder what it would be like if someone from Scandinavia had to spend a few day in the Bible Belt?

  20. Al Dente says

    I spent a couple of years in the military in Germany. I learned enough German to buy a train ticket, order a meal in a restaurant (and know what I was getting), and ask for and understand directions. The natives asked me to talk to them in English because my accent in German was très Américain (or sehr Amerikanisch if you prefer).

  21. Jenora Feuer says

    This same show was commented on yesterday over at the Slacktivist: ‘God hates shrimp’: A case study.
    As Fred says over there, about this pastor saying that ‘the worst thing he could do’ would be to actually support the same-sex attraction:

    The function of that argument is purely internal. It’s not an attempt to persuade others. It’s not a statement addressed to others — not to LGBT people, or to Scandinavian TV producers, or to anyone else. It’s a therapeutic, self-help affirmation addressed to themselves — a way of telling themselves what they need to hear told them in order to stave off the creeping suspicion that they may be perceived as cruel and unfair.

    And in order to stave off the even creepier creeping suspicion underlying that one — the fear that this perception might be accurate because they are, in fact, saying something and doing something that is cruel and unfair.

    So, in other words, a lot of the same sort of motivated reasoning we see all over: ‘I’m a good person, I couldn’t possibly be doing a bad thing, so therefore I must find a reason why this horrible thing I’m doing is actually justified’.

  22. RJW says

    @23 NitricAcid,

    “He probably thinks he *is* speaking clearly.”
    Not only Americans, many English speakers seem to be oblivious of their often heavy accents, the solution, when faced with uncomprehending foreigners, is to speak even louder. As to entries in any national embarrassment competition— when visiting South America I observed two of my fellow Australians ‘communicating’ with the locals, yes, they had a Spanish phrase book, however they pronounced all the Spanish words with a broad Australian accent. Then there’s a story from a Japanese language teacher, he was once contacted by a businessman who was visiting Japan in three months and wanted to master Japanese before he left.
    And, of course, only Americans speak standard English, other native English speakers use a ‘dialect’.

  23. says

    When I was in grad school I spent a couple of summers in Italy. I did my best to speak what Italian I was picking up and mostly got by.* Everyone seemed pleased at my effort even though I’m sure it wasn’t always the most efficient way of communicating. It’s still the polite thing to do when you’re in non-English speaking majority regions–at least learn the basics and show appreciation & speak slowly & clearly (*not* more shouty) if they switch to English.

    *There was the time that I took a lift (that’s ‘lift’ as in ride-in-a-car not ‘lift’ as in elevating device) down from Monte Cassino with a group of old Italian ladies. I could understand their questions in Italian right enough but couldn’t answer back fully with my limited vocabulary and they had very little English, so I switched to Latin, which they understood well enough from having learned it in school.

  24. Matt G says

    Ignorance plus arrogance equals egnorance! So nice of creationism’s favorite neurosurgeon to lend his name to a useful term.

  25. steffp says

    Had a look at the trailers. I’m not fluent in Swedish, but I got the hang of it. What I saw was just the run-of-the-mill naive, uneducated but superior-feeling US-exceptionalist, the kind you seem to send over here to Europe to entertain us.
    I’ve personally met quite a few guys who could not imagine that anyone outside ‘murrica could be happy at all, or wasn’t secretly contemplating emigration to the US. True story…
    Bigotry – especially concerning LGBT issues – needs a friendly environment, at least he appearance of being based on majority opinion. A bible belt bigot in Northern Europe is like the proverbial 300 pounds gorilla in the room.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *