Reconfiguring Hell

Urgency and Salvation in the Faroe Islands

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
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Jan JensenUniversity of Cambridge, UK jj480@cam.ac.uk

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Abstract

This article focuses on a Pentecostal church in the Faroe Islands and the way in which members of the church relate to the concepts of life, death, Heaven and Hell. As I argue throughout, the concepts of damnation and Hell, which have historically played a central role in Evangelical churches in the country, have now started to become played down in favour of a ‘Gospel of Life’. I explore this change by paying attention to the existential stakes involved in living life as a member of a Christian movement which sees it as an imperative to spread the Gospel to individuals who are not confessed Christians. This work contributes to a growing amount of literature within the anthropology of Christianity that deals with Pentecostal and charismatic Christian movements. It is my argument that while much earlier literature dealing with phenomena such as conversion and millenarianism has been presented, the question of the ‘small’ biographical aspects of salvation and (the after-)life have not been adequately explored. Finally, I attempt to offer up an example of how changing ontological claims affect religious practice among the people in question.

Cet article se concentre sur une église pentecôtiste dans les îles Féroé et sur la manière dont les membres de l’église se rapportent aux concepts de vie, de mort, de paradis et d'enfer. Comme je le soutiens, les concepts de damnation et d'enfer, qui ont historiquement joué un rôle central dans les églises évangéliques du pays, ont maintenant commencé à être minimisés en faveur d'un “Évangile de la vie”. J'explore ce changement en prêtant attention aux enjeux existentiels de la vie en tant que membre d'un mouvement chrétien qui considère comme un impératif de diffuser l’Évangile à des individus qui ne sont pas des chrétiens confessés. Ce travail contribue à une quantité croissante de littérature au sein de l'anthropologie du christianisme qui traite des mouvements chrétiens pentecôtistes et charismatiques. Je soutiens que, si de nombreux ouvrages antérieurs traitant de phénomènes tels que la conversion et le millénarisme ont été présentés, la question des “petits” aspects biographiques du salut et de l'après-vie n'a pas été suffisamment explorée. Enfin, j'essaie d'offrir un exemple de la manière dont l’évolution des revendications ontologiques affecte la pratique religieuse chez les personnes en question.

In a recent documentary series titled Guð Signi Føroyar (‘God Bless the Faroes’) made by the public broadcasting company of the country, a survey showed that 54 percent of the population believe in a personal God with another 27 percent believing in some higher spiritual power, bringing the total of religious believers to 81 percent of the population. Furthermore, according to the same survey, 36 percent of the population of the Faroe Islands believe that there is a Heaven and a Hell – compared with other European countries, this is a massive outlier, with the second-highest number being 22 percent in Italy.1 Since Hell is such a widespread concept among these Christian believers, I will here set out to explore what effect the belief in this concept has in the Faroe Islands. I argue that while the concept of Hell has historically played a large role in Christian proselytisation in the country, some groups of Christians have avoided the concept in favour of a focus on a ‘Gospel of Life’. However, I argue that the concept of Hell still functions as a driving engine that fuels the urgency felt by many Christians in spreading the Gospel. Finally, I argue that this urgency, in later years, has been set aside and that a more patient approach to spreading the Gospel has begun to show up. In so doing, I attempt to move some of the existing anthropological focus on Christian temporalities towards asking what kind of existential stakes are involved in these forms of temporalisation.

Conversion, Salvation and the Evangelical Imperative

In this section, I wish to trace out the notion of Hell as it is found (or more often not found) within the literature in the anthropology of Christianity. While this literature often has had many important things to say about other related elements, such as conversion, salvation and more eschatological ways of conceptualising the end-times, I find that there is a striking lack of literature dealing with how Christian individuals see their own biographical relation to what happens to them and their friends and families after death. What will become clear throughout this article is that the Heaven-and-Hell dichotomy plays a central role for many Christian believers in the Faroe Islands, and as such, it is an aspect of Christian life that I wish to engage with in a way that draws out the weight of what this means for the individuals in question. This section will cover two main areas within the literature – conversion and salvation – and following this, I will trace the outline of the urgency/patience dichotomy that I have mentioned in the introduction.

Within the anthropology of Christianity, much attention has been paid to the notion of conversion and how Christianity is received in (often non-Western) societies where the meeting with the West is a relatively recent phenomenon. Formative in this regard has been the work of Jean and John Comaroff, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s made great strides in showing not only how ‘modernity’ made an impact on the socio-political systems of non-Western societies in their meeting with colonial powers, but more importantly how these same powers brought with them belief systems (read: Christianity) that had large consequences for groups of individuals in the ‘old’ society (Comaroff and Comaroff 1986). In this line of thinking, the ‘unit’ of conversion is not the individual per se but rather how the society into which Christianity enters appropriates and realigns itself according to Christian ideals about personhood, work discipline, cosmology and so on. In later years, this line of inquiry has become even more pronounced with the burgeoning amount of literature on Pentecostalism and its spread around the globe ever since the latter half of the twentieth century. The common argument goes as such: due to Pentecostalism's malleability in its application, it has been well suited in entering new social contexts and to realign belief systems therein. As such, the Pentecostal global wave has often been seen rather as a syncretistic phenomenon which is able to contain many different systems of meaning and beliefs, rather than a hardline conversion of a society from one religion to another. Central to this line of argument, as Joel Robbins (2007) has pointed out, has been an anthropological bias towards reading societies and cultures through the lens of continuity, a continuation of previous beliefs and practices in new guises (cf. Bialecki et al 2008: 1144), thus failing to take seriously the rather radical Christian notion of rupture and discontinuity as a central element of religious conversion (see also Meyer 1998).

While the literature that falls under the rubric of conversion, as I mentioned, often focuses on the conversion of societies and cultures rather than individuals, a slight readjustment in our reading of this literature points us towards the second part of this body of work, what I categorise here as the literature on salvation. While the literature surveyed in the previous section can be read along such axes as continuity-versus-discontinuity and modernity-versus-tradition, the work focusing on salvation often leaves room for conceptualising how individuals, or groups of individuals, continually work on themselves or with each other in the sanctification, confirmation and self-improvement that is entailed in living life as Christian subjects (Pedersen 2018; Robbins 2004). This literature, often drawing a parallel with what is usually coined the ‘anthropology of ethics’ (Laidlaw 2014; Pedersen 2018: 2), usually focuses on what Michel Foucault (1984) coined ‘technologies of the self’, those ethical practices that individuals perform in an attempt to make themselves into virtuous subjects within a given social and cultural context. In much of this literature, salvation is an ongoing project for individuals and preaching the gospel is part of the continued work of the soteriological project (see Coleman 2005; Keane 2007; Robbins 2004).

I take much of what has been written about what Christians say about the afterlife and end times to be eschatological in character without a strong notion of their personal journey after this life on earth. The question I wish to raise here, which I find to be more in line with this special issue is: what happens when we take Christians at their word when they say that, when they die, they will be going to either Heaven or Hell? And what forms of urgency does this question bring to the fore for these individuals? As opposed to a focus on cosmological conceptions of end-times, found for example in Jane Guyer's (2007) article, the concern that I speak about is much more biographical in nature. What I mean by this is that the ‘next step’ on death is often conceptualised as a highly individualist concern about one's salvation (or lack thereof). It is noteworthy, in this context, that this concern can be highly imminent and urgent. An elderly or sickly person, for example, could be dealing with these concerns on a timescale of days, weeks or months. Within a belief system such as the one I am exploring, this would be a highly urgent case of a need for salvation, assuming the individual in question was a non-believer. This same kind of urgency, I argue, is part of what drives the ‘Evangelical imperative’ for many Christians. What I mean by the Evangelical imperative is the felt need for Christians to spread the Gospel as quickly as possible to those who have yet to receive salvation. Exemplary in ethnographically dealing with this sense of urgency among Christians has been the work of Joseph Webster (2017). In his work among the Plymouth Brethren of Gamrie, Scotland, Webster shows how for many of these Christians, meeting and spending time with family members and friends in their daily lives is also a case of looking a potential future resident of Hell in the eye. In this understanding, being a Christian among non-Christians is a highly painful predicament. The problem for these Christians is: how can we get them to believe in Jesus Christ before it is too late? It is this predicament and its concomitant creation of a sense of urgency that I will be exploring in the following sections.

But while the urgency that drives the Evangelical imperative has been an important element of Christian expansion pretty much since its inception as a religion (one might even argue that this urgency drove the missionary project that was often tied to colonialist expansion; see Comaroff and Comaroff 1986), many churches in later years have had the problem of finding themselves in the situation that their message has become increasingly difficult to get across to those they see as non-believers (Montemaggi 2018: 6). Faced with this dilemma, churches that wish to keep recruiting new members into the fold see themselves as having to realign the ways in which they do things. As Francesca Montemaggi (2018) has recently shown among conservative believers in Bethlehem church in England, this realignment has often led to a reconfiguration in relational ethics between church and outsiders where churches have taken on a more ‘inclusive’ approach with a much more tolerant moral stance towards what was previously seen as sin or vice, thus offering a kind of ‘low-threshold’ offer (Schlamelcher 2013: 62) to individuals who might otherwise not be inclined to come to the church (Montemaggi 2018: 7). Throughout the rest of this article, I will argue that wedding the concepts of urgent Evangelical imperative with an inclusive approach towards outsiders leads to patience as a strategic necessity for churches in spreading the Gospel. It is this interplay between urgency and patience that I see as the defining characteristic between different modes of proselytisation, as it is found in the Faroe Islands.

Christianity in the Faroe Islands

City Church identifies itself as an Evangelical free church, and is found in the heart of the capital of the Faroe Islands, Tórshavn. This church has been renovated in recent years, with the old, grey linoleum floors and light-wooden interior being replaced with dark-grey carpets and a completely black interior colour scheme. Its outside walls, too, have been revamped to exude a more ‘modern’ feel, and rather than having the more traditional pulpit in the front of the hall for sermons, now there is a ‘rock-concert’ style stage and multi-coloured lighting system for creating an atmosphere aimed at replicating the experience of what is seen as more of a secular type of event. This church, which has received much attention in Faroese media for its exuberant and non-traditional display of what Christianity may look like, has as its aim to project itself outwards to the city, to invite people in who might otherwise not have been so inclined had the church stuck with its more traditional setup. However, it is important to note that no, this is not a new church (even though that might, in effect, be how it is perceived by newcomers). The building itself, and most of the congregants, have been there for a long time. The church used to be called Evangeliihúsið (‘Gospel House’) until the summer of 2016, when the church decided to undertake all the different changes just mentioned. This was done after the appointment of two new pastors, who had received inspiration for this kind of church after having lived in Bradford, UK, for a number of years where, as they say, they experienced Christianity in a way they had never experienced it previously. This experience was found in LIFE Church, a similar type of church which moved away from traditional Pentecostalism towards a more inclusive approach in relation to outsiders. LIFE Church itself traces a similar recent history in that it appointed two new pastors in the mid-1990s who made the radical decision after they saw the membership of their church growing increasingly affluent and senior in age and that it had lost much of its potential to ‘make a difference’ in the city of Bradford, which they saw as being one of the UK's most crime- and substance-abuse infested cities. Similarly, Evangeliihúsið in its original guise was the oldest Pentecostal church in the Faroe Islands, along with four other Pentecostal churches, which speaks to the similarities in trajectories that you see in the two churches. Today, City Church can boast that it has seen tremendous growth, with new members joining almost every week. Also important to note in this regard is that because of its ‘international’ outwards expression with popular songs from churches such as Hillsong and Bethel being sung in English, the church also has a large contingent of foreigners who are active in church services and the worship band. Finally, whereas many churches and congregations tend to see a gradual ‘greying’ of its membership (as was the case in Bradford), City Church attracts many younger members, and young working families make up a large proportion of the church's recurrent attendees. Although exact numbers for membership in the Pentecostal movement in the Faroe Islands are hard to come by (mostly since these churches do not all keep formal records pertaining to membership), most estimates point to around 1–2 percent of the Faroese population being linked to this movement in one way or another (Hansen 2014: 55; Sølvará 2010: 225, see also Jóansson 2012). With a total population of around 50,000 in the Faroe Islands, this would indicate that around 500–700 persons are part of this Christian movement. All in all, a modest amount of people by any account. However, going by the same estimates, the total Christian population of the Faroe Islands lies around or slightly above 95 percent. Of these, around 82 percent belong to the state Lutheran church, with the rest belonging to the category of ‘free churches’.

Faroe Islanders are, and more or less always have been, a Christian population, shifting since around the year 1000 ce between the Norwegian and Danish state church. Coming under the Reformation in 1538, most scholars agree that being Christian has historically been the default position for individuals in the country. However, at the end of the nineteenth century, the status quo was shaken by the arrival of so-called Revivalist movements, most notably the Plymouth Brethren (brought to the islands by the Scottish missionary William Gibson Sloan in 1865) and the Home Mission, which sprang from within the Lutheran state church itself. What these movements brought was an increased focus on ‘good, Christian living’ and they were highly critical of the ‘Sundays and holidays’ approach seen until then in the Lutheran church. What is important to note here is that the Brethren (who today are still the largest free church movement in the country, with around 15 percent of the population being members) brought an evangelical message that had a very strong focus on personal salvation, especially understood as personal salvation from an afterlife of eternal torment in Hell. During my time doing fieldwork among the Brethren in the Faroe Islands, this aspect of their faith has not changed, and during services, the most common phrase heard is ‘have you settled the score with the Lord as regards your soul in the afterlife?’ It cannot be overstated how much this kind of discourse is completely avoided in City Church and during my time doing fieldwork in the church, I have heard Hell mentioned by the person giving the sermon a total of two times, both times used as a way of framing how not to preach the Gospel. More common testimonies in the church are from members who convey that they met someone ‘out in town’ who approached them to compliment them on being part of a church that puts its beliefs into action, for example in its recently started ‘free meal’ initiative (which has no ‘religious’ content and is aimed at helping anyone who might need a helping hand in making ends meet). Much of the church's growth in recent years is due to such initiatives where people who initially only started coming for the food ended up staying for the Christian content as well.

While all of the free churches mentioned do subscribe to many of the same practices (such as believer's baptism and communion of equals), there are questions over which they are incommensurably divided. The largest of these questions is the role of the Holy Spirit and the gifts (or charisms) that the Pentecostals and charismatics believe in. The notion of the spirit gifts came most sharply into focus in the 1920s when missionaries from emerging Pentecostal churches in Sweden and Norway started to preach about these blessings among the Brethren in Tórshavn. Over a short period of disagreement, the Brethren became very clear on this question – the spirit gifts are false beliefs at best, heresy at worst. Throughout the twentieth century, this divide between the Brethren and the Pentecostals and Charismatics only grew (leading to the walkout of a contingent of dissenters who would go on to found the first Pentecostal congregations in the country with the help of notorious English-Norwegian missionary Thomas Ball Barratt (Pétursson 1990, see also Rasmussen 1987), and today the question of the role of the Holy Spirit and ongoing personal blessings is still one of the cardinal differences between the two camps. At least in the case of the Pentecostals, for example, the idea of ‘eternal and unchanging salvation’ as it is found among the Brethren is seen as problematic, as this is seen as too transactional and saying nothing about the life- and character-changing potential of the Gospel once an individual enters into a personal relationship with God. Rather than the categorical ‘either–or’ seen in the Brethren faith, the Pentecostals subscribe, in a broad sense, to the idea of the ‘continued activity of salvation’ (see Robbins 2004). So wherein lies this divide? I argue that the question of ‘life and death’ and its correlate the ‘Heaven-and-Hell’ dichotomy is at the centre of both. The Brethren, for their part, were the first to bring a focused discourse containing these dichotomies, but the Pentecostals, in a sense, came to occupy a kind of subordinate ‘free church’ position that in many ways functioned as the Brethren's gestalt with an emphasis on some of the things that the Brethren would not subscribe to. This division can be seen as two different solutions to the same dilemma: how to transcend the world while continuing to inhabit it (Laidlaw 2014: 77). The Brethren do this by focusing on the afterlife, thus casting the present into the future (or ‘the beyond’) and the Pentecostals by drawing holiness into the present. As we shall presently see, however, the notion of Hell espoused by the Brethren never disappeared completely from the consciousness of the Pentecostals.

From Hell to ‘Life’

As I have just shown, the question of where one goes on death came to be one of the most central elements of Christianity in the Faroe Islands, at least since the arrival of the Revivalist movements at the end of the nineteenth century. As I have also shown, for a large majority of members of these free churches, resolving this issue is a relatively simple matter: confess your sins and ask for forgiveness from the Lord, Jesus Christ, and He will take you into His kingdom on your death (or during the Rapture, but that is for another time). Much of the literature found within anthropology has dealt with this issue, mostly in the form of Millenarianism (see Robbins 2004; Webster 2017). But while ideas about the coming Apocalypse are at the core of many Millenarian movements, in my own material this matter holds very little relevance in day-to-day Christian practice. Here I draw a line between what I see as the two kinds of salvation that I wish to discuss: salvation from the Apocalypse (often of a culture or society as a whole) on the one hand, and individual salvation from Hell on the individual's death. The former, which is of a decidedly eschatological character, sees the Christian community as already living at, or near, the end times of the world. Drawing on dispensationalist theology, or Biblical exegesis about the return to Earth by Jesus, followed by the Rapture of ‘true believers’ and leaving the Earth in its desolate state to be lived in by non-believers, this form of salvational belief is of a cosmological order, which deals with the longue durée of Christian time (see Guyer 2007). Within the broad category of Evangelical churches worldwide, this phenomenon is ubiquitous. Belief in the coming Apocalypse is very real for many churches and individuals, and often figures as a motivating element in the Evangelical imperative towards the spreading of the Gospel. The second type of salvational belief, however, is of a completely other character. While the free churches in the Faroe Islands in general subscribe to the chronotope seen in the Apocalyptic cosmology, there is often a much larger focus on the salvation of the individual prior to death, when the curtains close, so to speak, on the salvational theatrics between person and Christ. It could be said that the belief in oncoming annihilation of the world is real, but due to its uncertain nature about the when and where, there is more often a preference to speak of salvation in the more immediate understanding of the individual's soul. What both types of salvation contain, however, is the urgency tied into what I previously called the Evangelical imperative. This is the imperative towards the spreading of the Christian Gospel, preferably as quickly as possible, that other individuals might be saved prior to their deaths, and so avoiding eternal damnation in Hell. Joseph Webster (2017), in his work among the Plymouth Brethren in Scotland, has shown how prayer practices among those Christian believers contain this element of urgency. For these Christians, the reality of the oncoming Apocalypse cannot be avoided, and they inhabit a world in which their friends and family members are staring down the barrel of a gun that will send them straight to the fiery pits below. This, for the villagers of Gamrie, is a fact of life fraught with much sorrow and anguish. They pray daily for their kin, but also feel a deep powerlessness in the face an ever-diminishing interest in the religion that they confess to. So what can you do, if the ones you care about and who you often interact with regularly will not listen to what you are trying to convey?

This leads us back to City Church. As I have already shown, the Plymouth Brethren of which Webster speaks is the same movement that makes up the large majority of free churches in the Faroe Islands. And just as is seen in Webster's work, there is a very strong focus on death, Hell and the Apocalypse in both communities. The Pentecostals, however, have chosen a different path altogether. In many ways functioning as an internal critique (see Gershon 2006; Handman 2015) of other forms of Christian practice, Pentecostals in the Faroe Islands have elected to preach a ‘Gospel of Life’ rather than focusing on death (see Eriksen et al 2019) and what happens at that point.2 During one of my conversations with the previous pastor of the church, he relayed a good example of these two forms of Evangelical understanding in the Faroe Islands:

Yes, I think I am fourth generation outside the state church. That is to say, my great grandmother was the first one in my family to convert to the Brethren faith back then, that was around when Sloan was still around. She was a school teacher, but when she was re-baptised, she was fired from her job, that is how it was back then. I am not sure exactly when this was but my grandfather was born in 1906, and he was baptised as an infant, so it must have been after then, I assume. I got the impression from my father that it wasn't easy back then for the people who converted. So, my family was always part of the Brethren community after that. But, growing up, I have both good and bad memories from all that. Bad, because – and I couldn't quite put my finger on it at the time – I think there is a very strong focus on death within the community. It is always about what is going to happen to you when you die, and the question is always if you have thought about ‘where are you going when you die?’ Today, I think that is extremely negative. That is ChristenDOM, but I prefer calling it the gospel. The gospel has no focus on death – quite the opposite. It is about life. During my time as pastor in the Pentecostal churches, I have chosen never to talk about Hell, especially not to my children. Today, I am completely opposed to that kind of talk altogether.

It is worth noting that in this account, as in so many other accounts of Pentecostal believers in the Faroe Islands, the Brethren presence is highly visible. As we saw in the previous section, the influence that the Brethren had on Faroese Christianity at the turn of the twentieth century cannot be overstated. It was the Brethren, sine qua non, who laid the grounds for the move away from the ritualism of the state church, and towards the actively engaged type of Christianity that is seen in the free churches today.3 As the story above shows, in the former pastor's family, the breakaway from the state church laid the foundations. He later went on to expand on his own story in the Brethren community:

I remember once when I was a child in elementary school. One morning, during the morning assembly at my school, I started to see stars before my eyes, and I had to run out to the hallway where I almost passed out.4 I had not been able to sleep that night, at all. I had been so caught in the worry about where I was going to go when I died, or if Jesus was going to come back that I could not fall asleep at all. That is my experience of Christianity as a child. When I became a teenager, as so many young people do, I stopped going to meetings in the community. Then suddenly one day, I saw this parade in Tórshavn. There were all these people singing, dancing, smiling. All these guys that I knew, who I knew had always been a bit a bunch of rascals, and here they were smiling and singing. What was it that had changed these guys so much? This was during the ‘Kristus er svarið’ days,5 when all these revivals took place. I thought that this is it, this is what the Gospels are actually talking about. After that, I started to go to meetings again. Originally I went back to the Brethren, which I think now maybe was a mistake. I started to talk about these things that I had become convinced about, but it did not really sit well with everyone. Then, when I met my wife, who was the daughter of one of the Elders in Evangeliihúsið, I started going there. Quite soon after, I joined the leadership with two others – the Elder council was reformed into a leadership team of sorts, and the three of us sat there until 2010.

These kinds of stories are not uncommon among members of City Church. There seems to be a quite well-trodden narrative of ‘reconversion’, where the person is unable to reconcile what they see as the ‘real’ Gospel, which emphasises ‘life’, as opposed to what they see as the focus of the Brethren, namely the emphasis on ‘death’ and Hell. The choice of avoiding talk of Hell, then, is a central part of the former pastor of City Church's approach to Christian life, starting in his teens when he experienced what a ‘Gospel of life’ might look like. In the following, I will trace this reconfiguration of the ‘life-and-death/Heaven-or-Hell’ dichotomy to the present as it is found in City Church today.

Strategic Patience

In moving away from a message focused on ‘death’ and Hell towards one focused on life, and by extension the immanent blessings of God that are seen as central to Pentecostal practice, I here wish to explore how City Church has decided to realign its proselytising efforts towards Faroese society. The core of this realignment is an effort to become more embracing towards the surrounding society, an effort to make the church's members more predisposed to engage with ‘the Other’ and in the process letting the church's theological and moral views become a valid subject of debate (Montemaggi 2018: 3). This approach matches similar trends to those among many other Evangelical movements, as well as those in what has been dubbed the ‘Emergent Church Movement’ (Bielo 2011). What James Bielo (2013: 31) has argued is that for many Evangelicals in later years, there has been a more widespread transformation in how churches and individuals engage with public issues, and part of this transformation has been a re-evaluation about what the church can and should be (see also Elisha 2011). At the risk of lumping all trends within contemporary Evangelical movements into one pot, I do argue that City Church, as a whole, falls into the category of churches that Bielo points to. The experience of many Faroese Christians has, as we have seen, been one of dealing with ideas about condemnation and salvation. As an aside, what is often stressed in these free church circles is that this issue has often led to what they have perceived as a highly moralising form of proselytisation and general church practice, where there has been a focus on weeding out the vices found among church-goers and those outside the church. As we saw earlier in this article, however, just as in many other Evangelical churches worldwide, there is a trend towards a more inclusive approach to moral questions. City Church, as such, has also embraced this way of relating to those who are seen as in need of salvation. Instructive in this regard is the story of Peter, who is part of the church leadership. Throughout his life, he says,

I used to be with the Brethren, and I was extremely active and pushy. I would always engage in theological discussions and push the salvation message on people, even my close family. Then one day my sister asked me to be the godfather to her newborn child who was to be baptised in the Lutheran church. And I mean, this was complete heresy to us, a misguided ritual that leads away from true faith. But then what could I do – should I say no and alienate my family. That would be that, then I would have committed to being that kind of person. Something changed in me then, I decided that I couldn't keep going like this. I sort of started not hanging out with the Brethren as much anymore, and later when I found this church, I decided that this is it, we are supposed to love people. We gain nothing by pushing that arcane message on people. Even if yeah of course, I wish for everyone to meet Jesus. But that's not the way forward.

While this ‘new’ way of practising Evangelical Christianity can be seen in many different churches around the world, I find that, considering the role that ideas about death and Hell have played in the Faroe Islands, the explicit avoidance of engaging with this concept in City Church is striking. There is a case to be made that even though the church does not actively engage with the concept of Hell, its reality in absentia is still highly influential. As we saw in Webster's (2017) analysis of the Christians of Gamrie, there is no lack in urgency as to the need to spread the Gospel to non-believers as quickly as possible. This urgency, I would argue, would be hard to find in a purely ‘positive’ conception in something akin to the wish to spread the good news to those who have not received salvation. Rather it is, as in Webster's analysis, more apt to think of this urgency as it relates to damnation – the damnation that the church perceives non-believers to be facing, in many cases very imminently. And again, I wish to emphasise, as does Webster, that in believing that one's friends and relatives are in this predicament, it is quite understandable as to why this sense of urgency is so ever-present in the need to evangelise among Christian believers. However, the problem then becomes that if shouting warnings about this oncoming judgement does not work, the church is more or less forced to re-adjust itself. And this is what City Church has done – an emphasis on compassion with non-believers, an active engagement in (potential) social relations within Faroese society and a willed avoidance of moralising towards other actors (see Montemaggi 2018). The mantra, as it is written on custom-made rubber armbands worn by many of the church's members, is the crystallisation of this intent – ‘be real and relate’.6

Considering the history of the free churches of the Faroe Islands, I see this as a strategic choice on City Church's part. While it would of course be highly desirable in the eyes of the church if the Gospel was taken in more often by non-believers, they have come to the realisation that it is not through words, but rather through experience, that persons come to believe in God. In many ways, this is the exact opposite of what Harding (1987, 2000), Robbins (2001) and Keane (2007) have written about when speaking of conversion in their respective ethnographic fields. In those analyses, conversion follows from a rather specific linguistic practice in which confession, testimony and further evangelising function as the sanctifying or salvational vehicles. In City Church, this emphasis on linguistic practices is (at least discursively) downplayed in lieu of emphasising religious experience as the way in which persons come to know God. As mentioned earlier, for example, the church living up to what it sees as its moral responsibility (for example by handing out food to those who need it) is often framed as a much stronger testimony than anything a person can say to a non-believer about salvation. Furthermore, as was relayed to me continuously throughout my stay in the church, it is not words or men that change hearts – that capacity lies solely in the hands of God. But coming to know God is most likely to happen if the non-believer spends time among members of the church or within church walls. In order for God to change hearts, there needs to be a certain kind of proximity between the individual person and the message of the Gospel and the best way to do that is to have the person ‘keep coming back’.7 So the almost paradoxical approach becomes the only way forward: in order to act on the felt urgency of spreading the Gospel and thus saving souls from damnation, the church needs to be patient towards the persons that choose to come to the church. The urgent goal, of course, is to lead people to salvation, but this is left up to God, and the members of the church should, rather, be patient and let this process play out on its own. This approach became most apparent to me when I returned to the field a few months after my initial fieldwork period had ended. Very quickly, the members of the church welcomed me back to a Sunday meeting after which one of the members of the leadership team, with whom I had spent many hours speaking over cups of coffee, invited me to come to his house the day after to rekindle our old conversations. I gladly accepted his invitation and during the conversation the day after, he asked me ‘So have you had any spiritual experience since you were here?’ to which I replied that I had not. ‘No matter,’ he said, ‘God works in his own way and the important thing is to just keep the relation going. Hopefully He will get there someday’.

I would argue that this change in proselytisation strategy is one that is not so much a reversal of previous efforts in City Church (formerly Evangeliihúsið), but rather an intensification of elements of practice in the church that were already latently present prior to the more explicit changes in architecture and moral configurations previously mentioned. This is the historically Faroese Pentecostal preference for the ‘Gospel of Life’. This point has been conveyed to me by members of the church as well – that the church has always been a very open Christian community compared to many of the other churches in the country, but that they previously perhaps had a harder time making this known to the wider public. But again here, the comparison with other churches is central. The member of the leadership team I just mentioned, for example, says that he only knew one kind of religious talk growing up, the almost archaic form of talk that, he says, was at times completely unintelligible to him. This he attributes to the churches and congregations that he perceives as ‘preachy’ as opposed to embracing, and it is what he uses as a point of comparison in how he himself attempts to reshape the church. These attempts are all, in some way, a reiteration of the ‘Gospel of Life’ that we saw the previous pastor of the church speak about. It is also in some ways risky for the church, opening the doors, so to speak, for outside influence to have an increasingly large effect on what the church is and does. What this also entails is that the church has thrown up into the air many of the certainties that they previously were able to rely on, for example ideas about life and death, and the concepts of Heaven and Hell, as well as the moral certitude of correct beliefs. But this is just one of the risks that the church is willing to take in order to be able to reach those around them that they themselves believe to be, in a sense, on their way to an afterlife of eternal separation from God, an existence in which pain and damnation are a constant. It is only by being able to reconfigure their own beliefs and practices that they are able to live out the Evangelical imperative that they feel. This is the constant interplay that the church is faced with – the urgent project of saving as many souls as possible before eternal damnation, but the necessity of being patient with God while this project is ongoing.

Conclusion

Throughout this article, I have argued that the notion of Hell has historically played a large role in Faroese Christianity. However, some groups of Christians, most prominently the Pentecostals, have steered away from focusing on this aspect of Christian belief in favour of a salvational message that emphasises ‘life’. More recently, City Church has further reconfigured its stance towards non-believers and in so doing has pushed the notion of Hell even further into the background of its proselytisation efforts. However, I have argued, the notion of Hell still figures as a notion that creates a sense of urgency among Christians. This urgency is what drives the Evangelical imperative towards saving as many souls as possible. The problem, nevertheless, has been that many churches, City Church among them, are having a hard time getting the message across to their intended audience. This has led to a realignment in the way that they relate to the surrounding society, effecting a more inclusive stance towards non-believers. This realignment, however, requires a more patient way of spreading salvation, which in many ways stands in stark contrast to the urgency felt by Christians to spread the Gospel as quickly as possible.

This article has posed questions to the anthropology of Christianity as to how we come to understand the existential lives that individual believers inhabit and their relation to more cosmological temporal questions within their own lifeworlds. While theological concepts can often have varied and opposing meanings and importance over different contexts, I have shown that in the Faroe Islands, the concept of Hell has a deep history that still affects the lives of individual believers, even when its role is secondary or hidden from clear sight. I have also explored how a concept as deep-seated and enduring as an either–or afterlife still has a tangible effect on how both individuals and institutions relate to the world around them. In so doing, I hope to have demonstrated that a concept of urgency draws on current predicaments and concerns but is also re-invigorated in new ways by re-configuring aspects of urgency that were motivating factors in the past.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Andreas Bandak and Paul Anderson for the invitation to contribute to this special issue. I would also like to thank the reviewers for their insightful comments as well as Rupert Stasch and Rasmus Rask Poulsen who read earlier drafts of the article.

Notes

1

These numbers were taken from the survey as it has been presented on the website of the public broadcasting company (Kringvarp Føroya) and used with the permission of the project manager, Heini í Skorini. The website is: http://kvf.fo/gudsigniføroyar.

2

It may be pertinent to mention that while in this article I deal with the concept of ‘Hell’, the other side of the coin, ‘Heaven’, is conspicuously absent. The reason for this absence is ethnographic. In line with City Church's focus on the here-and-now, Heaven is usually spoken of more as an afterthought, and the importance (and proof) of a full Christian life is the charismatic blessed life in the present. In a sense, Heaven will come, but the blessing has already begun.

3

As an aside, Faroese as a language became the official school language in 1937, followed by a move from Danish to Faroese in churches in 1938. Totally central to this process was the translation of the New Testament in 1937, and the complete Bible in 1948 to Faroese, translations that were done by members of the Brethren community (Pétursson 1990: 118).

4

A similar account can be found in Pons (2011). In that story, as in this one, we hear about a young Christian man (in that case from one of the charismatic free churches founded after the revivals of the 1970s) who experiences grave anxiety from being unsure about his own salvation.

5

The colloquial name for a charismatic revival that took place in the Faroe Islands during the 1970s and 1980s, which translates to ‘Christ is the answer’.

6

For reasons of space, I have not gone too much into the current landscape of the Faroe Islands and the context in which a statement such as ‘be real and relate’ comes to carry moral weight. Suffice it to say that over the last twenty years or so, public debate in the Faroe Islands has seen an increased presence of non-Christian moral arguments that were almost completely absent previously. This has led to changes in legislation, most notably seeing ‘sexual orientation’ being added to the discrimination law in 2006 and same-sex marriage being legalised in 2016. While many churches initially fought these kinds of changes in legislation vociferously (and some still do), some took a more self-reflexive approach as to whether they themselves needed to take in some of the ideas and arguments put forward. City Church self-consciously is one of the latter, and it is within this context that many of its recent changes should be seen. This fact can again be related to James Bielo's work on Emerging Evangelicals in the US (Bielo 2011) who prefer to enter into what they see as authentic relationships with their surrounding society. Similarly, many members of City Church relay stories of a kind of de-conversion away from ‘old, conservative’ religious views towards a more inclusive view of society – indicating that some of these elements recur on a global scale.

7

This is another of the church's working mantras.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Sølvará, H. A. 2010. Guðfrøðistreymar og trúarligar vekingarrørslur í Føroyum og Íslandi. Presentation at the Faroese-Icelandic ‘Frændafundur’ 7 conference in Reykjavík 21–22 August 2010.

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Contributor Notes

JAN JENSEN (jj480@cam.ac.uk) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. His interests revolve around religion, history, global media and the development of Christianity in Europe and North America, especially in the Scandinavian/Nordic countries. He has primarily conducted fieldwork among Pentecostal Christians in the Faroe Islands with a focus on morality, as well as on questions of voluntary labour and outwards institutional expression in an interplay with the broader Faroese society. His work is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK), the Cambridge Trust and the Faroe Islands Research Council. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2459-5120.

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  • Bialecki, J., N. Haynes and J. Robbins 2008. ‘The anthropology of Christianity’, Religion Compass 2: 11391158.

  • Bielo, J. S. 2011. Emerging evangelicals: faith, modernity, and the desire for authenticity. London: Unwin Hyman.

  • Bielo, J. S. 2013. ‘FORMED’: emerging evangelicals navigate two transformations, in B. Steensland and P. Goff (eds.), The new evangelical social engagement p. 3149. New York: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coleman, S. 2005. ‘An empire on a hill? The Christian Right and the right to be Christian’, Anthropological Quarterly 78: 653671.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Comaroff, J. and J. Comaroff 1986. ‘Christianity and colonialism in South Africa’, American Ethnologist 13: 122.

  • Elisha, O. 2011. Moral ambition: mobilization and social outreach in evangelical megachurches. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eriksen, A., R. Llera Blanes and M. MacCarthy 2019. Going to Pentecost: an experimental approach to studies in Pentecostalism. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Foucault, M. 1984. The history of sexuality, vol. 2: the use of pleasure. New York: Penguin Books.

  • Gershon, I. 2006. Converting meanings and the meanings of conversion in Samoan moral economies, in M. Engelke and M. Tomlinson (eds.), The limits of meaning: case studies in the anthropology of Christianity, p. 147163. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Guyer, J. I. 2008. ‘Prophecy and the near-future: thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time’, American Ethnologist 34: 409421.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Handman, C. 2015. Critical Christianity: translation and denominational critique in Papua New Guinea. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hansen, J. 2014. Betwixt and between: religion og religiøsitet på Færøerne i det 21. århundrede. Tórshavn: Fróðskapur.

  • Harding, S. F. 1987. ‘Convicted by the Holy Spirit: the rhetoric of Fundamentalist Baptist conversion’, American Ethnologist 14: 167181.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harding, S. F. 2000. The Book of Jerry Falwell: fundamentalist language and politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Jóansson, T. 2012. Brethren in the Faroes. Tórshavn: Fróðskapur.

  • Keane, W. 2007. Christian moderns: freedom and fetish in the mission encounter. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Laidlaw, J. 2014. The subject of virtue: an anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Meyer, B. 1998. Make a complete break with the past: memory and postcolonial modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostal discourse, in R. Werbner (ed.), Memory and the postcolony: African anthropology and the critique of power, p. 182208. London: Zed Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Montemaggi, F. 2018. ‘Compassion and purity: the ethics and boundary-making of Christian Evangelicals’, Religion 48: 642658.

  • Pedersen, M. A. 2018. ‘Becoming what you are: faith and freedom in a Danish Lutheran movement’, Social Anthropology 26: 182196.

  • Pétursson, P. 1990. Från Väckelse till Samfund. Svensk pingstmission på öarna i Nordatlanten. Lund: Lund University Press.

  • Pons, C. 2011. The anthropology of Christianity in the Faroe Islands, in F. Gaini (ed.), Among the Islanders of the north: an anthropology of the Faroe Islands, p. 80131. Tórshavn: Fróðskapur.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rasmussen, P. M. 1987. Den Færøske Sprogrejsning med særligt henblik på kampen om færøsk som kirkesprog i national og partipolitisk belysning. Tórshavn: í Hoydølum.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robbins, J. 2001. ‘God is nothing but talk: modernity, language and prayer in a Papua New Guinea society’, American Anthropologist 103: 901912.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robbins, J. 2004. Becoming sinners: Christianity and moral torment in a Papua New Guinea society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robbins, J. 2007. ‘Continuity thinking and the problem of Christian culture’, Current Anthropology 48: 538.

  • Schlamelcher, J. 2013. The decline of parishes and the rise of city churches: the German evangelical church in the age of neoliberalism, in T. Martikainen and F. Gauthier (eds.), Religion in the neoliberal age: political economy and modes of governance, p. 5368. Surrey: Ashgate.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sølvará, H. A. 2010. Guðfrøðistreymar og trúarligar vekingarrørslur í Føroyum og Íslandi. Presentation at the Faroese-Icelandic ‘Frændafundur’ 7 conference in Reykjavík 21–22 August 2010.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Webster, J. 2017. ‘Praying for salvation: a map of relatedness’, Religion 47: 1934.

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