Jesus of Scandinavia

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 1, 2007

image My first serious encounter with Jesus was at a small church in rural Minnesota. The church had that universal old-church smell–the musty smell of old carpet and dust. It was a church filled with Scandinavians. Most of the folks there had names like Johnson or Anderson. They were a kind people, but a little stoic. A little detached. Minnesotans tend towards introversion, and the people of this church were no exception.

The music served as an auditory bridge to a time long gone–a time of immigrants settling into a new land. These were the songs of the elderly–songs that they had sung for 70 years, and that their parents and grandparents had sung before them. The sermons were understated–a quiet call to a quiet faith. I can’t remember a single sermon from those early days. My 13 year old mind couldn’t focus for 50 minutes. While I can’t remember the words of those sermons, I still remember what I saw. The images reside in my memory.

The church had burgundy carpeting, but not the plush kind. It was the plasticy sort of carpet that gave the worst sort of rug burn. The church had pews; almost all churches had pews in those days. The best images, however, were at the front of the church. On one side of the altar was an American flag. The other side had what was, by my best guess, a Christian flag. In the middle of it all was a picture. A picture of Jesus.

This Jesus had a soft, otherworldly glow. His eyes had a detached expression, as though he were preoccupied with heavenly truths. His sandy brown hair was soft and brushed back. His downy beard was neatly trimmed. His high forehead gently sloped downward to a strong Germanic nose. His skin was unblemished, soft, and pale.

In other words: he looked like the ideal Scandinavian. This visage of Christ reflected not only a Scandinavian appearance, but also a Scandinavian sensibility. This Jesus was kindly, yet detached. He was gentle, yet stoic. It is human nature to paint Jesus in our own likeness. It is human nature to find in Jesus our highest values, our most excellent virtues.

For the past 2000 years, communities and cultures have consistently made Jesus their poster-child. Sometimes, this is a good thing. After all, every culture in history has its share of praiseworthy virtues, values, beliefs, and accomplishments. But every culture in history has also found new and interesting ways to suck. The problem with making Jesus into a poster-child is that the ones making the poster don’t always know which of their attributes are praise-worthy and which of them suck.

  1. In what ways do American Christians make Jesus into their poster-child?
  2. In what ways have YOU made Jesus into your poster-child?  (look deep, and be honest)
  3. Do you believe it is possible to peel away the layers of our own assumptions and presuppositions and find a real Jesus who has the ability to challenge and transform us? 
  4. How do we do that?

for further reading . . .

  • None Found


3 Responses to “Jesus of Scandinavia”

  1. Brad Boydston on November 1st, 2007 1:01 am

    It was an attempt at contextualization. The artist, Warner Sallman, was a Swedish-American — with the emphasis on Swedish. The first version of the picture was drawn for the cover of his Swedish-American denomination’s magazine.

    The problem isn’t so much with the picture itself — maybe not even the artistic suppositions — but the problem is that we need new pictures to communicate in a new context.

  2. daniel.t on November 1st, 2007 9:49 pm


    I think I’ve made Jesus look like me in a lot of ways. First, Jesus is always more concerned with my American lifestyle than with global concerns. Growing up, even the whole “WWJD?” thing was focused on what musice Jesus would listen to on his personal CD player, not on whether or not he would own one.

    I’ll have to hold onto this for a while more (I’ve been letting this question work on me for a few years now), I think I still have a lot of layers to go through.


  3. Raleigh Booze on November 9th, 2007 11:20 am

    1) the American poster Jesus is a very distant Jesus, one my family tried to raise me with. One i did not understand at all really. He was high and might and Americans surely cannot relate to this Jesus

    2) My Jesus is very different from the American Jesus, I feel that he is a more tangible Jesus. One that I can relate to on many levels. One that I can fight alongside for social justice.

    3) I definitely think it is possible to access the real Jesus, but it is an ongoing process. Many people are trying to find out how that is possible today. I am constantly trying to find out more about the real Jesus, We’ll never know everything, but at least we can try to get to know him.

    4) doing this poses a very difficult problem. As many people are giving up on God today, it is our generation’s responsibility to show people who the real Jesus is by imitating him through love, compassion, and a passion to change the world

Got something to say?