BREAKING THE STRONGHOLD OF JANTE

Scandinavians are as far from Italians as Scandinavia is from Italy.   A famous Norwegian author once wrote, “Every joy you have you pay for with sorrow.”  Many Norwegians think it’s from the Bible. They take it seriously—and I mean seriously.  They, and most Scandinavians (and I am one), tend to value even-keeled emotions rather than the highs and lows more prominent in Mediterranean cultures.  Expressions of affection and praise tend to be guarded. When a gifted girl asked her mom why she didn’t affirm her, she responded, “We didn’t want you to get proud.” That is all too typical.

Many children grow up wondering if they are valued, which they then pass on to their offspring. Not vastly different from any other place in the world, but maybe more pronounced because of their disposition.  Garrison Keillor helped us laugh at some of these cultural patterns. Sometimes they aren’t funny.

These attitudes, a part of Scandinavian society for centuries, were reinforced in a book by a Dane who moved to Norway and came across attitudes of negativism and depression. His novel, The Escape from Jante, tells about the dark side of Scandinavian small-town mentality. The term “Janteloven,” which means “the Jante Law” has come to mean the unspoken rules of such communities.  It is a curse, not a blessing, but Scandinavians have owned it as their DNA. Sandemose may have chosen ten laws to give it the seriousness of the Ten Commandments, which interestingly are called the “Moseloven” (or Mosaic Law) in Norwegian.  

WHAT IT IS

Here is the Law of Jante which Sandemose wrote after observing it:

  1. Do not think you are anything special.
  2. Do not think you are as important as we are.
  3. Do not think you are wiser than us.
  4. Do not fool yourself into thinking you are better than us.
  5. Do not think you know more than us.
  6. Do not think you are more than we are.
  7. Do not think that you are good at anything.
  8. Do not laugh at us.
  9. Do not think that anyone cares about you.
  10. Do not think you can teach us anything.

Heresy is truth in distortion, and there is an element of truth in these statements. The Law of Jante, however, takes an inaccurate picture of humility and applies it to others in a kind of pseudo-democratic fashion.  It levels people off so no one feels like rising above anyone else. The Japanese have a saying, “The nail that sticks out is pounded down,” and the Law of Jante has been used for decades to pound people down, so that they question their value to others and even to God.

A Swedish pastor told me it is opposite the American spirit of “rugged individualism.”   “If you ask a Swede if he plays an instrument, he says, ‘Well, not much. I just practice a little bit,’ even if he is a concert pianist.  If you ask an American, he says, ‘Sure, I’m going to release a CD soon,’ even if he only knows two chords.” Both outlooks need the influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit. I am not going after Scandinavians. I love my Norwegian roots–and fruits. And I love where God has placed us for twenty-three years, in American Scandinavia, the upper Midwest. As we embrace the culture, we also wish to embrace the healing that comes from Jesus (part 2 next).

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