Abstract: The Devil in the Mirror: Arne Garborg’s Doubt. Master thesis in religious studies by Odd Magnus Grimeland
The study is an investigation of the religious themes of the writer Arne Garborg, who was born in Jæren on the west coast of Norway in 1851. The title refers to the writer’s tense and adverse commitment to the strict pietistic Christianity of his native region.
The landscape of Jæren (and the southern and western parts of Norway in general) has an extraordinarilaly rich religious heritage. The hardworking peasants and fishermen of this wet and windy region have often embraced rather stern interpretations of the Christian message.
Hans Nielsen Hauge was the foremost Norwegian layman of the early 19th Century. Hauge’s call to serve as God’s housekeeper appealed strongly to the rural working class, and even though he was persecuted by the authorities early in his career, his popular teaching was eventually recognized as a resource for the theology of the Lutheran state church.
The learned theologian Gisle Johnson sought to reconcile Hauge’s popular pietism with Lutheran orthodoxy. Johnson managed to set in motion a major religious revival. The Johnsonian Awakening dominated the religious atmosphere of Norway in the second half of the 19th Century. The legacy of Hauge and Johnson remains a considerable force in the lay movement and in church societies for inner and outer mission.
Pietism emphasises the individual sinner’s conversion. The threatening prospect of an eternity in Hell for the unconverted is the downside of the glorious message. Arne Garborg experienced the dramatic results of the call for religious awakening during his childhood and adolescence. His father was overcome by religious fervour and fell into endless speculations on his possible damnation. Arne was barely twenty years old when his troubled father hanged himself. It is hard to pinpoint the exact motive for the suicide, but the mirthless religious understanding of life and death certainly contributed to the sad outcome.
Thus, religion and religious fanaticism became inevitable topics in Arne Garborg’s writing. He was particularly committed to the unveiling of the dark side of pietism, a critical project which is evident in the books A Free-Thinker (Ein Fritenkjar, 1878/81) and Peace (Fred, 1892). The novel Peace is particularly important. It is in my opinion one of the most intimate portraits of a religious fanatic ever written. The unfortunate fate of Garborg’s father was of course the main inspiration for the novel.
The constructive element of Garborg’s criticism verges on the utopian. The teaching of Jesus as presented in the synoptic Gospels is the guideline for his ethics. The writer’s utopian leanings became apparent in the final phase of his career. Garborg’s ideal religious thinker, the former revivalist Paulus Hòve, was introduced in the play The Teacher (Læraren, 1896). Garborg investigated Paulus’ humane interpretation of Christ’s message further in The Lost Father (Den burtkomne Faderen, 1899) and The Returned Son (Heimkomin Son, 1908). The study Jesus Messiah (Jesus Messias, 1906) expresses his personal understanding of The New Testament and also contains a fervent criticism of Lutheran orthodoxy and pietism.
The experimental aim of this thesis is the investigation of a religious environment on the basis of fictional accounts. I am aware of the dangers of treating literature as factual documents. Both the German theorist Hans-Georg Gadamer and many of his opponents are highly suspicious of art as a source for historical knowledge. Although I do not fully share this view, I consider it an important reminder of the possible shortcomings of my approach. Sufficient understanding of art and history is essential for the success of the project.
Ultimately, I have found that Arne Garborg’s accounts are saturated by first hand experiences. They do in fact offer a unique and valuable insight into the religious milieu of Norwegian 19th Century pietism. The books and essays where he presents his own views on religion are authentic documents in their own right. Garborg’s obsession with the traumatic loss of faith foreshadows the concerns of 20th Century writers such as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. And his polemical dissections of the traditional interpretations of Jesus Christ are still richly illuminating.