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  • Remixing Religion in Hanne Ørstavik’s Presten and Lars Amund Vaage’s Tangentane
  • Frankie Shackelford

More than a century after Nietzsche’s madman accused the human race of deicide, the alleged murder of God is still working its way through the courts of academic philosophy, theology, and literary criticism.1 While it seemed by the late twentieth century that the death of God was an undisputed event among intellectuals and artists in oil-wealthy, largely secular Norway, the new millennium has seen a renewed focus in the public sphere on issues of faith, including in works of literature. Already in the 1990s the conspicuous increase in religious themes in Norwegian novels baffled and irritated critics like Eivind Tjønneland (1999) who called for an ideological critique of this culturally regressive, moralistic, and puritanical trend. Yet the growing presence of spiritual themes and religious language did not signal a resurgence of orthodox Christian belief as much as a search for new frontiers of literary expression beyond die-hard historical materialism. Dag Solstad, a prominent radical of the Profil-generation, has clarified for the record that he was compelled to bring God into his 1996 novel Professor Andersens natt (Professor Andersen’s Night) in obedience to an esthetic law that demands epic integrity, even when it forces him to violate his own sensibilities.2 Three-quarters [End Page 169] of early critics ignored God’s centrality in the work, Solstad claims, perhaps because they found it embarrassing, but also because they did not understand the inherent principle in the construction of novels, “det genuint romanmessige ved en roman” (2013, 14) [the genuine novel-ness of a novel]. In a similar vein, Lars Amund Vaage (2001) has identified the novel as the most vital literary form in postmodern times, thanks to its broad exploratory power, which does not privilege the scientific over the subjective or explanation over intimation (73).3

While some critics lament the mere inclusion of a metaphysical dimension, others are confounded by the heterodox representation of religion in contemporary works of literature. Åse Kallestad (2004) argues that Norwegian literature from the 1990s reveals a diffuse theological longing in the main characters, but she concludes that their idiosyncratic relationships to God do not represent any religion.4 Kallestad claims rather that works by several leading Norwegian authors, including Solstad and Hanne Ørstavik, have unearthed a postmodern, sometimes masochistic, theological individualism—a longing for subjugation to a higher power without the comfort of personal salvation or collective worship practices (204–6). However, two novels that appeared shortly after the turn of the millenium, Ørstavik’s Presten (2004; The Pastor) and Vaage’s Tangentane (2005; The Piano Keys), place the spotlight directly on members of the Lutheran clergy against the backdrop of contemporary congregations. These works foreground the experience of practicing pastors who question the call to ministry [End Page 170] and the effectiveness of their response. Appearing during a decade of political discussion and revision of the status of the Church of Norway, both novels point to current ecclesiastical challenges and criticize key aspects of institutional religion, but they do not dismiss it as irrelevant. By exposing the scarred and shifting interior landscapes of pastors in the midst of a crisis of calling, the authors draw attention to both the individual and interpersonal dimensions of religious identity in post-Christian Norway. In their very different performances, these texts recognize the phenomenology of religious practice as a wellspring of literary innovation. Their common themes and sharply contrasting fictional discourses invite a comparative reading.

The immediate issue for the protagonists in Presten and Tangentane is how to go forward with the call to ministry, when “the Word” has lost its power. Kallestad (2004) found that Norwegian authors employ biblical and mystical language to convey the deep spiritual longing that their characters experience.5 In these two novels, however, religious language is the daily idiom of the ministry, formulaic and effaced by overuse. It fails to express anything authentic, much less to evoke an ineffable truth. How then should a preacher reach the congregation—or a writer (or critic) the readers? In portraying the struggles of pastors in extremis, both authors establish a tension between...


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