No island is an island

August 2, 2004

THE MEN WERE DRESSED LIKE BILBO BAGGINS, THE HOBBIT. Knee-britches, silver-buckle shoes and jackets lined with silver buttons. The women sported bodices beautifully latticed with ornate silver chains, brooches and buckles. Like actors awaiting the next take of ‘Lord of the Rings’, they strolled casually through the town centre and along the harbourfront, with its quaint wooden houses roofed with grassy turf. Every few steps they stopped to greet old friends who had flocked into the world’s smallest capital, Th√≥rshavn, for the annual St Olav’s festivities of parades, bands, singing, rowing races and… well, plain old debauchery.

My wife Romkje and I had been whisked across an ocean of time, it seemed, back through the centuries to this two-day festival honouring the patron saint of the Faroe Islands. This arrowhead-shaped archipelago of eighteen islands, equidistant from Iceland, Scotland and Norway, is home for 50,000 Viking descendants. They speak a variation of Old Norse, one of the languages that inspired Tolkien’s Middle-earth tongues. These islands were settled over a thousand years ago as part of a string of Viking colonies along the coasts of the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea.

But that’s not the complete story. DNA-tests and blood-types reveal strong Celtic traits in the women in particular, and suggest that long boats had first settled in the Hebrides on Scotland’s coast, later moving on to the Faroes with willing (or unwilling) Celtic women. Several Celtic words distinct to Faroese and unknown in Norway underscore this theory.

All this might suggest a history of isolation and an insular mentality. St Augustine described the world as a book; those who stayed at home read only the first page. But it would be a mistake to think the Faroese only read the first page! The first Faroe Islander I met was Peter-Paul attending a DTS in Serbia. I have just received a newsletter from a friend in Jordan and read of a Faroe Islander on her team. Every second male seems to have a ship’s ticket of some sort, and Faroese provide disproportionate numbers of officers on the vessels of both Operation Mobilisation and Mercy Ships. (By the way, the new OM ship, m/v Logos Hope, was the old ferry plying between Norway, Denmark, Iceland and the Faroes.)

A powerful wanderlust anchored by a fierce love for their own islands has paradoxically shrunken their world and yet maintained their love for tradition. Our global village, with its satellite television, internet and budget airlines, is smaller and more intertwined than ever. Even in the North Atlantic, it seems, no island is an island any more.

There’s even something in common between these islands and those of New Zealand on the opposite side of the globe. Sheep! The very name Faroe Islands means ‘sheep islands’. The name probably came from the Celtic saga, The Voyages of St Brendon, in which Brendon discovers an island populated by sheep. But today the islands cannot sustain enough home-grown sheep for consumption, so they eat a lot of New Zealand lamb! And, I’m told, it’s very cheap. Now, with a ratio of only two sheep per inhabitant, do these islands really deserve their name? Any Kiwi will tell you there are 20 sheep for every New Zealander! But, then again (as far as we know) Brendon never got to New Zealand.

This coming weekend, yet another New Zealand export was being billed for the enjoyment of the Faroese. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, flying in for an eagerly-awaited concert this Saturday, is being promoted as the ‘most renowned international artist ever to have performed in the Faroes’. Small world, indeed!

There was even a further link with these islands for this fourth-generation New Zealander, albeit somewhat remote. I was reminded of my own family line, which-believe it or not- actually passed through this North Atlantic neighbourhood. A couple of years ago I traced back my roots from New Zealand (from 1855) via India (from 1800) to England (since 1066, with the Norman invasion) to Normandy. A fellow named Thorfinn Rollo led a flotilla of Viking marauders down the English coast from the Orkney Islands in the tenth century to raid Paris and finally settle on the northern French coast as the Normans. The Orkney Islands are the closest neighbours to the Faroes and were also settled in the ninth century by Vikings from Norway. So now I began to regard the Faroese as my long lost cousins – the ones who stayed at home!

Which brings me at last to the real reason for this w e e k l y w o r d . We had been invited to speak at the opening of an exhibition, part of the St Olav’s festivities. Sanna Hammer, leader of the local YWAM work, wanted to remind her fellow islanders of those values and norms which had guided the Faroe community in the past. Visitors to the exhibition in a down-town community centre were greeted by a mannequin dressed as St Brendon in the hallway, and a large oil-painting of a bay called Brandansvik, where the intrepid voyager is said to have landed. A time-line reminded visitors of the peace-loving Celtic Christianity which preceded the official conversion to Christianity by the sword in 999AD. Just a few months ago, wooden Celtic crosses had been unearthed on the Faroes and dated to the early tenth century, confirming the presence of Christian communities prior to the violent and politically-motivated later ‘conversion’.

Sanna wanted to stimulate the Faroese to pause and consider what kind of society they wanted in the future, and how that might be achieved. A reflection room gave opportunity for people to write down their thoughts. Cultural displays reminded visitors of the biblical influence on their own history, including stanzas of the long chain-dance sagas chanted and danced on special occasions like this feast. The Minister of Culture, Jógvan á Lakjuni-attired in national costume with breeches, buckles, buttons and stockings-officially opened the exhibition, with citations from Faroese poets. Norwegian Alv Magnus, director of YWAM Northern Europe, drew inspiration from the social transformations in Norway brought by Hans Nielsen Hauge, the 19th century revivalist.

The Faroes, I suggested when my turn came, shared a crisis with Europe as a whole – a crisis of vision, a crisis of norms and values. On what basis, on what world view, on what understanding of reality, would we build our futures? Europe-and the Faroes-was at a crossroads at the start of this new millennium. Where will we draw our norms and values from? What options do we face?

The options, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, are actually very few. Society will be shaped by the dominant understanding of reality. Either society will be based on the idea that the only reality is material and physical; or, that spiritual realities do exist. The Enlightenment, and its offspring communism and consumerism, offered basically materialistic views. Only matter mattered. The spiritual options are basically two-fold: biblical or non-biblical. If, as many trends indicate, Europeans- including the Faroese-are more open to spiritual realities than before, what sort of spirituality will that be? And what will be the consequences of this choice?

Max duPree once said, we turn our futures on the lathe of the past. Others have said it in different words: ‘Those who forget their history have to relive its mistakes’. ‘History puts wise heads on young shoulders’. Something I often state myself is that short memories breed shortsightedness.

The ‘Jesus’ video played in the corner of the exhibition, offering a fresh look at this story and fresh inspiration for the future. This Jewish carpenter from a remote Roman province 2000 years ago has had more influence than any other person on the story of the Faroese. So why should his story not continue to be the greatest influence on shaping the future of these islands?

Or of Europe as a whole? The current debate about the EU co

nstitution, for example, illustrates how short memories breed

Let’s take a close look at that next week.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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