In the pitch dark of Christmas Eve in Iceland, after family dinner and unwrapping presents, the lights stay aglow for another special tradition: reading. Not just reciting the Nativity story or The Night Before Christmas; book lovers in the tiny Nordic nation spend the night cracking into the shiny new hardbacks they received as gifts.
Gunnar Ingi Gunnarsson, a pastor in Reykjavík, remembers his father staying awake until 6 a.m. on Christmas, curled up with a box of chocolates and whatever book he’d received that year.
Even in the 21st century, the decades-old read-a-thon carries on. Bolstered by a cultural love for stories (dating back to the Viking sagas that chronicle the island’s history), Iceland now publishes and reads more books per capita each year than almost anywhere else.
Though sales have dipped due to digital options, Iceland’s printing output has remained steady at about 1,500 books a year, according to government statistics. The bulk of the new titles come out in the months leading up to Christmas during Jólabókaflóð, or the “Yule Book Flood,” so they can be given as gifts and read during the holidays.
For years, Gunnarsson has dreamed of his own three kids getting to unwrap one particular book: The Jesus Storybook Bible.
Though the popular children’s Bible has sold 3.2 million copies in 38 languages, Icelandic wasn’t one of them. Few evangelical books at all make it to the overwhelmingly secular island, deemed the “most godless country in Europe.” And just one version of the Bible is available in print in the local language.
But this year, Gunnarsson finally was able to give his kids—and hopefully thousands of others—an Icelandic version of Sally Lloyd-Jones’s colorfully illustrated storybook, crowdfunded by evangelicals in Iceland and supporters abroad.
“The reason we went with The Jesus Storybook Bible for the first [translation project] is that it’s actually a great resource for adults reading it too. They get a holistic view of Scripture as it points to Christ,” said Gunnarsson, who leads Loftstofan Baptistakirkja, the only doctrinally Reformed church in Iceland, and is also the founder of The Iceland Project, a network for church planting and theological training.
The project’s supporters covered the roughly $6,000 translation cost plus $20,000 to get the new edition of the kids’ Bible printed in time for the Jólabókaflóð. It’s the first in a series of translations aimed at building Bible-based resources in a country whose Lutheran strongholds, evangelicals say, have given way to cultural Christianity, distorted theology, and unbelief.
Though nearly all Icelanders know English—so much that some fear the language will overtake Icelandic in the coming decades—it’s pricey to get Christian bestsellers shipped and imported from the US to an island in the middle of the ocean: nearly triple the cost of the book itself. Plus, even fluent English speakers in the country are often less familiar with theological terms in English such as transubstantiation, or even grace, Gunnarsson said.
Some form of Christianity has been practiced in Iceland for as long as humans have lived there, but the land of fire and ice has turned increasingly skeptical and secular.
Up until five years ago, anyone born in Iceland was automatically registered as a member of their family’s religious tradition—usually the national church. Two in three Icelanders still belong to the Church of Iceland; however, fewer than 10 percent of the population attend services regularly, and one recent survey found that over half the population doesn’t consider themselves religious.
The Iceland Project hopes to capitalize on the lingering cultural Christianity to introduce neighbors to gospel truth. Since many babies still get baptized in the Lutheran church for the sake of custom, the 3,000 copies of The Jesus Storybook Bible printed this year could also be used as baptism gifts.
“Most of the kids’ Bibles here in Iceland are moralistic,” Gunnarsson said. “They’re about getting you to share your toys and not necessarily about the gospel or your need for a Savior.”
More than a decade ago, as a doubting and disillusioned pastor’s kid, Gunnarsson discovered a new understanding of the Christian faith through American evangelical professors and pastors. He spent his nine-hour shifts working at a grocery store listening to Reformed Theological Seminary classes and audiobooks by John Piper, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, and David Platt, and eventually became saved right in the aisles.
“I started realizing the importance of healthy doctrine,” he said. Doctrine is now his central concern for Christians, leaders, and churches in Iceland. “Healthy theology should automatically spring to healthy doxology.”
After The Jesus Storybook Bible, the Iceland Project will begin fundraising to publish a newer version of an out-of-print 1981 Icelandic Bible, or Biblía. The only current Icelandic Bible available in print is a 2007 translation updated with gender-inclusive language.
With just 5 percent of the population belonging to Christian traditions outside of the largely ceremonial Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, there’s no significant demand for the kinds of books like those that transformed Gunnarsson’s life. But these theologically rich texts are the ones the Iceland Project set out to translate: Bibles, ecclesiology titles from 9Marks, The Reason for God by Tim Keller.
Gunnarsson isn’t thinking about what Icelanders want now. He’s thinking about the future. “The churches will need tools at their disposal,” he said, describing the project’s vision to see 250 orthodox churches launched in Iceland over the next century. “They will need books and resources. They will need classes. I try to think in the long term.”
In some ways, it’s a very Icelandic mindset. A country so small and insular puts a high emphasis on what gets passed down through the generations. Evangelicals in Iceland want to revive a heritage of faith, one church at a time.
Loftstofan Baptistakirkja—in English, the Upper Room Baptist Church—opened in Reykjavík in 2013 and will welcome its first pair of Southern Baptist church planters next year. Redeemer City will also launch in the capital (nearly two-thirds of Icelanders live in or around Reykjavík), geared toward international residents.
Over the past decade, Loftstofan has grown to about 25 members and usually double that in weekly attendance. Gunnarsson knows those figures seem paltry, but 50 to 60 people in a service would rank them among the top 5 churches in Iceland for attendance.
The entire churchgoing population on the island would be outnumbered by one of America’s larger megachurches.
“I find strength in the Word of God, equipping me for every good work,” he said. “I find strength in the Spirit of God: comforting me, guiding me, strengthening my hands. And in the people of God … these people who walked in strangers and are now your brothers and sisters that you’re sharing this burden with—there’s an amazing encouragement in that.”
Kate Shellnutt is associate online editor for Christianity Today.
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