Review of Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, Siv Éllen Kraft and James R. Lewis (eds), New Age in Norway

Book Review

Edited by Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, Siv Éllen Kraft and James R. Lewis. New Age in Norway. Sheffield, UK and Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2017, pp. xiv + 290, ISBN: 978-1-78179-417-3 (Pbk).

While New Age is a global phenomenon, it is also shaped by local influences. New Age in Norway is an examination of how the New Age milieu has been uniquely shaped by political, social and cultural factors specific to Norway. The book consists of an introduction, twelve chapters, and two additional afterwords. Each of the twelve central chapters discusses a specific area of New Age practices and beliefs in contemporary Norwegian culture. While New Age emerged in Norway in the 1960s, this book focuses mainly on the period from the mid-1990s onwards, when New Age was gradually established as part of mainstream Norwegian culture (3). What is it exactly that makes New Age unique in Norway? While most of the ideas discussed in this book derive from a global New Age discourse, there are some “typical and homegrown traits of Norwegian New Age” that make the essays in this volume stand out; in particular the role of the Church of Norway, New Age celebrities, and Norwegian-specific traditions such as Sami neo-shamanism (10).

Chapter 1 (‘Church Religion and New Age: An Encounter between Rivals’) discusses how perceptions of religion in Norway have been shaped by Christianity – “the Norwegian version of a prototype for religion – of what it is and should be” (2). Mikaelsson notes that while approximately 75% of the total Norwegian population belong to the Church of Norway, many are “multi-religious actors,” switching between the Church and New Age arenas and enjoying the benefits provided by both (25). The interaction between the Church, the state and the New Age milieu is a reoccurring theme throughout the book. Another organisation that has played a key role is VisionWorks (formerly Alternativt Nettverk; Chapter 2, ‘From “Network” to “Visions”’), a national umbrella organisation for the New Age that has been instrumental in spreading New Age ideas to mainstream Norwegian culture. According to Løøv, no other countries have cultivated a similarly influential national New Age network. VisionWorks’ annual alternative fair attracts 12,500 people – a significant achievement given Europe’s largest mind-body-spirit festival in London is visited by 20,000 (46).

The existence of New Age celebrities is not remarkable in itself, however Norway’s Princess Märtha Louise makes an interesting case study both because of her Royal heritage and her beliefs and practices regarding angels. In 2007, in what is described as “probably the most profiled New Age story in Norwegian media history” the Princess co-founded Astarte Education (now Soulspring Education), an “angel school” that offers books, courses and online readings and healings (66). In Chapter 3 (‘Bad, Banal and Basic: New Age in the Norwegian News Press and Entertainment Media’), Kraft describes how the angel school has been framed by the Norwegian media as an example of “bad religion” – bad for individuals and society, foolish, and not truly “religious” (66). In Chapter 7 (‘Angels: Between Secularisation and Re-enchantment’) Gilhus considers the angel school as an example of a distinctly ‘New Age discourse’ on angels, where are angels are androgynous companions who protect and give comfort. This is in contrast to the traditional angel discourse of Lutheran theology, where angels “seem to have led a quiet existence in churchly life and in the main been restricted to certain spaces, genres and times (childhood, psalms and Christmas)” (149). The tension between these two discourses has led to angels being used as ‘border markers’ in Norway; symbols of a broader conflict between the Church and the New Age milieu.

Norwegian press coverage of the New Age tends to be negative, however there are a few examples of beliefs and practices that are thought to exemplify “traditional Norwegian-ness” and thus have been presented more positively. One example is the ‘warm hands’ healer, Joralf Gjerstad (Snåsamannen), whose healing activities have been accepted by the Church as belonging to the Christian tradition of healing miracles. Another example is Sami neo-shamanism, a tradition which is viewed as having ancient Nordic roots and is therefore considered a part of traditional Norwegian heritage rather than New Age (68-69). However Chapter 10 (‘Sami-shamanism in Norway: A Patchwork of Traditions and Organizations’) describes a much more complex history of Sami-shamanism as a tradition that was largely shaped by Ailo Gaup (1944 – 2014) and that has close ties to the US via the Esalen Institute and Michael Harner’s ‘core shamanism.’ Recently the Shamanistic Association (approved as a religious denomination in 2012) has attempted to distance itself from Harner (and “fake shamans”) and align itself with the “original roots” of Nordic shamanism that date back to 5000 to 10,000 years ago (214). Fonneland’s chapter also examines the problems that occur when spirituality merges with commerce; specifically, the commodification of ritual items (Sami drums) for tourism, and how the marketing of shamanism at festivals like Isogaisa might violate traditional Sami principles of secrecy regarding certain healing practices.

Another key theme that runs through the book is the importance placed on nature and ecological thinking, what Gilhus and Kraft refer to in the Introduction as “green style New Age” (12). This focus on ecology is reflective of a broader Norwegian cultural identity, where nature is described as “integral to Norwegianness” (12). Chapter 4 (‘Spiritual Tourism’) describes the role of the Norwegian landscape – “full of energy places and chakra points” – in spiritual tourism (82). Companies such as Gaia Travel offer pilgrimages to mountains, glaciers, church ruins and heritage sites for “self-development, increased spiritual insights, energy and light work” (83). In Chapter 5 (‘New Age in Norwegian Religion Education’) Andreassen observes the tendency for secondary school Religion Education to increasingly portray New Age as related to nature and indigenous nature religions, such as shamanism and Wicca (113). Gilhus and Kraft argue that VisionWorks has also shaped this focus on the environment by highlighting ecological awareness and downplaying other New Age ideas such as property consciousness (12).

Indeed, prosperity consciousness and New Thought are conspicuously absent from this volume. Mindfulness is also barely mentioned. In Chapter 6 (‘Alternative Medicine: Health-oriented Spiritual Practices in Norway’) Kalvig notes that mindfulness is “in vogue – though not to the same extent in Norway as in Sweden (125).” Yoga is mentioned briefly in Chapter 11 (‘Hindu-inspired Meditation Movements in Norway: TM, Acem and the Art of Living Foundation’) but the contemporary postural yoga movement is not addressed in any detail. Other similarities and differences to international New Age trends are discussed in the two short afterwords, which offer comparisons to New Age in Sweden and Denmark.

In sum, New Age in Norway highlights some of the distinctly Norwegian aspects of alternative spirituality in Norway, making a valuable cross-cultural and comparative contribution to the broader study of New Age. Each chapter offers a novel, ‘typically Norwegian’ perspective, and even those who are very well read in the area of alternative spiritualities should find something new in this book. New Age in Norway will be of interest to scholars of religion, particularly those specializing in New Age and New Religious Movements. Its accessible style and entertaining content will also make it attractive to a general audience interested in New Age and alternative spirituality.

Anna Lutkajtis

The University of Sydney

An edited version of this review has been published in the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 31.2 (2018).

Photo by Lightscape on Unsplash