New Age in Norway, edited by Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, Siv Ellen Kraft, & James R. Lewis

In: Journal of Religion in Europe

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(Sheffield & Bristol: Equinox, 2017), xiv + 290 pp., isbn: 978-1-7817-9416-6, £75.00/$100.00 (hardcover).

New Age in Norway is edited by Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, Siv Ellen Kraft, and James R. Lewis. The first two are part of a Norwegian research group that, over the years, have done a lot of research on themes related to the New Age. The third editor, James R. Lewis, has written extensively on the New Age from an American perspective. He is now based at the Arctic University of Norway and brings an international dimension to the book.

On the front page of the book is a picture of the northern lights, underlining the point that the backdrop of the Arctic region adds something substantial to the discussion about trends and developments within the New Age. This is both an advantage and a problem for the book. On the one hand, the editors argue that the book is relevant outside a Norwegian setting. On the other hand, they claim that national and local influences have significant impact on New Age phenomena. In order to be of relevance for international researchers, the book needs to prove that the local/national perspective can be combined with and actually shed new light on themes that are subject to international research.

The book consists of an introduction, twelve chapters, and two afterwords. Altogether, fourteen researchers contributed to the book, most of them from humanistic approaches. The afterwords from researchers in Denmark and Sweden show that the researched topics are also on the agenda in other countries. At the same time, they make it clear that some elements in the book are very much related to Norwegian society.

The themes addressed in the book are the relation between New Age and the Lutheran majority church, the organization of New Age networks, New Age in the news media, pilgrimage and spiritual tourism, New Age in religious education, alternative medicine, the angel-business of Princess Märtha Louise, the debate on a spiritual conspiracy, Sami-shamanism, spirituality and marketization, Hindu-inspired meditation techniques, and, finally, an analysis of ideological elements within New Age/nrm milieus.

In spite of its complexity, the New Age milieu in Norway—in comparison to other nations—has been exceptionally successful in influencing other parts of society, not least the Lutheran majority church. The New Age organization Alternative Network, along with the magazine Vision and the so-called ‘alternative fairs,’ have played a crucial role in spreading New Age ideas to mainstream Norwegian culture. According to Margrethe Løøv, the most plausible explanation for this is the influence of a few, talented persons acting at the right time. The main New Age organization was formed in 1992, when the interest in New Age was at its highest, and it remained vital up to the shift of the millennium. During the 1990s, millennialism was, after all, a central part of New Age ideology.

Another peculiar organizational innovation is the life view organization called the Holistic Federation of Norway, which gets state funding in the same way as established religions. This organization is not seen as religious per se but gets grants from the state because it represents a philosophical alternative to ordinary religious organizations.

In her chapter, Lisbeth Mikaelsson discusses how the position of Lutheran Protestantism as a ‘national religion’ has influenced the formation and appearance of the New Age in the Norwegian context. Since the Church of Norway dominates the religious scene, New Age actors have had to take this into account. Mikaelsson discusses several incidents where New Agers have tried to influence the majority church and vice versa. One interesting case involves the former vicar Helge Hognestad, who was forced to resign because of his teachings but later tried to negotiate between New Agers and the church. Due to the fact that in a (former) state church system a lot of people are nominal church members with a diffuse basis of belief, ‘lived religion’ tends to be increasingly influenced by New Age thought. Because the group of regular church-goers is declining, the Lutheran Church considers New Agers as a group that potentially could be engaged in church activities. In order to attract people leaning towards New Age thought, the Lutheran church has integrated new experiential elements in church sermons.

One of the aims of the book is to develop the theoretical potential of the New Age for general studies of religion. Several chapters make use of the spatial approach developed by Jonathan Z. Smith and further adapted by Ingvild Sælid Gilhus. This model focuses on where in society religion is situated (here: the house cult; there: the state cult; anywhere: religious entrepreneurs). The fourth category of ‘religion everywhere’ has to do with communication about religion. Because of ‘mediatization,’ the media has become the main agent of religious change. In another chapter, Siv Ellen Kraft criticizes the Danish theorist Stig Hjarvard for using the concept ‘banal religion’ to describe how religion is treated in popular culture. Though the New Age is often ignored or scandalized in Norwegian news media, it is treated more seriously in popular cultural media formats. Popular culture may thus provide what the sociologist Peter Berger would call a ‘plausibility structure’ for New Age religion.

The book makes it clear that the New Age, as with any other form of religion, needs to be studied in relation to its local context. In the last chapter, James R. Lewis shows that even if New Age groups are shaped by local religious history and systems, there are still traces of consistency in the worldviews and the ideology of different New Age groups.

Some of the chapters investigate themes that at first glance seem typically Norwegian, such as the relation to the Lutheran Church, the angel-school of the royal Princess Märtha Louise, Sami-Shamanism, etc. This does not, however, imply that these contributions do not offer insights and reflections that could be of interest for a wider international audience. Those who seek will find.

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