Christians Take Up the Ministry of Translation in Secular, Bookish Iceland

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.

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Source: Christianity Today