Thursday, April 14, 2011

"His Kingdom is Love:" Introducing NFS Grundtvig

Here's to something a little different, post-colloquy. My crowning discovery during my time at LTSS has been making the acquaintance of the great Danish pastor, theologian, educator, and hymn-writer, N.F.S. Grundtvig. The main figure of the so-called "Happy Danes" (who reacted against the somber Pietism guessed it, the SAD Danes), Grundtvig's main sites of theological engagement were his sermons and his numerous hymns, some of which persist in contemporary Lutheran worship. Grundtvig's thought is characterized by his motto, "first human, then Christian," pointing towards his robust appreciation of creation as made in the image of God. Unlike the majority of Protestants who posited a strong distinction between nature and grace, Grundtvig saw the creative work of the Spirit active and involved in the flourishing of human culture, such that nature could be "transfigured" by grace - through the means of being crucified and resurrected in Jesus. As one might imagine, the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist thus play a central role in his worship-centered theology.

Grundtvig's deep love of beauty and culture led him not only to engage aesthetically, but also drew him into the realms of history and education. Grundtvig is renowned as a translator of Old English mythology, as well as for his various universal human histories. Little known or recognized is the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien often spoke of the Dane as one of his chief inspirations and influences, such that it would not be off kilter to claim "Lutheran roots" for Middle Earth. The importance of myth and folk-culture also undergirded Grundtvig's pioneering of the "folk school" movement, which was taken up by the likes of Gandhi in India and by other educational reformers across the world.

Despite the fact that of a fairly major public mental breakdown in his latter years, Grundtvig engaged the world through his faith with unmitigated and unprecedented vitality. His sermons and hymns are filled with rich poetic imagery, and his affirmation of life is a refreshing counterpoint to Lutheranism's often gloomy dwelling on the cross and death. Grundtvig is commemorated in both the Anglican and Lutheran liturgical calendars (he was an admirer of the Oxford Movement, as well as a proto-evangelical catholic), and continues to hold a place of reverence and pride in the hearts of the Danish.

Considering the fact that Danish I do not speak, I was delighted to find an old hymnal from the Danish Lutheran Synods in America, which is full of translations of Grundtvig's most beloved songs. These renderings leave something to be desired, and the music that accompanies them is also not to my particular taste. Therefore, I've taken to improvising my own melodies to them, in hopes of one day re-introducing them in a worship setting. I've included my first scrappy attempt, recorded on a digital voice message recorder. While in faith I hold to the promise of the resurrection, heaven has never had much meaning for me existentially. Grundtvig's beautiful meditation, "O Land of Our King," has helped me imagine more deeply, believe a bit more confidently, and therefore, hope more truly. May it bless others as well.

O Land of our King!
Where harvest embraces the flowery spring
Where all things worth having forever remain
Where nothing we miss but our sorrow and pain
All mankind is longing to find and explore
thy beautiful shore

How blessed the land!
Where time is not measured by tears or with sand
Where fades not the flower, the bird never dies
Where joys are not bubbles that break as they rise
Where life does not crown us with white for the gloom
of death and the tomb

How blessed to be
Where death has no sting, where from sin we are free
Where all that decayed in new glory shall bloom
Where all that was ruined shall rise from the tomb
Where love grows in light as a summer day fair
With flower crowned hair

My spirit receives
Thro' Christ what the world neither knows nor believes
This while we are here we but dimly can know
Tho' feeling within us its heavenly glow
The Lord saith on earth as in heaven above
My kingdom is love
(Hymnal for Church and Home #390, trans. L.M. Lindeman)


  1. Hi Matthew,

    I just discovered your blog via a search for blogs mentioning Grundtvig. It's always a pleasure to meet a fellow admirer of his. As it happens, I live in Aiken, SC, so not that far from you, apparently. I think the music you wrote for this Grundtvig hymn is very nice, and I like it very much. I've been teaching myself to read Danish, and I just got done translating one of Grundtvig's sermons (into English). If you're interested to read it, here is the link:

    I'm very interested to read through your other posts here - your blog looks quite interesting!

  2. Here is a fascinating paper on Grundtvig by Ole Nyborg, a PhD candidate at the University of Copenhagen: