Henrik Pontoppidan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his book Lykke-Per (Lucky Per, or A Fortunate Man) in 1917. You can be excused if you didn’t notice. The book didn’t even get translated into English for almost another century, in 2010. A more popular translation released in 2018, the same year the Danish film adaptation appeared (now on Netflix). This is the same year I picked up a copy.
I’ve often described the book as one of the most profound and provocative reads of my life.
But you’ll have to forgive us Americans. We don’t really know what to do with the book. We lack the cultural and historical context to understand it. On my enthusiastic recommendation, other Americans have read the book. They’re not always happy with me by the time they reach the end of all 755 pages. The ending especially is confusing. We expect a satisfying conclusion. And that’s not at all what Pontoppidan gives us.
On September 21, The Gospel Coalition Nordic will host its first conference, with a focus on reaching the West with the gospel of Christ. I’ll be there in Copenhagen alongside Mark Dever, Tim Savage, and Carl Jan Christian Roth, leader of TGC Nordic. With trepidation I’ll be speaking on “Gospel Ministry in Secular Times.” I plan to illustrate the challenges and opportunities for Christians today by exploring Pontoppidan’s classic.
I fear it will be like a Swedish or Norwegian speaker visiting the United States to speak on Ernest Hemingway or Mark Twain. But I believe this book can help us spread gospel-centered ministry in a region of the world deeply influenced by secularism, both inside and outside the established church.
Nearly 100,000 users visited The Gospel Coalition website in 2020 from the Nordic countries. They inhabit a far different religious landscape from what Pontoppidan captured in his epic novel more than a century ago. The fortunate man of Pontoppidan’s tale—happy Per—is Peter Sidenius. The first warning sign we pick up is that he doesn’t go by his Christian name, Peter, even though he grew up in the house of the Rev. Johannes Sidenius in a small provincial town of east Jutland. Johannes is described as austere and pious. He’s out of fashion, in his dress and in his ideas. Neighbors won’t even say hello to their embarrassing minister, who lives in poverty with his large family—11 children. At funerals he calls the deceased “worm fodder” and a “poor heap of dust.”
Per rebelled against his family’s Christianity. “Like underworld trolls,” Pontoppidan tells us through Per’s eyes, “they were blind to life’s bright splendour and too paralysed by fear to embrace its beauty.” Per represents a common attitude we hear on social media, a common refrain on the streets today in every Nordic country and across the entire West.
Per may be the protagonist of this sweeping story, but his lover Jakobe steals the show. Pontoppidan captures her lofty ideals this way: “She had dreamt of a reborn aristocracy, a nobility of the spirit, that would bring about the liberation of mankind by elevating the virtues of justice and beauty.” Jakobe is the one character from A Fortunate Man that I think you could drop in the 21st century, and she’d be perfectly at home in her pursuit of social justice.
But there’s a catch. She’s not naïve. She’s Jewish, if not observant. She knows the world is not a safe place. We can’t help but read her idealism against the timeline of the subsequent 20th century. Because for Jakobe, this is what it takes to liberate mankind, to elevate the virtue of justice: “Perhaps there was no mistaking the need for a terrible rending asunder of the criminal and hypocritical society in which they lived, a vengeful apocalypse that would purge the world in blood and fire.”
I’m sure the blood and fire of the 20th century exceeded even the wildest imagination of Pontoppidan, who died in 1943. The pursuit of justice apart from godliness results in vengeance. Only Jesus Christ perfectly unites forgiveness and justice, as we see in Romans 3:21–26. All have sinned, Jew and Gentile. And the only hope is God who is just and the justifier, the only one with every right to take vengeance but instead offers forgiveness to anyone who believes in Jesus, the only acceptable sacrifice.
Heavy as a Tomb
Per and Jakobe see gentle Jesus as the problem, though. Pontippidan wrote far, far better than he could have known. Per considers himself the leader of a “coming race of giants.” Blessed are the strong, because they will conquer the earth. And they almost did in the 20th century, while taking tens of millions of innocent dead with them. God is dead, and we have replaced him with someone far less forgiving—us.
Per returns home to Jutland just before his father dies. And we see his mother, wracked with grief, praising her husband before his children. She honors him for his faithfulness. She celebrates his love and sacrifice. In this scene we begin to realize that we’ve been seeing the Sidenius family through Per’s jaundiced eyes. He expects the worst from his siblings, but they only give him love. He expects condemnation, but they show him politeness.
It fell to Per’s mother to pass along final words from her pastor husband. And hand her prodigal son a final gift. It’s the reversal of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. She hands Per his father’s silver watch, his only earthly treasure. It had been a gift from his own father. When Johannes was a boy, his dad asked to see his packed bags before leaving for school. But Johannes got upset, as if he didn’t know how to pack his own bag. When he got to school and opened his suitcase, he saw the watch. He realized his dad had played a happy trick on him. He felt so bad that he walked home 20 miles in the dark so he could hug his father’s neck and beg forgiveness. That was the night of Johannes Sidenius’s conversion. Per’s mother explains, “God the heavenly father had sent the Holy Ghost and he was anointed with the flame of salvation and was saved.”
In the dark room, Per’s mother can’t see her son. She kisses him on the brow and prays over him. He leaves for the train station. An hour later his sister walks into Per’s room. She finds the watch lying conspicuously on the table. Pontoppidan narrates that to Per, the watch felt as heavy as a tomb.
With this “fortunate man,” we wonder: what if the prodigal never comes home? In the Nordics, we wonder: what if the decline of Christianity doesn’t stop?
Pontoppidan doesn’t offer a happy ending. (The film adaptation changed it to bring resolution.) And I don’t know what God has in store for the future of the Nordics, the lands my family departed for the United States. But I know that mighty works of God begin when his people gather to pray, preach, and sing the Word. As a son of the Nordics, I still hope that this prodigal story will end with the warm embrace of the Father.