Book Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything (Anu Partanen)

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the nordic theory of everything anu partanen

What does a Finnish journalist, a New Yorker husband, and a new life in America equal? A lot of hassle (though not the husband’s fault), and a great book. Anu Partanen has written for both the New York Times and the Atlantic. She has also worked as a visiting reporter at Fortune magazine through the Innovation Journalism Fellowship at Standford University.

Scandinavia is different. Very different. These five countries consistently hit the top “happiest” lists, along with other lists dealing with schooling and healthcare. Speaking of healthcare, theirs is free. Going to the doctor? The most you’ll pay all year is $300 (unless it’s the dentist. That’s a different story). Though, this isn’t to say that Scandinavia isn’t without it’s problems (whether medically, academically, etc). But the school down the street won’t be crumbling in educational values, and the school across town won’t cost your life savings. In fact, they’ll even be affordable. How do they do this? Partanen describes her anxieties in figuring out the American way. She jumped into something that many of us have grown up in. She learned 


Partanen’s book has nine chapters. Some of the topics she develops are:

  1. Marraiage, babies, and maternity (and paternity) leave
  2. Education and the importance of teachers
  3. Healthcare and insurance
  4. Smart government
  5. Welfare or well-being (and the increased incentive to work hard by tying benefits to one’s income)?
  6. The middle class
  7. Income inequality

    About this, Partanen says,

    Government in the Nordic countries tends to be like a referee who makes sure that the field is level and the rules are followed, but who then steps out of the way and lets the competitors determine who gets the highest score. If the referee were to stop the game and take points away from the winners and give them to the losers, which is what many Americans seem to think happens in the Nordic countries, of course no one would want to play. It’s exactly because that’s not the way it works that Nordic citizens find their system to be in their own best interests (276).

  8. Running a business
  9. The Law of Jante

Though many would count Scandinavia as being “pure” socialism, it isn’t. Without getting into the details, Norway is a mix of socialism and capitalism. Partanen says,

Here’s how we in Finland understand socialism: The government controls production and bans onership of property—no private factories, companies, or stores, or free markets. No one is allowed to accumulate any personal riches. There is only one political party, few personal freedoms, and little or no freedom of speech. Socialism is one step away from communism, which Karl Marx defined as a situation in which the government, or indeed, the state itself, has become expendable (54–55).

These stereotypes wear thin on the Finns. “The number of Finns who sacrificed their lives fighting socialism and communism in the twentieth century is roughly the same as the number of Americans who died in America’s two hot wars against communism—Korea and Vietnam—and that’s out of a population about one-sixtieth the size of America’s” (55).



What you won’t find in this book are practical ways on how to implement changes. TNToE gave me a better understanding on how Scandinavia as a whole works. Perhaps people who read this and have a greater knowledge of economics that I can begin to make changes certain in America. Although, compared to Norway, I really don’t know just how well the other four Scandy countries work in their economic practices. I’ve heard competing theories from they all work fine to Sweden has a difficult time incentivizing people to work. America is still in a state of infancy compared to many other nations, and it has plenty of room left to grow.

I affirm that Christians are to be doing what they can to change the culture and social structures of a country. This means being involved in government and politics, understanding culture, business, economics, and history. Perhaps greater minds than I can pick this up and consider how to benefit America. But also, changing a few laws won’t change people’s hearts. Even still, there are wise ways to govern a country, and there are wicked ways. We should be doing what we can to make whatever country we live in a place that can take care of its citizens.

No country is perfect, and I certainly am not one who can give a response to this book with any kind of real political and economic knowledge. But in terms of interest, in showing some of the problems in America, it has helped to encourage me about living in Norway in the future. This book for many may only serve as a “here’s what’s wrong with America and what’s right with Scandinavia” king of book. And largely, that’s what it is. Partanen doesn’t go into much detail about what’s wrong in the Scandinavian countries. She spends most of her time critiquing America. That said, she does have a point. Generally, people in Scandinavia won’t go broke when a spouse dies from cancer. Insurance isn’t going to make them pay an arm and a leg for cancer treatments (see this Canadian Breaking Bad meme). This doesn’t mean that everything is easy and everybody can be carefree and blissful, but there are certain affairs that Scandinavians don’t need to be too concerned over.

As a Christian, I’m also not sure how I think about the “Nordic Theory of Love.” In some ways, having the independence allows sons and daughters to care for their parents in their old age without having to hoist the heavy burden of this care for an unknown time in the upcoming years. In other ways, how self-sufficient and independent is it okay to be? This isn’t a criticism of Partanen, as she doesn’t slide to an extreme that says there’s no need for marriage or relationships. A “be your own island” mentality. But for Americans, and Christians especially, we’ll need to think through this nordic theory of love in something more than 160 character tweets and in the short seconds between Facebook posts.

You also won’t find in this book the Nordic theory of everything that goes on in the Scandy countries. Partanen gives the reader many opportunities to see into the looking glass and get a top-down view of the Nordic countries. But it’s in relation to how America works, rather than a comparison of each of the five countries (as in The Almost Nearly Perfect People), nor is it a complete look as to why Scandinavians are the way they are. But for what it is, it is interesting, and perhaps it will compel you to do something about (y)our country.


  • Author: Anu Partanen
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Collins (June 28, 2016)

Buy it from Amazon

Disclosure: I received this book free from Harper Collins. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255


October Updates

All packed and ready to go

After spending a year in Norway, we packed up the house and left for Louisville, Kentucky (by way of Louisiana first).

Our cat didn’t want us to leave (for those of you who know me, can you believe I owned a cat? and liked it (eventually)? and wasn’t allergic to it??).


We left this wonderful backyard


. . . for tobacco!


Not quite. That’s actually in Southern Ohio . . . and we didn’t leave for tobacco either. We left for this place below.

Norton Hall, where we have all of our classes (this semester)
Our large lawn and some dorms

By now school has started (and is almost finished). In my first draft we were just into our fifth week. The next time I updated this we had five weeks left. Now we only have just over three weeks left. Mari is taking an MDiv with a concentration in Biblical Counseling, and I’m taking an MDiv with a concentration in Christian Ministry (and this one has six free electives which I plan to use for the languages-hopefully). This semester we each have four classes, and three of those classes we get to attend together (Systematic Theology I, Personal Spiritual Disciplines, and Biblical Hermeneutics). I have Elementary Hebrew and Mari has Elementary Greek. The two languages are the most demanding, but they are definitely our favorite classes (usually).

Me posing with some hideous pillows on our first couch

Biblical Hermeneutics

A big word for how to study the Bible. Rather than examining how to approach the text according to its genre, in light of the entire canon, in light of Israel’s history up to a certain point (e.g., when you read Lamentations, you should know that Jerusalem had just been destroyed and Israel has been exiled out of the land God promised them because of their utter wickedness), etc. In this class, Dr. Jim Hamilton, the professor, takes a look at the broad storyline and the small details which connect the story. I’ll be writing about some of the small nuggets Dr. Hamilton has talked about.

Personal Spiritual Disciplines

What is fasting? What does it mean to pray? To meditate? To pray the Bible? To even read the Bible? To be held accountable? Even to journal? It’s one thing to look at what the Bible says about these topics; it’s another to live them out. We do both in this class. I’ll write a bit about this too, because there are some things I’ve learned that have been tremendously helpful (like with prayer and meditating on the Bible).

Systematic Theology I

Who is God? What is Scripture? Why do people arrive at such strange conclusions about these topics? This is an brief introductory course to these two topics, and the teacher loves what he teaches.

Elementary Hebrew

This one is basic. Dr. Peter Gentry, a brilliant scholar, called by some as a “true Hebraist,” teaches us how to understand Hebrew. Next semester we’ll get into the Bible itself. It’s great. It’s difficult. It’s my favorite class.

The Kentucky State Fair

You can’t live in Kentucky and not attend some kind of fair. And what do you know? Just mere weeks after arriving in Louisville, Kentucky held it’s state fair, and nothing says “America” like putting fried sugar-glazed bread on both sides of a greasy burger.


Nothing except deep-fried Funnel Cake Oreo Sundaes. Just how many things can you fit into one dessert? It’s like going to a Ryan’s desert buffet.


And then we needed to find a church . . . without having a car.


But we didn’t really need to look. I had heard of Clifton Baptist Church back when I was in York. Tom Schreiner was the teaching pastor then, and John Kimbell has since taken his place. Plus, it’s only a 20 minute walk from our apartment, which is only a 7 minute walk from school (also good when you don’t have a car).

I managed to pull a muscle/obtain a pinched nerve in my shoulder over a month ago. The pain subsided a few weeks ago, but the shoulder itself is still pretty weak. It’s difficult to lift something up or to the side with my arm stretched out (even to push some doors open), so I’m borrowing a exercise band to work it back to what it was before and not look like some poor guy who can’t open doors.

The Far Side


I have some reviews in the pipeline too, but I’m busy enough that I can’t make much time for doing anything else besides on Sundays. Mari and I have tried to make one day out of the week open to do anything else besides school. It usually works well, but sometimes we have too much schoolwork to do so that idea doesn’t work. No rest for the weary.

I’m trying to make it sounds like we’re drowning, but for the most part we’re not. Usually.

Something I’ll start doing with upcoming reviews is to write shorter reviews which focus less on summarizing the book and more on the benefits of the book itself. It’s much easier to only summarize the book, but it’s also not so exciting. It might be helpful before one reads a book, but what would be better would be to interact with the book itself to show why you should read this and how it will (hopefully) benefit you in your walk with Christ and in your knowledge of him.

There are other websites which summarize Christian books better that I can, and really, the average person who reads my reviews would rather know why they should read this book and how it will benefit their thinking rather than what is in the book. Since most of the books I read lean toward the academy, it’s better to show both how reading such books is beneficial and why you might want to.

I should also start reading more fiction. Correction: I should start reading fiction period. Maybe that can be my New Years Resolution. Though I have started moving toward that direction. But believe it or not, I’ll be reviewing a few non-theological books too. I’ve asked for (and received) another book on Norway, The Nordic Theory of Everything, and I’ve also asked for a few books on Apache Indians and the early days of the US Postal Service. So it’s a start.

In the mean time, I’ll write up a few posts about where I got the name for this blog and how I’ve used it within my blog itself.

Later, skater