Tuesday, September 04, 2007

God's Continent - A Review

A Review of Philip Jenkins' book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) US$28.00 (Amazon.com $13.00)

I am writing this as I seek to adjust to the fact that after more than three decades my homeland, England, is once again truly my home -- although in many ways I feel a total stranger. I finished reading Philip Jenkins' latest book, God's Continent, as I traveled back to Britain to take up my new position at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and coming here added urgency to the task. Not only have I worked harder than I might sifting Jenkins' words, but often this has been accompanied by long moments of staring into empty space attempting to grasp the implication of what he has written.

Philip Jenkins, the Welshman who is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, is one of those rare individuals who is capable of digesting huge quantities of information, and from his synthesis of it emerges theses that are calm, considered, and sensible, and sometimes slightly contrarian. There has been an awful lot written and said during recent years about the rise of Islam in secularized Europe, some of it frightening, much of it hysterical, and often seemingly designed more to sell books than to enlighten.
God's Continent comes, therefore, as a delightful relief. Philip Jenkins, instead of fanning flames of anxiety tries to digest the realities as they are on the ground and to put them into some kind of historical perspective. Jenkins sees it as his task to enlighten rather than to terrify, believing that responding to the facts as they can be ascertained is far the best way of proceeding. God's Continent is chock full of facts, while the endnotes suggest many, many more are stored away in the recesses of the author's brain!

As he has gathered these facts Jenkins has obviously asked of them endless questions, and then sought to put them in some kind of perspective. Jenkins sees his task as enlightening rather than terrifying, and builds his case from the facts as they are on the ground. God's Continent is chock full of facts about what Europe is like, how secularism has become so influential in Europe, yet how vibrant are certain strains of Christianity, coupled with the vibrancy of many less mainstream forms of the faith. The other morning I was driving early through the industrial town of Luton (where it happened I had been born), and was surprised to see that one of the huge old movie theatres is now the UK headquarters for what I suspect is an African, Afro-Carribean denomination.

Then there are facts about Islam in Europe, whose dynamic growth in numbers and influence is the unexpected outcome of post-World War Two immigration policies, coupled with the decline in birthrates of the domestic populations. Britain and France, for example, allowed significant immigration of workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Algeria, never having thought through the consequences for second, third, and fourth generation descendants of these eager newcomers.

Unlike Britain and France, Germany did not have an empire from which to import people to do the menial jobs, so guest workers were imported from countries such as Turkey, the expectation being that they would return home when their time in Germany was up. This did not happen, and so there is now a growing Turkish and Islamic group within the heart of German culture and society. In the last dozen years or so Europe has woken up to the fact that there is a whole new challenge before it, the nature of which Jenkins spells out using demonstrable facts and circumstances to make his case rather than appealing to emotion and fear to make his point.

First of all he debunks the notion that the Islamic crescent flag is going to flutter in dominance over European skies any time soon -- if ever. The statistics of past, present, and future immigration from the Islamic world, he contends, do not support such a notion. This is not to say that Islam won't be a significant minority in Europe but it radically overstates the case that Westminster Abbey's future is as a mosque or that the fashionable Champs d'Elysee in Paris will be peopled by women wearing head scarves and burkas!

Secondly, he encourages his readers not to write off Christianity so quickly. Yes, its traditional forms and liberal theologies are in trouble, but there is a great deal more to the faith in Europe than that. Many of those immigrants from Africa and Asia are often mistakenly labeled as Muslims when in fact they are Christians, and vibrantly so. Some of the largest congregations in Europe, in fact, are to be found in the minority communities (thus the old Odean theatre in Luton), and don't write off fresh energies in the Catholic or mainstream Protestant churches, coming in flavors and packages like Alpha.

And bear in mind the nature of Christianity, he encourages us, for as it is challenged in what has historically been its home territory there is the likelihood that it will perk up considerably. "Viewed over the centuries, perhaps the best indicator that Christianity is about to expand or revive is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its last days... nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands and that they urgently need to make up these losses farther afiled, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home (pages 288-289).

What is clear is that Europe's secular elites, after having dismissed religion as a curiosity for the best part of half a century, are just starting to wake up to the fact that religion is not withering away, but that there are two major religions each with a significant sense of identity in their very own backyard. Yes, Jenkins tells us, as Islam takes root in Europe it is going to be changed by its encounter with modernity, secularity, and being a minority movement in an unsympathetic culture, but this "Islamic Revolution" is not going to change it into the empty and vacuous affair that has so gutted liberal Christianity, which is the elitist model of the way it ought to go.

Philip Jenkins works hard to tease out the various issues that Europeans, whether Christian, Muslim, secular, or something else, have to address in the coming years. These will include issues of sexuality, gender, freedom of speech, censorship, self-censorship, and so forth. Then there is the huge one of Islam being given great freedom to express itself in what has been the Christian heartland, freedoms that are utterly denied Christians in Islam's own heartland, a point brought home strongly to me in a conversation yesterday evening with a student who has come from one of those countries. Saudis, for example, are free to finance a $65 million mosque in Rome, while as one priest puts it, Christians in the Arabian peninsular function in something akin to the catacombs.

Then there is the whole issue of blasphemy, and what can be portrayed on screen, stage, and in the written word. The most significant and legitimate question related to this is whether it is appropriate for Christianity to be openly pilloried, as it often is in Europe, because Christians do not threaten violence and even murder when attacked in this way in a free society. However, society tiptoes around Muslims, censoring itself, because it fears that if treated as Christians are they would resort to violence.

I always feel much better when facts are out because then we can address them, Jenkins
deliberately puts the facts on the table. Some of the facts I personally do not like, some are not as bad as I feared, but all of them are grist for the mill of what is a remarkable book that ought to be taken seriously by thoughtful Christians -- especially any who have a deep concern for the future of Europe. I would add that the thoughtful Muslim would also have much to gain from reading this helpful volume.

That secular Europeans are now asking important questions about their religious heritage is itself an encouragement. That there is an alternative forceful challenge being mounted for people's hearts is something Christians need to take with the utmost seriousness. Perhaps there are signs that this is happening and there could be some very interesting fruit being borne in the days ahead. I cannot help thinking that God's providence is preparing the ground for something that could be very significant as Europe moves forward into the future.

On a personal note, I find myself pondering that maybe... perhaps... God has drawn us back to Europe at just such a time as this, and that the ministry ahead of me is a small part of a bigger Kingdom response to this huge challenge (and opportunity) that will shape the future of Europe, and therefore of the whole world.


Reason and Revelation said...

Interesting read. While all Europe won't be Islamic in the near or foreseeable future, that does appear to be the case in significant pockets. Aren't a majority of births in Amsterdam to Muslim families? Might that be a harbinger of things to come?

The biggest problem that Europe has, though, is government that is antithetical to religion. I'm not talking about Jesus displays in the town square, but rather the social welfare state. The more the government provides, the less family, community, and church provides. That is quietly a major key to why church just doesn't matter as much anymore in Europe.

Lee Corder said...

A marvelous review of a critical book for our understanding of the future of the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout Europe. Thanks so much. Dr. Lee Corder, Young Life International

Richard Kew said...

Lee, thank you for that affirmation. Feel free to make use of the review in whatever way you want. After two years back in Britain I might have written it slightly differently, but in general I do not think the general drift of Philip Jenkins' case is wrong.