God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis is a rather scary book if you happen to be reading it on the island where I live, off the coast of North West Europe.
By Philip Jenkins
Oxford University Press, 2007
God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis is a rather scary book if you happen to be reading it on the island where I live, off the coast of North West Europe. Perhaps some Americans might read it with that sort of guilty pleasure that comes from discovering Ghastly Things that are about to happen to Other People. It is about the future of Europe – I write from Britain – and it’s a worryingly good read.
Author Philip Jenkins’ basic thesis is irrefutable: Modern Europe is post-Christian, and the fastest-growing religion is that of Islam. Immigration from Muslim lands – still continuing – and a high Muslim birthrate, coincides with a collapse in the practice of Christianity and massive drop in the native birth rate in across Europe. The future looks distinctly Islamic – and already we can hear the crunching noises as this new emerging Islamic Europe hits the dying Christian one, with tensions erupting in Parisian housing blocks and German streets and British underground stations.
The book is strong on facts, well-presented and well-researched. In 2004, “13 per cent of British Muslims thought the 9-11 attacks were justified. Immediately following the 2005 subway bombings in London itself, a survey of British Muslims found that 6 per cent thought the attacks justified, with 11 per cent more seeing them as ‘on balance not justified’, a pale condemnation.” If you think that 13 per cent isn’t so bad, imagine reading that as I did, while traveling on the London Underground.
But this is not an anti-Islamic book. Its toughest message is for Christians. A poignant quotation from John Paul II to France heads one chapter: “Eldest daughter of the Church – what have you done with your baptism?” The analysis of Christianity’s plight is wide-ranging and brutally frank: ugly liturgies, silly music, poor instruction of the young, widespread use of contraception. A leaflet for visitors to York Minster (one of Britain’s most glorious Medieval churches) gives basic information about Christianity, on the quite logical assumption that most visitors will require this. Art galleries have the same problem. They can “assume no knowledge of terms like Ascension and Transfiguration, any more than a casual visitor can be expected to understand the rituals of an Amazonian tribe.”
Perhaps much of this is already understood – certainly sad stories of churches and chapels being converted into private homes, restaurants, or mosques, are becoming depressingly familiar. But some things need spelling out, and this book spells them rather well. For example, the Western collapse of morals: Nearly 50 per cent of births in Britain are now out of wedlock, sexually transmitted diseases are at an all-time high (and rising), the abortion rate continues to soar, organizations promoting homosexual and lesbian activity receive public funding. This collapse has played no small part in fuelling the drift towards Islamic extremism in young men from Muslim families. They point to a society obsessed with pornographic images and it is easy to believe in the need for a ruthless Islamic sweep that will wipe all this out as yesterday’s filth.
However, there are other aspects of modern Europe to be considered. Not all the immigration has been from Islamic countries, and a most interesting chapter is dedicated to those African Christians who have settled in various parts of the continent. They are not small in number and, often rebuffed by the mainstream churches, are worshipping in placed they have created for themselves. These often bear some relation to America’s mega-churches, although lacking the large financial outlay and garish opulence. Here we see the author’s personal sense of admiration and respect for a much-neglected set of communities, and indeed this is an area which would repay further study.
What an irony if Europe’s Christianity were saved by the hymn-singing, devout, prayerful great-grandchildren of people who first heard about Jesus Christ in some remote African village! And how typical, somehow, of the way God actually allows things to work.
Is there hope, then, for Europe? The myth of today is entirely secular: We have eliminated religion, now we can live in luxury, in a sort of permanent sexy adolescence, with lots of food and fun but no serious responsibilities or long-term commitments. Such a way of thinking, and the society it represents, is a way of dying. The birthrate is a matter of simple fact and cannot be disputed.
Hope can only come from a Christian revival. This must include conversion – of the lapsed Christians of Europe and of the never-Christian. There will be change, too, among the Islamic population; there are those who embrace Europe’s noble past, its democratic traditions, its art and music and culture and history. And there are issues which do not surrender the moral high ground to Islam – for example, that of women’s roles.
In the end, there is a mystery about the Christian faith itself. It should have died in so many places, so often in these past two thousand years. “Viewed over the centuries,” Jenkins writes, “perhaps the best indicator that Christianity is about to expand or revive is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days.” No one who saw the crowds of young people in St. Peter’s Square honoring the memory of John Paul II (“Santo Subito!”) or bringing Cologne’s overloaded public transport system to a halt at World Youth Day can believe that Europe’s Christianity has ended:
Death and resurrection are not just fundamental doctrines of Christianity; they represent a historical model of the religion’s structure and development.
I hope so.
Joanna Bogle is an author and broadcaster living in London.