God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis
Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press; 340 pp.ISBN 978-0-19-531395-6).
Review, Bert de Ruiter
The future of Muslims in Europe is something that is hotly debated, not only in Europe, but across the world and not only among secularists or Muslims themselves, but also among Christians. In my work I find that many Christians agree with the sentiment, if not with the actually wording, of the Egyptian-born Jewish writer, Bat Ye’or, who envisions in her book Eurabia: the Euro-Arab Axis, that Europe is emerging into Eurabia: a Muslim-dominated subcontinent, in which the remaining Christians might enjoy some kind of second-class status.
I meet many Christians who believe that Europe is in danger due to the growing presence of Muslims. In her article OIC: Eliminating “ defamation” of Islam, principal researcher and writer of World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission, Elizabeth Kendal, speaks of “the Muslim colonisation of Europe’.
Those who do not believe in some kind of conspiracy theory, or who do not want to sound the alarmist bells, just because millions of Muslims have become hard-working, law-abiding citizens across Europe, find Philip Jenkins, one of their allies. Although he is not blind to the fact that
a) Europe is acquiring much greater ethnic and cultural diversity;
b) Muslims have become a permanent part of the European landscape;
c) European Christianity is sick (in chapter 2 he demonstrates the weakness of European Christianity);
d) Europe today faces a serious danger from violent extremism rooted in radical Islamism (as he points out in chapter 8, entitled ‘ultras’),
nevertheless, he believes that “the vision of a predominantly Muslim Europe nearby on the historical horizon demands serious qualification.”
Throughout his book he argues against the alarmists, who believe that European Christianity is dead and take Islam will take over. First of all, he points out in chapter 3,out that there is still life in European Christianity as seen in (among others):
a) the several hundred million ‘cultural Christians’;
b) the widespread presence of religious-oriented institutions;
c) the establishment of new religious orders and
d) the popularity of pilgrimages.
Secondly, in chapter 4, he puts the spotlight on the sizable number of Christian migrants in Europe, “who represent a bracing, and often startling, new presence within the continent’s religious life”
Thirdly, in chapters 5 to 9, he points out that in the struggle for the establishment of Islam in Europe, there are not only extremist forces, but also reformists, who explore the implications for Islam in living in a Western society.
Undeniably, the public voices of Europe’s Muslim communities are often shrill, and some leaders assuredly are extremist, militant, and in some cases, actively subversive. In many countries too, Muslim populations seem deeply alienated from mainstream society, and some ordinary Muslims appear willing to follow the extremists. Yet the religious situation is much more complex than it might appear. While radicals and militant flourish, their opponents are numerous and significant, and so are the historical forces working against extremism.
The growing presence of Islam in Europe has led and leads to debates and controversies in Europe over assimilation, integration and multiculturalism. Jenkins deals with some of these in chapter 10 and points out that “while European states have been trying to accommodate and include the new presence of Islam, they have unwittingly revived a series of issues that affect Christianity as well, demanding a rewriting of the rules of engagement between church and state.”
The presence of Muslims in Europe has consequences for Christians, as Jenkins points out in the last chapters of the book. It raises questions for Christians about the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Some see the presence of Muslims at our doorstep as a great way to evangelize those that used to be in Close Access Countries, others wonder whether the two religions are sisters separated at birth and raised in different family settings.
Jenkins points out that “Muslims and Christians share common perceptions and can cooperate to combat proposals over abortion and contraception.”, something which I have found to be true in my present ministry in Amsterdam.
In a climate when there is a lot of doom thinking regarding the future of the Church in Europe and the growing presence of Muslims, I find Jenkins book refreshing and balanced. It is well documented (it has 37 pages of notes with references to books, websites etc). Of course, when he speaks of the Church, we have to remind ourselves that as a Roman Catholic he might use different criteria of committed Christians as evangelicals might do.
But, we should be careful to write off Roman Catholic Christians too soon. On Easter Sunday Pope Benedict XVI baptized Italian journalist and author, Magdi Cristiano Allam, a former Muslim, who recounted that on his road to conversion the challenge that Pope Benedict XVI offered to Islam in his September 2006 address at Regensburg was “undoubtedly the most extraordinary and important encounter in my decision to convert”. It is significant that the Pope baptized a former Muslim in such a public way on Eastern Sunday. In his article of March 26, 2008, The mustard seed in global strategy, Spengler comments on this baptism. Although, I think he overstates his case when he writes that “the Pope alone among the leaders of the Christian world, challenges Islam as a religion”, I agree that the by baptizing a former Muslim in such a public way, he wanted to make a clear statement. And he may not be the only Roman Catholic. As Spengler writes:
The Pope also has in reserve the European youth movement “Communione e Liberazione”, which he has nurtured for decades. Forty-thousand members turned out in 2005 when the then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed a memorial service in Milan for the movement’s founder. European Christianity may be reduced to a few coals glowing in the ashes, but it is not dead, only marginalized. If the Catholic youth of Europe are offered a great task – to evangelize the Muslims whose restlessness threatens to push Europe into social chaos – many of them may heed the call.
Of course, not everyone who calls himself a Christian is a born-again disciple of Jesus Christ. But that is true also of Muslims, not everyone born whose parents were born in a Muslim country and now live in Europe is a committed, religious Muslims. As someone pointed out, there are many MINO’s in Europe (Muslims in Name Only).
Europe as a continent is facing several challenges, several of them, particularly the development of Islam, the future of the Church and how both deal with secularization, are clearly discussed in Jenkins’ book. Those of us with a heart for Muslims in Europe need to read this book. It will help us to not join the growing number of alarmists, but, without becoming naïve, trust that God, who send His Son to die for the lost of this world, is not only the Lord of history, but also of the future. For the immediate future, Christians and Muslims will increasingly have the opportunity to rub shoulders, and in doing so, it is my prayer that our Muslim friends will be attracted to the Jesus they see in us. The first fruits are there, the harvest is about to come.
Bert de Ruiter