Sunday, May 3, 2009

God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis

By Philip Jenkins, USD 28.00, hardcover 340 pages, Oxford University Press.

Bucking the trend, Philip Jenkins sees a positive future for Christian Europe: “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 afield, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home.”

Jenkins places his optimism in the very core of Christianity's nature: “Death and resurrection are not just fundamental doctrines of Christianity; they represent a historical model of the religion's structure and development.”

The opening chapters counter the media's announcements of the supposed death of European Christianity. Catholic vitality exists in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere through movements like Sant-Egidio and Focolore, which are lay-inspired, dynamic, and as intense as American-style Pentecostalism. According to Jenkins, these Catholic communities can potentially live out Pope Benedict XVI's call for the Church to become a “creative minority” in Europe.

God's Continent also chronicles how Christian immigrants to Europe parallel Muslim newcomers in tending to follow their practices just as intensely or more so in their new land than back in Africa, Asia, or Eastern Europe. African charismatic Christians all over Europe are building a vast network of communities intent on maintaining the religious fervor of their own people in their new European milieu. Charismatic leaders are working hard, “day and night” in the words of one pastor, to return the missionary debt to Europe by resurrecting European Christianity.

Yet the author spends a great deal of time discussing Islam, and precisely why it is not on the verge of taking over Europe. He uses countless demographic charts and tables to show how, for instance, the birth rate of Muslims, famously exaggerated, is not only comparable to Western countries among European Muslims, but also in Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and, most surprisingly, Iran. This drop has been very recent—since the turn of the millennium—and very precipitous. Even Egypt's birthrate is well under 3.0 per woman.

While Westerners only seem to take note of the youthful character of the population of Muslim countries, Jenkins argues here as elsewhere that this is due more to the fact that these populations are one or two generations behind Western peoples in terms of secularization than to an effort to out-birth the West. Aside from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and a few other places, the Muslim baby boom has pretty much ended, especially as Muslim women become increasingly educated.

God's Continent also parallels the hysteria over Islam in Europe today with the hysteria one hundred years ago among American Protestants who feared that “backward” Catholics with their “superstitious beliefs,” high birth-rate, zealous community, and adherence to authority were threatening the very democracy and individualism of the country. The Protestant mainstream eventually judged Catholics to be as American as everyone else, and Catholics have tended to adopt individualism and the separation of church and state just as eagerly as the wider culture.

Jenkins' warnings, though, are well-grounded and reflect the need for action in somehow making young Muslims feel that they are a greater fabric of European society: “[I]n prosperous Europe, we find a cultish perversion of religion in which the bombings and beheadings almost become the central tenets of practice. In Europe too, unlike north Africa or south Asia, young enthusiasts are not subject to the very powerful constraints of traditional values and social structures, the iron laws of village and clan that mandate strict customary limits to the use of violence and disorder. Older Muslims complain of losing their children to militant recruiters.” (161)

The optimism of God's Continent comes, therefore, with a few warnings.

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