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

by Philip Jenkins

In this book, the third in his trilogy on contemporary Christianity, Jenkins turns his focus to Europe, which Pope John Paul II calls “eldest daughter of the Church.”

Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 10016, 2007, 289 pages, $28.00.

Reviewed by Michael Yoder, doctoral student in intercultural studies, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; missionary to Germany with Grace Brethren International Missions.

Militant secularism? Triumphant Islam? Christian renewal? What describes the future of twenty-first century Europe? Philip Jenkins, a renowned observer of global Christianity, addresses this most relevant of topics in his recent book, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis.

Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, first gained acclaim with his 2001 work, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. In it, he documents the pronounced shift of numbers and influence within Christianity to the “Global South”: Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some of those themes were further explored in his 2006 book, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South.

In God’s Continent, the third book in his trilogy on contemporary Christianity, Jenkins turns his focus to Europe, which Pope John Paul II calls “eldest daughter of the Church.” Few contest that the seat of the Vatican, birthplace of the Protestant Reformation and historical bulwark of Christendom has now morphed into a highly-secularized, seemingly post-Christian continent. Fueled by immigration, a burgeoning birthrate and historical grievances, Europe has now become susceptible to a confident Islam. However, more than a few observers, it seems, are not yet ready to write European Christianity’s obituary.

Jenkins tackles the complexity of Europe with a meticulously-researched and fascinating narrative about contemporary religion on the continent. Introductory chapters highlight the challenges of European Christianity — domesticated churches, dwindling clergy, ingrained secularism and the like. Real concerns of internal weakness and external challenge are not glossed over.

But Jenkins cautions against a doomed view of Christianity in Europe. Specifically, he breaks new ground by setting the growing Muslim presence alongside the growth of immigrant Christians from the Two-thirds World, particularly Africa. He posits the possibility that immigrant Christians in Europe may already be renewing existing churches (including their hierarchy) and multiplying new congregations. Detailed documentation and accounts are plentiful. In addition, Jenkins sees some signs of revitalized Christianity among “old stock” Europeans—although often outside existing structures. Despite his substantial insights, some may find Jenkins overly optimistic.

Observers of Islam in the West will find much to debate and ponder, especially in the middle chapters. Jenkins provides detailed analysis of the nature of both contemporary Islam in Europe and the factors that may influence its future course, whether of radicalization or accommodation to the European setting. For those who long for renewed spiritual awakening, Jenkins provides some reason for hope. Yet he is not naïve. Chapter 11, “Transforming the Faith,” is alone worth the price of the book, as Jenkins outlines Europe’s pervasive unease about robust Christian faith. Those who have lived in Europe, especially evangelicals, will resonate with his description. In light of the growing encounter with Islam, in fact, contemporary Europeans’ “underlying assumption (may be) that religion itself is the problem.” The challenges for Christian faith and witness remain formidable.

God’s Continent is a seminal exploration of religious Europe by a prolific and insightful author. Present assessments and future claims about Europe will be markedly deficient without an awareness of Jenkins’ contribution.

Check these titles:
Bawer, Bruce. 2006. While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the East from Within. New York: Doubleday.

Davie, Grace. 2000. Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weigel, George. 2005. The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God. New York: Basic Books.

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