Global Context: Europe, Islam, and Christianity

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

Reviewed By: Bruce Riley Ashford

Entire forests have been chopped down in order to promulgate the literature that has been written on the religious crisis in Europe, including especially the secularization of Europeans and influx of Islamic immigrants. Bat Y’eor, in Eurabia (2005), argued that Europe is being subverted by Islamic hostility toward the very virtues, values, and vision of Europe herself. Bruce Bawer, in While Europe Slept (2007) argues that radical Islam is destroying the continent from within. Mary Habeck, George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and others have also written of the threat that Islam poses to Europe.

God’s Continent is Philip Jenkins’ contribution to the debate. He thinks that many of the doom and gloom prophecies about Islam and Europe are “wildly unlikely.” Even though there are millions of Muslim immigrants in Europe, and even though their birth rate is significantly higher than the Europeans’, Jenkins begs to differ. He argues that (1) European nations can assimilate minorities, just as the United States has done; (2) Muslims will likely secularize; (3) when they do secularize, they will stop having so many children; (4) most of the Muslims in Europe are moderates; and (5) what threat Islam does pose will likely invigorate Christianity anyway.

If Philip Jenkins writes a book, it is probably worth the read, and this book is no exception. He is probably correct that many immigrants to Europe (whether Muslim or not) will secularize, have less babies, and assimilate to some extent. However, the book has weaknesses of which the most significant is this: Jenkins seems not to grasp the threat that Islam poses to Europe. With Islam comes a radically different view of the relationship of religion and the state, of religious liberty, of family, etc. Further, he seems not to grasp the threat that contemporary jihadism poses. He too quickly dismisses the arguments made in books such as Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam (2003) Mary Habeck’s Knowing the Enemy (2007).

It is for this reason that his his analogy with the United States is hardly helpful. He suggests that Europe will be able to assimilate Muslim immigrants in much the same way that the U. S. has been able to assimilate its Mexican immigrants. But Mexican immigrants to the United States (many of whom are Catholic) are a rather different case than the millions of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian Muslim immigrants to Europe. Americans have to adjust to Mexican Catholics who sometimes glue St. Christopher to the dash for traveling safety, while Europeans must adjust to Muslim immigrants whose religion demands nothing less than the religious, social, and political submission of their nations to the Allah of Islam. Hardly a helpful analogy.

God’s Continent is worth the read, even if it is not up to the level of The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity, the first two books of his trilogy. Perhaps the best thing that Jenkins’ book can do is to turn the church’s attention toward Europe, the home of 821 million people, many of whom (whether European or immigrant) are without Christ and without hope in the world.

Book: God’s Continent (2007)

Author: Philip Jenkins

Region: Europe

Genre: Current Affairs

Length: 340 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

Global Context: A New Christendom with New Faces

Global Context Series: A New Christendom with New Faces

By: Bruce Riley Ashford

Philip Jenkins believes that we are living in the midst of a monumental moment in religious history, and he has written two books to make his case. The first, The Next Christendom, contains the meat of his argument while the second, The New Faces of Christianity, follows up on certain strands of the argument. The following is a brief review of both books.

Jenkins was affected by recent events in the Anglican Communion and in particular the 1998 Lambeth Conference which condemned homosexuality as incompatible with Christian ministry.

What really raised eyebrows is that the resolution was passed against the will of the English prelates, because of the numerical clout of the burgeoning African church. Bishop John Shelby Spong’s comments were representative of the wrath and condescension of many of the European bishops: “I never expected to see the Anglican Communion, which prides itself on the place of reason in faith, descend to this level of irrational Pentecostal hysteria.”

In The Next Christendom, Jenkins takes a look at this phenomenon. What is the tectonic shift that has allowed the African bishops of the Anglican church to have more clout than the English and American bishops? His answer is that “we are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide.” The nerve center of Christianity, Jenkins argues, is moving South and East. The era of Western Christianity (centered in Europe and the United States) is passing and the day of Southern Christianity (centered in Africa, Asia, and South America) is arriving. If present trends continue, Jenkins, argues, then by 2050, only about 20% of the world’s Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasians.

The doctrinal implications of this are many, as Jenkins demonstrates in The Next Christendom and expands upon in The New Faces of Christianity. The new Southern Christianity has held to the traditional Christian positions on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, gender and ministry. A majority of these Southern churches are heavily influenced by the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. Services are often marked by spontaneous and emotional worship, tongues, healings, and exorcisms. These churches, however, are also markedly different than many charismatic churches in that they often emphasize the blessedness of poverty and suffering.

Further, Jenkins argues, this growth of Christianity could spawn an era of religious wars, particularly between Islam and Christianity: “Across the Muslim world, many believers have shown themselves willing to fight for the cause of international Islam with far more enthusiasm than they demonstrate for any individual nation. Putting these different trends together, we have a volatile mixture that could well provoke horrific wars and confrontations.”

If this were merely the story of an ethnic and geographic shift, that would be significant in and of itself. However, it is much more. It is a story of a massive shift in belief and practice. In an article, “After the Next Christendom,” Jenkins reflects upon the reactions to his book. He writes that he “was fascinated by the reactions of alarm and near-horror that surfaced in liberal circles, aghast at the prospect of legions of Southern fundamentalists about to begin a Long March against the centers of Western Christianity….Conservatives, in contrast, were delighted by the prospect of a traditionalist and biblically oriented Christianity arising in Africa, Asia, and Latin America…” Indeed, Southern Christianity is, in juxtaposition to mainstream churches in Europe and America, very conservative.

Although this monumental shift reaches across the face of nearly all denominations and church networks, the Anglican communion once again is illustrative. The African Anglican churches accuse the Western Anglican church of rejecting Biblical and historic Christianity. Various statements have been issued, including the following declaration of the Nigerian church: “The unscriptural innovations,” they write, “of North American and some western provinces on issues of human sexuality undermine the basic message of redemption and the power of the Cross to transform lives. These departures are a symptom of a deeper problem, which is the diminution of the authority of Holy Scripture.”

However, there are many flavors of “conservative,” and many American evangelicals would not be happy with the Southern flavors. Larry Poston, in his article “Interfacing with ‘The Next Christendom,'” pointed out seven issues that will be central in defining the relationship of Northern and Southern Christianity. They are worthy of mentioning here: (1) The inscripturated Word of God versus the “Word of God for today;” (2) Signs and wonders: accept or reject? (3) Demonic Forces: Respecting their power but avoiding neo-Animism; (4) Theological systems vs. “only trusting in the Spirit;” (5) The public square: important or not? (6) Gender roles in society and church; and (7) the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches: What is the relationship?

These are some of the challenges, for better or for worse, that lie ahead as the center of Christian gravity moves from the North to the South. As Jenkins puts it, “Christianity, a religion that was born in Africa and Asia, has in our lifetimes decided to go home.” Both books, The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity, are worth the read for anybody interested in state of the global church.

Global Context (Russia): Stalin’s Children

Global Context (Russia): Stalin’s Children

By: Bruce Riley Ashford

It was my privilege to live in Russia from 1998-2000 and that is one reason that this book held me captive from the very first page. But that is not the only reason. Stalin’s Children is a masterful work of historical autobiography, telling the tale of three generations of love, war, and survival. It is told from the perspective of Owen Matthews, whose grandfather and father are the central characters of this story. Matthews, who is the Bureau Chief for Newsweek in Moscow, draws upon the voluminous correspondence of his parents, access to KGB files, and his own lived experience of Russia, giving us not only a tale of three generations of his family, but also an ironic, enlightening, and ultimately bleak portrayal of the last seven decades of life in Russia.

“This is a story about Russia and my family,” writes Matthews, “about a place which made us and inspired us and very nearly broke us. And it is ultimately a story about escape, about how we all escaped from Russia, even though all of us-even my father, a Welshman who has no Russian blood, even me, who grew up in England-still carry something of Russia inside ourselves, infecting our blood like a fever.

Stalin’s Children is a story in three acts. The first act tells the story of the author’s maternal grandfather, Boris Bibikov, a privileged Communist party leader in Ukraine, who was a real (albeit minor) enemy of Stalin and his vision for the USSR. As Matthews tells it, one morning Bibikov kissed his wife and two daughters goodbye, never to return again. Bibikov’s wife, Martha, soon disappeared also (imprisoned in the Gulag), leaving their two little girls, Lyudmila and Lenina, to fend for themselves. They became, in a phrase, “Stalin’s children.” The two little girls were separated during the Glorious Russian Patriotic War (Soviet nomenclature for World War II), but were reunited against all odds at the end of the war.

The author paints a bleak picture of this early chapter of Soviet history: “Communists-men like my grandfather-had tried to create a new kind of man, emptying people of their old beliefs and refilling them with civic duty patriotism and docility. But when Communist ideology was stripped away, so its quaint fifties morality also disappeared into the black hole of discarded mythologies. People put their faith in television healers, Japanese apocalyptic cults, even in the jealous old God of Orthodoxy. But more profound than any of Russia’s other, new-found faiths, was an absolute, bottomless nihilism. Suddenly there were no rules, no holds barred, and everything went for those bold and ruthless enough to go out and grab as much as they could.” Rather than creating a New Communist Man, and nourishing a new society devoid of societal ills, the Communist regime produced a police state and a Gulag with millions of victims, and fostered a chaotic and nihilistic society and culture.

The second act picks up some twenty five years after the disappearance of Bibikov and is, essentially, a love story. Matthews’ father, Mervyn, grew up in London dreaming of moving to Russia and soon fulfilled his dream by moving to Russia to become a British embassy staffer in Moscow. While in Moscow, he immerses himself in Russian culture, eventually being recruited by the KGB in the 1960s.

At the same time, little Lyudmila has grown up, become an excellent student, and is trying to make the most of her disadvantaged life. In 1963, Mervyn and Lyudmila meet and fall in love. Mervyn, however is thrown out of Russia for the atrocious crime of making a personal sale (although the author makes clear that Mervyn’s true crime is a refusal to be an informant for the KGB). For the next six years, Mervyn worked tirelessly to reunite with Lyudmilla and marry her. He waged an international campaign through the media, friends, and embassy staffers, to reunite with and marry her. Finally, she was allowed to leave the USSR in 1969, and they were married.

The third act picks up with the author Owen Matthews-at that time a young journalist in Russia-discovering Bibikov’s KGB File which recounts in detail the grandfather’s fate at the hands of the KGB. Matthews is able to put together the pieces of his family puzzle, making sense of the parts of the narrative that he already knew. Among other discoveries, he finds the record of his grandfather’s final act: his signature on a confession of treason. The third act is, on the whole, not as exciting as the first two, but nonetheless provides the author with an opportunity to paint a picture of life in Russia at the turn of the 21st century.

I found myself taken in by this story about three generations of the Bibikov/Matthews family. For one thing, it is a well-told story by a man with an eye for detail. Take, for example, his portrayal of Lt. Colonel Timofeyevna: “The investigator appointed to the case was Svetlana Timofeyevna, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department. She was a confident and matronly woman who sized me up with a shameless, penetrating stare, well used to separating men into wimps and loudmouths. She was one of those portly, invincible, middle-aged Russian women, whose kind lurked like Dobermans in the front office of all Russia’s great men; they ruled ticket offices and lorded it over hotel reception desks.” Now that is hard to top.

But in addition to being a well-told story, it also has stirred up a bit of my own affection for Russia. As Matthews recounts Bibikov’s fate, I cannot help but remember my childhood, when my parents received The Prisoner Bulletin, an underground newsletter that told the fate of pastors and other believers who were sent to the Gulag. I think of the deep faith of these martyrs, many of them Russian Baptists, who believed that the Lord Jesus Christ is better than anything that life could give or that torture and death could take away.

Further, as I worked through the chapters of the book, face to face with a Russian family through the past seven decades of Russian history, I remembered my Russian friends and their families whose warmth and hospitality I will never forget. Matthews’ narrative really is an existential entry into the tragedy of atheistic communism and the nihilism it fostered. The majority of my Russian friends found it hard to believe there exists a just and loving God, and likewise could not imagine that their lives had any real purpose or meaning.

Although Matthews does not communicate the point explicitly, the discerning reader will see that Soviet Communism provided a narrative that was intended to subvert and overthrow biblical religion. It provided a false god (the state) with a false savior, (Marx), false prophets (Lenin, Stalin), and a false church (the Communist Party, whose youth meetings were marked by, inter alia, atheistic hymns and sermons), all of which gave hope of a false eschatological salvation (a “New Heavens and Earth” which would appear when the Communist Man has overthrown class society and lives in Communist utopia).

The result of this fundamental misunderstanding of cosmic history has been nihilism, hedonism, and antinomianism. Matthews points out the ills of the past 70 years of Russian history, stretching from the brutality of Stalin’ purges to the chaos and nihilism of contemporary Russian culture. But perhaps the more significant lesson to be drawn for Western readers is that democratic capitalism, while it may fare better as a political and economic system, fares no better than neo-Marxism as a Savior of mankind, or as an interpretive key for cosmic history. At bottom of cosmic history are not economic, political, or military forces, but rather the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of history, and He alone holds history in his hand.

Book: Stalin’s Children (2008)

Author: Owen Matthews

Region: Europe-Russia

Genre: Historical Autobiography

Length: 308 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate