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

Philip Jenkins
Published by Oxford University Press in 2009

Through the eyes of popular sentiment, Islam is a faith with a growing number of converts and a surge of conviction. In contrast, Christianity is a faith in decline. Church populations are dropping and, among remaining Church members, conviction is growing more tepid with each passing day. Efforts to identify a locale where this sentiment is most likely true might lead one to Europe. Long thought of as the heart of Christendom, the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a transformation in Europe’s religious nature. A landscape once marked by cathedrals and monasteries, Europe became the birthplace of intellectuals who dared to not only question God’s existence but even went so far as to announce God’s death. Toward the end of that era, Islam began to undergo a pronounced increase in terms of its presence. However, popular sentiment, when placed under the scrutiny of rigorous examination, does not always hold true. In God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis, Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at The Pennsylvania State University, offers such a level of examination. Although Jenkins’ understanding of the secular may need further consideration, God’s Continent proves to be necessary reading for anyone seeking to come to terms with the phenomenal complexity of Europe’s religious nature.

As part of a series designed to assess the future of Christianity, God’s Continent is the third book in a trilogy which also includes Jenkins’ critically acclaimed The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002) and The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford University Press, 2006). In The Next Christendom, Jenkins assesses the growing presence of Christianity in regions beyond the continents of Europe and North America. He goes into great detail exploring what might occur as Christianity encroaches upon regions where other religions, particularly Islam, are dominant. By settling on belief in the Bible as his exploratory lens, Jenkins contends in The New Faces of Christianity that demonstrable differences exist between the religious views of Christians in the “One-Thirds World” and the “Two-Thirds World.” In God’s Continent, Jenkins brings his discussion full-circle. In this book Jenkins acknowledges Islam has, in fact, made in-roads into the continent which was once thought to be the heart of Christendom. However, Jenkins argues also that this situation is far more complex than any form of popular sentiment could assess adequately. In particular, Jenkins offers that “a reality check is in order” (2).

As a reality check, Jenkins argues in his latest book that “While nobody can pretend that Christian religious practice is thriving in most of Europe, the situation is nothing as grim as some recent accounts suggest, nor do the population statistics justify the portrait of a wholesale barbarian invasion from Muslim lands” (2-3). In essence, the religious nature of Europe is far more complex. One way to initiate such an exploration is to clarify the questions being asked. For example, Jenkins offers that “We must ask whether Europe’s current problems are religious, rather than social, economic, and cultural: are they problems of religion, race, or class?” (17-18). By clarifying the questions being asked, Jenkins is able to identify that Christianity is actually growing in parts of Europe. In particular, “The new Christian growth fell into two closely overlapping categories, namely, the churches established on European soil by and for the new immigrants themselves, and deliberate missionary activity directed from the global South “(89).

In addition, the picture in relation to Islam is also not as clear. However, clarifying the questions being asked allows one to see that in Europe, Islam is not growing as fast as one might think. In addition, the surge of conviction is not as great as previously thought. For example, despite increased migration, the Muslim population in Europe is only four to five percent. In France, “just 5 percent of Muslims attend mosques with any degree of regularity, and a third of Muslims reported praying every day” (122). Such figures lead Jenkins to contend that “it is too easy to characterize any religious or political view by quoting its most extreme advocates” (122).

As echoed by these examples, Jenkins clarifies the questions and thus the perceptions held about the religious nature of Europe by marshalling the results of empirical studies as well as supporting narratives. He has done an admirable job sorting through a myriad of data. When organized under the guise of the questions he asks about the religious nature of Europe, popular perceptions yield quickly to a clarified reality. Such a form of reality does not come at the price of oversimplification. By contrast, Jenkins performs what he references as a careful sifting of these sources. Such forms of data help him bring to light that since 1900, Europe’s Muslim population grew from nine million (2.3% of the total population) to thirty-six million (5.1%) in 2005. Over the course of the same period of time, Europe’s population of evangelicals, charismatics, and Pentecostals grew from 32 million (8%) to 69 million (9.8%). Jenkins proceeds to offer examples concerning the charismatic movements spreading through nations such as Italy, France, and England.

Jenkins offers such examples by first clarifying the religious nature in relation to Christianity and then moves on to Islam. With twelve total chapters, the first four are dedicated to the state of Christianity while the next five chapters are dedicated to the state of Islam. Although Europe proves to be the arena in which the adherents of these two religions meet, Jenkins makes it clear that the picture of such a meeting is not defined as clearly as one might think. For example, while addressing the London subway bombings of 2005, Jenkins notes that “African Christians were murdered by Asian Muslims, in the European religious theater” (101).

A clarified understanding of the current situation involves an intentional sorting and sifting of data and related narrative examples. However, speculation concerning the future can only be done with great care. Jenkins spends the last three chapters of his book attempting to meet this challenge. Although Islam may be transforming Europe, secular Europe may also be transforming Islam. For example, Jenkins argues that “European nations are only beginning to realize the dilemmas of confessional politics” (250). He also offers that “Muslims can certainly learn from Christian forms of accommodation with the secular world, from pluralism. But Christians too recognize that absolute separation of religion and state has its problems” (272). In the end, such an exchange leads Jenkins to assert that “‘God’s Continent’ still has more life in it than anyone might have thought possible only a few years ago” (282).

Despite the lucid manner in which Jenkins goes about developing his picture of the religious nature of Europe, his usage of the term “secular” appears to come with some assumptions which make the speculation he offers concerning Europe’s future problematic. For Jenkins, the turn to the secular appears to be marked by “a more personal, autonomous, nondogmatic and nonjudgmental spirituality” (43). Jenkins leaves his audience to assume that potentially, such a sense of spirituality is transferable from one religious system to the next. While certainly the secular is making itself known in Islam, no assurance exists that this presence will bring about the same effect as it did within Christianity, if for no other reason than the secular is a historical derivative of Christianity. In his book, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), Charles Taylor goes to great lengths in his early chapters to communicate that the secular emerges from a growing awareness within Christian circles that individuals could, in fact, order their own lives. While Jenkins’ speculations concerning the future are certainly plausible, the variables influencing the future may prove to be more theoretically complex than even he takes into consideration.

Regardless of the need for further clarification on matters such as a theoretical understanding of the secular, God’s Continent proves to be a worthwhile member of the trilogy Philip Jenkins has offered concerning the future of Christianity and, in the case of this particular book, the future of Islam as well. Earlier volumes in this series are currently gathering well-deserved critical praise. This third and final volume certainly deserves the same. Jenkins goes to great lengths to demonstrate the pivotal role Europe will play in the future of our global society. As a result, anyone concerned with the current nature of religious belief, regardless of locale, will find God’s Continent to be necessary reading.

Cite this article
Todd C. Ream, “God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 37:3 , 397-399

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).