December 28, 2006

I'm all agog...

This article, Holland's Post-Secular Future, by Joshua Livestro (Thanks to Amy) is just fascinating. Even though you frequently read here about the decline of Europe, I'm also always hungy for any signs of renewal. I'd be thrilled if things turned around. I've blogged two or three possibilities over the years, but they've always seemed like too little, too late. Mere crumbs. But this looks like more than a crumb. Maybe a snack. (And of course I'm aware that connecting the general European decline with the decline of Christianity is just a hypothesis. Maybe it's a symptom, not a cause.)

....According to Bakas and Buwalda, God is back in Europe's most notoriously liberal country. Or rather: The Dutch are moving back to God. It seems an implausible hypothesis. After all, Europe was supposed to have entered the realm of post-Christianity, to use C.S. Lewis's term--a state of eternal unbelief from which there is no return. And yet, Bakas and Buwalda claim, the Dutch are turning back. Take the almost unnoticed reintroduction of crucifixes and other religious artifacts into the classrooms of Catholic schools throughout the country. Years of gradual but seemingly unstoppable secularization have given way to a reaffirmation of old religious identities. The change is also starting to affect the attitudes of pupils at these schools. In a recent newspaper interview, a head teacher at a Catholic secondary school in Rotterdam observed, "For years, pupils were embarrassed about attending Mass. Now, they volunteer to read poems or prayers, and the auditorium is packed."

There's also the remarkable critical and commercial success of a number of openly Christian writers. Holland's most prestigious literary prizes were awarded in 2005 to books dealing in a sympathetic way with Christian issues of faith and redemption. The Libris Literatuur Prize went to the Catholic author Willem Jan Otten for his Specht en zoon (Specht and son) while the AKO Literature Prize was awarded to Calvinist Jan Siebelink's Knielen op een bed violen (Kneeling on a Bed of Violets). Siebelink's novel sold nearly 350,000 copies in its first year, making it the single bestselling Dutch-language book of the past decade--apart, that is, from a new Bible translation published in 2004, which sold more than half a million copies (in a population of 16 million people).

The success in the Netherlands of the so-called Alpha Course program--a sort of Christianity 101 for beginners--is another case in point. The Alpha formula, first developed at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, aims to provide small groups of interested people with an introduction to Christianity through a series of meals-with-discussion evenings. Since its inception in 1997, 120,000 people have taken the Dutch version of the course. The number of related courses is growing by around one hundred a year. Prison Alpha, Business Alpha, Student Alpha, Youth Alpha, and more recently the Alpha Marriage Course: Collectively, they seem to have struck a chord in Holland's secular society. Jan Bakker, national coordinator of Alpha Holland, admits he is as surprised as anyone about the success of the program: "There are still those who laugh at Christianity. But there's a growing group, most of them young people, who are genuinely interested, for whom this is all completely new."

There's statistical evidence to back up the "new orthodoxy" hypothesis....

The article also has interesting stuff on Islam in the Netherlands....

....They're symbols of Dutch Islam's remarkable growth over the past 30 years, from less than 1 percent of the population in 1970 to 6 percent today. According to SCP predictions, that growth is set to continue to around 7.5 percent in 2020--a significant increase, to be sure, but nowhere near the apocalyptic figures predicted by those who fear Holland will become a majority Islamic country by the end of the 21st century. One reason it won't is that Islam, at least in its Dutch variant, is not a proselytizing faith. When asked about the importance of proselytizing, Dag volunteered that, on his list of priorities, trying to convert the indigenous Dutch population comes "just about last." Even the most optimistic estimates of Dutch Muslim organizations put the number of converts to Islam at no more than a few hundred a year. With immigration from Islamic countries grinding to a halt and birth rates among the Muslim community further approximating average Dutch birthrates with each new generation, it seems unlikely to say the least that visions of a caliphate in Holland will come to pass in this century--or the next, for that matter.

Since they don't seem to be interested in spreading the good news of Muhammad, the main priority of the Islamic communities in Holland will be to fight off the twin challenges of apathy and apostasy. Apathy is not yet a challenge in a community that defines Islam largely in cultural rather than religious terms. But once the third and fourth generations of offspring of the original immigrants start to replace the first generation, these cultural ties will start to lose some of their binding force. At the same time, it's far from clear that Dutch Islam will be able to keep religious liberalism at bay indefinitely. With government sponsorship--and the accompanying demands of gender neutrality--of university-based imam training courses about to become a reality, the day is not far off when the first feminist and gay imams will start preaching in mosques in Holland. There is no reason to assume Islam will be any better placed to deal with this liberal onslaught than mainstream Christianity was in the 1950s and '60s....

One of the things that's kept Christianity alive in America is that we've never had a state church. so the denominations are all in competition, and any that become slack or complacent are culled by a sort of "darwinian" pressure. something of a similar situation may grow in Europe as the state and "mainline" churches shrink and become irrelevant. And of course having a mosque built in your neighborhood tends to concentrate the mind too...Read the whole thing. The world is stranger than we think...

Posted by John Weidner at December 28, 2006 6:21 PM
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