Monday, March 13, 2006
A Few Observations on European Christianity
My recent trip to Germany and Switzerland has left me with more questions than answers. A few preliminary observations can be made, however. Living among missionary kids (MKs) for the better part of a week at the Black Forest Academy, for example, reinforced some stereotypes and destroyed others.
The MKs at BFA appear to be among the most committed and best prepared young people I have ever met. Clearly their European, Asian, or African experiences have challenged and enriched them in ways American kids could never imagine. Coming from this country where it is difficult to find a teenager who has mastered his/her own mother tongue, one can only marvel at a 16 yr old who speaks and writes French fluently while being able to speak in a typical American accent as well. They appear unusually fervent about their faith and desire to make a Kingdom difference with their lives.
But, many of the BFAers prove my lifelong maxim that “where a person stands has a lot to do with where he/she sits.” Exposed to a consistently anti-American press (try watching the CNN International edition or the BBC yourself sometime!), these young people are generally terrified of the prospect of coming to the “states” for college. A couple of the girls reacted to the idea so strongly it was almost as if our parents had told us at the height of the Cold War that we would be shipped off to the Soviet Union or Cuba to complete our college studies. One young lady expressed anxiety that by coming to the states she might be influenced to give up her French culture in favor of American culture. Several girls insisted that they plan to return to the country of their missionary assignment rather than remain in the U.S.
One American missionary who was born in Europe and has spent most of his adult life there as well confided that he cannot wait to get his family back to the U.S. so that he can try to help them fall in love with America again. A kind of naïve cultural anti-Americanism comes as naturally to the ones raised in France as the common disdain for all things French by those who watch Bill “Boycott France” O’Reilly in America.
My conversations with the British, Australian, and Canadians the previous weekend in Munich confirmed how negatively many conservative Christians outside of America view this country. The only analog that even partially describes the situation comes from the voting patterns of black vs. white evangelicals in America. Pollsters have stated that perhaps 80% of white American evangelicals vote Republican while 80% of black American evangelicals vote Democrat. European Christians are often anti-American, in large part (it seems) to the constant drumbeat of a hostile press.
This phenomenon suggests to me the power of mass media to shape attitudes of people everywhere. Christians are not immune to these dynamics and we should critically examine how our own consumption of media images and messages predisposes us to think and feel in certain ways.
Those of us in the U.S. should recognize the divergence of perceptions between how we view ourselves and how our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world view us. Some of that relates to the constant drumbeat of an anti-American press; other reasons might include an understandable patriotism for one’s own country or a provincial lack of first hand exposure to real life in America. Interestingly, most of these high schoolers intend to attend conservative (and even very conservative) American colleges.
It will be fascinating to follow their academic careers and see how their minds change after four years in America.
Finally, while the Church of Jesus Christ has been largely dismissed by the masses of Europeans, the evangelical witness in countries such as Germany must not be overlooked. The believers represent some of the finest Christians I have met. Living in an environment hostile to the Gospel has only made them seem more fervent by contrast.
This does not immunize them against trends being made popular here in the U.S. One family, for example, asked me a series of probing questions about “open theism.” Others wanted to know my opinion on the “emergent church.” Ideas do have consequences. Insofar as much of the theological heterodoxy espoused in this country owes its origins to European theology and theologians, it should not surprise to find our notions taking root on the other side of the Atlantic.