Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Book Report--Dutch Woes




Five years ago, a chapter from Philip Jenkins' book The Next Christianity memorably appeared in the Atlantic and introduced--at least to me--the changing landscape of the Christian faith, illustrating clearly that while Christianity was dying in the West, it was growing in leaps and bounds in the Third World. All anyone needs is a few stats to make the point: something like this--in London, every Sabbath, there are more black people in church than white people.

Evangelicals may well go to their knees in a moment in thanks for that growth. There is every reason to be joyful about the immense and incredible spread of the gospel in Africa, Asia, and Central America.

But what made Jenkins' work so new was the analysis he brought to the survey. What he did was show most clearly that "the next Christianity" is imbued with indiginous cultural character, that it isn't simply the Sunday school faith the missionaries brought during colonialization, that thoughtfully liberal Western Christians had reason to be wary, in fact, of the fruits of its own historic mission efforts. African Christians--as the Anglicans in England and America already know very well--aren't just there for hewing wood and mopping floors. They're not going to be anybody's handmaids, and they're already asserting themselves with the sheer force of their numbers.

Absolutely fascinating stuff.

Yesterday I finished a book that's just as interesting, a book that documents the loss of faith in its historic cradle, in Western Europe, and especially in the Netherlands, my own "country of origin," as we say. The book is Murder in Amsterdam, and it's written by Ian Buruma, a journalist who was born in Holland and clearly understands what is underway in that small nation.

Buruma is a journalist, and his ostensible topic is the viscious, brutal murder of Theo Van Gogh, an outrageous film-maker and media star, by Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Moroccan-Dutchman, a man who said, at his own trial, that, if somehow freed, he would do it all over again, and therefore God be praised--and etc.

I'm fifth-generation Dutch-American. My knowledge of "the old country" is limited to two visits. There hasn't been an immigrant in my family tree since 1868, I don't keep up on Dutch news, and I can't speak the language. But I've lived around Dutch-Americans, many of them more recent immigrants, for years; and what I've come to understand about them, and about Holland through them, is this: the war--the four-year occupation of the Netherlands by the Nazis during WWII--has left indelible marks. And also this: most of the Dutch I know--all of them "orthodox Protestants," or Calvinists, firmly believe that Dutch culture since the war has gone pagan.

Buruma appears to agree. What's fascinating about the book is his way of drawing the story of the Nazi occupation--specifically, Holland's guilt for having given up so many (100,000) of its own Jewish citizens to Nazi ovens--into the context of the crisis created by the swarm of Islamic immigrants today. In their wholesale abandonment of the strictures of faith that characterized their own Calvinist past, in their pursuit of individual liberty, in their celebration of Enlightenment values of free speech, in their own pagan licentuousness, they've created a world that will abide absolutely no limits whatsoever--and will tolerate just about everything.

And along comes a people whose lives are focused by their Islamic culture, who have a 20-20 vision of right and wrong. Just as all host cultures, the Dutch find their new Islamic neighbors quite sweet people as long as they take jobs that no Hollanders care to do. What's more, the first generation seems quite happy, living in a free society and making more money than anyone in their families has ever made.

But the second generation travels different trajectories; some of them, at least, aspire to jobs and skills and professions that are no longer menial. When those kids, the children of immigrant workers, feel thwarted in their ambitions--for whatever reason, there is going to be trouble, largely because those kids are neither (pardon the expression) fish nor fowl. They are neither really Dutch (they haven't found a home), nor Middle-Eastern. They don't know what they are, quite frankly. And many of them turn to a radical form of Islam in which they feel security in the double-bind of their odd identities. They become more fundamentalist about their belief than their parents, and the London bombings result--and the murder of Theo Van Gogh, not to mention, 9/11.

Buruma says the Dutch--who've taken great joy in deleting their own religious character--have no clue how to deal with these new radicals. Their own sense of the righteousness of multi-culturalism makes it impossible for them to be anything less than accomodating to the very force that threatens to destroy that new openness.

I've gone on long enough. I don't think you have to be Dutch to enjoy this book. Parallels with our own immigration problems abound. Several times I thought of Native friends who've spoken of the woes of welfare largesse, as well as glass ceilings and endemic and institutional racism.

Some reviewers appear to lament the fact that Buruma doesn't offer answers to the complex problems he documents. I'm not bothered. Those problems wouldn't be problems if some guru had simple answers. I believe his analysis--all the way through--is at once alarming and understandable and accurate. Even if he offers no clear answers--this is not a how-to--such close and concrete analysis is its own blessing.

What links this book with Jenkins's work is the fact that the immense growth of Christianity in what Jenkins calls "the Christian South" is made even more formidable by the decline of faith in the West, or "the Christian North." Buruma explains why that's true--in Holland, but also in "liberal Europe."

Murder in Amsterdam is not a sweet read, but I loved it.

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