Review of Katharina Kunter and Jens Holger Schjørring, eds., Europäisches und Globales Christentum/European and Global Christianity: Herausforderungen und Transformationen im 20. Jahrhundert/Challenges and Transformations in the 20th Century

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 3, September 2012

Review of Katharina Kunter and Jens Holger Schjørring, eds., Europäisches und Globales Christentum/European and Global Christianity: Herausforderungen und Transformationen im 20. Jahrhundert/Challenges and Transformations in the 20th Century (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 381 Pp. ISBN-13: 978-3-525-55706-8.

By Heath A. Spencer, Seattle University

What were the most important developments in twentieth-century Christianity? If the focus is on Europe, we might emphasize secularization, declining church attendance, Christian complicity in an era of war and genocide, or the challenges faced by churches under various dictatorships. If we are more global in scope, our attention might be drawn to the peculiarity of the United States in comparison to Europe, the dramatic expansion of Christianity in the global south, the global prominence of Pentecostal-charismatic varieties of Christianity, and relations between European and non-European Christianities during a transition from colonial empires to newly independent states. All of these themes are addressed in European and Global Christianity, a collection of papers presented in Denmark in 2008 at the conference “Taking Stock of Church History in the Twentieth Century from an International Perspective.” While the book does not propose a new master narrative for the history of world Christianity, individual contributors offer an indication of themes and questions that would have to be included in such a project.

In the first section, “Transformations and Historical Turning Points in the Twentieth Century,” Hartmut Lehmann and Hugh McLeod highlight broad trends in Europe and the wider world. Both see a weakening of confessional boundaries, greater religious pluralism and a dramatic decline in church attendance to be among the most important developments in European Christianity over the course of the twentieth century. McLeod identifies the 1960s as the tipping point for this ‘decline of Christendom’ but notes that the United States diverged from the European pattern in the latter part of the century. Lehmann is more attentive to trends beyond Europe and North America, drawing attention to the surge of Pentecostal-charismatic forms of Christianity and the complexity of Christian-Muslim relations. Within Europe, he also sees positive developments such as greater international understanding and a thorough discrediting of Christian anti-Judaism.

Aud V. Tønnessen and Uffe Østergård are less interested in megatrends and international comparisons than in the reactionary or progressive tendencies in Scandinavian Christianity. Tønnessen notes the persistence of an ideology of ‘gender complementarity’, not only in early twentieth-century debates about birth control and sexual morality, but also in more recent controversies over the ordination of women and the blessing of same-sex unions. Østergård’s “Lutheranism, nationalism and the universal welfare state” challenges the conventional view that trade unions and social democratic parties deserve all the credit for the modern welfare state. Instead, he concludes that “the Danish welfare state is a result of secularized Lutheranism in national garment rather than international socialism” (93).

The second section of the book offers two articles on the world wars and their repercussions for the churches. Martin Greschat shows both change and diversity in the responses of Christians to the violence of the twentieth century. During the First World War, most churches enthusiastically endorsed the slaughter. However, in the interwar period, leaders in the ecumenical movement were promoting peace and reconciliation and challenging the absolute claims of nations and states. During the Second World War, many Christians supported their governments out of a sense of fatalism and obedience to authority, but religiously-motivated resistance was also a possibility. Unlike Greschat, Nicholas Hope tells a more uniform story of Christian capitulation to the claims of ‘the State.’ Unfortunately, he does little more than raise interesting talking points (for example, the role of the churches in what James Sheehan has called the rise of the ‘civilian state’) and then drop them without further development.

The third section of the book addresses the Protestant and Catholic churches in postwar Europe. In his comparison of East German and other Eastern European churches, Miklós Tomka demonstrates that labels like ‘conformity’ and ‘resistance’ fail to do justice to the complexity of situations faced by churches and churchgoers in east bloc countries, where it was not always easy to distinguish between hypocrisy and pragmatic survival strategies. If we imagine ‘church’ to mean the clerical hierarchy and ‘resistance’ to mean openly confronting dictatorship, then these churches were seriously compromised. On the other hand, if we focus on the congregational level and pay attention to more subtle forms of opposition, then churches appear to be among the most important sites of opposition to dictatorship in the twentieth century, particularly after 1945. Tomka’s sociological analysis is complemented by Dag Thorkildsen’s historical theology in “Unconditional Christian Loyalty towards the Rulers?” Although Luther and his early modern successors left little room for challenging the social or political status quo, Norwegian theologians of the twentieth century interpreted Romans 13 (“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities…”) in such a way as to justify popular sovereignty on the one hand and resistance to German occupiers and Norwegian collaborators on the other. In the study of scriptural religions, the history of interpretation is at least as important as the texts themselves, and “Norwegian history shows that Lutheranism does not necessarily have to lead to an unconditional Christian loyalty towards the rulers” (268).

Harry Oelke and Karl-Joseph Hummel offer narrower studies of the German Protestant and Catholic churches. Oelke highlights the ongoing relevance of national studies, noting that Germany’s recent past has given a particular twist to postwar debates among German Protestants over political engagement, collective guilt, and nationalism. Hummel surveys the research on the Catholic Church in Germany, much of which has focused on the Nazi era. Immediate postwar narratives of Catholic resistance and victimhood gave way in the 1960s to critical appraisals arguing that an illiberal and anti-modern Catholic hierarchy helped facilitate the Nazi ‘seizure of power.’ More recent scholarship strikes a balance, recognizing Catholic Resistenz to national socialist ideology and its totalitarian claims as well as broad areas of complicity. Hummel also explores cases where political, moral, and theological agendas have shaped and at times distorted postwar memories and representations of German Catholicism.

The articles in the final section of the book return to some of the global trends mentioned by Lehmann in the opening article. Klaus Koschorke stresses the need for a coherent narrative of World Christianity and points to promising areas for comparative study such as church independence movements in Asia and Africa, colonial-ethical discourses, and the year 1989 as a global caesura (rather than merely European). Kevin Ward and Ezra Gebremedhim follow up by highlighting the unique dynamics of African Christianities rather than presenting them as African adaptations of a ‘European’ religion. Ward argues that in Africa, religious pluralism has long been the norm, and “religion has been the midwife of modernity rather than its opponent” (303). As a result, African Christians do not feel compelled to fight the same kinds of culture wars as have Europeans and North Americans. Ezra Gebremedhim assesses progress toward independence and equality in the relationship between the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus and the Church of Sweden. The nature of that equal partnership is revealed in the current dialogue between the two churches over the Church of Sweden’s decision to bless same-sex partnerships. The section ends with Viggo Mortensen’s reflections on the state of Christianity as a global religion in a pluralistic world. Mortensen identifies fundamentalism, relativism, and syncretism as threats to the integrity of Christianity, arguing that Christians must hold on to their convictions while engaging in dialogue with others in a spirit of konvivenz. Unfortunately, Mortensen’s call for konvivenz is compromised by his references to ‘Eurabia’ and ‘dhimmitude’ as well as the dubious claim that ‘Islam’ has no history of multicultural sympathy with the ‘other.’ One is left wondering what he means when he poses questions like, “What will win out: Protestantisation of religion or the islamisation of Christianity?” (368).

Overall, this book delivers what the title promises, a useful constellation of articles on European and global Christianity, covering key moments, themes, and trends over the course of the twentieth century. Chapters are in English or German, and the authors represent a variety of countries (Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Hungary) and disciplines (church history, theology, and sociology of religion). The middle sections privilege European church history, but the others offer a range of global perspectives that suggest new ways to imagine and contextualize European developments. The individual articles are uneven in terms of quality, significance, and originality, but the collection as a whole gives evidence of the richness and diversity of twentieth-century Christianities, within and outside of Europe.