For the Western world, it is the ‘mother continent.’ For the entire world, it has become the number one tourist destination: Spain, France, and the United Kingdom are all top contenders. For my wife and I, it was a dream come true: a twenty-four-day whistle-stop tour of ten European countries: Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria (whose signpost regrettably states that they don’t have any kangaroos), Hungary, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, The Netherlands, and Germany. Having recently returned from the ‘trip of a lifetime,’ here are some important takeaways.
Our journey was in June when summer begins and the weather warms (if you don’t like the heat, try Europe in May. July and August are hot). Despite taking a big hit on tourist numbers during the Covid pandemic, foreign visitors are flocking back en masse, perhaps more than ever to make up for lost time. It is almost like an invasion, particularly in places like Venice. Fellow travellers included Britons, Americans, and, yes, Australians (I recognised one man as an ‘Aussie’ just by looking at his face alone. Which leads to the question: What does an ‘Aussie face’ look like?).
India-based Indians are travelling in increasing numbers. This was not the case thirty years ago but when India jettisoned socialism for free market reforms back in the 1990s, it acquired something it never had before – a middle class. Now these Indians have discovered global mass tourism and they are travelling in increasing numbers. Also, we encountered Saudi Arabians throughout the trip. By far, the most charming of them all was Muhammad of Jeddah, age twenty-five, who escorted his conservative mother through Berlin and Prague.
Even though more and more non-westerners are coming to Europe on tour, remember that the Indians, Arabs, and much of the world have been influenced by Westernisation. So they gravitate to the same popular tourist sites as everyone else. Our witty guide in Germany, Pamela, commented that most tourists to Berlin come looking for two things: Nazis and the Berlin Wall. They soon discover there are ‘no Nazis’ and ‘no wall’ (except for a small fragment).
Is Europe Still a Fairytale Place?
Growing up in the United States and close to the Los Angeles International Airport, I dreamed of visiting ‘fairytale Europe.’ What does this mean? A fairytale is an idealised story where the scenery is stunning and good people are very good, but evil people are utterly horrible. No worries – there is a supernatural side that can help save the day from the bad guys. In the fairytale, the courageous hero is often undergirded by magic (for the Christian, it is a submitted believer empowered by the Holy Spirit). The result is that the good guys win and they live ‘happily ever after.’
Europe gave us fairytales in the first place. Many came from the Brothers Grimm of Germany, who wrote famous stories like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, and Rumpelstiltskin. Also from Germany was the legendary pied-piper who came from Hamlin, which is a real place.
The birthplace of fairytales became one itself. Here was my notion of ‘fairytale Europe:’ a castle on every hill, a cathedral on every street corner, and an art museum in every suburb, where the building itself is also a work of art. The sound of classical music could be heard in the streets. The European population is highly cultured and intelligent, speaking at least four languages fluently. They live happy, free and prosperous lives. To be European is to be a semi-aristocrat, having leisurely cake and coffee for morning tea and a box of chocolates on the bedside table.
Is that what Europe is really like?
‘No’ … and ‘Yes.’ Life in the real world is tough and many in Europe are not happy, let alone happy ever after. Part of the issue is the extent and frequency of massive change, like a tsunami, hurricane, and earthquake in quick succession. At the start of the Great War of 1914, Europe was ruled by empires: Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German Reich, Ottoman, and British. Four of these empires were wiped off the map at the conclusion of the war. The Great Depression followed by the Second World War pushed the continent to the edge. It was rudely divided by the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and the standoff between the American and Soviet superpowers almost brought the world to nuclear Armageddon. The Europe of yesteryear – Mary Poppins’ Europe – is long gone. Challenges abound including a dangerous Ukraine war with a nuclear-armed Russia, uncertain energy supplies, riots in France, inflation, green politics, immigration, and more.
And yet — despite all this — the rich cultural, artistic, linguistic and architectural legacy remains, not to mention the stunning scenery. Switzerland was an outstanding example in this category with sky-high mountains of the Swiss Alps cascading to the beautiful lakes below. On the steep upper slopes cling little villages. How do they drive their cars there? What happens to them when the winter snow comes?
What do we do with these historical, cultural, geographic and spiritual ‘souvenirs’ if the ‘fairytale is over?’
Europe’s Christian Heritage
In the first decade of this century, the European Union wrote a draft constitution. The pope at that time urged them to make mention of Christianity as part of European identity. They refused. The drafters, many of whom were secular humanists, balked at acknowledging Christianity as part of Europe’s heritage. Even the Museum of European History in Brussels in 2018 failed to mention the role of Christianity in European history. However, they did have a display of the Phoenician goddess ‘Europa,’ where the continent supposedly got its name. She is known for riding upon a white bull; compare this with what we read in Revelation 17:3.
However, even casual observation shows that the finger and footprints of Christianity are everywhere on the Continent. Whether it’s Westminster Abbey in London, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the magnificent Cathedral of Cologne, St. Stephens of Vienna, and many more, these buildings highlight the Church’s prominent role in Europe. There is the sacred music, artwork, place names, and centrality of the church in the life of the villages and cities. With such evidence in abundance, in every country we visited, no one on tour could have credibly or reasonably objected to calling Europe a ‘Christian continent.’
Yes, there has been a decline in church attendance over the years (2% in the continent, 5% in Britain). Ideologies, world wars, and materialistic modern living have all taken their toll. Yet there are signs of new life in the continent with young people coming to church and special events, a rise in the number of baptisms and church planting, all these are evidence that God is not finished with the ‘mother continent.’
By all means, visit Europe if you can and enjoy all that it has to offer. But remember it is not just a place of castles and culture: it gave us missionaries, theologians, reformers, Bible translations, and revivals. By God’s grace, Europe’s best days are yet ahead.