The Bible in Irish memory

One of the (many) peculiarities of Irish history, is the uneasy and ambiguous place of the Bible within Irish culture and memory.

I’m trying to do a bit of reading and writing around this theme at the moment.

A rough sketch of some ideas on Irish ambivalence towards the Bible goes something like this:

1.The strong historical association of the Bible with Protestant proselytism.

One example is the Pre-Famine ‘Bible War’ of the 1820s between the revitalised missionary zeal of the Established Anglican Church and a newly resurgent and defensive emerging Catholic Church. In this struggle of faith, politics and identity, the Scriptures were perceived as a tool in a religious zero-sum competition for converts. Few places were more contentious than schooling.

Donnelly writes that Protestant missionaries became more active after 1815

in circulating the Scriptures, in distributing anti-Catholic literature, and in establishing schools aimed at the children of the Catholic poor. The Religious Book and Tract Society for Ireland claimed in 1823 to have issued over 1,160,000 tracts and 86,000 books since 1819 alone.

Formal schooling, however, was a far more serious and contentious affair. The controversies that raged after 1819 at the national level about schools under Protestant auspices, their management and funding, and the use of the Scriptures within them were in part a reflection and in part a cause of strife at the local level. [1]

In Munster and Connacht there was particular Catholic clerical opposition to the Baptist Society schools and the London Hibernian Society “whose inspectors required that children in its schools recite the Scriptures from memory.”

And such polarisation around the Bible and social action reached a climax with charges of ‘Souperism’ (converting in order to survive via the Protestant soup kitchen) during the Famine itself – with the legitimacy of that charge continuing to be debated to this day.

And Catholic resistance to the Bible as a dangerous tool of Protestant evangelism can be traced right up to the middle of the 20th Century – with documented occasions of evangelical missionaries distributing Bibles and Bible literature being run out of towns.

2. The sacramental structure of Catholicism itself

Whereby the Bible, while revered and affirmed as the Word of God, is sidelined in the actual daily practice of living the Christian life. The altar at the heart of a Catholic Church as opposed to the pulpit in a Protestant one speaks of what is central to spirituality. The Bible has not had a central role in Catholic spirituality – for many ordinary Catholics it has been a closed book.  I think this is a fair observation that increasingly many Catholics also affirm – and want to change.

[And such has been the decline of the place of the Bible in Protestant spirituality (including evangelicals) that I wonder what % of ‘Protestants’ actually ever regularly open a Bible – but that is a topic for another post!]

3. A post-Christendom scepticism towards the Bible

Where, in a culture rapidly divesting itself of the vestiges of a claustrophobic Catholic Christendom, the Bible is seen in postmodern terms as a tool of control, power and injustice; a weapon, for example, of inequality against those of LGBT orientation. The Scriptures, rather than being seen as radically liberating for all, are viewed with a hermeneutic of suspicion as a source of institutional legitimation and self-preservation of a fading era of Church domination. The church and its Scriptures are seen as marginal and irrelevant to the pressing questions of modern life.

Now that may all sound rather negative. But if even partially right, this gives a flavour of the missional challenges in contemporary Ireland.

Some words come to mind:

Unconditional Love. Earning Trust. Transparency. Honesty. No strings evangelism. God’s grace. Integrity. Gospel centered. Jesus focused. Embrace of Irish culture and identity. Selfless service of others. Care for the poor. Listening. Humble confidence in God’s Spirit to speak through God’s Word.

These are some attitudes and actions that need to characterise mission in contemporary Ireland.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] James S. Donnelly Jr, ‘Pastorini and Captain Rock: Millenarianism and Sectarianism in the Rockite Movement of 1821-4’ in Samuel Clark and James S. Donnelly Jr, eds., Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780-1914 (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) 102-142.

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