Two Books on Christian Ireland
A Review by Mike Bowling.
Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion.
Gill & Macmillan, 2008
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Paperback: Harcourt, 1997.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
As Belfast based journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty reflects on the present state of affairs regarding religion in Ireland, one sentence captures both his mood and his assessment. This statement comes from the Introduction of his book Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion (Gill & Macmillan, 2008): “Where England appears to have lost its faith in two generations, we have done it in one.” O’Doherty does not write as a theologian, or clergy, or a lay leader; he writes as a keen observer of both culture and politics. Throughout the book, countless interviews and multitudes of examples create a mood of confidence for O’Doherty’s pessimistic assertions regarding Ireland’s religious climate. But there is more to this book than just doom and gloom; in very accessible language, the reader is led down the path which has resulted in a secularized Ireland. The first part (chapters 1 through 9) tells the story of a society whose dominant faith was Christian (and mostly Catholic), but one which by the 1950’s began to set their faith aside as if it were a toy of their childhood…cherished only as a fond remembrance. The second part (chapters 10 through 14) outlines the current debate in Ireland as both government leaders and officials within the Catholic Church try to understand the influence of “a la carte” Catholics, the growing element of liberalization and the crisis within the priesthood which has erased the traditional role of faith in Irish communities. Part Three (chapters 15, 16 and a conclusion) reminds the reader that there has been no triumph for atheism in all of this, just a growing apathy toward all things religious. O’Doherty concludes by suggesting there are possibilities for a comeback of religion in Ireland, but that it is highly unlikely. By the end of the book, it is abundantly clear that the author has little to no confidence in a sovereign God calling out a revived Church. Having made numerous trips to the Emerald Isle, I would suggest that only a sovereign move by God can save Ireland from the sure grip of its present secularization.
All of the above is made more puzzling by remembering the rich Christian heritage of Ireland. Celtic spirituality may be all but dead in Ireland, however in many other parts of the world it continues to inspire many on the frontiers of re-imagining Christian spirituality. Let me suggest for consideration a wonderful book published about 13 years ago entitled Sun Dancing (Harcourt Inc., 1997). The author, Geoffrey Moorhouse, tells the story behind the story of how Irish monks saved western civilization during the Middle Ages. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization is entertaining history, but Moorhouse takes the well-known penciled sketches and fills them with captivating detail and spectacular color. Part One is an odd combination of historical fiction and spiritual meditations set in the saga of life on Skellig Michael, a Christian monastic community, from AD 588 to AD 1222. Skellig Michael is a severe piece of rock which rises dramatically out of the Atlantic Ocean a few miles out from the southwest coast of Ireland. The 44 acre island was home to a handful of monks who lived out an austere monastic vision which is both curious and inspiring. Part Two is the offer of historical evidence supporting the rich storytelling found in the first part. This work is masterfully done with 49 short chapters which are numbered according to the page numbers in Part One which they further illuminate. The effect is a deepening of understanding and an expansion of the imagination.
[As someone who loves Ireland, its history and its people, it fills me with sadness every time I consider the spiritual lethargy and aimlessness of the Irish people surrounded by the ruins of a once vibrant Christian faith. I cannot help but think that deep in the memory of Ireland’s sacred sites are the seeds of a spiritual revival rooted in devotion to God and the love of Christ. May God raise up a visible and peaceful community in the midst of that enchanted land.]
Other Excellent Ireland-related books from CBD…