My recent book, co-authored with Claire Mitchell, Evangelical Journeys: Choice and Change in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture (UCD Press 2011), was launched last night at the Irish School of Ecumenics, TCD, in Dublin. This follows the Belfast launch of the book late last year.
Patrick Mitchel, Director of Studies and lecturer in theology at the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin and author of Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster, 1921-1998 (Oxford University Press 2003), spoke at the launch. Mitchel’s book was influential on me as a wrote this book with Claire, as well as my first book, Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland (Palgrave 2008). Mitchel also maintains a lively blog called Faith in Ireland. So it was an honour that he accepted our invitation to speak at the launch. Below are excerpts of Mitchel’s reflections on our book.
Patrick Mitchel on Evangelical Journeys
Evangelical Christians often get a bad rap … sometimes rightly, and often not. If in Northern Ireland evangelicals are often associated with social and political conservatism, in this part of the world (the Republic of Ireland), they are less known and more often equated with fundamentalism or the political ambitions of the American Right. But the stereotypes tend to reduce down what is a lively, complex, theologically diverse, adaptable, and changing tradition … to a purely political analysis.
So I found this book refreshing for at least three reasons:
There was no hiding behind the safe boundaries of the supposedly omniscient sociologist – who can decode everyone’s true motives but who remains pure and objective, above the fray in a pristine world of detached observation!
Claire and Gladys are transparent in telling of their own positions and journeys – we can be grateful here for the postmodern importance of the authors’ own perspectives – and the book is all the stronger for this.
And in this respect the methods chapter is a model of transparency – the aims and conclusions are realistic and solid.
2. Understanding and Respect
I teach a course on evangelicalism within our MA – and trying to keep up with the endless flow of books, debates, and movements, is quite a job. What I liked about Claire and Gladys’ approach is that, well aware of the spectrum of evangelical identity and praxis across denominations, they are not reductionistic but keenly aware of the need for nuance and understanding.
And not only understanding … this book represents a mammoth amount of time – in interviewing 95 people, transcribing and analysis – in building relationships.
The actual breakdown into the various categories is not surprising – the spectrums within evangelicalism have been well sketched – by Gladys in her first book, Glenn Jordan, my book – and many other broader studies outside Ireland …
But the authors’ overall approach here is very helpful – they don’t get into the myriad debates of evangelical self-understanding and definitions. For how you understand evangelicalism will to a significant degree depend on what criteria you are using to define it. There are many approaches to definition:
- historical – 18th century onwards – inherently Protestant
- theological: – a belief in certain doctrines
- experiential – a particular religious experience of personal faith cradled in a theology (Grenz)
- narrow spiritual – where being a Christian = being an evangelical
- sociological – like this book
In a sociological approach, the focus is not on who is or is not a ‘true’ evangelical, or whether some expressions of faith here are compatible with Scripture or historic orthodoxy, or even if they are self-consistent. There is a suspension of judgement in this sense.
Now for someone like me who loves theology, at times such suspension of critical theological evaluation of what people are saying makes me want at times to say:
‘BUT … what about?’ There were quite a few places in this book where that happened!
But that’s OK – no book can do everything. And the great strength of this one is the achievement of Gladys and Claire drawing out people’s stories in a non-judgemental framework. I don’t know if you agree – but even within families it is darn hard to talk about a private thing like personal faith. They have done remarkably in getting people to talk so openly. They have described those stories without trying to prove their own agendas. They have respected those stories and the people telling them and are to be congratulated on the fascinating pictures that emerge.
And that understanding leads to a genuinely useful and constructive contribution into the nature of evangelical Christianity within the culture of Northern Ireland. These are some things that stood out to me – and there are many others:
i. Re-emphasised – the essential place of conversion –and personal faith. The fact that pretty well all interviewees had this experience is a good indicator of evangelicalism – whether you are Prod, Roman Catholic, agnostic, atheist, etc – everyone needs to have a spiritual new start through faith in Christ and the Spirit of God. But what is helpful here is the complexity and messiness of conversion – and how far more is involved than abstract rational ideas.
ii. The importance of personal choice is rightly stressed. The dark side of course here is individualism – and ‘me-centred’ theology – and a lack of theology of church and sacraments. This is both the strength and weakness of evangelicalism.
iii. The importance of context – especially for the conservative becoming more conservative/fundamentalist – is tied up with the political context. This is where as an evangelical in the Republic, how different a shape and ethos it has to the alien North becomes obvious: in the Republic many evangelicals are former Catholics and Irish in culture. An interesting area of future research would be differences between evangelicalism north and south, emphasising how evangelicalism is not just some pure abstract set of doctrines – but has ‘many faces’ globally.
iv. The importance of openness, theological discussion (especially with other traditions like Catholicism) and engaging the mind: the church at a local level needs to be a place of questions and discussion. The perennial issue of evangelical spirituality lies close to the surface of many of these stories – and the question of how can spirituality flourish or not within the church? And linked here is the importance of further study and travel. As someone who teaches at an evangelical third level college the repeated thing I hear is that students absolutely love the study – of new ideas – perhaps not something there is space or time for at the local church?
So to sum up – congratulations on not only an interesting and easy to read book – but one that I think adds to the understanding of a diverse strand of Christianity in Northern Ireland – and poses some constructive challenges to that community.
Further reviews of Evangelical Journeys:
You can purchase the book at the UCD Press website, where you can get it at a reduced rate of €22.