Insights from
Anthropology for Christian Witness
(Chapters One to Fourteen)
With Reflections on the Irish Culture
Matthew Ropp
MB520 (IDL), Anthropology
Midterm Paper
Charles H. Kraft, Spring 1998
Fuller Theological Seminary, School of World Mission

    In this paper it is my intent to reflect upon one or more concepts or insights that were important to me in each of the first fourteen chapters in Anthropology for Christian Witness and from the corresponding lectures. In each case I will relate that concept to my experiences in Dublin, Ireland, where I spent three months working last fall. I registered for this course as an IDL class because of my travel to Ireland and it is there that I started work for this course. While in Dublin, I lived in a bed and breakfast run by an elderly woman and worked in a computer software company, primarily with people around my own age (in their 20's). I had the opportunity to interact with them in both work and leisure settings. My reflections will most often center on the pub and consumption of alcohol - integral parts of the Irish culture.

Chapter 1

    One important concept in this chapter is that anthropology takes a holistic view of people. In order to understand a particular behavior of a person or culture, it is necessary to look at the whole picture. This can be applied to the Irish penchant for going to pubs so frequently and drinking quite heavily, both in and out of the pub. These activities are probably not just an end in and of themselves. They are just one type of behavior in a complex people. To understand why the Irish go to pubs and drink heavily, we would have to look at many facets of their culture which influence this. Another key idea which anthropology has given us is participant observation. While in Dublin, I employed this method (although somewhat unconsciously) to get to know the Irish people in what may be their favorite activity -- drinking at the pub. On several occasions I went with my neighbor and/or my coworkers to various pubs and joined them in a few
"pints" of Guinness (stout) or Bulmer's (hard cider).

Chapter 2

    Something I picked up from chapter two which can be applied to the Irish (or any culture) is that the assumptions we are taught become the primary influences on the conclusions we arrive at. This too can be related to alcohol. Many conservative or fundamentalist Christians in this country (the U.S.) grow up with the assumption that Christians should not drink, period. They conclude it is a sin to do so. They may not even be comfortable taking wine as part of the Lord's Supper in a more liturgical church setting. I grew up in a fairly conservative church myself, but saw that sometimes my step-father would have one drink or two at home, although never in excess. The assumption was that this was acceptable and this is the primary influence, along with my study of the scriptures on the topic, of my more moderate beliefs about alcohol. It appears that most Irish people grow up with the assumption that most or all people drink regularly either at home or at the pub and often get drunk. Their is also an assumption in their dominant religion, Roman Catholicism, that alcohol is permissible. I believe that most Irish people conclude that is simply natural to drink regularly and to go to the pub and get intoxicated.

Chapter 3

    Several concepts in this chapter can be related to Irish drinking. One is that culture tends toward integration. There is a basically integrated view in Irish culture that drinking is acceptable and normal. Culture also helps people cope with things with which they are faced. At least traditionally, Irish pubs are a place where (primarily) men go to discuss their problems with their friends and solve issues in their life. Lastly, cultural structuring can become outmoded, because each generation faces new problems. The new generation must "improvise the script" and create new cultural structuring. This is reflected in the difference between the Irish pubs frequented by older and younger generations. Those from the older generation are more likely to go to the same pub frequently, meet their friends, and sit, talk and drink for hours. In my experience, young people by contrast, will go from pub to pub depending on the evening. These pubs are often much louder, with blaring music, and more crowded than those frequented by the previous generation. The two generations are still meeting their needs through pubs, but have changed the style somewhat to accommodate their own needs and wants.

Chapter 4

    In the lecture for chapter four, it was stated that the definition of worldview could be reduced to simply "assumptions." As stated above, I think that there are assumptions in the Irish worldview something along the lines of "Irish people drink alcohol" and "Irish people socialize in pubs." The discussion in chapter four, while separating worldview and religion, also sees a relationship between the two. Religion is presented as one surface level expression of certain worldview assumptions. It is interesting to note that Catholicism, which is the main (although largely nominal) religion of Ireland, does not condemn alcohol. So there is no basic conflict here between worldview assumptions and religious assumptions (at a more surface level) on this topic. It would be interesting to explore whether the worldview assumption has influenced the Catholic church in this manner, or whether the assumption of the church made its way into the worldview over time. Or perhaps they developed independently and there was simply a nice fit between the two when Christianity was introduced in Ireland.

Chapter 5

    Chapter five states that as cross-cultural witnesses, we are not called to be prophets in the receptor culture. Judgements must come from the inside. "Our job is to turn on the light; not to proclaim how dark it is." Thus while I and probably many other evangelical Christians believe that drunkenness is a sin, according to this principle, it would not be my place to make that judgement for the Irish. My role could be, however, to model other alternatives. I never drank myself to the point of intoxication while at the pub with my friends and on some occasions I opted to drink Coca-Cola instead of an alcoholic beverage. I was not there specifically as a missionary, but many of them knew my plans and that I was a seminary student. I think it was important for me to spend time with them in this environment, which leads me to another concept: we must be converted by interacting with the new culture before their lives will be changed. To really reach Irish people that go to the pub so frequently, I or another cross-cultural witness must interact with and come to understand this context and relate to them from within.

Chapter 6

    Chapter six teaches that we need to study theology and anthropology together in order to understand how God relates to people in their cultures. Also, that God is above culture and the issue of a culture is its usability, not whether it is good or bad. Looking at God, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, we see that he has no aversion to alcohol itself. In Jesus we have theology and anthropology at the same time - God incarnate in human flesh. Jesus was born into the Hebrew culture, where often wine was drunk instead of water because of health considerations. Jesus, as a Jew, most likely freely participated in moderate drinking of alcohol and even made wine for a wedding in Cana. So certainly God can work within the Irish culture, with its acceptance of alcohol. Later New Testament writings, however, make it clear that drunkenness is generally not acceptable. God used Paul as a judge of this behavior in the first-century context.

Chapter 7

    This chapter relates primarily to issues of the origin of humankind and of race. These are somewhat difficult to apply to the Irish context. I did not have any discussions regarding evolution or creation while in Ireland and the Irish people are there are few racism issues inside of Ireland, as they are largely a homogeneous people in that sense. Racism is defined as a type of ethnocentrism, however, and concepts of in-group and out-group are discussed. Clearly there is a type of ethnocentrism in Ireland, especially in the relationship between the English, the Irish in Northern Ireland, and those in the Republic of Ireland. Conflict over land has given rise to in-groups and out-groups related to religion and style of government, resulting in many stereotypes as well. I am probably contributing to the stereotype of the Irish as heavy drinkers with this paper. I should point out that there certainly are Irish people which do not fit this mold!

Chapter 8

    Chapter eight teaches that everyone has some kind of a search for meaning in life. I think that for the Irish, drinking and the pub are associated with this search for meaning, especially with the older generations. This is where they go to discuss life's ups and downs with their friends. This setting also meets the sociocultural needs (relationships) that all people have. Of course, they have relationships other places, but a large amount of socializing takes place in the pub.

    A few other concepts from this chapter relate to my experiences in Ireland, although not to the pub. One is the concept of "future shock." It appeared to me that the Irish are in many ways trying to catch up with technological change. There are a very large number of new high tech firms that have established offices in Ireland due to good tax incentives. However, a problem has arisen because of a gap between the number of people needed to fill these new technical positions and the number of Irish workers adequately trained in these areas. Another discussion in chapter eight is that of patterning and performance and how culture is passed on to the next generation (or not). Catholicism as a cultural feature in Ireland does not seem to have been very successfully passed on to the younger generations. The few times I attended Catholic mass, the congregations were largely composed of the elderly.

Chapter 9

    In chapter nine, it is stated that forms may be empowered by humans, Satan, or by God. Alcohol and the form of drinking are empowered in various ways in the Irish context. Humans push alcohol and use it in all sorts of ways throughout the society. I believe Satan also empowers the social form of drinking and uses it to drag many people into alcoholism, away from their families, and so on. Might not God also empower drinking in Irish society? I contend that He certainly could and that perhaps Christians should explore this area. Forms also have multiple meanings, functions and usages. The form of a pint of alcohol has many different meanings in Ireland. For example, it can mean "getting drunk," "thirst quenching," "tastes good," "cools me down," "a gift for/from my friend," and so on.

Chapter 10

    According to this chapter, we are 100% culturally conditioned in everything we do (but not determined). There is also cultural pressure to conform to certain rules. There is very strong cultural conditioning in Ireland that pushes people to participate in drinking at the pub. Yet, breaking with determinism, there are a small number growing up in this environment that choose not to drink. When we had an organized social event at my company, there was definitely pressure for even those who didn't normally drink (one or two people only) not only to be at the event but to come to the pub afterwards.

    Another two concepts from this chapter are that the struggle for change is with the habits of people, whom often don't want to change because the cost is too high, and that culture change starts in the mind of one person. A change instituted by Protestant Christianity or any other force in Irish society that demanded the people stop frequenting pubs would, in my opinion, be doomed to failure. The cost would be much too high. Changes would have to be made much more subtly, working with the people's habits of going to the pub and perhaps changing that atmosphere from the inside. As culture change does start in the mind of one person (who can then work with a group), this kind of change could be instigated by Christians or others who start frequenting pubs but then deviating from the normal pub behavior of drunkenness. If they offered an attractive and viable alternative, while still meeting most of the same sociocultural needs, the culture might slowly change in this area.

Chapter 11

    Some examples from working in my software company (no pub examples for this chapter!) illustrate the point that things that are more efficient, complex, and controlling tend to depersonalize. This is easily seen in the realm of computers, which although very efficient, definitely subtract much of the human relational elements from work and play. Electronic mail (e-mail) is a great and fast way to communicate with people far away. I used it to keep in touch with many friends and family members in the States while I was in Ireland. E-mail also easily takes the place of inter personal communication even with those nearby, however. It becomes faster (or at least easier) to just send your coworker across the room an e-mail about something rather than to get up and talk to them in person. Network computer games at lunch time also replaced more personal interaction such as sitting at the lunch tables having a conversation or playing a game (such as cards) in person.

Chapter 12

    Sometimes we see people as scenery or machinery rather than people. This was confirmed for me in my sightseeing trips in Ireland. "Look at that guy over there. He looks really Irish, with his rosy cheeks and cap!" Also, a bartender in a pub is basically machinery which takes your money and provides you with a drink. No real attempt at personal interaction is usually made. Cultural structuring is also matched by the constraints of a geographic area. Ireland is a fairly secluded island and although full of beautiful countryside and scenery, the weather is most often cool and overcast or rainy, with only occasional glimpses of bright sunshine to light up the emerald hills. Agriculture is also quite limited, historically resulting in certain economic hardships. All of this can be seen as factors in the Irish penchant for drinking.

Chapter 13

    Chapter thirteen states that a primary allegiance to God will infect (and become the core of) a worldview and then be played out in all the cultural sub-systems, of which religion is only one. For many Irish people, I suspect that if allegiance to God became primary it might soon run into conflict with an allegiance to alcohol. So, I would expect that if this allegiance to God were truly central in the typical Irish worldview, much of the cultural structuring related to drinking would change. Something else from this chapter is that rites of passage for individuals are often rites of intensification for the group. I saw this dynamic at work when a person left the company in Dublin and we held a going away party (at a pub of course!). While the reason for the gathering was to say good-bye and wish the person well, the party also served the function of strengthening the group bond of all the employees who remained.

Chapter 14

    I'm questioning whether the statement, "In Euroamerican societies retirement often signals the beginning of sociological death." holds true in Ireland. Perhaps because of the convenience and primacy of the pub as a place for social interaction, this is not the case. One can continue to frequent the pub even after retirement and participate with their primary social base. If so, I see this as a strength of the pub "system." Another point is that continuity can be a very important issues for converts to Christianity -- they don't want to leave behind all of their culture. I have discussed this already above. Converts to Christianity would not be appreciative (and might then not convert at all) if forced to completely abandon the pub culture. They need some sort of continuity. 


Kraft, Charles H.
  1996    Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis.

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