Anthropology for Christian Witness
(Chapters One to Fourteen)
With Reflections on the Irish Culture
MB520 (IDL), Anthropology
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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 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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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