Ireland and the Reception of the Bible

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Bradford A. Anderson, Jonathan Kearney
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Editors Bradford A. Anderson and Jonathan Kearney, in their introduction to Ireland and the Reception of the Bible: Social and Cultural Perspectives, suggest that the Bible and its ongoing role in the world today is “more complex” than many might assume (1). They argue that the Bible is “inextricably linked with broader social and cultural dimensions, from identity formation and politics, to language and literature” (1). Anderson and Kearney insist that Ireland, with its “rich and complex religious, cultural and social history,” provides a particularly potent example of the past, the present, and the possible future influence of the Bible (1). The chapters presented in this collection survey a broad historical timeframe (550 CE to present) of Irish history, culture, and religious practice with an impressively broad focus in a number of research disciplines relevant to the study of the Bible’s role and function in Ireland.  

In defining “reception” of the Bible, Anderson and Kearney “situate the task of reception history within the wide-ranging discourse exploring the use, influence and impact of the Bible” (11). They refer to the discipline of cultural studies in their efforts to define both the “social” and the “cultural” aspects of this collection. Referencing the work of Raymond Williams, they define the social as “anything that involves society” (12), especially as it is expressed and embodied in institutions and social relations. In defining “culture,” they quote the work of Tony Thwaites, Lloyd Davis, and Warwick Mules in their text Tools for Cultural Studies: An Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 1994): “Culture is the ensemble of social processes by which meanings are produced, circulated and exchanged.” Anderson and Kearney also admit that the term “Bible” is fraught and they make brief reference to the work of scholars like Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Jonathan Z. Smith on this topic (13).  In an interesting footnote, Anderson and Kearney explicitly tie their project to the discipline of Irish studies, defining it as “a multidisciplinary academic discourse that--in essence--seeks to interrogate and reflect upon the meaning of Irishness and Irish culture(s), in light of historical and contemporary contexts” (12). Anderson and Kearney present the hope that this collection will add to the conversation.

In a rich and diverse collection of work like this, it is hard to adequately convey all of the wonderful treasures presented within it.  For my purposes, I want to focus on chapters by Eoin O’Mahony, Amanda Dillon, and Geert Lernout. Both O’Mahony and Dillon focus on the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels from the 8th century CE. O’Mahony wrestles with the question of how a sacred text like the Book of Kells becomes a commodified religious artifact. O’Mahony’s discussion includes references to the work of Talal Asad on the sacred and the secular and could certainly be expanded beyond the limits of his chapter.  Dillon focuses more on the visual elements of the Book of Kells and how they have come to represent a certain expression of Irishness in popular usage, in modern Irish art, and in Irish film. O’Mahony and Dillon both raise the question of what happens when religious meaning is removed from a religious text, leaving only the physical specimen as a museum piece or inspiration for graphic design. Lernout’s chapter, titled “James Joyce and the Study of the Bible,” helps to clarify and complicate the famous Irish writer’s use and knowledge of the Bible. Lernout is an important Joyce scholar and his contribution to the collection is a solid addition to his prior work on Joyce even as it represents a good example of the rich interdisciplinary work presented in the collection.  

Many of the chapters in the collection present what might be understood as “lived religion” in reference to the use of the Bible in Ireland. It is clear from several of the chapters that the Bible has often been politicized and weaponized in Ireland’s relationship with the British Empire and in the relationships between Irish Roman Catholic and Irish Protestant communities in Ireland. This is particularly true with the use and abuse of the Hebrew Bible by British authorities to justify British rule and marginalize the Irish. The Bible has also been used by some to critique abuses of power and violence, providing an alternate vision of how justice and peace might manifest in Ireland. As the chapters by Joshua T. Searle, Rebecca Uberoi, Patrick Mitchel, and Carmel McCarthy make clear, the Bible continues to be actively studied, preached, taught, and embraced as a religious text with moral authority by many in Ireland today.

Anderson and Kearney summarize their project and the promise it contains in writing that "this collection can only offer initial soundings; there are many further stories to be told of the life of the Bible and Ireland, both past and present. Nevertheless, our hope is that this collection demonstrates the important role that the Bible has played--and continues to play--in the social and cultural dynamics of Ireland. It is also hoped that the essays collected here will show how scholarship on the Bible remains vital, and, if anything, is becoming more dynamic. In this regard, the present volume suggests that the Bible is no longer the privileged domain of only theologians and biblical scholars--the multidisciplinary nature of this volume attests to this new reality, one in which the boundaries between academic disciplines are becoming more permeable" (20).

In these collected chapters, Anderson and Kearney have provided both a model for future work on this topic and a resource for scholars of Irish studies, biblical studies, cultural studies, and religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Gillingham is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bradford A. Anderson is Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland. His research focuses on the Hebrew Bible, as well as the reception and use of the sacred texts.

Jonathan Kearney is Lecturer in Jewish and Islamic Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland. His research explores the textual traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.


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