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On McGrath and Korea

For many years much of the dialogue about the future of Ireland was caste from the from the molten metal of religion- even when it was concerned with contrasting explanations of Ireland’s poverty. For the Nationalists the origin of Ireland’s lack of economic development was easily identified – mismanagement or worse by London. For them Ireland had to be free before it could hope to be prosperous. Political change was was the crucial precondition of economic and national revival.

The Unionists replied that the political change sought by the Nationalists would rather exacerbate the situation by copper bottoming the power of the Catholic Church which they saw as being at the root of the problem. For the Unionists the backward state of the Irish economy  was caused by Catholicism. Catholic culture was insufficiently entreprenurial; and resources which should have been invested in productive enterprises were spent on churches and on maintaining too many monasteries and convents.

The debate was prolonged and sulphurous; and may not yet be quite be extinct in Northern Ireland. But whatever the truth of the matter, and whether we like it or not the history of Ireland- and that means its economy too- has to some extent been shaped by this conflict on the borderland between economics and theology. And it may well be that it is a desire to understand the context from which these arguments emerged that explains why short the post which we carried about Alistair McGrath’s book “Chritianity’s Dangerous Idea, The Protestant Revolution, a history from the Sixteenth century to the twenty first”  ( S.P.C.K. 2007 ) has been viewed so many times

Certainly McGrath’s is a book which addresses a real, even perhaps, urgent need. Although whole libraries have been devoted to particular aspects of Protestantism, there are surprisingly few books which tackle the whole subject- perhaps because it is so vast. It was for this reason that  I  recommended  McGrath’s performance so heartily here, even though as I did so I was conscious of a certain unease. I thought then that the weaknesses I detected in it were superficial and that it was, in essence at least, a sound production.

However my confidence turns out to have been misplaced. What we have here is an excercise in intellectual packaging rather than substance. When tapped the wheel rings hollow. The whole book is infected with inaccuracy. For example McGrath spends a whole section describing the religious situation in South Korea which he describes in unequivocal terms as being “an essentially Buddhist nation that has come to be predominantly Protestant” ( p. 449 ) Well to be frank..this is a load of…er well..cornflakes.

It is true that Protestantism has shown dramatic growth in Korea in the last half century and is identified with national independence and modernisation. Nevertheless Protestants still only make up about quarter of the population at the most. Another ten per cent of the population are Catholic, eighteen per cent are Buddhists, and no less than forty five per cent say that they have no religion although this last figure ( curiously ) apparently hides a good deal of traditional religious practice. These statistics are rough, as the various surveys give slightly different results. But they make nonsense of McGrath’s foolish claim that South Korea is a kind of Ulster with chop sticks!

Mcgrath writes well, and can often be fascinating. But if he cannot be trusted about a matter which is as easily checked as this, it is difficult to know upon what subject he can be trusted.  At the very least his book needs to be drastically revised before it can be recomended.

Pending such a  radical revision, those interested in finding out more about Protestantism should rather get hold of cheap second hand copy of J.S. Whale’s ( 1896- 1997 ! ) book “The Protestant Tradition” (Cambridge 1955 ) rather forking out nearly twenty Euroes for McGrath’s inaccurate volume.