Book Break: The Search for God and Guinness

Stephen Mansfield’s book The Search for God and Guinness is a fun read on many levels. It’s a solid biography of a family, a beer, and a brand that are recognized the world over. It tells the story of a man and his sons (and their sons, and their sons…) who obsessed with the quality, production, and distribution of their “extra stout porter” to the point that they pioneered innovations in brewing, packaging, distribution, marketing, and quality control, and who care so much for their workers and their native Ireland that they pioneered onsite healthcare and wellness for employees and their families, as well as education and cultural benefits, housing and childcare, and more.

Most people assume the Guinness family was Catholic, but that is not the case — though they worked hard to benefit their Catholic workers and neighbors. Many, if not most, of the Guinness men either became involved in the brewery or became Protestant ministers — and it’s in the discussion of theology and the tap that the book becomes problematic for me. In writing about the history of beer and brewing, Mansfield credits the Catholic Church and numerous patron saints of brewing, and mentions that abbeys and monasteries throughout Europe produced good ale until the Reformation, at which point many of the abbeys and monasteries closed. However, he then goes on to credit Luther and Calvin for defending the idea that it is not sinful to take pleasure in God’s creation, thus preserving brewing and the enjoyment of beer.

“As Reformation ideas captured hearts and minds throughout Europe, priests and nuns renounced their vows, Roman Catholic cathedrals became Protestant churches, and monasteries closed, thus decreasing the production of beer. While this decline in brewing would not have deterred Martin Luther from his reforming work, he certainly would have grieved the loss of any fine brew, for he was among the great beer lovers of Christian history. … He was German, after all, and he lived at a time when beer was the European drink of choice. Moreover, having been freed from what he considered to be a narrow and life-draining legalism, he stepped into the world ready to enjoy its pleasures to the glory of God. For Luther, beer flowed best in a vibrant Christian life. (Page 28)”

“Like Luther, Calvin worked hard to hammer out a consistently biblical worldview. He wanted all of his life to be submitted to the rulership of Jesus Christ and yet did not want to miss some grace or provision of God because of flawed theology or religious excess. He and Luther had seen too much of that in their pre-Protestant lives. … This robust Reformation theology, which taught enjoying God’s creation and doing all that is not sinful for the glory of God, filtered into the centuries that followed the reformer’s work. (Page 31)”

“Clearly, then, though the Reformation diminished the production of beer temporarily by closing many of the European monasteries where beer was brewed, it also served the cause of beer and alcohol well by declaring them gifts of God and calling for their use in moderation. (Pages 32-33)”

Mansfield’s tone when discussing the Reformation is by and large heroic, to the point that it sounds as if these men were defending beer against the Catholic Church. These excerpts represent the worst of it, but this pro-Protestant tone pervades the text even though it has little to do with the story at hand, making an otherwise enjoyable read strangely slanted. Nor does Mansfield acknowledge the obvious question raised by this assessment — how does this Protestant view of beer differ from the Catholic view that fostered so many medieval abbey ales?

Long story short: If the summary above appeals to you, this is a library read, not one to add to your collection. As a biography of a beer and a brand, I enjoyed it. As religious history, I did not. Interestingly, Mansfield appears to be a bit of an equal-opportunity “faith profiler” of current and historical figures, having wrote 16 books, including The Faith of George W. Bush, The Faith of Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI: His Life and Mission, and Lincoln’s Battle with God. I didn’t know this before I embarked on the Guinness book.

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