Monday, February 25, 2013

The Secret Gospel of Ireland

The Secret Gospel of Ireland by James Behan & Leo Behan

I received a digital review copy from Skywest Publishing via NetGalley.

My review:

The short description (or long subtitle) of this book is actually a far better indicator of what it is about than is the actual title. The smaller print reads "The untold story of how science and democracy descended from a remarkable form of Christianity that developed in ancient Ireland." While many of us have heard it said that the Irish monks "saved Western civilization," there is usually little elaboration on that statement. This book is that explanation.

The Secret Gospel of Ireland is a look at how the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today came to take the form that it has, as well as an explanation of how the major themes of Western philosophy came to fruition. While the book does emphasize the under-appreciated role of the Irish monasteries, most of the book traces the development of Christian theology and secular philosophy through Plato, St. Augustine, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and others. About three-quarters of the book actually has little to do directly with Ireland. The Behans argue convincingly, however, that we can thank the distinctly Irish strain of Christianity for the most important developments on the Continent during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The writing is excellent. It is easy to read and easy to follow; it flows very well and is written at a very accessible level. There are flashes of humor sprinkled throughout the text, and the Behans excel at humanizing historical figures and making them memorable to the reader. St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther come to life in the pages and it is clear how each man's personality as well as his background and education came to influence the course of Western thought and history.

The Secret Gospel of Ireland is an enjoyable read for someone with an interest in Christian theology or the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. It would also be an excellent book for use in an introductory course in the history of Western civilization, religion, or philosophy at the late high school or perhaps even college freshman level. The Behans do present their own interpretation of events as fact, so it would be important to balance it out with the use of more objective texts. For an efficient and enjoyable overview that draws connections clearly down through the centuries, however, this book will be hard to beat.

Stars: 4

I thought that this book would be an appropriate read in the approach to St. Patrick's Day. While I felt a bit taken in at first to be getting a review of the history of Western philosophy, I did enjoy the book. I think that the authors and publisher may want to consider re-releasing it with a different title, one that does not give the impression that it is focused on monastic life in early-Middle-Ages Ireland.

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