Stephen Mansfield, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009). $24.99, 304 pages.
We’re all familiar with oxymorons, those delightful phrases that embody a contradiction: giant shrimp, deafening silence, minor crisis, etc. To which we can now add another: evangelical brewer. For American evangelicals, traditionally teetotalers, a Christian beer-maker makes about as much sense as a Christian pimp or a Christian bookie.
What, then, to make of Arthur Guinness—founder of the Guinness brewing dynasty and devotee of Wesleyan Methodism? Stephen Mansfield’s new book offers an answer, and it is well worth reading, even if you are a teetotaler.
Mansfield is the author of several books, including The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of Barack Obama. A politically conservative Christian with a Ph.D. in history and literature, Mansfield writes that he wrote The Search for God and Guinness while in something of a funk. The nasty response from conservative Christians to his Obama book made him weary of America’s vituperative political discourse. The shady actions of Wall Street execs—who seemed to get paid handsomely no matter how badly their companies performed, even in a recession—made him long for a better, more Christian business model. And the myth about Guinness—that he brewed his ale as an alternative to the cheap whisky and gin so prevalent on Dublin’s boozy streets—covered up the reality of a genuinely philanthropic company.
So, Mansfield wrote the Guinness story with the hope that it would inform and inspire of a better way. The story doesn’t begin with Arthur, however, but with a chapter-long history of beer-making, which is interesting in its own right. It then tells Arthur’s story and some of the stories of his children as they grew and took responsibility for the company their father had started.
Interestingly, not all the Guinness clan went into brewing. Some entered the world of banking and finance. Others went into the ministry. So, the story of the Guinness family is a story of Guinnesses for gold, for God, and for, well, grog. Interestingly, the Guinnesses for God (the Grattan line of Guinnesses) were teetotalers. The prominent evangelical thinker, Os Guinness, is also one of Arthur’s descendants, although whether from the Grattan line I can’t say.
What most impressed me about the Guinnesses for grog is how philanthropically they ran their company. During their reign, Guinness employees enjoyed above-market rate wages, health care and education, company-built homes (some of which still stand), and pensions.
Other interesting factoids covered in this book include the world-famous Guinness marketing campaign (“Guinness is good for you!”), the origin of the Guinness Book of World Records, and the widget that nitrogenates bottles of Guinness upon opening.
Mansfield alludes to the many problems Guinness began to experience in the 1980s, when it passed out of family control and into the hands of a multinational corporation. No doubt the corporate culture changed. And perhaps Mansfield’s portrait of pre-80s Guinness history is a bit idealized.
Nevertheless, this is a story well told, and hopeful in its way. A business, under the tutelage of genuine Christian philanthropy, can use its wealth for the good of others. Whether you drink beer or abstain, I’m sure you can agree that’s an important lesson for the world to learn, especially in our current climate of economic recession.