The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism

  • Published

The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism by Adrian Hastings. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 209 pp.

In this 2010 edition of a 1997 work entitled The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism Adrian Hasting, emeritus professor of theology at the University of Leeds in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, offers the inquisitive reader a historical re-analysis of nationalism and nationalism’s forming factors. The book is based on the Wiles Lectures given at The Queen’s University of Belfast in May 1996 and is published by Cambridge University Press.   

In the world of sports fandom, a homer is defined as a fan or sports broadcaster who obviously shows favoritism towards the team they represent. Given this criteria Adrian Hastings plays the part of the homer as he analyzes nationalism and the impact of literary vernacular, ethnicity, and religion on people groups developing into nations in his lecture turned book, The Construction of Nationhood, Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism. Hastings maintains not only a focus on England but also a claim that England is the model for developing nationalism and nationhood among other world countries. This is a book by an Englishman, who serves as professor at an English college, writing about the influence of the English as the prototype for national formation. We all see the world through the lens of our experience, and Hastings is no different. In his opening chapter he admits, “Perhaps as I am myself so very much an Englishman, they [his claims] may even seem an expression less of historical enquiry than of English nationalism itself.” (p. 5) Hastings develops a well-thought-out and aptly presented case for nation building and literature, ethnicity, and religion’s impact on the formation of nationalism in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and even African counties, but he fails to expand his scope to explore nation building and nationalism on a larger global scale. There is no mention of Asian cultures, and South American nations in totality are overlooked or possibly set aside intentionally. For the reader looking to understand the factors leading to the development of a national identity mostly in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Germany, this is an interesting and well-argued read. For one aspiring to understand the impact of religion, ethnicity, and a literary vernacular on nationalism and national identities on a world-wide scale, this work will appear narrowly European if not narrowly English in its scope.

Given the scope of his interest, Professor Hastings does make a rational argument contrasting his views from other more traditionally accepted views of nation formation, especially those of Eric Hobsbawm. His thesis challenges current “modernist” views that limit nations and nationalism formation to the eighteenth century and after and considers the rise of nations part of the greater modernization of countries. Hastings argues for a much earlier medieval origin of both nations and nationalism that are largely dependent on biblical religion and the development of vernacular literatures. The development of England as a nation-state is central to his thesis that England is the prototype for national identity formation among other developing countries. There is strength in his argument regarding the impact that early medieval biblical literature had on the English. According to Hastings the Christian scriptures held an “ideological influence” (p. 41) among the English, and it was that influence that caused them to think nationalistically. Furthermore, Hastings explores the ties between widespread shared church literature and a common national identity in England as early as the fourteenth-century. His thesis is strongly supported by additional literary work that shaped England’s national identity, such as The Canterbury Tales, the formation of various ethnic groups into a greater English nation, and the influence of religion in England had in consolidating a nationalism that at times surged as the nation defended its way of life and commonalities. Professor Hastings does go on to contrast England’s example with other countries including Ireland, the South Slavs, and modern Africa.

It is this author’s opinion that, given Professor Hasting’s high esteem for common religious literature’s ability to shape a nation’s self-identity, many modern European countries are in a crisis of soon losing their own national identity due to the large influx of Muslim immigrants. If Hastings is correct that nationalism follows vernacular literatures, especially those traveling on the medium of religion, then it stands to reason that as countries like Spain, France, and England see a surge of Muslim newcomers, the result will be that ethnicities merge, national identities shift, and the effect will be the formation of a new changed Europe that appears much more Muslim in appearance.

This book is an excellent read for those interested in European nation formation. Furthermore, it is helpful to the student who desires to learn more about Irish, Slavic, and African ethnicities influencing the historical blending of peoples that contributed to what is now the European national landscape. What Hastings lacks in scope he makes up for in depth of historical knowledge in order to support his thesis. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in religion’s impact on nations, literature’s contribution to common thought among a people, and to those in need of an education regarding the vast European ethnicities in existence in the twelfth century and later. It appears that a work by an Englishman, on a centrally English historical topic, can yield great insight into how nations form and what the future of nationalism could hold for Europe; therefore, I would recommend this as an engaging and informative read. 

Capt (Chap) Brian A. Harris, USAF

59th Medical Wing, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."