Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism (II)

In the second half of the book Hunter turns his attention to the ways and means of Celtic evangelism, and how such strategies might inform the way the church of the 21st century does evangelism in a western culture which is increasingly “post-Christian” (even here in Tyler … recall the Tyler Rose Marathon which was scheduled last year on a Sunday morning, a civic decision inconceivable a mere decade ago).

Hunter focuses on various ways in which the great Celtic missionaries (specifically Patrick, Columba, Aidan, and Cuthbert) and their communities planted and nurtured the Gospel in their respective pagan mission fields.

First, the Celtic communication of the Gospel took very seriously the ethos of the Gospel communicator (be it St. Patrick or the larger community of Celtic Christians), the pathos of the receiving communities, and the logos of the Gospel message. Patrick himself set the standard for a compelling ethos by providing the “authentic sign” (a phrase coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson) of risking danger and personal loss. Aidan continued this authentic Gospel witness by his lifestyle of selfless giving and his complete disinterestedness in material security. Additionally, the unique pathos of the Celtic people shaped the way Patrick and his followers shaped the Gospel message. The indigenous emotional intensity of the Celtic peoples, as well as their sensual way of approaching life molded the ways in which Patrick and his followers embodied and presented of the truth of Christ, as witnessed in the vibrant poetry and art which flourished in Celtic Christian culture. The logos of the Gospel to the Celts included aspects of biblical truth which would resonate powerfully with the imaginative Celts. For example, the former slave Patrick frequently spoke of how Jesus is the “ransom” price used to “purchase” the freedom of slaves … a different emphasis than the more “Roman” stress upon guilt and innocence.

“I have decided, after long deliberation about the English people … that the idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God. When the people see that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to … [worship] the true God.”

This directive from St. Gregory the Great, sent to his missionaries in Canterbury in the 6th century, captures well (even though written by a “Roman” leader!) a second Celtic aspect of evangelism: the instinct to built upon, rather than to destroy, the religious instincts of the people to whom they were bringing the good news about Jesus Christ. Citing the examples of the Celtic fascination with the number three, their practice of human sacrifice accompanying their obsession with death, of their deep sense of the divine presence within nature Hunter clearly shows how the ancient missionaries to the Celts built upon, rather than simply dismissed, many of the deep seeded drives, desires, and instincts of the Celtic people.

Finally, Hunter imaginatively speculates about the “Celtic future of the Christian movement in the West.” The upshot of this part of the book is that the contemporary church in the West must seek to understand and to befriend “the host of New Barbarians [who] substantially populate the West once again.” As we do that, and as we creatively adapt the ways in which our ancient mothers and fathers incarnated the Gospel to an analogous people in an analogous age, we will, by the grace of God, see “tens of millions risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them.”

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