Over Christmas, I was browsing through a soon-to-be-closed Cokesbury store in Birmingham. Languishing on a sale rack for half off, I spied a book titled Christ of the Celts by J. Philip Newell. Maybe it was the copy from the dust jacket that sold me, with its promise to readers of a reflection on the “forgotten” Christ. Or could be it was my attraction over the past few years to Celtic symbols like the knot, triskele, triquetra and of course, the Celtic cross. In any case, the price was right (I doubt I would have paid the $20 Cokesbury was originally asking for this slim volume), and the book was mine.

My eyes have truly been opened as I have begun to unearth the riches of Celtic Christianity that Newell shares. Part biography, part theological treatise, Christ of the Celts particularly has shown me how the demands and needs of empire have co-opted and corrupted the gospel. You will need to read the book to get Newell’s whole argument, but he is convincing in his observations about the way the Church came to serve the Emperor after Constantine was “converted” in the 4th century and Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire.

For example, Newell notes how the canon was restricted to a narrowly defined list of writings that taught an orthodoxy acceptable to the state. Other works were destroyed or lost. The doctrine of original sin

was a convenient “truth” for the builders of empire. They could continue to conquer the world and subdue peoples. And now they could do it with the authority of a divine calling. What the world needed and what the masses throughout the empire required was the truth that they, with their ecclesiastical princes, possessed, Truth was to be distributed from above. It was to be a religion of dependency (20).

So, too, for the doctrines of the virgin birth and the perpetual virginity of Mary as well as the satisfaction/substitutionary theory of the atonement. These were perfect to serve the needs of empire and an imperial church that wanted to dictate the right, imposing orthodoxy from the center. Newell says that Celtic Christianity was, and is, more poetic and doctrinal, and thus did not and does not have a theological headquarters (84). Again, get and read the book  for full explanations (http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Celts-Creation-Philip-Newell/dp/0470183500/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1357918233&sr=1-1&keywords=christ+of+the+celts). See also Newell’s blog at http://salvaterravision.org/jpn-blog.

Around the time I began reading Christ of the Celts, I started leading a class at my church on the Book of Revelation. That work, contrary to what the fundamentalists believe and teach, is not about a 1000-year reign of Christ or the promotion of fear about the Second Coming. Rather, it calls believers to resist the demands of empire, with its impulse to control thought and action (the infamous “mark of the beast” symbol). Empire can be manifested in the church, the state, communities, and families. Wherever freedom and openness are suppressed and conformity and fear are the rule of the day, there is empire.

(By the way, Douglas John Hall, in his new book Waiting fo Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant “Establishment” has some reflections on the subject I look forward to reading, given the recent highly positive review of the work by Walter Brueggemann [The Christian Century, January 9, 2013: 37]. Hall, according to the review, probes how empire requires religion and specifically what it finds attractive about Christian religion.)

I’m just beginning my adventure into learning about Celtic Christianity and along with it, how empire and its established church have corrupted the faith of Christ. I think it will lead me to places that, somewhere deep inside, I have been longing to go.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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