Cross page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, 8th century
Looking at magnificent Celtic illuminated Gospel books puts me in mind of a couple of things that have become either lost or controversial these days: the primacy of the Gospel in Christian belief and practice; and evangelism.
Another Cross page from the Lindisfarne Gospels
These Gospel books were the single most important objects owned by the Celtic monasteries from Skellig Michael to Lindisfarne across the British Isles. The 4 Gospels are the only books in the Christian Scripture where Christ speaks directly to us. The Celtic monks and their secular charges regarded these recorded words with a special awe and reverence comparable only to the mysterium tremendum that early Muslims attached to the Quran. God Himself in the Second Person of the Trinity speaks directly from the page of each Gospel. The ornamentation lavished on these books speaks to that awe and mystery, but it means something more. The native religion of Ireland speaks through that elaborate decoration. All the spirals and interlaces on those pages began as patterns believed to have magical powers of protection. Warriors would wear interlace into battle believing it made them invincible. Kings and chieftains wore the pattern as visible signs of their magical and spiritual powers. So, it was only appropriate in the eyes of Ireland’s monks that the Gospel be so vested in power and glory.
Cross page from the Book of Kells, 9th century
Detail from the Cross page of the Book of Kells
The opening of the Gospel of Mark from the Book of Kells
Detail from the opening page of the Gospel of Mark in the Book of Kells
In historic Christian liturgy, the Gospel book stands alone. It is not just 4 chapters in a single book called The Bible. These 4 Books are singled out from the rest. The Gospel book is carried in procession and wreathed in incense. Its words are sung rather than spoken during the Mass. The Gospel is read as the culmination of the Liturgy of the Word that begins the Mass, a descendant of the Synagogue service where the Torah is read in a cycle over a year’s time. So, the Gospel comes at the end of a sequence of 3 Scriptural readings and the singing of a Psalm as the climax of that first part of the Mass.
A Gospel procession in an Episcopal church
With the invention of the printing press and Bibles in hotel rooms everywhere, the Gospels became embedded in the Book and their primacy got lost. Christians are supposed to read the rest of the Bible through the lens of the Gospels. These days, the Gospels get read through a lot of other lenses, especially through those of apocalyptic books such as Revelations and Daniel. And so, we get that mishegoss of Manicheanism, Prosperity gospel, sales and managerial motivational speak, religious nationalism, self-help literature, and Dispensationalism that is American Christianity. Maybe through all the praise bands, the mega-churches with their jumbotrons, the celebrity preachers, the mighty evangelical empires, vast properties, political influence, and money of American Christianity, we can glimpse the Irish monks in their cold windswept monasteries teeming with chickens and noisy livestock on moors and rocky coasts and see that they had their priorities right all along. The Gospel Book comes first. Everything else plays a supporting role.
I don’t like missionaries and I view arguments over effective evangelization with great suspicion. Since the 16th century, missionaries followed (or preceded) conquering armies as agents of imperialism. No matter how much glory and splendor empires cloak themselves with, no matter all the rhetoric of divine mandates and national missions to bring peace, prosperity, and civilization to the world, all empires from the Hittites to the Romans to the British to the Americans are ultimately smash and grabs. One powerful state smashes into smaller states, grabs their resources and territory, and reduces the natives to cheap labor and tenants in their own homes. The empires of the modern era were especially thorough in their destruction in a way that ancient empires usually were not. Part of this was a post Reformation/Counter-Reformation insistence on doctrinal exactitude that did not brook much variation. Another part was that the men who led these invasions were mostly looters and pillagers who couldn’t care less about the physical or spiritual welfare of their conquests. They were out to squeeze the maximum amount of profit for the least cost out of their newly captured lands and populations. Between this unholy alliance of profiteering and fanaticism, native religions and cultures in the Americas, Africa, and Asia got bulldozed into extinction.
I may get into trouble for this, but I would argue that this was not always the case. Certainly, there was the Roman Emperor Theodosius who made Christianity the state cult of the Roman Empire and ordered all of the old temples closed and ended the Olympic Games. That certainly was a major departure from the traditional religious tolerance of the Roman Empire, even under previous Christian emperors. And yet, while the old temples were closed, they were not destroyed. Destruction came when vacant temples became a ready source of building material and they were used as quarries for generations. By contrast, the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan was leveled to the ground when the city became Mexico City in the 16th century. There was no effective deliberate campaign to destroy ancient literature in the West. Throughout the Middle Ages to the present day, devout monks read the works of Virgil and Livy, and even the very personal and erotic poetry of Catullus. In the late 17th century, Catholic conquerors destroyed the remaining volumes of Mayan literature during the conquest of the Yucatan.
Saint Patrick used the native religion of the Irish to preach the Gospel. He preached it to them in terms of their own experience and in their own language. It is significant too that he did not arrive with any army, nor did any invading armies follow him until much later in Irish history. Much of the native Irish religion was baptized into the new faith rather than eliminated. The same is true of the Classical civilization of ancient Rome. Apollo was never really driven out of his place in human imagination. He was simply given a set of clothes and assigned a new role, as an actor who played the part of Christ in so much early Christian art. Venus’ son cupid kept his wings and his bow and received a new name, “cherub” after the spiritual beings in Levantine religions. The open syncretism of so much early Christian art (Christ/Apollo sits enthroned in heaven between Peter and Paul and rests his feet on a Classical sky god; Cupids/Cherubim cavort among the grape vines of Christ/Bacchus) still shocks doctrinal purists. We see something similar in the Irish Gospel books and high crosses. Christianity survived the catastrophes of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the Irish monasteries because of their remoteness. Not only did they preserve the Christian faith, but the literacy that Christian worship requires. For 2 centuries, the only books being read or made anywhere in Europe north of the Alps were all in Irish monasteries. In time, Christianity and literacy would return gradually to Europe through the missionary efforts of Irish monks.
And what of our own time? What does it mean to evangelize today? Many times, I see subway preachers banging on about things that many in their captive audience find incomprehensible. Christianity is no longer a cultural lingua franca in the modern world. Its stories and symbols are now unknown and unfamiliar to a lot of people, and no longer useful as points of cultural and historical reference. What is more, in an age of profiteering that rewards predation, the subway missionary is just one more person who wants something out of passersby whether it’s their money or their souls. The preacher becomes one more enforcer of a social and cultural order the profits someone else. In Karl Marx’s memorable turn of phrase, the priest becomes the landlord’s best friend.
A subway preacher in New York
So, what do we want from people when we get all excited for the Gospel in yet another evangelization drive? What do we mean by “winning souls for Christ?” If we are talking about conquering people, then maybe we should just quit while we are ahead. The modern world of market capitalism is all about aggression and conquest already. And what are we offering people? Do we really believe in our heart of hearts in the old fundamentalist “turn or burn?” As far as I’m concerned, that’s more a pitch for extortion than salvation. Whatever else God does, He does not run a racket. Do we really want people to join up because they are terrified? The old fundamentalist “turn or burn” has the advantage of stark clarity, though an awful lot of fatal defects (as in what happens to people’s faith when they lose their fear?). So much of what Christianity proclaims many people find to be incomprehensible madness these days; virgin birth, resurrection from the dead, creation out of nothing, angels, devils, a very temperamental and fickle deity from ancient literature, etc. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked us to consider in some of his last letters, how necessary is the supernatural to the Christian faith? And finally, is there a compelling reason to be Christian? That is not a rhetorical question. I don’t have an answer.