Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 10/21/2010 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. Lessons for evangelism and missional living from Celtic Christianity.
It seems a tad odd to be reviewing this decade-old book a month before its revised anniversary edition releases, but I have read what I have read (Editor's Note 3/17/2012: the new edition is now out). Besides, I would prefer to do right by the kind and patient people at Abingdon Press, who so kindly sent me a copy at my request well over two years ago now. The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter III is a book that has generated plenty of buzz in its first ten years. And I, for one, believe that buzz to be well-deserved.
As Hunter notes more than once, Celtic things are all the rage at the moment, and the interest does not seem to be dissipating but increasing. In the 1990s a spate of Celtic-tinged worship albums emerged, accompanied by volumes of books, both religious and secular, on the Celts and their way of life. His thesis is that understanding the Celtic methods and modes of evangelism can provide the contemporary Western church with new inspiration and impetus for our mission on earth: the conversion of the lost to the Christian faith.
The Celtic way of life was one of optimism, even though their civilization existed during the so-called Dark Ages, when invasion was rampant and disease was rife. Seen from another angle, perhaps they cultivated this attitude to combat the uncertainty and brutality of life at the time, which is something to admire them for. Theirs was also an approach to life which relished the moment - life in all its organic manifestations - and which ran contrary to much of Roman Christianity, with the latter's emphasis on civilization, reason, and sophistication.
The Celtic style of evangelism was a multifaceted one, involving knowing the "evangelee" on a personal level, not simply assuming the starting point must be a confrontation based on human depravity and original sin. In order to develop rich and lasting relationships with those they were attempting to reach, they would engage in what we might call today an "urban missiology" of living and working amongst the unreached people, establishing a base for worship and service in the heart of the community.
Throughout the book Hunter works in points of application for the contemporary Christian, whether it be enchanting prayers for mundane events (such as milking the cow or writing a school exam) or the inclusion of hurting and marginalized people into church life. It also bears mentioning, to my mind at least, that Hunter has an aptitude for helpful lists. Often an author will simply bore readers with lists of self-evident information, but not so Hunter. His habit of reviewing previous material at the beginning of chapters is also helpful.
Reformed types (of which I am one) are liable to be most skeptical of the Celtic propensity to see everyone and everything as "good." Hunter shares this reticence:
I experience the most dissonance, even discomfort, in considering the Celtic Christian doctrine of Human Nature. Celtic Christianity's belief in the goodness of creation - infected, but not destroyed, by sin and evil, was matched by a belief in an essential goodness of human nature... (89)
However, as Hunter goes on to point out, this was no heretical Pelagian emphasis. Rather, the Celts preferred to look first for the positive working of the Holy Spirit. And Hunter does qualify the Celtic understanding of human nature, admitting that "Celtic Christianity's theological optimism about human nature cannot adequately account for the Holocaust and other cases of genocide in the twentieth century." Nevertheless, he makes a strong case that it is more effective to begin evangelism with the possibility of goodness than initially engaging people as sinners by abrasively pointing out their sin, which is more often than not counterproductive.
Warning: in the final chapter Hunter steps out of the Evangelical "safe zone." His discussion of addiction and inclusion may momentarily disorient a reader expecting a primarily historical reflection upon Celtic Christianity. I wasn't comfortable with some of his examples myself, but who am I to say where the Holy Spirit is working and where He isn't?