Celts and Christians: New Approaches to the Religious Traditions of Britain and Ireland

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Celts and Christians: New Approaches to the Religious Traditions of Britain and Ireland. Edited by Mark Atherton. Religion, Culture, and Society Series. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002. xii + 211 pp. $39.95 (paper).

This attractive volume of essays is perhaps the best introduction now available to what might be described as the new "middle way" that has emerged in the study of Celtic Christianity. Recent works on this topic have tended to divide into two polarized camps, as Mark Atherton observes in his introduction:

Thus the "popular" camp can speak of "environmentally friendly" Celts, "non-hierarchical and non-sexist"; moreover, all the texts are treated as part of one unified culture, without making any clear distinction between the various contexts in which they developed. Against this, we find serious scholars denying any connection whatsoever between the various speakers of Celtic languages other than geography, or casting doubt on suggestions that the Christian cultures of these nations had any particular connection with "nature" (p. 1).

Eschewing both extremes, the eight authors represented here affirm the scholarly camp s insistence on the diversity of Celtic Christianities and their integral relation to other Christian traditions, while continuing to join the popular camp in discerning some key "family traits" uniting various Celtic Christian spiritualities. His fellow essayists would probably agree with D. Densil Morgan when he lists the common Celtic traits as "a Trinitarian vision of reality, a holding together of the motifs of creation and redemption, an incamational attitude to the material world, and a sense of community which expresses a continuity with an ancient and pre-Christian past" (p. 146).

The four essays in part 1 ("Identities") are the most explicit about questions of methodology. Both Oliver Davies and Jonathan M. Wooding deal with the constructed and contested character of that slippery term "Celtic" and its usefulness as a designation for early medieval Christians in Britain and Ireland. Elva Johnston considers "pagan" and "Christian" elements in the literary lives of Irish female saints with a focus on Brigit, whose cult she judiciously describes as "one that grew up around a saint named after a divine figure" (p. …