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167: Conversation With J. Philip Newell, an Evangelist from a Far Continent

Pilgrim_on_iona For more than 1,000 years, Celtic Christians have been evangelists from a distant land, bringing fresh insights to the faithful around the world — and sometimes finding themselves harshly rebuffed for their effort.
    Throughout the 20th Century, the Celtic revival flowered and began to re-seed Christendom –  even before similar movements took hold in the U.S.
    Millions of Americans are familiar with Jim Wallis, the best-selling author of “God’s Politics” and founder of Sojourners. But, in Scotland in 1938, 10 years before Wallis’ birth in 1948, the Rev. George MacLeod founded the Iona Community with principles that are a first cousin to what Wallis shaped decades later.
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    Millions of Americans are aware of a renewed interest in the Orthodox realm of Christianity — rediscovering the beauty of icons, the seemingly fresh perspectives of Orthodox theology and the way that Orthodox worship engages all the senses. MacLeod was making this connection in the 1930s.
    Millions of Americans love the hauntingly beautiful Celtic music that’s everywhere these days. But the Celtic musical revival in worship really is the full flowering of a generation of Iona leadership in which J. Philip Newell ran the historic abbey in the far west of Scotland and talented musicians like John L. Bell literally were producing a whole new hymnal and book of liturgy.
    Countless Americans already know Newell’s inspirational voice — calling to them to re-engage their spiritual senses through popular books like “Listening for the Heartbeat of God.” Now, Newell takes a startlingly different approach toward readers and offers a full-fledged manifesto that seeks to reshape the way most Western Christians think about the core of their faith.

    (If you’d care to learn more, read our own series on A Pilgrimage
to Iona
. You also can click on the cover or the title of Philip’s book
and you’ll jump to an additional review of the book — and can buy a
copy direct from Amazon, if you wish. We’ve got even more helpful links at the end of this story.)

    This isn’t the first time Americans have heard this appeal to a Creation-based spirituality — and an abandonment of the original-sin-and-redemption approach to the faith. In 1983, for instance, American theologian Matthew Fox published, “Original Blessing,” a milestone in the rebirth of this strain of spirituality.
    In his earlier books, Newell already has been reflecting these themes. But “Christ of the Celts” — weighing in at a remarkably slim 161 pages — is really Newell’s full-fledged Christology.
    And, since timing is everything in our rapidly churning global culture — Newell couldn’t be hitting American bookstores at a more opportune time. Everywhere readers look these days, American evangelicals are engaged in vigorous — sometimes even angry — debate over the future of Christianity.
    From the traditional end of the spectrum, Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs has a brand-new book appearing this month, “Original Sin,” trying to remind Americans that the traditional original-sin approach to faith still serves a very good purpose. The book proclaims that “original sin” is nothing short of “the cornerstone of our self understanding.”

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    Then, at this precise moment, here’s this slender, smiling pilgrim from Scotland, his curly hair perennially windblown from hiking the highlands, stepping onto the global stage and telling Jacobs — and all of those arguing American evangelicals: “Sorry, friends. You’ve got a few things wrong.”
    Whether you agree with Newell — or regard him as a heretic, as many surely will — his spiritual message is powerful. He calls to weary men, women and young people and asks them simply to:
    Remember God’s goodness within you.
    He says: At the core of our lives is goodness, not original sin.
    He says: At the core of the Earth community, there is goodness. And, as God says in Genesis, the Earth itself is — good.
    This is a voice you cannot afford to miss in the historic debate on Christianity’s future. This is a book that, if your small group tackles its 8 chapters, you’ll be overflowing with discussion for a couple of months — and, likely, more.

    Here are highlights of our Conversation with Philip Newell from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

    DAVID: Many readers are going to be startled by this book, Philip. When you and I met in Iona last year, you were this very soft-spoken leader of a pilgrimage group, decked out neatly in your yellow rain gear — and I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for the way your global audience may think of you: the neatly contained, whispering voice from Scotland inviting them to rethink their Christian spirituality.
    This book is short, but it’s a major — well, the word “manifesto” comes to mind.
    PHILIP: Yes, this is a first attempt at a new Christology from within this Celtic resurgence. It’s an attempt to further root what this movement has to offer in the world today.
    But I love the phrase from Jewish mystics who talk about new-ancient words. I’m speaking about an ancient vision here but in a new way.
    As this material has been emerging, from within me and within the context of my meeting with so many people around the world over the last number of years, I’ve been aware that for some time I was speaking of the new birthing of Christ and putting it in future tense. Finally, I realized that it’s not future tense. Something is stirring now and we’re being invited now to explore this new way of seeing. We’re bringing the treasure of our tradition here –- Christ right in the heart of us.

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     DAVID: My impression is that, until now, many people have bumped into the Celtic tradition mainly through music in their parish or perhaps an inspirational book. Many people think of the Celtic movement as calling people back to a love and appreciation of nature.
    But you’re pointing people another step forward in their understanding of the Celtic movement, right?
    PHILIP: Yes. I’ve been devoting a lot of my teaching and writing energy over the last 15 to 20 years on aspects of bringing the insights of the ancient Celtic tradition to people today. I think for the first major part of that effort -– at least the first 10-plus years of that — most of our focus was on the creation theme and understandably so! We were so hungry and desperate to find language that deeply incorporated the language of creation into our spiritually.
    But that’s only half the picture. At the profoundest of levels what the Celtic tradition has to bring us is not just love of creation — but love of Christ and love of creation held together.

    DAVID: When people start reading this book, they’re going to experience some surprises. Like Pelagius! Many readers won’t know his name at all — but those who do will be stunned. As far as I can recall, this is the first Christian book I’ve read in years that says: Hey, Pelagius was an all-right guy!
    I mean, your book is coming out in the same season that Alan Jacobs freshly slams Pelagius for arguing against the doctrine of original sin. Jacobs has no use for Pelagius at all. You’re saying he was an important prophet and his message is relevant today.
    PHILIP: Pelagius has been so badly misrepresented.
    A number of years ago in England, I was at an event in which Jurgen Moltmann was giving a talk and he took another swipe at Pelagius as countless others have done over the centuries. At the end of the talk, I asked him, “Have you read Pelagius?”
    He said, “Of course not!”
    I have a lot of respect for Jurgen Moltmann, but about what other theologian would he have thought to say something like that: I’ve never read him, but we all can safely criticize him.
    So much of our western Christian tradition has assumed they knew what he was teaching and on the basis of this, they’re willing to dismiss him. But, there’s been very little engagement with the material as Pelagius presented it.

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    DAVID: There are others who’ve been raising this point. Tell us a little about the other voices.
    PHILIP: In the Celtic tradition for me, it was James MacKey’s book in the early 1990s, a volume James edited called, “An Introduction to Celtic Christianity,” especially from the Irish perspective. For me there was quite a groundbreaking article in that collection arguing that Pelagius was not just a “one-off” or some kind of “exceptional teacher-slash-heretic.” Rather, Pelagius was speaking from deep within a perspective that had a common ground in the Irish-Celtic tradition early on. That article opened up a new way of seeing Pelagius for me.
    If we get into reading his material, I think we can see that Pelagius was reflecting a tradition rather than just being an eccentric.
    DAVID: In the States, of course, many people are aware of Matthew Fox, who comes out of the Catholic church and for more than 20 years has been talking about Creation Spirituality. Has Fox been important in your life?
    PHILIP: Very much so. I think that Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing” was a very significant work in many respects and it’s in “Original Blessing” that Fox flags up a type of realization that the Celtic tradition has some important perspectives to speak into today.
    I think Fox was prophetic on that front. That book came out before people had seen the big contribution of the Celtic stream of today. And, certainly on that point, the understanding that what is deepest in us is blessed — and is essentially is “of God” instead of “opposed to God” -– is so much at the core of his thinking. And, that’s what I find at the center of the Celtic Christian tradition, as well.
    I suppose that’s the common ground with Matthew Fox. The area of distinction is that so much of the work he has done in the area of Creation Spirituality is very new work and I think one of the most important aspects of the Celtic tradition that resonates so deeply with people is that it’s a recovery of an ancient tradition.
    It’s drawing from an ancient stream and trying to apply that stream to our world today. Of course, Matthew Fox also does that with many of the great mystics. But he’s also often drawing from quite a variety of new work and new thinking.

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    DAVID: Your book seems so — so thin when you first look at it. And yet you cover so much ground in the book. You talk about the meaning of the cross. You touch on gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible. At one point, you talk about a gospel that’s closely associated with gnosticism, a movement that stressed secretive knowledge about the faith and formed inner circles of believers.
    Let me ask you about that point, because even flipping through your book in a bookstore, people may note those references and think you’re trying to link the Celtic with the gnostic tradition.
    PHILIP: No. I think the trouble is that the terms for gnosticism are so broadly used these days that I’m often hesitant even to talk about the terms. Just as I’m hesitant to use the term New Age.
    DAVID: Well, the good news about the phrase “New Age” is that, for the most part, the only people still trotting out that term on a regular basis are evangelical critics of what they perceive to be a “New Age” movement. It’s not a phrase we hear in the mainstream anymore, over here in the States.
    PHILIP: So much of what I’m talking about has been reduced in many places to sort of Boogeymen. You say “New Age” and it’s like you’re trying to scare someone. To a certain extent, the terms around gnosticism have been turned into Boogeymen, too.
    The terms mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
    I am attracted to the root of the original word. If what we’re talking about is a gnosis, access to a deep wisdom, then I am attracted to that. What I’m very critical of is any sense of secrecy in that wisdom. I’m also critical of any sense that higher wisdom disparages the physicalness of the body or the Earth.
    The Celtic tradition is rooted emphatically in the body and in the Earth and in physical matter.

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    DAVID: You know that many people will disagree with points you’re making here — but the central voice in your work will be powerful and healing to so many. I’ve seen it myself at Iona. I’ve heard it from so many people around the world, who have emailed us here at ReadTheSpirit.
    There seems to be so much potential here — or perhaps that’s not a word you’d use.
    PHILIP: No, I tend not to use that word “potential.” There isn’t anything wrong with what you’re trying to convey with the word, except I think that word can be a starting point toward so much in our Western Christian inheritance that runs very deep and has been colored by this doctrine of original sin.
    People talk about “potential” to give the impression that we all have potential, but that means we need to become something other than ourselves. The assumption becomes that what we are right now isn’t good. What this path leads us toward is believing that we need to become something else to fulfill someone’s idea of potential.
    That serves the old spiritual paradigm.
    It’s this thinking that leads us to wake up in the morning feeling haunted, fearing what’s deep within us. Afraid.
    And what we should feel as we wake up is blessed about the goodness that’s already here in our lives and in the community around us.

    DAVID: I’m going to close by sharing with readers just a few words to illustrate where you take readers in the course of your new book.
    This is from the opening chapter, “The Memory of Song.” I love this particular passage because in this section I hear echoes of one of my other favorite writers, Frederick Beuchner. Here’s what you write in that chapter:
    “I do not believe that the gospel, which literally means “good news,” is given to tell us that we have failed or been false. That is not news, and it is not good. We already know much of that about ourselves. We know we have been false, even to those whom we most love in our lives and would most want to be true to. We know we have failed people and whole nations throughout the world today, who are suffering or who are subjected to terrible injustices that we could do more to prevent. So the gospel is not given to tell us what we already know.
    “Rather, the gospel is given to tell us what we do not know or what we have forgotten, and that is who we are, sons and daughters of the One from whom all things come. It is when we begin to remember who we are, and who all people truly are, that we will begin to remember also what we should be doing and how we should be relating to one another as individuals and as nations and as an entire earth community.”

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    Care to read more?
    We’ve provided a link to our own ReadTheSpirit series on Iona.
    Visit Philip’s personal Web site.
    The photo of Philip, above, is from a set of portraits made by photographer Claudia Tammen, a freelance photographer who lives in Silverado, CA. She is currently working on a book with Philip. Her web site is www.claudiatammen.smugmug.com
    Order a copy of Philip’s book via Amazon and judge it for yourself.
    Wikipedia’s article on Pelagius is a mixed blessing. There are some obvious flaws in the Wiki text as it stands at the moment — but the overall article is a good online summary of key points and issues in Pelagius’ life. Plus, there’s an intriguing series of links toward the end to Pelagius references in literature. For example, fans of Jack Whyte’s popular series of novels about Arthur’s Britain, for example, can read about Pelagius in the course of that fictional saga.

    PLEASE, Tell Us What You Think! Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of this story. Or, Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.

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Categories: Author InterviewsChristian