So this January I'm taking a class called "Celtic Christianity." After a couple of classes' worth of historical (so to speak) background, most of the rest of the class (all six meetings remaining--January term classes are quite brief) will deal with the literature that arose out of those mostly ancient centuries in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the intervening small islands like Iona; poetry, devotional writings, liturgy, and the like.
Of course, one of the great questions hanging over the reading and discussion so far is a rather ominous one: "is there really any such thing as 'Celtic Christianity'?" That is to ask, is there anything distinct and separate about the evolution of the Christian tradition in those regions as opposed to its various progressions and regressions on the continent proper, or even in Britain? Is there a different theology, a different mode of organization, a different practice in any way?
On some level there are certainly differences. For much of this period the island known now as Ireland was largely bereft of towns; without a town and its attendant church, where does one install a bishop? Other distinctions are a bit foggier, and the foggier things like theology or devotional practice are, the easier they are for modern scholars or devotionalists or such to project their own particular interests or desires or biases upon it. More on that later.
But back to that question. Is there any such thing as 'Celtic Christianity'? What kind of way is that to start a class? What was going on about that that bugged me?
It took a couple of days to figure out that the question was hardly unique. In fact, I can say not only that I've taken such a class before, I've taught such a class before.
Is there any such thing as 'Celtic Christianity'?
Is there any such thing as 'American music'?
Duh. I was hearing a faint echo of a rather substantial theme of my previous professional life. It worked a little bit differently, but that question was one that caused no small amount of vexation to me.
In my musicological career much of my academic interest and research was focused on a composer named George Chadwick. Born in 1854, he engaged in what studies he could in Boston before going to Germany for studies in Leipzig and Munich, the latter with Joseph Rheinberger, a composer of some repute in the late nineteenth century. Returning to Boston, Chadwick first taught privately before joining the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, of which he became director in 1897. Aside from his thirty-three year career as director of that distinguished institution (which owes much to his oversight), he made a reputation for himself as a composer in the 1880s and 90s, and over into the twentieth century as well, before his reputation was largely washed away in the post-World War I years as a different, more self-consciously "modern" generation swept in and American classical music as a whole engaged in a remarkable reputational patricide against Chadwick and his contemporaries. His orchestral works are strongest, including his second and third symphonies and the Symphonic Sketches, a symphony in everything but name (and a work which has its own idea about what "American music" might be), but his fourth and fifth string quartets are also quite strong (it is criminal to this day that string quartets in this country don't know and play the fourth regularly).
The problem with doing much research (including a dissertation) on someone like Chadwick is that in the realm of American music in academia, you start off not only with two strikes against you, but with one arm tied behind your back in the batter's box and your bat sawn in two. No matter what the music itself might say (and Chadwick was as changeable as any composer stylistically), the man was rather consistently excluded even from being considered an identifiably "American" composer by a rather large chunk of The Powers That Be in musicological circles. Things are not quite that bad anymore in musicology (and I hope I played some part in that, no matter how infinitesimal), but there's still a good bit of bias against the man as far as being "American" is concerned.
More to the point, very little dent has yet been made where it counts; in the realm of performance. Were you to take a survey of conductors of American orchestras, asking for their lists of worthwhile (I'm not even asking for 'major' here, just worth playing on occasion) American composers, you'd go a very long time before Chadwick's name came up, most likely. (I won't spend time trying to argue the merits or 'Americanness' of Chadwick; I simply invite you to go find Symphonic Sketches and give it a good listen--it's easily enough found on iTunes or a service like Pandora.)
What I found in that experience was that the idea of "American music," far from being a broad and inclusive category, was for an awful lot of people a means of drawing rigid boundaries and excluding music that doesn't match up with a particular person's or institution's idea of 'American music.' For some the only 'American music' is jazz. Hard to argue against jazz as being an American music, but is it really the only music which counts in the American experience? (I hope no one who ever took the class with me thinks that!) In the classical realm, the label becomes a means of leaving out composers who were insufficiently modern or experimental or "mavericky"; Aaron Copland is ultra-American, of course, and Charles Ives is about as "mavericky" as you can get and therefore very American, and George Gershwin with his jazzish and early Broadway influences is oh so American, and so forth and so on. Later composers who toiled mightily in the field of music in America simply didn't write 'American music' if their style didn't line up with one or the other of those, or whoever was the particular talisman of that critic or conductor or institution. Howard Hanson? Forget it. Samuel Barber (who I'm coming to believe was a rather spiritually sensitive composer, when he chose to be)? Pfft. And someone like Chadwick? Easily brushed aside as a hopelessly old-fashioned Romantic. Thus 'American music' becomes a means of limiting and narrowing the field, rather than broadening and encouraging scholarship or performance or exploration of any sort.
So, having figured out my particular post-traumatic flashback, I'm now left to wonder how such labeling works in the theological sphere. Is there some way in which 'Celtic Christianity' is a label for leaving someone or something out? I've already alluded above to a recognized facility for the label to take on the projections of modern revivalists. Modern Christians of an ecological bent find a great interest in and relationship with nature among the writings and lives of the saints of Celtic lore, for example.
Projection is one thing; exclusion or exclusivity is quite another. It's one thing for Chadwick's musical reputation to get wiped out; it's quite another for Christians to find yet another way of dividing themselves. Lord knows (quite literally) there's quite enough of that.
There are a couple of churches in the Richmond area that offer 'Celtic' worship services. I will have to check them out, of course, for more reasons than I might have expected. Still, I suppose I have two ways I can react to this bit of self-realization I've experienced this weekend; I can either proceed with what we shall call heightened awareness into this brief exploration of Celtic Christianity, cautious to see just what people really mean to do with this label; or I can acknowledge another way in which my previous career has uniquely prepared me for this new fool's errand.
Or I can be really cheeky and do both.