Robyn’s people came from the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. Probably driven overseas by the ‘clearances’ that reduced the island population from more than ten thousand to about three thousand in a couple of years. Just off the southern tip of Mull lies a small island called Iona – described on the tour-bus itinerary as ‘the beginning of Christianity in the British Isles’ bought here by an Irish monk named Columba around 300. I was keen to try and find out what he actually brought to the island and after about five hours walking around the abbey, listening to the audio guide, reflecting in the cloisters and the burial grounds, reading the museum guides, I have a limited idea of what he brought, and a better idea of what he didn’t.
He brought religion with a focus on paying penance of some sort. Iona has been the destination of pilgrims for centuries, many of them, according to the recording, on their hands and knees leaving a trail of blood on the rocky path. The word ‘repentance’, such an important idea in Christian thinking comes from this idea of ‘paying penance’ a sort of painful grovelling in order to gain a level of acceptance (called ‘being worthy’). Pity the translators didn’t use the Greek word that just means ‘change of mind’. It would have saved these poor beggars a lot of pain and effort.
Columba bought icons, and interestingly, it was on Iona that the cross first became an icon. For the centuries prior to Columba, the Christians could not bring themselves to use the cross in any of their art, the memory of that dreadful event was still too raw. But that changed on Iona, huge stone crosses were everywhere, even a museum area dedicated to the earliest carved ones. In the same way, Columba bought a passion for decorating scripture texts, intricate decorations that must have kept the abbots busy for months, even years. The Book of Kells in a Dublin library is the most famous example from Iona.
But the most significant thing bought to Iona at this time, in our minds was celibacy. I say significantly, because, in Robyn and I individually musing on Iona, we came to a singularly spectacular lack, no families and no children. A theology lacking the centrality of family means God becomes a distant deity worshiped by acts of piety. Penance is all important because the notion of ‘father’ is absent and icons and texts become replacements for anything like a living loving relationship.
But clearly the most significant thing Columba didn’t bring to the island: not a single reference to Jesus anywhere. Hard to believe, and while I may have missed something written or said, it appears to be the case. Even the nuns housed some distance away gathered each morning to hear the teachings of, not Jesus, not the Apostles, but Augustine. The teaching of a man who, perhaps more than any other figure, derailed the movement, a new direction that left the beautiful simplicity and purity of the first century believers a distant memory eventually forgotten. And in its place, an institution characterised by the unholy alliance of church and state emerged and is with us still. But worse than that, the notion of heaven and hell was consolidated, driven by a ruthless Roman-style efficiency in converting the world to its view. Believe, go to heaven; remain unconvinced and go to hell, and this too, sad to say is with us still.
What I would have preferred to celebrate on the island was someone bringing what the first century believers had, a conviction that Jesus was who he said he was, introducing them to a view of God as father that changed everything. The Gospel* to them was good news indeed. They weren’t side-tracked by the six views of hell running at the time and were comfortable with the first defining creed because it didn’t mention any of them. What did make the later believers uncomfortable was Augustine, at the Emperor’s request, formulating a single view of God’s judgement and hell as eternal conscious torment. As I said, he derailed the Jesus movement.
A movement that knew a period of growth and spread of the Gospel the like of which the world had never seen and has not since. Almost the entire Mediterranean Basin in a few decades, and most notable, without churches as we know them, without ministers, and without the Bible. They met in homes, under the loose oversight of a member/elder, and with a few fragments of the words and deeds of Jesus, and a few Apostolic letters and an occasional visit from an Apostle. Most were illiterate and they had little interest in the Hebrew scriptures apart from the Psalms (one can still buy a New Testament and Psalms today), and from the fragments and letters, they took what was helpful in the encouraging each other in the love of Jesus. Teachers arose, many of them ‘false’ and in the words of the last apostolic writer, John, referring to their ‘anointing of the Spirit’: ‘You have no need for anyone to teach you’.
Had that last Apostle been on the tour bus to Iona he would have seen a lot that we have no need of – icons, penance, crosses, and abbeys. He would have asked: “Where are the families?” Perhaps he would have started some clearances of his own to make a place for what Jesus intended.
* I like Bruxy Cavey’s definition of the good news: Jesus is God with us come to show us God’s love, save us from sin, set up God’s kingdom, and shut down religion, so we can share in God’s life. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9S38J9CyFks