Missionary Monks

by Edward Smither, Cascade Books, £20

It’s easy to presuppose a sharp division between globe-trotting missionaries and cloistered, contemplative monks. If we look at the millennium between 500 and 1500, however, assumptions are challenged. As Smither puts it, “If we don’t have monks in this period, then we really have little to talk about in the way of Christian mission.” Smither demonstrates that from the earliest stirrings of Christian monasticism in the Near East, evangelisation could be an important part of the job description.

With later figures such as Basil of Caesarea or the pioneers of Celtic monasticism, interaction with the wider world, preaching to anyone who cared to listen, and jettisoning any ideal of hermetic isolation became, if far from normative, at least perfectly respectable.

Smither’s narrative tends to plod, but he is very good on the competing methodologies approved by monastic missionaries. Converting the bigwigs was often seen as a prudent strategy, as was the cautious attempt to tailor the message to local circumstances. From their base at Iona, monks utilised the styles of Pictish artistic culture, and Augustine of Canterbury saw sense in converting temples rather than razing them. Ever since, and in a host of locations, Christians have been arguing over whether such techniques represented astute contextualisation or perilous syncretism.

Smither’s whistle-stop tour tackles Boniface in 8th-century Germany, positioned here as less overzealous than usually supposed. Yes, he chopped down the sacred oak tree of Jupiter at Geismar, but gentler methods were sometimes deployed.

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