473 Interview with hymn writer John Bell on a new book & new ideas for ministry

Today, we’re reporting that world-renowned hymn writer John Bell is publishing a new book, “Ten Things They Never Told Me About Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to a Larger Christ.” That’s all many of his fans need to know. If you’re a John-Bell-Celtic-Iona fan, you’ll snap up the new book—and soon you’ll be tearing it apart to pull out John’s fresh ideas.
    For the rest of us, who may not be so familiar with his work, the most important thing to explain about John Bell is that he works at the core of the Iona Community. This is a Scotland-based, international network whose collective name captures its two central missions: First, these men and women celebrate the Celtic-Christian insights that have arisen from the legendary island of Iona—and they work in community.
    You might have skipped over that second point. We all talk about “community.” But for Iona and John Bell, community is where the Spirit of God works.
    Here’s a prime example: Even though Bell’s music is sung in churches around the world, he argues that hymns are not a personal product. In fact, he strongly critiques those Christian singer-songwriters who write deeply personal songs and then publish them as contemporary hymns. Bell does encourage people to create personal songs, poetry and other creative arts expressing their faith—but that’s not the same thing as creating useful hymns and liturgies for worship.
    Worship should be a community experience, Iona teaches us. And, the community should form its own worship. So, Bell wouldn’t think of composing a new song and offering it to the world as a finished “hymn.” He road tests his works in many congregations. He revises his works with the needs of other people in mind.
    That’s why “Ten Things They Never Told Me About Jesus” is a kind of Bible-study guide to the life of Jesus. But it’s also a book jammed with ideas about how people—working together—can roll their sleeves up and discover a far larger Jesus than the little bearded figure in children’s picture books.


    DAVID: It’s terrific to talk with you! ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile and I have traveled to the isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, on two different pilgrimages. We’ve published a series of articles about our first pilgrimage—articles that continue to be popular with readers.
    Millions of Americans love your hymns. But I think it’s important to explain that your mission in life is a lot bigger than song writing. The opening line in the Wikipedia entry about your life says that you’re “a hymn-writer”—period. What do you think about that? Are you “a hymn-writer”—period?
    JOHN: I don’t think of that as defining my life. I don’t sit down every week and decide I have to write a song. I only write new songs to help people. If we find a new need, I may write a new hymn. It’s not like a career choice I made.
    When I was ordained into the Church of Scotland years ago, my first job was in youth work. We didn’t have many ministers engaged in Scotland in youth work. I was one of only two at that time. It was during my 10 years in youth work that I became aware of how much people’s lives are shaped by hymns.
    There are so many old hymns still with us and they cause some confusion for people. Are we seen by God as “worms” or ‘blight” as some of the older hymns tell us? Or, are we “flowers” with potential and beauty?
    I want to help people find bigger categories in which to hold God and Christ and Spirit—and themselves. I want to help them supplement and expand their images of God beyond those old images we’ve inherited from Victorian times in many cases.
    DAVID: That’s a great way to introduce this new book. When I first heard the title, I thought it was a Bible-study book. But, now that I’ve read it, I think it’s more like a workbook—or sourcebook of ideas—for congregations.
    JOHN: This book is biblically substantial. I was concerned that anything I would write about the Bible be solid and sustained.
    But, in each chapter, there are references to working with people, with groups of kids, with congregations—settings where questions are raised about the background of Jesus. I want to help people ally both the scriptural witness and people’s experiences.

    DAVID: Let’s give readers an example of what they’ll find. One idea you describe in the book is a worship service that features the long genealogy of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew. This is a passage of scripture most people skip over. It’s a list of names from many generations.
    But you describe a liturgy—and you even quote portions of it—in which something surprising happens when the handful of women’s names show up in that list of generations. When a woman’s name pops up in the reading—a woman somewhere in the congregation actually gets up and reads a short piece about the importance of the woman listed by Matthew.
    I can imagine that it’s startling to have people jump up like that during a scripture reading.
    JOHN: The witness of women in scripture has been silenced or patronized by a church in which men primarily choose the readings for worship and who preach. In this genealogy of Jesus, four women are mentioned—and these four women have rather unusual histories. Two of them had been prostitutes.
    When people hear more about figures like this, they realize that the Christ we are asked to follow does not come to us with a pristine pedigree. His very genes have the same taint we all have—a mixed background.
    We need to help people make a much more personal and immediate connection with Christ, so that we don’t leave Jesus simply as this baby who never cried in his mother’s arms and then suddenly was catapulted from that scene onto the cross.
    No, that is not the humanity of Jesus. Jesus comes to us and lives with us and this tainted genealogy is a part of his spiritual armor.

    DAVID: Here’s another example from your book. This is jumping ahead to Christmas time. Probably every Christian church in the world has some kind of Nativity story or play or pageant—often involving children portraying the parts.
    In your book, you describe standing up before such a play begins and asking the people sitting in the pews a few questions. You ask them to stand up if they’ve ever played a shepherd? Then, all the former angels stand. Then inn keepers. And so on. Why do you do that?
    JOHN: The first time I did it was in the Episcopal cathedral here in Glasgow. It was partly because I knew that—as always on Christmas eve—there were a whole lot of people who have never been in church over the past year. But, nearly all these people who do show up have an investment in Christmas because, when they were children either in school or in church they enacted this play and they were shepherds or played some other role.
    Asking people to identify themselves like that is a way to gather the experience of the people together and to begin to use that familiarity to bring them to a deeper level.
    DAVID: One of the great American evangelists, these days, has the same last name as yours: Rob Bell. He’s not related to you. But especially in his new “world tour”—he travels around and delivers this very creative, multimedia sermon. Halfway through his talk, Rob also asks people to stand up and identify things about their lives. He does this in a very welcoming way and I’ve seen people really moved by the experience.
    The fresh idea here is: People in the seats aren’t just a passive audience, right?
    For years in America, “seeker churches” tried to make people in the seats feel that they could come, sit back, feel comfortable—and they really didn’t have to do anything. You and Rob Bell both are talking about a completely different approach to Christian community.

    JOHN: Every month in Glasgow, we offer a liturgy we call Holy City. It’s a time of experiment. We never have anyone preaching but we do always have people bringing the word of God to each other. We might ask people a question like Rob Bell asks. Or we might ask people to turn to each other and talk about a question like: How has the image of angels changed in your life over the years?
    And we actually trust people to open the scripture to each other. For example, if we’re talking about concerns like cancer, we might take one of the miracle stories from scripture and marry this miracle story with a question about health as people have experienced this.
    We need to find opportunities where people can open up to each other and share their insights from their own lives and from scripture. We are no longer dealing with an illiterate congregation that needs to be a silent audience simply waiting for pearls to fall from the lips of a preacher.
    Now, there is no substitute for worship and for the proclamation of the word in preaching. I’m not talking about doing away with all of that.
    But we must also find ways to invite people to relate the scriptures to their own experiences—and then to share those insights with other people in community.

    DAVID: I don’t want to leave readers with some warm-and-fuzzy idea that when you use this word, “community,” you’re talking about a cozy circle of friends. In the new book, you write about how important it is to talk with strangers.
    That idea runs counter to what we usually teach people here in America: Don’t talk to strangers! Especially in our cities—we learn to walk fast and never stop to talk with people.
    You actually say: Stop! Talk! Meet someone completely outside the boundaries of your friends and neighbors. Your book is full of these conversations you’ve had yourself.
    JOHN: My understanding of the Christian faith is that it isn’t supposed to be lived in isolation. It’s always in community.
    But—I don’t see in the Bible where God is calling like-minded people to be part of this new community. No, for the priorities and the signs of the Kingdom of God truly to be manifest, God calls the unlikely—and the unliked. That’s the kind of community God envisions.
    Jesus’ disciples were not people of money or influence or any proven intellectual acumen. Sometimes Jesus consorts with people who are of great wealth and wisdom—but he also interacts with people who are poor and who are persecuted. All of these people are called together.
    For the church to be the essential, important community God is calling—then the church must be a place that calls people with a variety of opinions and many backgrounds.
    The call to love one another we read in scriptures? That’s a cautionary call because, if we’re truly a community of all kinds of people, then our own pet passions can take control of us and we find ourselves in conflict. We need someone to remind us to love one another.
    DAVID: But where do we even start toward such a radical vision? It’s scary. Talk to strangers? Call the unlikely—and the unliked?
    JOHN: You have to realize that your life is not the only significant life in the world. By calling a community together like this, you begin to understand that God—who made us all in God’s image—has this amazing ability to create great diversity in humanity.
    One of our supreme joys should be just talking with other folk—unlikely folk. If we only mix with people of our own sort, then we miss so much about life’s great beauty.


    VISIT “IONA BOOKS” FOR BELL’S NEW BOOK: Here’s the home Web site of Wild Goose Publications, sometimes better known as Iona Books. This link takes you to the page featuring Bell’s new book, including PDF-format excerpts you can download.
    GIA PUBLICATIONS’ AMERICAN PAGE: John Bell works closely with GIA Publications in the U.S. Eventually GIA will produce his book for American audiences. Also, GIA helps with American connections to John’s work. Here’s his “home page” at GIA.
    READ THE WORDS TO A SONG FOR CITIES: We’ve also published a short sample text, Emailed to us by John Bell’s hymn-writing colleague Graham Maule. Here’s a link to that song for cities, giving you a good example of the way Iona writers approach these themes.
    WILD GOOSE RESOURCE GROUP: This is a semi-autonomous project within the Iona Community,
set up to house joint work in worship and music resources headed by
Graham Maule and John Bell. This page contains various links that focus
on their work.
    THE RESOURCE GROUP ON FACEBOOK: Another way to connect with the ongoing efforts of the Maule-Bell group is via this Facebook group. The Facebook page also offers helpful links to members and non-members.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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