I didn’t know much about John Bell but he turned out to be a very engaging and sometimes funny speaker on what he called the “Bayble.” That’s Scottish for Bible. Bell lives in Scotland and is well known in Europe and North America for his music. I only knew that at our church we have sung some music that he wrote. The conference that I attended for several days was about music by example but not by topic. More than two hundred clergy and lay people were there for the annual Island Forum at Washington Island.
John Bell’s fashion statement was colorful, not color matched very well, and barefoot. He definitely was not dressed as a conventional speaker. That was okay, although I didn’t expect our speaker to appear in rolled up green jeans.
Bell said that his job is lay education and he is scripture centered. His topics for each day were (1) the Bible and stories; (2) what to tell the children and retelling the story; (3) imagination; (4) women and the bible.
Memorable things that Bell said included reminding all the pastors of some church history, that the Bible is full of diversity of stories covering spiritual nourishment, story, poetry, biography, parable and more. It wasn’t written in a day; some writers of scripture didn’t know about other writers. God’s people speak in different ways, not apart from each other. He pointed out that apartheid in South Africa has its origin in a narrow reading of scripture that endorsed it. Bell had good things to say about Nelson Mandela, who brought people together. Differences and diversity are part of God’s invention, he said.
The second day was about stories and children. What we tell the children will stay with them all their lives. He used the song, “Jesus Loves Me This I know,” which the group sang slowly in four parts, as probably only a hall full of clergy would do. His point was that this song is the experience of faith and that God is love. It’s about relationship and affection of the person who teaches the song. Childhood hymns show childhood faith. He also had other examples.
Bell talked about today’s people being spiritual but not religious, a buzzword for people who are not in one faith tradition. He said it is about people being disappointed in conventional faith. The notion of God has moved from everywhere present to God being little engaged but slightly helping in the world, like a moralistic therapeutic session. These people have little connection with the God of the Bible, Torah and Koran. However, Bell points out that the best revelations should enlarge us as the voice of God who has spoken; today’s children with no faith traditions don’t know what God sounds like.
There are true stories and truth stories. True stories are facts that can be verified. Truth stories are what is meant to convey, like parables, which convey the nature of God and God’s kingdom. Bell talked about the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall as a truth story. We are guests in the garden; someone else owns it so it should be used according to the rules. The garden is a place of wonder. The role of humanity is to be moved by this wonder. The fruit that the people should not eat is a restriction, not a test; some knowledge is too much for us to bear, beyond our comprehension. The story is not about the temptress Eve persuading Adam to eat the fruit. Adam is passive in the story, but they eat it together and receive the knowledge.
Bell talked about (1) Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors. Sarah names her child Isaac, which means laughter. The old people now enable God to do his thing and renew the church, as Abraham and Sarah did as old people. He mentioned (2) the Ten Commandments, which are seen as divine restrictions, but what is common in them is that they are meant to liberate, not limit people. The commandment about the Sabbath has meaning for everyone. God took a rest; he wants people to see rest as necessary for human life. It’s a sabbath from ensnaring routines and includes land, servants and work animals. Bell spoke about the Heroes in Judges and the miracles of Jesus. Love demands that we treat people differently.
Imagination came on the third day. We extol it in children but are suspicious of it in adolescents. The story of David slaying Goliath was an example. Bell said that the adult in the group set young David up in armor that made it impossible for him to move effectively, so David got rid of the adult suggestion and took out his sling, with which he was proficient in killing animals that menaced his flock of sheep, and killed the giant. Then Bell said he once asked some teenagers about how Jesus managed to feed a crowd with five loaves and two fishes, and they gave the imaginative answer that when the basket came around, the people added to the food supply and put something into it so everyone got fed. That is Godly imagination. Bell said that imagination is a gift that can be used for good and that is what the Incarnation is about.
He said that God uses intellectual, emotional, imaginative accents in scripture. The lion lying down with the lamb gives a picture of God’s intention. Imagination is a picture of the “not yet.” Imagination might release some parts of scripture. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is often seen only as twenty years old, when imagination can tell more. Other stories about Mary and other women can be enlarged by use of imagination. We unlock and see deeper with imagination. The voice of prophecy in the Church is what is ahead.
Women were the subject of the final day. Bell said that men and women read Bible texts in different ways. For example, it was said that in the Fall in Genesis, woman was made from the man’s rib and therefore dependent on man, which isn’t something that I as a woman would endorse. Rather, Bell said that Adam and Eve were meant for partnership. The snake speaks to Eve while Adam is quiet and accepts the apple, and then he accuses God for giving him a dumb partner.
Another example is in Exodus, where the midwives were commanded to kill the Jewish boy babies and they went against cruel male authority and Moses was born. Baby Moses in the basket gets adopted by Pharoah’s daughter, and he grows up to midwife the Hebrews into the promised land. Bell gave other examples of women whose stories are little known because, Bell said, our church lectionaries were put together by men. He said that the women stood up to cruel male authority because God called them to do it. Their stories don’t get told today.
Bell said that Jesus treated women as not inferior, that their faith, generosity and hospitality were recognized by Jesus while in the background the men resented Jesus talking to women and interacting with them. Female witness is indispensable. The Song of Mary, the Magnificat, shows us that when Mary magnifies or praises God, it makes God bigger for us. Then He who is mighty magnifies us. A small God means limited discipleship, and a big God does not.
Altogether it was a worthwhile conference.