Bell Leads ‘Engaging’ Sessions at EMU

John Bell engrosses his audienceJohn Bell engrosses his audience at EMU as he leads a spiritual life week session on "Engaging Jesus."
Photo by Jim Bishop

John Bell is a breath of fresh air in environments filled with tedious and wearisome oration.

He stands and speaks directly to his audience, using few notes, or sits on a stool to carry on animated conversation, making profound statements in a rich accent using simple, clear-cut language, urging his listeners to employ their imaginations.

The songwriter-storyteller from the Iona Community, an ecumenical group based on an island off the west coast of Scotland, led the Eastern Mennonite University community through a series of spiritual life week presentations, Jan. 9-13 on the theme, "Engaging Jesus."

Bell, who has written some 15 collections of worship resources employing music and liturgy for lay persons, spoke on several often overlooked or misperceived attributes of Christ – anger, humor, women and family life.

He pointed to "portrayals of Jesus in many Christmas carols and in artists’ renditions" as promoting images of Christ as timid, gentle, that carried over to adulthood.

"Jesus in his public ministry was a strong personality," Bell insisted. "Scripture indicates that he got angry, but didn’t sin. We need to see beyond the gloss if we’re to truly worship Christ and follow him."

In a presentation on Jesus and humor, Bell noted that "Jesus wept. It follows, then that he also laughed."

"Humor is culture- and language-based," Bell said. "What is funny in one culture may be misunderstood or even offensive in another."

Bell gave examples where he believes Jesus used humor in relating to others – some in his parables – and suggested that Jesus’ employed wordplays in Aramaic that his hearers would understand and appreciate but may not translate well into English-speaking societies.

"God delights in his creation – He loved the world and sent His Son so that His joy may be complete in you," the speaker said, adding: "I can’t envision a somber, stoic Christ who seldom, if ever, laughed."

In a coffeehouse setting, Bell took on tough questions posed by students – if they could ask Jesus any one question, what would it be?

And difficult ones they were, dealing with thorny issues like homosexuality – a topic not directly addressed by Christ in his earthly ministry. Bell pointed out that Christ spoke most frequently on "the sin of malicious gossip," something that many Christians today have much difficulty with.

Drawing from his understanding of scripture, Bell offered thoughtful reflections in responding to other questions ranging from corporal punishment to intelligent design arguments – "some evolutionists seem to hold the Earth and the environment in higher regard than many creationists," he said – the use of inclusive language in referring to God, what it means to "become as a child" in order to see the Kingdom of heaven and what Jesus thinks of today’s church.

"Too often, it appears that the church is a gathering of strangers who come to be entertained rather than to engage each other and experience community," Bell stated.

Bell concluded the week with a focus on Jesus’ views of family life, noting that Christ didn’t grow up in the "typical nuclear family of today" of a mother and father and 2.5 children. "In Jesus’ day, the mortality rate was one in four, few people lived into their forties, and Jesus in his ministry was predisposed towards widows and orphans," he said.

"We say that blood is thicker than water, but Jesus demonstrated just the opposite in his entering into human history," Bell said, noting that the act of baptism brings persons together into a family made up of people of all backgrounds and cultures.

During the week, participants sang worship songs composed by Bell, some of which appear in "Sing the Journey," a recently-released supplement to the Brethren-Mennonite Hymnal.

Two sessions were also held at neighboring Park View Mennonite Church, which co-sponsored these evening programs. Bell led a vesper service and an evening of story and song that took participants on a musical journey around the world.

"John Bell impressed on me the need to sit with the stories of Jesus’ life, understanding and being transformed by the humanity of Christ as He walked upon earth," said Nathan Bontrager, a music education and cello performance major from Akron, Pa. "The overall experience of John’s songs and talking about worship over coffee with him has caused me to have renewed vigor for the song of the church and to seek to find and create worship experiences that are not flippant but have purpose and integrity," he added.

“I was impressed by the reality of Jesus that John presented in his conversations. His stories gave a new light to the life of Jesus and the reality of Jesus’ ‘human-ness,'” said Carissa Sweigart, a senior elementary education major from Hesston, Kan. “It was a reminder that following Christ’s example means finding ways to bring God’s kingdom on earth. John’s Scottish accent and red shoes also made his presentations more engaging,” she added.