Celtic Christianity holds out three “offerings to Christianity,” according to John Bell, featured speaker at a conference called “Ancient and Ever New: Spirituality in the 21st Century,” held in Calgary on March 22-24.
Bell is a prolific hymn-writer (with 21 songs in Lift Up Your Hearts, 16 in Common Praise), a Church of Scotland minister and member of the Iona Community, devoted to “the renewal of congregational worship at grass roots level.”
The “offerings” are these: first, a high regard for women; second, a close-to-nature, rural perspective; and third, a community-centred vision of the Christian life. Bell might also have included a number of other such offerings: an emotional way of knowing; imagination and creativity in worship; and an existential connection to the Bible gleaned from the oral tradition of hearing the Word spoken rather than as silently read.
Bell also points to the life of Jesus, not mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed – it has only a “comma” between Jesus’ birth and his sufferings. Thirty+ missing years. If spirituality is, as Bell maintains, a matter of “being with God,” then time spent in nature, in the fields and at mealtimes is equally as important as time spent in cathedrals or churches. Our Lord certainly lived a full life, feasting, fasting, walking, talking and reaffirming the significance of flowers, birds and people of all sorts during his life on earth. For this he was occasionally criticized as a glutton and drunkard, of ritual uncleanness, of heresy.
AN IMAGINATIVE CHURCH
The insights above are some of the foci of the presentations we heard explained in a Scottish brogue that, if not exactly glossolalia, approached it at times. Bell does speak, preach, expound and explain, but he also involves the audience by leading interludes of simple congregational choruses – mostly a capella – and invites listeners to react to Bible stories in small groups and in more traditional question/answer formats.
For me, Bell’s often-humorous interactions with the “crowd” about imagination and creativity were the highlights of the conference. For Bell, respecting people’s imagination is respecting them as people. Authoritarians are challenged by the uncontrollable power of imagination, however, which may lead to conflict.
Imagination allows us to enter the stories of the Bible; it expands our appreciation of the Bible to become our “family album,” rather than a set of assertions. We err if we think there are imaginative people as opposed to those who are intellectual. Imagination guides our major decisions: what future do we imagine for ourselves? What do we desire in the ambience of a room? To be human is to be imaginative, but often imaginatively and creativity are squelched in ecclesiastical settings.
Imagination, in short, allows us to look at more possibilities. We see this nature of unexpectedness in God’s interaction with his people: whenever we think we have the picture of God right, downpat, God throws a monkey wrench into the works by revealing his guidance through new stories, demonstrates unexpected reactions to situations, and presents complications that ask us to relate with God, his people and his creation in fresh new, relational ways. Think of how imagination may help us empathize with those who have experience the horror of one holocaust or another and then say with them – with quiet reluctance, perhaps – the last verse of Psalm 137. It allows us to empathize with the daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 27) who challenged the justice of the inheritance laws that Moses defended. God said, in effect, to Moses: “Yes, I gave you the Levirate marriage law, but it doesn’t cover this situation: Change it! These women are right!”
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