Jerusalem Bells

cross & monk_3_2

Jerusalem Bells
Brian Zahnd

If you visit the Islamic world you quickly become acquainted with the adhan — the Muslim call to prayer. You may very well become acquainted with it at five o’clock in the morning! Five times a day, beginning before sunrise, you hear the cry of the muezzin from the minarets — Allahu Akbar. It’s a call to prayer. When I first began to travel in the Islamic world I reacted to the call to prayer with an irritation rooted in cultural disdain and religious triumphalism. I was annoyed by it. I didn’t want to hear it. But eventually I began to feel differently about it. To be honest, I was envious. Here was a culture with a public call to prayer.

In the secular, post-Christian West we have nothing like this. The best we can manage is to clandestinely bow our heads for ten seconds in a restaurant and hope no one notices. We don’t call people to prayer. Few Christians living outside of monasteries pray five times a day. We pray whenever we feel like it…and too much of the time we don’t feel like it. But in the Islamic world I found a religious culture that publicly calls people to prayer five times a day! I was envious of a society that holds to a religious tradition where prayer is taken seriously and is attended to in a prescribed manner. So when I heard the adhan I would wistfully think, I wish we had something like that. Then one day the pieces fell in place.

I was walking through the cobblestone streets of the Old City of Jerusalem on a Sunday morning when I began to hear the bells toll. Church bells. A cacophony of sacred sound centuries old. Orthodox bells, Catholic bells, Anglican bells, Lutheran bells. The enormous bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seemed to belong to another age. It was a wonder I found strangely moving. That’s when it dawned on me — this is the Christian adhan. Church bells are the Christian call to prayer. (A practice predating the Muslim adhan by centuries.) Of course I knew this, but I had somehow forgotten it. I had forgotten the bells just as the post-Christian West has forgotten the bells.

The small town Baptist church I grew up in had a church bell. A cadre of old men were in charge of ringing the bell on Sunday mornings. When I was a small child they would occasionally let me “help” ring the bell. I would hold onto the rope reaching into the belfry and as the bell began to toll I would be pulled up off my feet. The old men would laugh. It’s a fond memory. But a faded memory. Somewhere along the way church bells began to disappear. Bells became antiquated. We moved to the suburbs, built our new non-descript utilitarian metal buildings and left the bells behind. Church bells had become passé. The more contemporary the church the less likely that it would have a bell. This was a sad harbinger.

In a poetic sense the sound of Islam is the adhan. The sound of Hinduism is the om. The sound of Buddhism is the dungchen. The sound of Judaism is the shofar. The sound of Christianity is the church bell. The sound of the post-Christian secular West is the sad silence of the church bell. The church in the West is no longer public or prayerful. We are now private. The only way we know how to be public is to be political. It’s a tragedy that the dominant expression of public Christianity in America over the past generation has been one of political partisanship. My critique of this is not a call to quietism, but a call to transcend crass political rhetoric and bring a prophetic message from elsewhere.

The Sunday when I heard the Jerusalem bells I adopted a simple program for prayer in the Middle East. Whenever I heard the Christian church bell or the Muslim adhan I would stop and pray the Lord’s Prayer. My wife and I were leading a Christian pilgrimage at the time and we taught our group this practice. Whenever we heard the five-time-daily adhan we would stop and pray the Lord’s Prayer — not as an act of religious one-upmanship, but simply as a Christian response to the call to prayer. Our group quickly took to this practice. Our Jewish guide encouraged us. Whenever the adhan would sound she would say, “Oh, it’s time for you to pray.” And so we would. Our Father who art in heaven…

Of course this was not a novel innovation but the recovery of an ancient Christian practice. The Didache (a late first or early second century instruction manual on Christian practice) instructs believers to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times daily. Eventually praying the Lord’s Prayer at morning, noon and night became the practice. By the fifth century bells were being used to signal these times of prayer.

The church bell is a good metaphor of how the church should be public. The ringing of a church bell is a public act, but it’s not a political act. The church bell is a public call to prayer. The question is can the American church once again be known as a praying community? I hope so. I long for our public presence to be more like the beauty of tolling church bells and less like the shrillness of haranguing political ads.

A few years ago we recovered a bell from an abandoned church and installed it on the roof of our modern building. It was a symbolic gesture. An act of resistance in the age of secularism. Today I love to hear the tolling our long silenced and now recovered church bell. It seems to be saying all the right things.


(The picture is of a monk on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.)

I leave you with a beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s Ring Them Bells

  • Steve Perrins

    Very thought provoking post. Love Sarah Jarosz too, she has done a few Dylan covers and I saw her in concert in Cardiff, Wales, UK a few months ago. She did some good stuff on Transatlantic Sessions, a collaboration of primarily Celtic and US musicians filmed in Scotland for TV. Catch it if you can or check youtube!

  • Interesting post Brian. As a small child we were vacationing in a small town in North Carolina. We got up Sunday morning and dressed for church. We then waited for the bells to ring. Even as small child I thought it was pretty cool as we walked with the locals over to the church, beckoned by the bells.

    It would be nice if we had some common times to pray but I am sure someone would start screaming “legalism” or I am free in Christ”

  • Thomas Arvidsson

    Thank’s for your thoughts. I can put it in a swedish context also. Your teaching (books/sermons) has been encouraging me the last year. We need to keep telling the Kingdom stories, while pastoring a church in exile. / Thomas, (pastor in a small baptist church)

  • Herm

    Thank you Pastor Zahnd once again for a heart and mind observance full of wonder! I would hope that in the handbook according to 1 Thessalonians 5 that prayer reminded by bells grows into prayer continual and without ceasing.

    I am frustrated with our politics because of the obvious damage caused from praying and voting Christians who expect God to intervene to save them from their irresponsible stewardship of the environment that God gave us domain over. It hurts to hear prayers invoking God to rid them of socialistic caring for all equally and an illegally elected president from Kenya. It hurts most that whomever answers those prayers is not in the Spirit of doing for, with and to all others as they would have all others do for, with and to them that I know in my heart and mind continually.

    The church and the Bible are wonderful resources for bringing discerning people into a personal relationship inside the Family and the kingdom of God. The voice of God is discernible from the mouths of our Father’s children who are actually filled with the Holy Spirit in the tongue of those who hear according to Acts 2:4. When you know the Father personally why not question Him directly rather than try to interpret what the scribes, teachers of the law and the Pharisees take authority for?

    As a father with children who are parents I have to say that nothing as been more rewarding to my efforts than to have been able to fully release my authoritative role trusting in their matured authority that they and theirs would survive productively and constructively. As a teacher I have never felt more worthy than when my students grew to teach better than I. As an elder disciple of Jesus the Christ it is my understood goal to introduce new students to Jesus, stand with them until they are confident enough to stand alone, and to finally be able to leave them to their very special continual and enduring relationship.

    I have not known any greater freedom from the interpretations of man than when I began conversing with God ALL the time. I am a child who needs redirecting after it is clear that I’ve taken a misstep. I am promised that, necessary to my eternal survival, parental support eternally. Since our relationship has become full time I have done far less damage to my siblings and fellow disciples whom I relate and congregate with occasionally when the school bell rings.

    Must we really wait until Jesus can physically take us by the hand to know what to do? Is Jesus available right now to relate with all of us personally in our spiritual hearts and minds? Is it really possible to die to the values in our carnal heart and brain and be reborn to use our physical body to communicate the eternal spiritual values of God’s heart and mind with all of mankind today?

    When do we children of God unite in heart and mind by accepting an unceasing relationship with the Holy Spirit who is one in heart and mind with God?

    Love you!

  • Herm

    30 million more insured, insurance for previous conditions and insurance for the laid off … “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” Acts 4:31-36

  • Besing