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