Blessed are the meek and mild

by
08 December 2009

Two books to get a house group going, says David Winter

The Happiness Secret: Finding true contentment
J. John
Hodder & Stoughton £10.99
(978-0-340-95438-6)
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


Ten Things They Never Told Me About Jesus: A beginner's guide to a larger Christ
John L. Bell
Wild Goose Publications £13.50
(978-1-905010-60-8)
Church Times Bookshop £11.75

HERE are two books by consum­mate communicators. John Bell of the Iona Community is a familiar voice on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, and a popular writer of hymns; J. John, an Anglican priest, is one of the UK’s best-known evangelists. Their common style is popular, but certainly not lightweight: there is plenty of material here to provoke, stimulate, and inspire.

J. John’s book looks from the outside like a typical “lifestyle” title, designed to fit comfortably on the bookshop shelves dedicated to diet, health, and well-being. Nevertheless, from the rather cloying endorse­ments by a selection of Christian celebrities and preachers at the front through to the exhortations to a deeper discipleship in the later chapters, the book is clearly aimed primarily at a Christian market.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course, though it is hard to resist the feeling that J. John’s crisp style, humour, and down-to-earth approach could well have brought his case for true inner happiness to a broader audience.

His book is essentially an exposi­tion of the Beatitudes, skilfully marrying textual insights with homely examples and illustrations. Each saying is carefully examined in its historic context and then applied to everyday life and discipleship.

His own Greek background helps with the former, as his easy familiarity with the trials and tribulations of daily living helps with the latter.

John Bell’s is a more inclusive book. Although it is clearly written by a Christian author, the stated readership embraces all those whose understanding of Jesus — however slight — is traditional, limited, and unduly influenced by sentimental hymns and popular carols. It doesn’t take long for his verbal axe to demolish such myths as that the baby Jesus never cried (“No crying he makes”), or grew up to be “meek and mild”, or was never funny or angry. Beyond that, Jesus had a dubious family background, spent too much time with oddballs and eccentrics, and sought out people from the margins of accepted society.

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This is familiar ground to well-instructed Christians, I hope, but, illuminated by Bell’s chiselled phraseology, it comes across as exciting and radical. Here is a Jesus who is a fiery critic of the status quo, a militant feminist, pro-asylum seeker, and anti-capitalist, and who would never have endorsed George Bush’s “axis of evil” — in fact, a kind of proto-member of the Iona Community.

The book bears the subtitle A beginner’s guide to a larger Christ, which it certainly is. It will appeal perhaps especially to young people who are attracted to the Christian faith but wary of getting entangled in comfortable conformity. Bell offers a dynamic, challenging Jesus, a Messiah who turned old values upside down.

Both of these books would pro­vide excellent discussion material for small groups. John Bell would undoubtedly light the fire; J. John might well stir up the spirit.

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former Head of Religious Broad­casting at the BBC.

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