An examination of the American way of life
In 1952, Bernard Iddings Bell described the general attitude of society towards the Church thus: “[M]ost Americans regard the Church as promoter of a respectable minor art, charming if it happens to appeal to you, its only moral function to bless whatever the multitude at the moment regards as the American way of life.”
The truth stings all too sharply through that statement, more true today than it was over a half-century ago. Bell, who was an Episcopal priest and educator, had a great many harsh words to say about the state in which he found the Church, particularly the Church in America. She had lost her prophetic calling, no longer standing against the deformities and perversions of the surrounding culture, but instead had simply joined hands with the prevailing cultural forces, thereby consigning herself to cultural captivity and irrelevancy.
The quotation above comes from Bell’s book Crowd Culture, which was reprinted in 2001 by ISI Books. Much of what Bell argued in that book can be found in a more condensed form in this article titled “Will the Church Survive?”, run in the October 1942 edition of The Atlantic.
In it, Bell has more words of reproach:
It is because the Church has thus obscured the socially prophetic note that it seems to most people to have no relevancy. The masses of the folk, observing the Church as of late the Church has been willing to present itself, say, ‘There is nothing here to bother with. These people bear within themselves no salvation. They are as mad as all the rest of us. They are not worth listening to. They are not even worth crucifying.’
Bell eventually answers his hypothetical question with a definitive “yes”; the church will, in fact, survive. But it will take a small minority of Christians who are willing to speak prophetically and boldly against prevailing fashions:
By no means all the Church’s membership is still placidly content with relegation to insignificance. In the ears of more and more Christians there sounds, ever louder, ever more insistent, the command that the kingdom of the world must become the kingdom of God and of His Christ. There are those who begin again to believe, with more than a verbal acquiescence, that all of man belongs to God: his doings economic, industrial, political, sexual, marital, creative, recreational. These rebellious souls, to be sure, are a small minority of Christians; but among them are persons both of high position and of influence intellectual and moral.
Let’s hope that Bell’s words are still true, and that there still remain that small minority of Christians willing to be rebels.