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A Prophet From 1942

Bernard Iddings Bell and the Benedict Option

It surprises people to discover that as far back as the 1930s, T.S. Eliot described the West as “post-Christian”. Many of us conservative Christians (and perhaps liberal ones too) have this false idea that Christianity didn’t start to fall apart until the 1960s. It’s just not true.

A reader sent me an astonishing 1942 Atlantic Monthly essay by Bernard Iddings Bell, titled, “Will The Christian Church Survive?” Father Bell was an Episcopal priest and cultural conservative (more on him here).

I’m going to quote the essay at length, because it is so relevant to our own time. Bell begins by talking about how Christianity has been pushed to the margins of public life:

There was no country in the whole world, in the year before the war broke, in which the Christian Church had for years been expected or permitted to exert a controlling or even a largely critical influence on education, politics, industry, the arts, marriage and divorce. These are life’s chief activities. In respect to every one of them, modern man had become used to ignore what might be the will of God for him, to substitute a desired self-expression for an attempt to do that will; and in respect to them all, he assumed his own entire competence. This same self-centeredness and self-confidence are also characteristic of the programs now variously offered for the shaping of things to come. Without a complete rediscovery of its own function, the Church is hardly likely to matter any more tomorrow than it mattered yesterday or than it matters at the moment, which is just about not at all.


That the Church has had small influence of late, and seems likely to have little more in the immediate future, is the Church’s own fault. Christians have been too willing to come to terms with, and even to flatter, an essentially godless world. Sometimes this has been due to ecclesiastical venality; more often it has come about from inability to understand what has been happening. Carried along by inertia, churchmen have watched without comprehension while congregations have melted away, while the secularly educated younger generation increasingly has absented itself from worship and activity. To have retired fighting before the attacks of a growing secularism would have been a hard but glorious adventure, perhaps the prelude to a new and vigorous offensive; to have drifted into the position of a tolerated minority, politely begging an increasingly indifferent multitude for occasional smiles and reluctant contributions, has been to enact a role no less ignominious because ecclesiastics have not known what they were doing, no less deplorable because the populace, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries, has been too polite to tell church people the truth about themselves.


If one looks at the New Testament, the scriptural charter of the ecclesiastical enterprise, or if one examines the nineteen centuries of Christian history in an attempt to analyze the causes of alternating periods of success and failure, it seems plain enough that the Church’s business is the simple and difficult bearing of witness, in terms of creed and code and cult, to the nature of God, the nature of man, the right relationship between the two, as these are revealed in the person and teaching of Jesus; the offering of Him, as solution of man’s problems individual and social, to a world which does not desire Him but cannot get along without Him, a world which for its own safety must be brought to adore and obey him, a world which cannot be brought to do that except by those who do themselves adore and obey Him. The function of the Church is, with complete conviction of the divine inevitability of what Christ reveals about life, to resist all lesser, carnal interpretations of life—resist them in love but with firmness and consistency, convinced that thus it may persuade natural man, turn him to the right-about, save him from conceit and folly and cupidity and from the destruction these engender.

Any significant impact of the Church upon the day whose sun is sinking into a confusing twilight, or upon the tomorrow which struggles in the womb of night, must necessarily be an impact of challenge, of opposition. That challenge remains constant, because of the essential continuity which exists between the immediate past and the immediate future. Their relationship is not that of supplanted and supplanter, but rather that of boy and grown-up man. The liberal age, with its trust in rational idealism, soon degenerated, because of man’s conceited irrationality, into an era of class struggle and of stridently expanding empire. These now lead straight on into a period of greedy collectivism dominated by demagogues. The history of man from 1750 to 1950 will be seen by historians in the twenty-first century to have been all of a piece. The secularist structure during the two centuries has been and continues a consistent development: an un-Christian, indeed an anti-Christian folly.

Its foundations are pride, ambition, desire to dominate, lust for this world’s goods. Christ plainly insisted that in these are seeds of death, not life; and the Church needs must say the same if it is to hold the respect of those who have regard for honest consistency, or if it is to rescue man from the consequences of his modern mistake. Pride, ambition, desire to dominate, lust for this world’s goods—these must be torn from the human heart. That was what Christ demanded in Jewry long ago. In the centuries since, that demand has been the constant foundation of Christian morality. In every generation the saints, believing the demand to be from God, have devoted their lives to renouncing and denouncing, as basic poisons, those things upon which mankind today would feed.

The Church, these later years, has forgotten how to renounce and denounce them. Instead it has sought to soothe a sick mankind with ointment of sentimental piety plus injections of a superficially optimistic geniality. The note of prophecy has, indeed, not wholly died away; but the prophets have been expelled from the synagogue, banished to obscure Coventries, or at least persuaded “to draw it very mild.” This is understandable. Prophets are upsetting souls. They interfere with the financing of missionary budgets and, in general, with the smooth running of ecclesiastical enterprises. They make difficult the erection of super-temples, and mar the nice amenities of life. It was so in the days of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremy, of those apostles who in the first days of Christianity went about turning the world upside down, of Loyola and of Luther and of Wesley and of Gore.


Nobody likes the prophets much. But whenever the prophets are silent, the Church is first made powerless and then regarded, quite properly, as parasitic. The Church in a liberal and capitalist world has preferred popularity to prophecy. It is not surprising that now the Church discovers that “from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

If the Church is in any real sense to influence the world of tomorrow, it would seem that the Church must so reform itself that it can make a new and almost brutal proclamation of the ethics of Christ, with an authority born of belief that the way of life therein commanded comes straight from God. The ethics of Jesus, as one reads the same in the New Testament, as one finds it in the systematic formulation made by Christian moralists all down the years, is, to say the least, hardly to be twisted into consistency with the wisdom by which democrats, totalitarians, or what you will, would today build their various Utopias. One may deem it a true morality or a false morality; at least it is a different morality from that of the secularist. If men come to suspect that the secularist wisdom leads to little but insecurity, war, unhappiness, despair, they may just possibly conclude that it is the Christ who is the wise one. That happened several times in the days before we were born. But if they are to have that choice, the Church must continue to proclaim Christ’s way as of divine sanction, come weal come woe. That is its justification for being.

Bell is not without hope. He mentions the emergence of Francis of Assisi in a time of the Church’s weakness and corruption. Bell:

In times of world emergency there has emerged a leadership sufficient to ensure an utterance of Jesus’ wisdom, a necessary challenge to the dying civilization, a new outpouring of the power of God bestowed on those intent to do His will rather than merely to follow along with a self-blinded humanity. Why not again?


The really alarming weakness in the Church’s present state is due to the slowness of the moral revival among the rank and file of the members. Despite protesting minorities, notwithstanding occasional leadership, the great mass of Christian people remain complacent, unaware both that the position of the Church in contemporary society is humiliating and that the cause of that humiliation is their own timid compromise with a secularism inconsistent with tenets the holding and advancement of which are the Church’s chief reason for being.

And finally:

When the Church at last comes out from the valley of a deserved humiliation, it will find that it is held in small esteem, that it is poor and despised; but such an approach to a worldly world is the only one by which to persuade that world that there are better things to live for than the current wisdom has revealed. Such humiliation, embraced and not resented, is required if one is to draw mankind to God. That is the meaning of the crucifix, whereon hangs One whom Christians are at least supposed to worship. He died for truth, for God, to rise again in power. In the end men listen to Him, understand, worship Him; but to bring that about in the world of tomorrow Christians, like Christ, must again be willing to lay down their lives in defiance of the mores of the world. The future of the Church, under God, lies in no other hands than its own.

Read the whole thing. This is the call of the Benedict Option, which I freely admit is nothing new.

Bell was incredibly prescient. It’s very easy, in the year 2017, to see how weak the Christian churches have become. Bell saw it all 75 years ago! And he saw the remedy. It is still the remedy. The power of the anti-Christian culture is far, far greater than it was in 1942.

Maybe that fact makes it easier for Christians today to see what those in the still-intact Christian culture of the USA circa 1942 could not perceive. Maybe. If not, the American church will die in her sleep.

There will be some who read Bell’s essay and think, “He predicted the church’s demise in 1942, but it’s still here. Bell was a false prophet.” That’s a serious misreading of his argument. Here is Bell’s core thesis:

  1. modernity has pushed the church to the margins, and Christians don’t even understand what’s happening to them;
  2. Christians themselves have forgotten what the church is for, and what the teachings of Jesus Christ require;
  3. the church will not recover until and unless its people abandon their complacency, and realize that the church is not supposed to be a therapeutic chaplaincy to the liberal bourgeois order

In 1942, Bell saw this. True, as Eliot said around the same time, Christians cannot live out a privatized faith and still be faithful to the Great Commission. Bell was not calling for that. How we Christians in 2017 learn the difference between the Church and the World, and, more crucially, how to live that difference effectively, is the chief challenge facing the American church today.

This is not a problem that’s the World’s business to solve. This is on us Christians.




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