by Ethan Conley, ’19
From the beginning of his writing career, Bernard Iddings Bell found ways to offer advice on everyday hardships and how to move past them. Being an Episcopal priest, he made it his undertaking to provide this guidance through the lens of Christianity.
Bell lived and wrote in a very difficult time in American history. During his years of writing, he encountered two very trying experiences: the Great Depression and World War II. These were very difficult times for Americans of all types. Bell however was most concerned with the lives of American Christians.
In his book (God is not Dead), Bell responds to the Nihilistic ideology that swept the nation during the first half of the 20th century. Nihilism is the philosophical idea that life has no meaning. Nihilistic viewpoints rang true especially after the catastrophic events such as the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. It was difficult for Americans to fathom that technological advances could simply wipe entire races of people off the face of the planet. Bell challenged the Nihilistic ideology and strived to give Christians a different viewpoint. Although these events were many years ago, some would argue that the Nihilistic philosophy that plagued America then is once again alive and well in American society. Traces of Nihilism can be seen in younger generations who are slowly moving away from their faith bases, through technological advances which are being used to further the destruction of Earth rather than to preserve it, and through more and more people suffering from mental illness every year. Bell gives the necessary base and ideology to escape that seemingly inescapable echo-chamber of devastation and confusion.
To connect to his readers, Bell offers an alternate opinion a Christian woman voiced, a person who struggled to deal with everyday life…
“I am distressed at what seems to me the essential falsity to life’s realities of the Christian preaching that I hear. It has a forced cheerfulness that depresses me. The idea back of most sermons seems to be this, that if you try to be good and let God help, your life as year follows year will turn out to be an increasing round of happiness.”
The letter continues by giving an idea of what life is like through her eyes…
“I have lived nearly fifty years, with my eyes open. It seems to me that life is a tragic thing. The cards are stacked, and that not only against the wicked. I see the hopes of youth come to nothing much, romance fade, success prevented either by accident or by the jealousy, stupidity, and often downright cruelty of those round about; or else, if success be a little attained, it is a fruit soon tasteless.”
If there is a Christian who hasn’t witnessed any of these troubling occurrences, then they are fortunate beyond words. However, for the rest of those who consider themselves Christian, these disappointments are valid observations that would cause doubt on life’s worth.
Bell faces this attitude head on. Bell gives God a large amount of credit. Despite these miserable events that occur every day, He has still managed to “impart strength to men and women that they might live… triumphant over necessary tragedy.”
“Christ bids man live, helps man to live, in terms of values not of the body, values which last from youth through maturity and old age and straight on past the gates of death.”
For modern Christians in America, fears of the economy, mental illness, university debts, death & violence, and social inequalities weigh heavy on the mind. Bell makes the argument that to deal with these troubling issues, we must lean on God. A symbol of strength to overcome life’s tragedies is essential in life, and fortunately for Christians, God is just that.
Next, Bell furthers his argument for those who have found their strength in whatever form suits them as individuals.
“Christianity matters for thinking people, for people honest enough, mature enough, to be disillusioned about the satisfactions of carnality. It matters to them precisely because it goes to the heart of man’s central problem, how to live in a world which betrays and destroys him. Christianity is a response to his most relentless need, the need to find some way to make life more than “sound and fury, signifying nothing.””
During Bell’s time, educational systems, including religious educational systems, did not teach the youth about life’s hardships. “Universities and schools have dodged the same issue that the parsons have dodged. They too, have not dared to face man’s tragedy.” He argued many of the youth probably didn’t even know what devastation or even heartache was at such a young age, let alone how to deal with it. So when they came of age and had to face man’s tragedy, they fell into despair.
Avoiding the teachings of life’s hardships has also hurt modern Christians immensely. Everything except how to deal with life’s hardships are being taught thanks to the system in place. Americans continue to be led away from the truth of life’s struggles from a young age, which becomes problematic when they come of age and realize the harsh realities of life. Not knowing how to deal with life’s struggles leaves them floundering because they were never taught how to deal with these situations.
Bell believed that there needed to be a solution for this, and promptly. Bell saw first-hand what life looked like for those who were never exposed to the harsh realities of life until it was too late. For Bell, it was crucial that school systems, and other educational programs quit shielding students from the problems of life. He instead promoted the idea of discussing these issues, and teaching younger generations how to deal with these detrimental issues.
Hope, according to Bell, is not derived from the physical nature of the world.
“When he looks to the hills, that is to say when he looks merely at the physical, he is devoid of hope.”
There is more to life than its physical nature.
One must be able to look deeper.
“Knowing the hidden things of God comes only to those who search.”
Searching for the hidden things that God has to offer can bring purpose and a feeling of emancipation. Journeying to find God’s hidden secrets can distract us from the pain of human suffering, which in turn gives us a sense of control, livelihood, and peace.
Life can be filled with devastating blow after devastating blow, but there is more to it. Bell believed that hope is there, one just has to go out and find it. The physical nature of the world must not determine one’s happiness. Bell urges Christians to look past the physical nature of hardship and darkness and see the light that God offers to them.
Life does matter. It is worth living. Bernard Iddings Bell thinks so, and wants you to have an equivalent mindset. His work may be many years old and often overlooked, but his message is all too relevant in today’s society. We are at a crossroads. The world is inundated with information, stress and anxiety are more frequent, and failure is often inevitable. We must be able to find hope in these difficult times or we will meet our demise, not only as individuals, but as a society.
With all of this said, go out and better your way of living. Find a significant thing in your life that you can fall back on and always rely on it for strength. Don’t only focus on the physical nature of life, find the deeper meaning. Lastly, defeat the discouraging aspects of life, because it is worth living.
“Out of the frantic darkness comes His answering pledge that life does matter, not indeed in terms of the mundane scene but in those of a wider and timeless reality; comes His insurance that earthly life, while a tragedy, is not a hopeless tragedy; comes His guarantee that man’s thought, hopes, dreams, loves, are not without significance.”