From a certain evangelical perspective, Bell’s life can look like a cautionary tale: his desire to question the doctrine of Hell led to his departure from the church he built. And maybe, like many other theological liberals in recent decades, he will drift out of the Christian church altogether and become merely one more mildly spiritual Californian, content to find moments of grace and joy in his everyday life; certainly, that’s what many of his detractors expect.
Emphasis definitely freaking added. As a “mildly spiritual” Californian myself, I found that very funny.
But it’s also possible that his new life will end up strengthening many of his old convictions. Before, he was a dissenter in evangelical West Michigan. Now he is a lifelong believer in secular Southern California. And, in that world, his faith may seem more distinctive — and more important — than his doubts.
The general glossing over of complex personal, religious, and cultural realities drives me crazy. I do it all the time. But still. I’m not writing for the New Yorker am I? Simplistic, category-affirming analysis is a kind of currency in pseudo-academic circle jerks. Call it expensive populism. (Hey, at least it aint cheap!). I’m probably over-reacting, but that bit about Bell’s faith being more distinctive than his doubts in secular California? Not likely. It just smacks of someone who doesn’t know the reality on the ground.
There are plenty of people of faith in California – and it is precisely their kind of faith (take your pick) that makes them blend in with the white noise here. But people who have faith alongside their doubts… now that’s distinctive. My guess is, whatever Bell’s ecclesiology, his kind of doubt will get some attention.