There has never been a present that has accurately comprehended itself historically, let alone interpreted the present adequately for the future.

The Zeitgeist (“spirit of the times”) is not the enemy but the context in which the Heilige Geist (“Holy Spirit”) wants to be released and unleashed. | by Leonard Sweet

The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness
and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slope
of Vesuvius! Send your ships into unexplored seas! Live in war
with your equals and with yourselves!
Friedrich Nietzsche,
THE GAY SCIENCE

The drama of human experience is always played out on the stage of culture. Is culture your bosom buddy? Is culture your enemy? Or is culture your inevitable companion on the journey? You can’t escape culture, nor would it be good if you could.1

Having culture as a bosom buddy can lead to collusion (or syncretism). Having culture as an enemy can lead to condemnation.2 Having culture as a companion on your journey can lead to its own problems.

We do not get to pick our ambient culture. God has determined our appointed times.3 You and I are part of an arranged marriage, made and chosen “for such a time as this.”4 The Zeitgeist (“spirit of the times”) is not the enemy but the context in which the Heilige Geist (“Holy Spirit”) wants to be released and unleashed. The church spends more time slandering its moment than in savoring and saving its moment. If we loved the world as God so loved the world, we would love it well and love it to life.

On the Side of the Angles

But we live “our times” not as the world lives its time. In a holy triangulation, we are to be “in” the culture but not “of ” the culture. The Christian faith interacts with the culture always at an angle to it.5 To live incarnationally is not to live out of time or out of place but to live in time and in place in a way that is not in-time or in-place. In this respect Jesus promised to make his disciples “anglers of people.”6

There has never been a present that has accurately comprehended itself historically, let alone interpreted the present adequately for the future. We rush in where angels fear to tread. How do we keep the charge (and keep charged) for a lifetime of ministry and mission?

If Darth Vader can be converted, anything is possible. In Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, a climactic battle takes place where Anakin (whom we later know as Darth Vader) makes a pact with the devil. The background of this final crossing over to the dark side is a sea of fire, or lava, on a planet filled with nothing but volcanoes. The lava at the end opens into hell.7

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Look around you in any direction—socially, politically, economically, religiously. Can you see the slow flow of lava? How can you miss the fire fountains swarming the sky? The music industry did not see it in 1999 when it celebrated the most profitable year in its history. When it was pointed out to top executives at a London consultation that something else was going on that could change this in a nanosecond—something digital and streaming—the executives laughed and cut short the consultation as a waste of their time. CDs would rule forever, they said. Consumers would never prefer access to ownership. Within the year, “mp3” overtook “sex” as the Internet’s most popular search term.8

Are we living in “the best of times” or “the worst of times”? Is the world hotfooting it to hell in a handbasket? Or is the world ambling to paradise, with the better angels of our nature at the wheel? Is the future a promised land of milk and honey or a hellscape? War, disease, poverty, and despair have always been part of human history. Are they getting worse or better? Will they always be with us?

We must meet the challenge rather than wish it were not before us.
JUSTICE WILLIAM J. BRENNAN JR.,
SPEECH GIVEN AT GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY

Some say we are living among the endings, the postludes, the codas of a great tradition. Some say “our times” are an “age of enrichment.” Some say we are living in an “enlightenment age” as the Internet births a whole new civilization and new technologies make possible a whole new human. Others say we are teetering on the edge of Armageddon, an age of lurking catastrophes, with our new vernacular of technology a veritable alphabet of apocalypse, a syllabus of horrors. Will scientific shouts of “Eureka!” be greeted by shouts of praise or shrieks of horror?9

Should our response to the future be bounded enthusiasm or stiff-upper-lip despair? Or maybe our palates should get used to a sweet and sour fricassee of honeyed hopes and braced-to-face realities?

A Die Progress Unit (DPU) is the amount of time it takes human beings to achieve enough progress that the shock of bringing a time traveler to your era would kill them. In hunter-gatherer times, a DPU stretched over hundreds of thousands of years. Post–Agricultural Revolution rates were reduced to about twelve thousand years. The post–Industrial Revolution world has moved so quickly that a person living in 1750 would only need to go forward a few hundred years for the disparity between the world she knows and the world in which she suddenly finds herself to stop her heart.10

We believe 2050 will be a coming DPU for anyone reading this book. We live in a science-fictional world. Our children may well experience multiple DPUs in their lifetimes, a shock to the psyche never before experienced, much less imagined in human history. The world we used to call home is going up in smoke. Our descendants will have multiple worlds go up in smoke in their lifetimes.

Oh, it needn’t come to that!
ALICE TO HUMPTY DUMPTY

Scholars who take the most data-driven, hardheaded, chapter-and-verse demographic probes of where we are today end up in a very optimistic place. Wealth is more evenly distributed than it was two hundred years ago, one of many trends that need to be rescued from their reputations. In the twentieth century, which medieval historian Ian Mortimer believes was the “most-change century” of the last thousand years,11 US Americans were 92 percent less likely to perish in a fire, 96 percent less likely to die in a car crash, and 95 percent less likely to die on the job.12 Humanity is also becoming less violent.13

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People in the world are getting smarter, living longer, getting better educated. Thanks to the trifecta of free markets, free trade, and free enterprise, people of modest means throughout the world can now live better than the rich of the not-so-distant past. The “poor” enjoy luxuries that robber barons such as the Rothschilds and Rockefellers couldn’t imagine.

When you brought your produce to market in the agricultural age and you looked at how the royalty lived in that moated castle, little could you imagine that in the industrial age people would live the same way. In the industrial age, when you worked on those railroads and looked at how the millionaire robber barons lived in remote mansions, little could you imagine that in the digital age this is how people would live. When you freelance in the digital age and look at how the billionaires live, where things they don’t want to do are done for them, little can you imagine that in the future this is how you will live, liberating you for what you find impressive, persuasive, immersive.

Even today, residents of the poorest places on the planet, the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and the squatter camps of Africa, enjoy TVs, air-conditioning, and stereos, with many of the homeless even owning supercomputer phones with apps geared specifically to them. Advances in medicine, including genetic therapy and breaching the blood-brain barrier, open up whole new possibilities for healing some of the most intractable diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer. In the words of the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, “The greatest expansion of riches, and reduction in poverty, famine and general want, has been under the market economies.”14

There is so much hype about future technology that if it does anything less than make the earth move, it will be deemed a failure. The more responsible and critical antipessimists include Julian Simon (Hoodwinking the Nation), Bjørn Lomborg (Global Crises, Global Solutions: ), Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves), Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler (Abundance: The Future Is Better than You Think), and Kevin Kelly (The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future). The outlines of their arguments are as follows:

  • Food is more abundant and available.
  • Clean water and good sanitation are increasingly available.
  • Life expectancy is longer.
  • Poverty has fallen dramatically.
  • Global living standards are skyrocketing.
  • War and violence blight fewer lives.
  • Increasing wealth has benefited the environment.
  • Literacy is widening and deepening.
  • People are increasingly free of despotic authority.
  • Equality is increasingly experienced and demanded.
  • Advanced agricultural technology such as farmbots will raise crop yields by as much as 70 percent by 2050.15
  • More than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the last fifty years.16
  • Ethical consumerism is becoming the norm, with some grocery chains carrying only fruits that have a fair trade label.17
  • Ethical audits of organizations and corporations are now the norm, not the exception, and any nation without an ethical dimension to its foreign policy is scorned and marginalized.
  • Globally, there was a 37 percent decrease in executions from 2015 (1,634) to 2016 (1,032), according to Amnesty International.18

So far, so optimistic—but not for two authors in particular. Swedish intellectual Johan Norberg and Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker showcase the variety of ways the world has “progressed” over the last three centuries to blunt the scourges facing our ancestors. Pinker’s books are less a paean to progress than a panegyric for reason and the Enlightenment. In his hatred of religion as a regressive force, Pinker fails to realize that his vaunted “Enlightenment values” are mostly a gift to the world from Christianity.19 He also fails to admit that rationalism in the wrong hands and without the constraints of religion have given us some troubling gifts: Leninism, Maoism, Stalinism, and Nazism.20

People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity;
the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.
H. H. MUNRO,
“REGINALD ON CHRISTMAS PRESENTS”

Because of the nature of media, where good news is no news, no news is bad news, and bad news is good news, daily headlines countermand this glowing picture. Addicted to adrenaline and fueled by TV-cabled anger, we are captive to the “availability heuristic”21 and the Zeigarnik effect.

The “availability heuristic” is cognitive science’s way of talking about how the human brain privileges the probability of what is most memorable. What do we remember most? The most horrific and shocking. The longer an incident stays in our thoughts, the more “available” the memory, the more we believe similar incidents happen frequently, and the more blind we are to actual reality. In short, mind mirrors media: It privileges bad news over good news.

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The Zeigarnik effect is named after Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik. She noticed in 1927 how people better remember unresolved, incomplete events than resolved, completed ones. In relational terms, if you want to get over a relationship and move on, you must give it an ending. If it’s open and unresolved, like major disasters and uncertain developments, you have trouble putting it to rest.

The world is as healthy, wealthy, and wise as it’s ever been. Things have been getting better for Europeans and US Americans since 1800 and for the rest of the world over the past seventy years. To be sure, hunger, pollution, terrorism, poverty, and sickness are facts of life for many throughout the world. Still, in historical perspective as well as in absolute terms, these ills are on the decline. To be sure, there is huge inequality in the world, but the floor of that inequality is not nearly as low as it has been, even if the upper regions of that inequality are getting bigger. In short, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting less poor, but the rich are getting so much richer that in comparison it seems as if the poor were getting poorer.

So if life keeps on getting better, and we make better magic every day, why do we live in a time of tumbling hopes, despairing fears, and depressive spirits? Why do we keep folding our magic carpets or use them as tapestries? Depression is the mind’s waterboarding of the spirit. Depression rates are climbing almost everywhere, as are drug abuse and addictions. An array of addictive and compulsive habits is always on display.

People may be doing better in every way, but they don’t feel they are and are depressed about it and looking for ways to escape all the success. Technology has brought us to the edge of utopia and to the edge of psychological and environmental dystopia.22

It’s almost as if Jesus had diagnosed our condition: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”23 It’s almost as if Jesus’ warning were coming true: “Watch out . . . life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”24 It’s almost as if higher wages won’t bring happiness and higher life expectancy won’t bring happiness, for only the Bread of Life will satisfy.

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.
JOHN MILTON,
“LYCIDAS”

If you do not listen to the world in stereo, the louder channel is the bad news. And when bad news is all you hear, the handwriting is on the wall:25

  • A world where anti-Semitism is on the rise.
  • A world that has lost half the planet’s topsoil in the last fifty years.
  • A world that has heated the atmosphere to dangerous thresholds, even (some say) beyond the point of no return.
  • A world with such acidified oceans that the future of saltwater fish is in question.
  • A world where soon seas will have as much weight in plastic as in fish.
  • A world where humans have ushered in the greatest mass extinction since the wiping out of the dinosaurs.
  • A world that has militarized the public schooling of its children—already in some neighborhoods police officers outnumber guidance counselors or nurses.
  • A world that has criminalized addiction and throws those addicted into jail with set sentences, jails that are hotbeds of high drug activity and addiction.26

An apocalyptic spirit is pervasive: moral panics of ecological collapse, technological dystopia. So many zombies in popular culture you can’t keep up with them. More than 60 percent of New Yorkers believe the end of the world is imminent.27

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Maybe every age is equidistant from eternity. At the end of every technological advancement, the ones who invented the technology are still human and prone to waywardness.28 Maybe the best is yet to come because the worst is already here. Maybe Umberto Eco was right in his claim that “technology moves like a crayfish, in other words, backwards.”29

Never underestimate nostalgia and its power to idealize the past and demonize the present.30 Headlines capture and catalog the doomsayer’s handbasket, filling it with a cornucopia of fears about the worsening of the human condition that make the appetite for nostalgia all the more sweet.

But where nostalgia is a slow buzz, vertigo causes disorienting spells of dizziness and the “spins” that turn apocalyptic anxieties into flare-ups. Vertigo is as much a psychological reaction as a physical one. Why don’t you get queasy, light-headed, and dizzy from looking down from a plane window? From a high window or the top of a building, you have to stop looking down before your head “spins” from the dizzying sense of space below. We measure space by what we can calibrate. If we can’t calibrate it, the space is less threatening. Who’s to say the same isn’t true with time?

Is Your Body of Christ Pregnant?

Reversing the tide of one million youth leaving the church per year is the most
significant domestic evangelism challenge in American history.
Pinetops Foundation,
THE GREAT OPPORTUNITY: THE AMERICAN CHURCH IN 2050

The twenty-first-century church in the West has the two worst illnesses any species can have. The first is a reproduction crisis. We cannot reproduce the faith in our children, our communities, our churches, and our world. When any species can no longer reproduce itself, we classify it as endangered.

The only thing worse than having a problem is the failure to be aware of the problem you have. That’s the church’s second illness—anosognosia, or the ignorance of illness.

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This is the time for the church to find itself, to learn to be itself, and for new panoramas and pathways to address the world’s most urgent challenges. We can get ahead of social change. We can be a player in the formation of the future. But only those who are the most nimble and fleet-footed in the face of change are positioned to make the greatest contributions for the future.

“Reform!” the Duke of Wellington is said to have complained. “Aren’t things bad enough already?”31 Rumbling, erupting, and exploding volcanoes signal the time for volcanic drive and cyclonic energy among us, to carve anew some breath-giving vistas of the future. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” may have worked for the twentieth century, but the soundtrack for the twenty-first century may be Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Or if classical music is not your thing, try Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”


Taken from Rings of Fire by Leonard Sweet. Copyright © 2019. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. 

  1. Culture is a constricting complex of values, concepts, and ideas imposed on the individual in the interests of uniformity. But culture can also be a creative framework for unlimited human potential if it is constantly filtered through a biblical mesh of thought and expression.
  2. For this countercultural view, see Terence McKenna’s lecture “Culture Is Not Your Friend,” video, 6:05, posted by AMP3083, July 24, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdUCa5TrC9Q: “Culture is for other people’s convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, and what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you, it disempowers you, it uses and abuses you.”
  3. See Acts 17:26.
  4. Esther 4:14.
  5. Cambridge University historian Eamon Duffy is (we think) the source of the “angle” metaphor, but we don’t know where he said it.
  6. See Matthew 4:19.
  7. Rebecca Leung, “‘Star Wars’ Goes to Hell: George Lucas Talks about ‘Dark, Emotional’ Finale,” interview by Lesley Stahl, 60 Minutes, March 10, 2005, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/star-wars-goes-to-hell/. Read this transcript and pretend it’s about church leadership.
  8. Stephen Witt, How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy (New York: Viking, 2015), 130.
  9. Ian Mortimer, Centuries of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why It Matters to Us (London: Bodley Head, 2014).
  10. Tim Urban, “The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence,” Wait But Why, January 22, 2015, https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-1.html.
  11. Mortimer, Centuries of Change.
  12. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018), 323.
  13. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).
  14. Justin Welby, Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2016), chap. 6, e-book. Even though some degrees of inequality are built into free enterprise, the argument goes, it is better than state intervention in economic affairs leaving the masses breadless.
  15. Goldman Sachs estimate. See Matt Jancer, “The Transformer of Autonomous Farmbots Can Do 100 Jobs on Its Own,” Wired, March 2018, 20.
  16. Most have argued that this global lift out of poverty is because of global trade, technological innovation, and capitalism, although not everyone agrees.
  17. For example, in England you can’t buy a banana at the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s without a fairtrade designation.
  18. “The Death Penalty in 2016: Facts and Figures,” Amnesty International, April 11, 2017, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/04/death-penalty-2016- facts-and-figures/.
  19. The best critique of Pinker is John Gray’s “Unenlightened Thinking: Steven Pinker’s Embarrassing New Book Is a Feeble Sermon for Rattled Liberals,” New Statesman, February 22, 2018.
  20. For the nightmares of atheism, see Aurel Kolnai’s classic The War against the West (London: Victor Gollancz, 1938)— sheer genius, each page written in a Vienna café, and Nazism is presented as a neopagan movement that aimed to destroy the Christian West. The best book from a Christian perspective on atheism today is David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
  21. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability,” Cognitive Psychology 5, no. 2 (September 1973): 207–32.
  22. See Tim Dee, ed., Ground Work: Writings on People and Places (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), for an example of pessimism among distinguished writers and academics.
  23. Mark 8:36.
  24. Luke 12:15.
  25. This is the secret behind the success of David Borgenicht et al., The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series (San Francisco: Chronicle, 1999–2019).
  26. René Girard, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer, trans. Trevor Cribben Merrill (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014).
  27. Girard, When These Things Begin, 88.
  28. As Gustave Flaubert said at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, “When this is over we shall still be stupid.”
  29. Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy and Other Occasional Writings, trans. Richard Dixon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
  30. See Albert Hirschman’s classic The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Cambridge, MA:Belknap, 1991).
  31. Tony Wright, “Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act by Edward Pearce,” Independent, January 26, 2004, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/reform-the-fight-for-the-1832-reform-act-by-edward-pearce-75392.html.

CGM

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