In a time of intense theological battles, social upheaval, and tectonic paradigm shifting, one of the more uplifting and helpful books I’ve read is Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World, by Bradley R. E. Wright.
Given the vast potential for pessimism about our world among Christians and conservatives especially, but the general public as well, the data, conclusions, and perspective in Dr. Wright’s optimistic book come across almost as countercultural. Were the message not so expertly laid out, well-communicated for the average person, level-headed, and often humorous, the reader so deeply encultured in socially-polarized pessimism may find themselves shouting defiantly in the face of optimism. We may, in fact, be found staring into the abyss of negativity, and self-flagellating to keep ourselves believing it’s a prophecy to be fulfilled.
The astute reader will recognize in Dr. Wright’s title potential support for the truth of Postmillennialism. Dr. Wright is a Christian, but not grinding a theological axe of any variety. That does not mean he does not believe postmillennialism inherently in some way, but his work in this book is not the product of a theological slant, but purely of his sociological interest.
For the rest of you who say, “I don’t know what ‘postmillennialism’ is, either,” for our purposes here it involves one of three basic views of the kingdom of God here and now (in particular, whether it will fill the whole world or not before Christ “returns”?). To understand my point about optimism, please read my brief essay on “God’s favorite Bible passage.”
In the conservative Christian world, by far the predominant view has been utter pessimism in this regard. News, facts, politics, headlines, education, and more—whole lives and millions of them—have been dominated by despair and a longing to escape. Just this week, actually, I was directed to a website fully enthralled with the idea of being “ready for the rapture” at any moment, complete with a systematic collection of daily news articles dedicated to reinforcing the idea that it’s all getting worse, worse and worse, and thus the rapture must be closer than we ever believed.
In sum, things have not been optimistic for conservative Christianity in general, with minor exceptions. A large reason for this, however, is that we have come with a predetermined pessimism for the future, and then started compiling reams of headlines to fit our despair. On the flip side of this, some turns to pessimism have historically resulted from major negative events in history. The French Revolution, the American Civil War, and World Wars I and II have all historically devastated the optimism of people of faith. So both the pessimism and negative events work together like yin and yang to drag the whole boat under.
To be fair, there is certainly no shortage of negativity out there to share. Much of it is true. But when we let the streams of negative short-term news overrun the big picture of progress, we do ourselves a disservice and end up missing a tremendous amount that is good, and I would add, good prospering even in the midst of evil.
This is where Dr. Wright’s book enters. With chapters on economy and finance, education, health, stress and happiness indicators, Crime, War, Freedom and Faith, Marriage and Families, and the Environment, he steps stat-by-stat, study-by-study, report-by-report to show that in the big picture, things are actually much better in almost every area over decades.
The summary of his findings on pages 202–204 reveals the following: out of 39 categories, only 3 can be said to be “substantially worse” than they were in 1980. There others that are “worse” to lesser degrees, and other factors to consider, but this is one very good way of seeing the big picture. In what areas are these three? Obesity, prison population, and living together unmarried.
That last category will certainly be the most troubling to the traditional conservative Christian mind, but all three are truly a problem. Of all the things that have seen a lack of improvement, marriage and sexuality in our culture are the obviously biggest problem as a general category. This is noted. The bigger problem for us, however, is why we would dwell only on these three (as proof our pessimistic outlook for the future is true!) to the neglect of 36 other major areas of life. Christians really should get a grip on the fact that while the world is far from perfect, most things have actually gotten better over time in the big picture.
Much of this relates directly to something Wright says early in the book, in a section on “The High Cost of Unwarranted Pessimism.” Did you know that excessive pessimism has several negative consequences of its own? These do not only include the problem of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy (speaking your own doom, and then living it out unnecessarily!), it also robs us of the ability properly to prioritize our lives. This can even have mortal consequences. Further, pessimism robs us of potential: it “casts doubt on the efficacy of proposed programs and policies to make things better” (p. 30). This is the “why even try?” effect. Finally, pessimism can have a barrage of negative health effects on the individual: shorter life-span, increased depression rates, weakened immunity, increased stress and risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as of Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Wright concludes his chapter on Crime and War, Faith and Freedom by saying, “Overestimating how dangerous the world is also leads to a general distrust of the people and places around us.” Nevertheless, refocusing our attention on the good things happening all around us, and, in fact, the many or even majority of good things, will not only alleviate some of the unnecessary anxiety and health problems, but drive us to a proper spiritual response, which is to be “thankful.”
Dr. Wright’s book highlights and discusses the data behind many such things for which we can give thanks. To be sure, he is realistic and honest. He clearly discusses where things have indeed gotten worse, and says we should view it in that light and work to do something about it. He is also focused in a couple places on the unnecessary prophetic doom and despair generated in many circles of Christianity. In all of this he is sober and responsible, yet still hopeful that in being realistic we can do something about it, not despair or look for escape.
While there are certainly a couple places where I would disagree with Dr. Wright’s interpretations or valuations of things, this book is an important counterbalance to the prolific overweight of Christian despair and negativity in the world today—much of it driven unnecessarily by end times views. I am tempted to say this book is good support, evidentially speaking, for the postmillennial position; it is at the very least a powerful corrective to the negativity generated in endless reams by the majority of competing views. In the end, Scripture determines of the truth, but it is good to realize that a broader view of evidence indicates the world is not a sinking Titanic.
There is, however, one unfortunate piece of bad news I must give you on this book about good news: it is currently not available in hardcopy print. I was fortunate to find a review copy we had received at American Vision when it came out in 2011. You can still get used copies on Amazon, and if you have KindleUnlimited, it’s currently free. You can also get e-Books from the publisher. I am looking into a reprint currently.
Christians have certainly read far too many books that have deceived them into believing things must get worse and worse. This is simply not true for our time. While we can say the world is not “gong to hell in a handbasket,” we are certainly all in this handbasket of a world together. That means we should at least start reading better books. This one will help quite a bit. So will these.