Best Year Ever? Yes! And also…No

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has gotten a lot of attention recently for declaring that “This Has Been the Best Year Ever.” And there is much to celebrate.

Extreme poverty has declined since 1981 from 42% to 10%. “As recently as 1950,” Kristof writes, “27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.”

Kristof also marvels at the increase of literacy around the world and concludes: “When I was born in 1959, a majority of the world’s population had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. By the time I die, illiteracy and extreme poverty may be almost eliminated — and it’s difficult to imagine a greater triumph for humanity on our watch.”

Well, one wonders about other not-so-triumphant trends. Freedom House’s most recent report says that “a total of 68 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties during 2018, with only 50 registering gains.” And when some of those countries are China, India, and the United States, the whole world has cause to worry.

Christians have additional reasons for concern.

According to OpenDoors, a service organization focused on persecuted Christians worldwide, “Five years ago, only North Korea was in the ‘extreme’ category for its level of persecution of Christians. In the 2019 World Watch List, as in 2018, 11 countries score enough to fit that category”—with most of those being in the Muslim-majority world, but with North Korea and India also scoring among them.

Even here at home, religious health-care professionals, lawyers, public servants, and organizations are under provincial and federal pressure to compromise their consciences. Significant shadows loom over the spread and practice of the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center states that “there are about 2.3 billion Christians in the world and 1.8 billion Muslims. That gap is expected to narrow by 2060, when Pew Research Center projects there will be 3 billion Christians and nearly 3 billion Muslims. That’s because Muslims, on average, are younger and have more children than do Christians.” Only these two religions, Pew says, are likely to increase faster than the roughly 32% rate of growth in the global population, with all other world religions declining in proportion (such as Hinduism) or in real numbers (such as Buddhism).

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What Child Is This?

In the wake of Christmas and in anticipation of the new year, charitable organizations are asking us for donations. In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens included a brief, horrifying tableau that should give us pause as we consider where to place our money to do good.

Ebenezer Scrooge is about to be left by the Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge spots a small foot protruding from the giant’s robe, and what happens next sticks in the mind:

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.

Scrooge started back, appalled. “Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Many fine organizations focus upon Want. And the Bible makes it clear that we are always to care for the needs of the poor, the immigrant, the family-less, and the otherwise vulnerable.

I, however, work for two organizations that focus upon Ignorance: a Christian school of higher education, Crandall University, and a Christian public-affairs program, “Context.” And Dickens’s warning bears a second look:

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

Want can be directly addressed and alleviated. But ignorance must be encountered, enchanted, and converted—not merely informed. What we do in Christian schools and in thoughtful Christian media is far more difficult than finding a need and filling it. We have to persuade, daily, audiences that are not always hungering for what we can give them. We need to change minds, not just inform them, so that whole ways of life will be altered for the better.

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It’s a Terrible Life

The approach of Christmas and then New Year’s Eve prompts us to reflection—when we’re not hurrying through last-minute shopping, decorating, baking, wrapping, hosting, volunteering, and the like. And that reflection is often helped by…movies.

George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge come readily to mind as secular saints of the holiday. Neither It’s a Wonderful Lifenor A Christmas Carol make more than the slightest reference to the Christian elements of Christmas. But they both pose a fundamental challenge worth us all considering once more: What’s really going on?

George Bailey thinks he knows what’s gone on in his life: a vanishing hope for adventure; a horizon that has steadily shrunk from a world of travel and excitement down to a small town, a precarious business, a dilapidated house, and the constrictions of domesticity. Frustrated by the latest disappointing failure of the people he has sacrificed his dreams to save, he attempts one last gesture of desperate service—and an angel rescues him.

Clarence rescues him from suicidal drowning—a fitting image for how George feels about what his life has come to. And Clarence does so by showing him, through a dark fantasy, how broad and bright and bold and beautiful his life really has been.

Ebenezer Scrooge is equally confident that he knows what’s gone on in his life: a mounting personal fortune, a flourishing set of investments, and a position of grudging respect among his peers.

It takes not one, but four, spirits, to show Scrooge how wrong he is. Invitations to participate charitably in the lives of others he previously has waved away angrily as parasitical threats to his well-deserved riches. Opportunities to “interfere for good,” as his old (really old) friend Jacob Marley puts it, have been scrupulously avoided in the name of “minding my own [wait for it] business.”

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