It's early June, and even though nobody in my immediate family is getting a diploma this year, I've sat now through three separate graduation ceremonies in the last two weeks.
I'm not complaining. I wanted to go to all three, and actually enjoyed them. The older I get, the more I'm a sucker for heart tuggers. The best by far was the kindergarten graduation last week with 40 young boys and girls winding up their hard academic pursuits of the past nine months and getting to ponder now which direction they were supposed to move the tassels on their pasteboard caps.
So as I analyze my growing tendency to choke up, the more I identify with what I heard an elderly woman in my home church tell my dad when I was only nine years old. "I cry at weddings," she said, "and smile at funerals." The emotion for me, as for her, has nothing at all to do with nostalgia about the experiences just past, or having to part ways with good friends. The tears come because of the increasing certainty with which we can now predict heartache and sadness for all these people stepping across what should be happy thresholds of life.
Heartache and sadness-even for 40 kindergartners.
Watching those four-, five-, and six-year-olds was especially poignant for me first because I had just been reading details of the brand-new nuclear race between India and Pakistan. Wasn't this a nightmare we thought we had put behind us? Kindergartners of the 1950s and 1960s learned how to crawl under their school desks during bomb drills, but hadn't the nonproliferation treaties taken care of scary issues like that?
On the very same day, the stock market skidded 140 points. It was still robustly healthy, of course-but who could guarantee to the kindergartners that they'd never have to live through a depression like their grandparents had endured?
There was also another shooting by a child-this time in Los Angeles-and the conviction of a white man in West Virginia who had helped burn and behead a black man. And there was an urgent phone call from a WORLD reader who thinks we have grossly understated the seriousness of the Y2K computer problem; he's certain that Y2K is going to be God's judgment on the Western world for all its evildoing.
Well, certainly we deserve such judgment. And if it fails to happen during the lifetimes of these 40 kindergartners, we can only ponder how much less civilized our world will have become by that time.
My chief concern, though, as I watched these blithe and buoyant youngsters pick up their diplomas had less to with what kind of world they would inherit than it did with what kind of people they would be in that world. These were kids from Christian families, enrolled at the leading evangelical Christian school in town. Certainly, I wanted to think, they would be different-and certainly they would make a difference.
In that context, my thoughts dipped more gloomily than when I focused on nuclear bombs, the stock market, and child murderers. For just that day, I had also read new reports from evangelical pollster George Barna who reported both bluntly and boldly: "The much-discussed and anticipated spiritual revival is not discernible through common measures of spirituality."
Mr. Barna is the same man whose statistics have suggested over the last several years that in some key respects, people who call themselves Christians don't behave that much differently on a day-to-day basis from all the rest of the people in this troubled world. They are distinguishable from the general population-but not by very much-on frequency of divorce, involvement in premarital sex, and confidence that absolute truth really exists.
To be sure, Mr. Barna's research makes a big distinction between two categories of people. First, there are those who are "born-again Christians"-the roughly 40 percent of the population who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and that after they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. And second, there are "evangelicals"-the meager 6 or 7 percent who say that faith is important, that they know they have a responsibility to share it with non-Christians, that Satan exists, that salvation is by grace alone, that Jesus lived a sinless life, that the Bible is accurate in all it teaches, and who give an orthodox definition of God.
So we should make it clear that it's with reference to the first category that Mr. Barna tends to say there's precious little difference between them and the general population. It's much harder to compare the second group statistically, mostly because there are so few of them!
Kindergartners, of course-even those from a good Christian school-haven't yet lined up with any of those three categories: evangelicals, general believers, and nonbelievers. They will, though. And the prospect that when they do, their lives might not be radically different, that's what makes me weep. Our work is by no means done.