This is a column about the difference between history as seen by Life magazine and by the New Testament martyr Stephen. But first, an apology. Three months ago I wrote a column about stonewalling at some Christian organizations and mentioned in passing that I had seen the same when I worked at Du Pont 20 years ago.
One disadvantage of WORLD's recent circulation increase is that no uncomplimentary remark goes unpunished. Boy, did I feel bad when a subscriber wrote, "I am a widow whose husband was a salesman with the Du Pont Company for 28 years, until he died from cancer.... I can remember many instances when my husband or someone else came up with a packaging idea that really benefited the customer.... Many came to his funeral and spoke fondly of their association with him over the years. Now you have put in your readers' minds that people from Du Pont are not to be trusted."
I'm sorry. The vast majority of folks I encountered at Du Pont, particularly those involved with creating and marketing specific products, were trustworthy. My point was that headquarters personnel devoted to polishing the company's overall image fell into distortion, and that some big evangelical organizations have also borne false witness.
Our dear reader's letter arrived as I was starting to write a column about Life magazine's audacious selection of the top 100 events of the past 1,000 years. Since Life's pickers emphasized medical, scientific, and engineering progress, the letter, along with prompting apology, reminded me of Du Pont's famous slogan, "Better things for better living, through chemistry."
How do we attain better living? I praise the improvements that Life spotlights: I'm grateful to write with a computer and travel long distances by air. I'm especially grateful that my family's record is 4-0 on children making it through their first five years, when the typical record in colonial America was 4-8. I thank God for antibiotics and other medical advances.
But faith in man's progress can become a religion of its own. When I worked at Du Pont I saw regularly a big, three-part mural that stood at the end of a concourse in the middle headquarters building in Wilmington, Del. The left panel of the triptych depicted struggling peasants; in the middle, a shining, godlike creature dispensed technological progress; on the right, a happy family of citizens boldly claimed a brave new world.
In my five years with the company, I saw scientists and engineers with almost godlike intelligence and perseverance creating new products that provide better living-if we don't mess up our lives through sin. The problem is, we always do.
That's not Du Pont's fault, but it's worth noting. When Stephen in Acts 7 gave the Sanhedrin his list of highlights for not only 1,000 but 2,000 years, he of course included God's promises to Abraham, the triumphs of Joseph, and God's freeing of Israel from slavery in Egypt. But Stephen emphasized the Israelites' rejection of God, their worship of a golden calf and other idols, their persecution of prophets.
If Stephen rather than Life were making a list for the past millennium, I suspect he'd include telephones and penicillin-but he'd also note sadly that in 1229 the Inquisition in Toulouse forbade Bible reading by all laymen, and in 1252 the Inquisition began to use torture. Events such as the burning at the stake of Jan Hus in 1415, or the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Huguenots in 1572, showed how believers were once again persecuted.
Columbus's discovery of America in 1492 would deserve listing, but ethnic cleansing that same year-the expulsion of Jews from Spain-gave more indication of man's sin, as did the syphilis epidemic that spread all over Europe in 1495. The enslaving and forced transport of tens of millions of Africans-first by Arabs, then by slave traders taking them to Latin America, and from 1619 on to Virginia and then other British colonies-was also a key event.
Stephen might also note brokenheartedly the historical might-have-beens, the way leaders in some countries worked to keep out the gospel. In 1637 Japanese lords exterminated Christians in their country and prohibited foreign books. In 1716 Chinese leaders prohibited Christian teaching there.
Moving to recent times, Stephen would probably balance good news of material inventions with a sad summary of man's ideological inventions such as the Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Leading expressions of anger and evil ideology would also deserve listing: World War I, World War II, Stalin's killing of probably 20 million through state famine and terror, Mao's killing of more during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Life's list included some disasters but celebrated man. Stephen's would emphasize our desperate need to confess sins and turn to Christ.