One recent bit of good news came in headlines like this top-of-page-one surprise in The New York Times: "Scientists bypass need for embryo to get stem cells." The Times, which had previously led the rush to pluck stem cells from tiny, tiny humans, killing them in the process, noted that because of new discoveries the "debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot."
Hurrah! At the beginning of this year liberal pundits were bashing those who hope in God: Christians were supposedly anti-science and anti-humane, willing to sacrifice potential benefits for big sick people so as to protect microscopic unborn people. Now we have new evidence that those who stand on Scripture aren't so dumb or heartless.
A second media message, coming from The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications during the past two months, is that the United States is now winning the war in Iraq, which months ago seemed lost. The Journal writer concluded that during the last few months the United States has "achieved success on the ground at an unprecedented speed in the history of counterinsurgency warfare."
Whether or not the United States was wise to start the war, this news should elicit hurrahs from hawks and doves. Clearly, a precipitous departure like ours from Vietnam would leave millions of humans in desperate straits-and even a slow departure might jeopardize thousands of Iraqi Christians. But the possibility of peace without dictatorship in Iraq should be welcome to all.
A third surprise of the past two months is the fading of despondency among evangelicals concerning the lack of a major presidential candidate with their values. While putative evangelical leaders fiddled and liberal pundits dusted off the quadrennial predictions of conservative Christian demise, Mike Huckabee picked up support, and eventually some of the leaders started following their followers.
It's still unclear whether Huckabee can win-but when asked questions about God or the Bible, he doesn't seem to be running through the computer chips in his brain to find a suave but inauthentic answer. Many evangelicals see George W. Bush as a good and faithful man hurt by his frequent inability to articulate why he believes what he believes. Huckabee is a Bush who can talk.
These three scientific, military, and political items also should have raised the number of smiles because they all arrived within the context of two other pieces of news. One is that terrorists in this country have not made their presence known: No major terrorist incidents on U.S. soil for six years now. The other, far greater, is the Good News: God has made His presence known. Two thousand years ago, the Savior was born.
That's cause for celebration not only on Christmas but on every day of the year. We often need to look past the terror that still afflicts us in these a.d. years-abortions, accidents, divorce, death itself-even in the absence of Big Terror.
Here's one example of what we face: This past spring, terror engulfed a bus carrying Bluffton University baseball players south from their Ohio campus for a week of games. As the night driver took a wrong turn and crashed the bus at high speed, according to Sports Illustrated, "moans and screams echoed through the cabin. Twisted bodies were strewn inside and outside the bus."
A Bluffton counselor said about teammates who survived the crash, "Those guys saw things no one should ever see." That has been the case in much of the world-in Iraq where suicide bombers leave body parts strewn across highways, in Sudan where Muslim militias march on innocent civilians, in every land where horrible diseases make some think that God is not good. Those with open eyes sometimes wish they were closed.
At least after Bluffton's tragedy, faith in a God who personally endured suffering made a huge difference. Sports Illustrated reported, "To a man, the players say that the tragedy has solidified, not shaken, their faith. They focus on the lives that were spared. . . . Ask John Betts, a Mennonite, if he's angry about the death of his son, and he laughs. 'Angry? David was a gift from God I had for more than 20 years. How can I be angry about a gift?'"
For some personally, 2007 has been a happy year. For others, it has not been. Sickness, job loss, subprime mortgages, the hearts of fathers turned away from their children and those of children turned away from their fathers-all these lap away at the sandcastles we construct. But after God has given us years filled with gifts, how can we be angry?
Yet lots of people, including many Christians, are. Why?
Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf put forward a thoughtful suggestion at a conference in New Haven this fall: He said that the idea of what it means to flourish as a human being has shriveled in our society. The common goal now is to be a satisfied self. In an enormous world that is a petty goal, and because it is petty the self-absorbed live in perpetual shadow. Since God wants us to be more, of course we are dissatisfied when we settle for less. Self-absorbed is self-subverted.
"The idea of flourishing as a human being has shriveled to meaning no more than leading an experientially satisfying life," Volf said.
Whatever satisfies us most is right: clothes, sex, food, sports fandom, romance novels, whatever. As Volf notes, "What matters the most is not the source of satisfaction but the experience of it-my satisfaction. Our satisfied self is our best hope."
If that's our best hope we're in trouble, not only in the United States but around the world. Citizens of many countries both prize and fear American culture, which they see as promoting self-absorption: Join us and increase your ability to have an experientially satisfying life. You want possessions, sex, other things? Join us and you get what you want.
Many people don't buy that. Islam, for example, fights against self-absorption by saying, as communism said during the 20th century, "Give your life to something greater than you." That appeal is often effective because self-absorption does not satisfy, since God made us for more than that. But Muslims who leave self-absorption by trying to force everyone to bow to their god are still self-absorbed-although on a larger scale. Islam promises a flourishing life but surrounds its believers with flurries of lies.
Christianity, generally a horizon-watching faith rather than a naval-gazing one, has over the centuries helped people outgrow petty hopes and climb faster and higher toward God's greater challenges. But what if evangelicals sing self-absorbed hymns and songs, classing "personal peace and affluence"-to use Francis Schaeffer's term-as Job No. 1? The result could be spiritual heart attacks and an international laziness that allows Islam and other anti-Christian doctrines to spread without challenge.
A domestic danger is that we end up with both contentiousness and apathy, the worst of both worlds. When people are self-absorbed, politicians and pundits feel the need to scream louder to break through the mental fog. That often leads to more self-absorption as verbal violence makes the annoyed hunker down. The negative spiral continues: more self-absorption, more screaming, more self-absorption, and down we go.
The Bible shows us the way out of self-absorption by telling us to imitate Jesus, who was absorbed by the needs of others: We face nothing that He did not face. We are not satisfied as we see the ravages of sin, most notably in persecution and aggression in so many parts of the world, but when we think of Christ we are not discontent. Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, in a wonderful little book first published about 360 years ago, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, penned an intriguing line about what a Christian should be: "the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world."
And that's the way many remain as this Year of Our Lord 2007 concludes. "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God" (Psalm 42:5). Thank you, God. How long, God?