Good News about the World 1

“The good news about bad news is that there is not nearly as much of it as you might think. The bad news about good news is that good news doesn’t tend to sell.” So John Ortberg, in the Foreword to Brad Wright’s new, important book (Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World), and every pastor and professor needs this book. The old communication model of Monroe and Eninger was that you create a need first, and the way to create a need is to put the bad news on the table. And that form of communication works … oh how it works. And many are doomsday sayers predicting the imminent demise of the world, and that the world is going downhill fast and we better scream and shout louder so everyone will hear us, wake up and reverse this ugly trend.

Except that sometimes the news isn’t as bad as you think.

Do you think the world is getting better or worse? OK, let’s get personal: Is your life better this year from last year? Is your economic life better or worse? Is your community’s education better or worse? The environment?

But how does one prove such things? With facts. Brad Wright is a master of social facts, and if we paid more attention to facts and less attention to apocalyptic warnings buttoned up with some good anecdotes, we’d know that the world is not getting worse, that there’s all kinds of good news to go around, and it’s seen in a number of topics. Brad discusses, for instance, this one:

The majority of Americans think that most things in our country and around the world are on a downward spiral, but is such pessimism justified? Is the world really facing impending doom?

I like Brad because I learn so much from him and his studies. I tend listen to social sciences, but I have not studied it technically so knowing a good study from a not-so-good study isn’t my forte.

What we find in this book is that “life is improving in many ways” (16). Yikes, who’d say that today? Brad, and Brad’s got the facts to support it. But who wants to run around, and I swipe this from Ortberg, saying in unPaul unRevere-like fashion, “Stay in bed, the jolly ol’ Brits aren’t even coming?” Read on.

In 2009 Americans answered a set of questions about whether in the last 5 years the USA are getting better, the same, or worse. 83% said worse. A strong 5% thought it was getting better. 1 out of 16 Americans think the USA has gotten better over the last five years. Over the last forty years the majority of Americans have regularly thought the USA was getting worse. About 2 of 3 think that way. Fourteen different items have been studied (like moral standards, crime, public safety, honesty, etc) … and, yes, true to form, we Americans think things are getting worse on each of these topics.

But the facts are that they aren’t. 75% think more are on welfare now, but welfare has declined; 90% think crime among teens is on the uptick, but they’re wrong. Typical Brad Wright: “While the United States is the best in the world at some things (e.g., basketball, putting people in prison, and In-and-Out hamburgers), pessimism isn’t one of them” (19).

Here’s the weird thing: Americans are optimistic. We think positively about our own life but negatively about everyone else’s. The sky is falling, but we’ll miss it. Most Americans rate their own lives better than the country as a whole. Ergo: We are all above average. (HT: Garrison Keillor) Folks like Brad Wright, sociologists, call this the optimism gap. Most of us anticipate a better future, but the future is about the same as the present.

Here’s a good example: Since the 1970s, the GSS (General Social Survey) has asked Americans about the/ir financial situation: 30-45% have said they have improved, but only 5-25% said the same about the national economy.  This optimism gap applies to crime, environment, education, government officials, moral standards, poverty, hunger, homelessness and health care. [I imagine folks thinks blogs are now going downhill. I read that on one blog.]

It’s a tale of two countries: the one “I’ live in and the one “they” live in.

He sketches the famous Thomas Malthus, and then Paul Ehrlich (Wright’s got some gotchas here) who predicted there would be no England in 2000!

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  • Taylor G

    This should be an interesting series. It is certainly not the kind of headline to a blog I’m used to seeing–especially for an evangelical!

  • I’m on chapter three right now! So thankful for this book – we need to shout it from the rooftops. I am surrounded by doomers in real life – and I am thinking they have a self-fulfilling prophetic effect, particularly in terms of the economy.

    If we read the book, and we are convinced, we should talk about it loud, happy, and long!

  • Richard

    But our local TEA Party just brought in a doomsday prophet that said everything happening now can be found in Ezekiel 36-39… How can I trust this Brad Wright with his “facts” and “studies” and “empirical data” when I was told by the doomsday prophet that he’s just plagiarizing God when he’s speaking?
    /sarcasm, pretty heavy

    Thanks for the recommendation Scot! I really enjoy Brad Wright’s work, even if it led to disagreements with pastors and professors that cite Barna every chance they get.

  • Jason Lee

    The book highlights some interesting positive trends that many of us are unaware of.

    Of course it would be irresponsible and inhumane to lose sight of real problems:

    -income inequality
    -pornography expansion
    -non-marital sex
    -single-parent households
    -child obesity

  • John W Frye

    Frankly as I read this, I wondered is Wright “just whistling in the dark?” We are bombarded both by religious and secular authorities with a dooms day eschatology. We’ve got to choose either God or gub’ment to be saved. Fear certainly creates needs and we’ve got ‘products’ for the needs; products of a material, religious and pleasure-based kind. I look forward to this series.

  • sl

    I am pessimistic that the fallen minds of the people will use this as another ammunition in advancing their stories.

  • Robert

    Rather vague statement: “things are getting better”. If we get that out of this book, it sounds like a wast of time……

  • Amos Paul

    I, too, question how ‘things’ are, genereally speaking, speaking… or if certain things are better and certain things are worse.

    Nevertheless, spiritually speaking, I *do* believe that there is an actual dynamic of darkness vs light going on in the Universe. On the one hand, the Kindom of God is breaking in and things are getting better. But on the other hand, the kingdom of darkness is resisting–corrupting the world as we know it. I honestly think that, in this present reality, whenever evil gets worse good gets better. Like C.S. Lewis said in ‘That Hideous Strength’–as the war progresses, each side becomes more distinct.

    One Biblical example of this dynamic that’s fascinating to me is the story of the Exodus. In churches, I’ve often heard the story that the Hebrew slaves’ lives were just flat out terrible until God delivered them. Exodus illustrates a somewhat more nuanced dynamic, however.

    Firstly, they got on just fine and dandy with the Egyptians.

    Exd 1:7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

    Until an evil Pharaoh grew tired of their prosperity and said,

    Exd 1:10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.

    But God didn’t let his people get pushed around with no retaliation.

    Exd 1:12 the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.

    Frustrated by this, the Egyptians made things worse,

    Exd 1:13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves.

    Indeed, the Pharaoh went so far as to command the Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys.

    Exd 1:17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.

    Exd 1:20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong.

    The harder and more cruelly the Egyptians pushed God’s people, the more God pushed back by blessing them with life, fruitfulness, and strenght. Evil got worse and Good got better until, as they say, the straw broke the camel’s back and God fully delivered his people out of that situation.

  • Brian Considine

    It really all depends on what is being measured. On the local scene 5 years ago unemployment was half what it is today, gas was much cheaper at the pump, cost of living less, property values higher, national debt trillions lower and many other social indicators are heading in the wrong direction today. So we have much to pray about in this nation.

    “Upside” apparently looks at some global issues and there is much to be thankful for there. See also Dr. Scott Todd’s (Live 58) data on the improving state of the world with respect to extreme poverty, childhood disease eradication, improvement in AIDS and other indicators telling us the world is getting better.

  • Another book is “The Progress Paradox” by Greg Easterbrook. Amos Paul, thanks for the Exodus illustration!

  • Paul W

    On the one hand,I would undoubtedly view my life (personal, family, economic, etc.) as better even though I don’t know how to define better.

    On the other hand, I work in the human service industry and in my area see a marked increase of those who are experiencing homelessness.

    As to the ‘state of the world’ on this I would have no clue how anyone could speak to it well or meaningfully. Even so, that has not stopped me from optimistically and presumptuously assuming that things in this world are indeed getting better.