Not Pinker, but Brighter image

Not Pinker, but Brighter

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There seems to be a sudden surge of optimism in what is so often a depressing world. Stephen Pinker has told us how everything is getting better, thanks to the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values. And Hans Rosling has been at it too, in his posthumously published Factfulness.

Unlike Pinker, Rosling does not put improvements in the human condition down to Enlightenment values – more the inevitable progress generated by economic growth. On page after page and in graph after graph Rosling – always with a humorous twinkle in his eye – tells us why the pessimism most people feel about the world is entirely misplaced. Whether it’s the fact that across the world life expectancy is now better than 72 years, or that whereas in 1962 there were only 200 playable guitars for every million people but 11,000 by 2014, Rosling’s message is: things are good – and getting better!

Rosling says that our ‘negativity instinct’ makes us incredibly poor judges of what is really happening in the world – although the data is all there. This means that when given multiple choice questions about human development (E.g., Worldwide, how many girls finish primary school? In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…? How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?), even – or especially! – the most educated people score worse than would a chimpanzee answering at random.

Using Gapminders brilliant bubble graphs Rosling paints an extraordinary picture of growing global prosperity, health and education. It is terrifically cheering stuff; and statistically bullet-proof. If you want bucking up, or just need your view of the world recalibrated, this, rather than Pinker’s, is the book to get.

It’s almost enough to make me postmillennial.

And it begs a question not only of how humans in general perceive the world, but particularly how evangelical Christians do. Rosling describes how aid agencies and NGOs have a vested interest in making things look worse than they are in order to raise awareness and – crucially – cash. My experience has been that Christians often adopt the same tactics: the world is going to hell in a handcart – turn to Christ! This isn’t just an occasional slip-up but central to so much of the evangelical narrative, even as evangelicals have played such a significant role in creating the conditions that have allowed for the improvements Rosling describes.

If nothing else, all this goes to show that while the gospel is especially relevant for the poor, the gospel isn’t needed only because people are poor. All have a fundamental need for Christ – rich and poor alike; or in Rosling’s categories, everyone on Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4 of development.

If our motivation for proclaiming the gospel is shrunk to a kind of survivalist escape trajectory in which we offer people Christ merely as an insurance policy against a world gone bad we are missing the point – and being dishonest. Our Christian worldview should be a positive one. The world might not be Pinker, but it is getting better, and thank God for that. If disease is pushed back, longevity increased, and education available for all, these are just portents of the kingdom breaking in. The world is getting better, but it’s going to be a lot better yet. That’s something to be cheerful about.

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