New Study Questions Religious Kids’ Grasp on Reality, but Should It?

childwonderThe 1999 Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, left many fans of the original trilogy scratching their heads. But as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks was, perhaps the most unsettling part of the movie was how it stripped away the mystery of “The Force.” In the first Star Wars movie (1977), Obi-Wan Kenobi explains:

…the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together…. A Jedi can feel the force flowing through him.

In The Phantom Menace, another Jedi Master reveals – through a blood test – that the force is actually caused by microscopic organisms called Midi-Chlorians which reside in living cells. There’s really no mystery about who is strong in the force. The same test that measures cholesterol can tell if a person has the chemistry to raise an X-Wing Fighter out of a swamp. In other words, the real menace of the first Star Wars prequel is that it kills the mystery and awe that existed long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Enter a new study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science. According to a Huffington Post article, the study claims “young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction.” It went on to describe how researchers had come to their conclusion:

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic –- in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

Forgive me for being skeptical, but 66 participants? It sounds like these researchers went to two classrooms in an afternoon and decided to publish a paper on it. To claim all children who grow up with religious teaching may confuse fact and fiction based on 66 five and six year olds seems a stretch.

But let’s say the study is accurate. This would only concern us if we buy into two unwarranted and unproven assumptions.

First, that materialistic naturalism is true. Or to put it another way, there is nothing real beyond what we can measure with our senses and science. Commenting on this study, Yale professor of psychology Paul Bloom said, “The problem with certain religious beliefs isn’t that they are incredible (science is also incredible) and isn’t that they ruin children’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It’s that they are false.” So there you have it. The problem isn’t that young children might believe a fantastic story but that they might believe the wrong fantastic story; a religious one instead of a naturalistic, scientific one. But if one doesn’t arrogantly presume religious claims to be false, there is no reason to be concerned.

Second, that one of the goals of our progress is to strip the world of a five year old of its awe and mystery. Going back to Star Wars, the introduction of Midi-Chlorians ruined the concept of “The Force” for many fans because it took the fantastic, untamable energy that bound the galaxy together and made it ordinary and measurable. Is that what we want to do to our children? Suck the wonder out of the world ‘cause science says it ain’t so? And if it’s not what we want to do, then why does this study even matter? Is the measure of a healthy five year old that he knows miracles don’t happen or that he laughs, runs, and plays while imagining adventures with dragons?

Eventually our children will grow up and have to face the harsh realities of the world. But it is fantastic awe and wonder that that makes the world better. C.S. Lewis once answered the objection that children should not be told fairy tales in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” by saying:.

Fairy stories do awaken desires in children, but most often it’s not a desire for the fairy world itself. Most children don’t really want there to be dragons in modern England. Instead, the desire is for “they know not what.” This desire for “something beyond” does not empty the real world, but actually gives it new depths. “He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”**

If religious stories and fairy tales do connect with the desires of children for “something beyond” why is that bad? As they grow older they will be able to determine for themselves the truth of these stories. In the meantime, let them live in the wonder and mystery. As Albert Einstein said,

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

If all true art and science comes from the experience of the mysterious then we should spend less time studying children’s ability to define reality and more time letting them stand in awe and wonder. They may be on to something in the world that dreary, hardened, adult researchers have silenced long ago.

Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. –Psalm 78:3-4

Brian

**paraphrased by Jon Rigney in the article “Three Objections to Fairy Tales and C.S. Lewis’ Response” posted at Desiring God (http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/three-objections-to-fairy-tales-and-c-s-lewiss-response)

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Your Worship Service is Not the Super Bowl

Chargers Seahawks FootballThe freezing forecast for Super Bowl 2014 is less than favorable for players, ticket holders and media. No doubt there will be abundant commentary throughout, noting the devotion of fans, bundled and camped in their seats for hours. It’s the perfect opportunity for pastors to highlight the commitment of sports fans in contrast with the lesser commitment of congregants to worship God in warm, dry sanctuaries for only an hour. Some might even draw comparisons between the amount of cheering and clapping, hinting that God deserves more enthusiasm than the Broncos.

Christians are certainly guilty of worshipping lesser gods. Sporting events are one of the easiest to pick on because of the similarities shared with worship services (a few leading many to celebrate a mutual love). It’s possible, however, that this comparison has run its course.

The enthusiasm at sporting events is easy to understand. You are gathered with thousands of people who share an affinity for a team and game to enjoy a singular event. There’s music, cheers and the possibility of victory. Win or lose, everyone goes home and life goes on. We do not live our lives under the umbrella of sports. We don’t spend time contemplating how our decisions impact our devotion to them. We do not study the lives of players and coaches, searching for direction and wisdom. We do not truly love them with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. We don’t look to sports for meaning and purpose; we look to them for enjoyment.

I’ve heard several pastors, worship leaders and speakers rebuke Christians for loving sports more than Jesus because their reserved worship countenance was no match for their mayhem at Friday’s game.  I sometimes sense the temptation in my own heart to turn and glare at the hollow, bored faces during worship and scold them for their apathy. Are they listening to the lyrics? Do they realize how blessed they are to gather freely and worship the risen Christ? In spite of this, I fear that soliciting amens, claps and smiles yields confusion and fakeness. Here are six reasons why worship doesn’t look like a sporting event:

Not everyone understands. I sat behind a woman at a football game once who spent the entire time looking at her phone. I heard her husband say things like, “Now that is the end zone.” She never cheered once. Why? She didn’t understand football. Worship services are filled with non-Christians and some Christians who have forgotten the gospel. They are present and singing (have been for years), but they don’t really get the cross. They don’t truly understand their sinfulness, God’s character and His gift of salvation. They aren’t going to be outwardly excited because they have no reason to be.

Some people are sad. A woman shared with me that two weeks after her husband of 40 years died, she walked into worship and the pastor asked, “Where’s that smile? Aren’t you glad to be here?”It stung. Sanctuaries are filled with the sick, abused, divorced, addicted, abandoned, mourning, infertile and many other hurts. However, sadness isn’t always personal. Tim Keller once said Christianity makes you a sadder person; as we mature in Christ, everything that makes God sad (worldwide tragedy, sin and consequences) will sadden us. These realities do not stop on Sunday. The saddest people can have joy in Christ and worship God without excitement. Sometimes, a joyful noise is a tear hitting a lapel.

There’s more than one worship expression. It’s difficult to claim worship must always include visible enthusiasm because the Bible never commands it. Scripture is full of different worship expressions.  Sometimes people are silent and turned away from God’s face; other times they are kneeling before Him and crying. Others are dancing, singing and shouting. Elevating one visible response over another is irresponsible. Worship is expressed many ways.

The Bible describes corporate worship. Paul took great care explaining rightful worship to the Corinthians. When his instructions are boiled down, he had one basic message: there is right, orderly way to worship God corporately. Must a worship service match the energy of a sporting event? Paul didn’t say one way or another.  His instructions do not forbid exuberant worship, but they do not demand it. The Psalms describe both jovial and reverent worship, but do not command either.

God is holy. God has zero sin, I have lots of it and I sometimes fail to confess it prior to Sunday. If God reveals my sin alongside His holiness, I will not be excited about it. I will be broken. My worship activity will reflect this. I will not throw Him the casual cheers I gave my team a day earlier. I will most likely worship silently with reverent fear. The Israelites feared God’s presence would kill someone if they entered it wrongfully. Even though we have the benefit of a torn veil, we must think on how we march through it.  

God is complex. The story of God and His redemption isn’t one dimensional like sports (“We win and Satan loses!”). Christians do not worship God only because Jesus died and rose again. The previous week’s happenings may cause us to focus on God’s power and provision. Other times, our Bible study may force us to wrestle with difficult truths about God’s sovereignty. Hymns and sermons inspire worship, reminding us of temptation, eternity, a forgotten aspect of God’s character, etc. The Christian will worship God for different reasons in different ways, depending on what God is doing in their circumstances, hearts and minds.

Our actions in a worship service are different than those at a football game because our objectives are different. We attend sporting events to enjoy them; it is okay to jump, yell and cheer. We attend worship services to know and worship God. Sometimes, there will be cheering. Other times, there will be silence.  My point is not that Christians should never be visibly excited in worship. My point is Christians can rightly worship God without visible excitement as our culture measures it.

If you’re sanctuary doesn’t look like a stadium, no need to worry. There’s probably more worship taking place than meets the eye. Truth over time planted in the hearts of Christians will yield authentic worship, expressed authentically. There will be tears, stillness, raised hands, bowed heads, giant grins, soft voices and loud shouts. Instead of wishing your church was more excited, exalt the One who inspires eternal excitement (and it’s not Peyton Manning).

-Emily

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black friday

Black Friday’s Illusions and the Human Heart

black fridayBlack Friday will be longer than ever this year with many retailers opening on Thanksgiving to draw the crowds. It will probably work. In a survey by the National Retail Federation, 23% of consumers said they planned to shop on Thanksgiving. Nearly 70% of shoppers – an estimated 97 million people – plan to venture into the traditional Black Friday frenzy. They will be lured by increases in both the quantity and quality of deals. According to Savings.com, the number of deals offered by 31 major department store and apparel retailers has increased 63% and the average discount has risen from 25% to 36% just in the last three years.

Yet despite more deals and better deals, the margin between what retailers paid for goods and the price they sold them for has remained about the same at 27.9% according to FactSet. What does that mean? It means that despite discounting more items and discounting them by larger amounts, stores are making the same level of profits on those same items. How could this be? Let Suzanne Kapner of the Wall Street Journal describe it for you:

Here’s how it works, according to one industry consultant describing an actual sweater sold at a major retailer. A supplier sells the sweater to a retailer for roughly $14.50. The suggested retail price is $50, which gives the retailer a roughly 70% markup. A few sweaters sell at that price, but more sell at the first markdown of $44.99, and the bulk sell at the final discount price of $21.99. That produces an average unit retail price of $28 and gives the store about a 45% gross margin on the product.

That incredible deal may not be so incredible after all. In fact, the shopper may just be paying what the item is actually worth, plus or minus a few dollars. So why not do away with all of the discounts and deals and just sell things cheaper? That’s exactly what former J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson tried until the disastrous results got him fired. Then the company returned to the discounts and deals by giving consumers an average of 60% in savings per item. Yet the average price paid by shoppers stayed the same despite the new discounts! What changed was the initial price of the item which rose by 33%.

There is something about human nature that cannot resist a deal, cannot ignore the prospect of getting more for less. It is so powerful that it has created a new holiday – Black Friday – that is slowly eating away at a traditional holiday – Thanksgiving. It is so powerful it drives shoppers to stores in immeasurable numbers and causes them to wait in lines they would flee from at any other time of the year. It is so powerful that retailers craft their pricing models to create the illusion of savings; to price items at what they’re actually worth would be a disaster.

Most of us can identify. We’ve walked into a store intending to buy nothing but walked out with an item on a sale we couldn’t pass up. We’ve spent more than we meant to because the deals were too good. We’ve bought things we didn’t need and even things we didn’t know we wanted on a discount-driven whim. Jesus understood this aspect of our nature. This is probably why he says in Luke 12:15, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Even though Jesus says life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, we think that to some degree it does. Thus, we are never satisfied with what we have and always want more. This is why the bargains, discounts, and deals draw us like a moth to the flame. They promise us that – no matter our economic means – we can have more. If we take advantage of these deals we can have more possessions, more money, more happiness than we would if we passed them by. When we see the normal, inflated price and compare it to the flashy discount price the item becomes almost irresistible; if I buy this now, I can have more than I otherwise would.

This is not a complaint against holiday consumerism; nor is it a plea to stay home on Black Friday.  It is an exhortation to all of us to examine what is going on in our hearts as we shop. To do as Jesus says and be on guard against all covetousness that may spring to life with every passing sale. To remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:11-13:

…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

As we venture into the holiday shopping season, let us go content with what we already have before the first penny is spent. Let us see through the illusions of the retailers enticing us to buy what we don’t need and want what we don’t have. Let us beware of subtly believing that life consists in having more.

If we stand guard over our hearts, our shopping bags may be a little less full, but they’ll contain better things and most importantly, so will our hearts.

-Brian

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Is Disney World Heaven?

Castle4This question spurs a brief and comical battle in my heart. If you’ve never been, it might seem ignorant and senseless to ask. As a lover of Jesus, student of the Bible and one who has cashed in her hopes for eternity, I say, no, Disney World is not heaven. But. That’s where I honeymooned. That’s where we vacation. That’s where I ran my first half marathon. That’s where my dreams come true. Let me assure you, in an age where pleasure is paramount and pain is abundant, the question is appropriate.

Walt Disney World is pure, concentrated magic. Peerless ambience, entertainment and customer service consecrate this 25,000 acre paradise as the third most visited tourist attraction in the world. Guests can choose from 20 resort properties, ranging from economy to luxury, each boasting exceptional thematic detail. Manicured lawns, artisan menus, ornate pools, regal architecture and costumed employees work in tandem to transport you to the time, place and activity of each resort’s theme.

The four theme parks are more impressive still. Each is a contained world of impossible glory: fountains dance to music, characters confined to a page or screen are walking and waving, castles shadow your steps and every attraction is whimsical yet sophisticated and more incredible than the last. There are plant sculptures, streams of parades, exotic animals, brilliant sounds, countless shows, vibrant colors and a polished staff of thousands ready to perfect your day. Every girl a princess, every boy a pirate and every parent amazed.

Days are governed by play. Smiles are effortless. Your room becomes home. As you pack your mouse ears to leave, a sobering cloud settles over your soul: Disney World is not home. Bills, homework, repairs, conflicts, deadlines and the mundane grind of daily life await you.

To sidestep this Disney depression, some have abandoned their careers and cities to relocate their families to Orlando for immediate, unfettered access to the most magical place on earth. Herb Leibacher, founder and chief executive of World of Walt (an independent Walt Disney World information website) recently called for such testimonies; they came in droves.

“Many of the people in the story talked about the ‘Disney bubble,’ which is a term that talks about how things are magically perfect while on Disney property. That contrasts with the real world, where things are dirty, disorganized, messy, and sometimes dangerous.

“In a sense, some people long so much for the ‘Disney bubble’ experience that they want to have it all the time.”

One woman viewed her husband’s job loss as the perfect opportunity to move:

“The kids fell in love with Disney (what kid doesn’t!) and Ron saw how happy people seemed to be who worked there. When we got home to GA, I began talking to him in earnest about making the move, and finally he agreed. I have wanted to work at Disney since I first saw Walt Disney World in February of 1972. Ron began working at Dixie Landings as a third shift custodian in 1996. I began my career in Adventureland Merchandise…”

Leibacher revealed how some manage permanent residence on Disney’s property:

These folks stay at the [Disney] campgrounds for months at a time. Some stay all year long. In effect, they become permanent residents of the campgrounds by renting a parking spot day after day. They are often known as the folks who create extravagant Christmas and Halloween displays around their RVs.”

Moving isn’t odd. People relocate to new cities and states for different reasons every day; employment, education, family and cost of living are popular ones. There is a different dynamic at work in the flight to Orlando (50,000 people per year). Time in the Disney bubble reminds people real life is not as it should be. To Leibacher’s description of the real world, I would add disappointing, wearisome and downright sad. Many believe Tinker Bell’s wand contains sufficient pixie dust to wave away every ache. They are wrong.

Planet Earth provides no air tight escape from sin and its effects. There is no debate: Disney delivers an unparalleled vacation from life’s mediocrity. However, we must never convince ourselves that running to Walt’s arms is the permanent fix for a broken existence. Our fix is found only in Jesus, who has made a way for all to live with Him in the real heaven.

These three things distinguish Disney from heaven. First, heaven is a real place; Jesus called it paradise (Luke 23:43)! Disney is real insomuch as it exists, but visitors are called “Guests,” because there are no true citizens; the employees are called “Cast Members,” because it’s all a show. They turn out the lights and go home to the same challenging realities we do.

Second, heaven is eternal. Paul wrote in second Corinthians 5:1 “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Like the Summer Bay Resort, nine miles west of Disney World, swallowed by a sinkhole two weeks ago (a day before Leibacher published his article), every magnificent Disney structure will be swallowed, if not by a sinkhole, by time.

Lastly, heaven has Jesus. Mickey is great, but he can’t save. Walt had a genius for making magic, but he is dead. Our Savior lives and only by Him and with Him can we receive salvation and paradise.

Leibacher’s article reveals humanity is hungry for heaven. Christians have the privilege and responsibility to reveal with our words and lives the existence of the true heaven. I am guilty of Disney infatuation; my earnest prayer is that my song for Immanuel dwarfs my song for Epcot. Nevertheless, I am forever assured of the truth in these lyrics– “On Christ the solid rock I stand/all other ground is sinking sand.”

-Emily

YEC East Session One

At the end of January I had the chance to speak at YEC East for SBCV in Virginia Beach. I had a lot of fun and was blessed by Matt Papa and Kristian Stanfill leading worship and illusions from Harris III. Below is my message from Exodus 14 from the Friday night session for those churches who were able to brave the snow and make it out!

Brian Jennings: YEC East from Innovative Faith Resources on Vimeo.

Digital Media Overload: Are We Addicts, Slaves, or Consumers?

Social_Media_OverloadIn early 2011 a woman was walking through the Berkshire Mall in Reading, PA while texting on her phone. She failed to see a fountain in front of her and tumbled head first into the water; getting completely drenched. The mall’s surveillance cameras captured the scene which found its way onto YouTube where it received over 2 million views. Her fall provoked laughter and became a modern parable of the perils of being too absorbed in digital media.

Two years later, we are even more absorbed. Information is streaming at ever faster rates in ever greater volumes demanding ever more of our attention. Authors W. Russell Neuman, Yong Jin Park, and Elliot Panek attempted to find out just how much information comes at us and published their results in the International Journal of Communication. They found that in 1960 there were on average 82 minutes of media coming into the home for every minute someone in the household actually consumed media. By 2005, that number had grown to 884 incoming minutes for each minute spent consuming. Therefore, if we consume one hour of media we have over 53,000 minutes of information flooding us. No wonder we’re so absorbed in our smart phones, tablets, computer screens, televisions, and video games.

Most of us impose no limits on digital intake. Like a person who promises to eat just a few Oreo cookies but accidentally consumes half the package, we don’t realize how media consumes us. One minute updating our status on Facebook turns into ten. Ten minutes to scan the news on our tablet turns into thirty. Thirty minutes to watch television turns into an hour. An hour to play video games turns into two. Soon several hours each day are consumed adding up to uncounted days each year devoted to the close companionship of our media devices.

What happens when the plug is pulled? In October, Hurricane Sandy roared on shore in the Northeast. As part of its destructive wake, it left millions without power and without their devices. The New York Times reported on how families were coping with the loss of the constant stream of information.  The Ingall family is one example:

“For the first three days, I was full of maternal pride,” said Marjorie Ingall, a writer in the East Village. “’Look at my children: reading by candlelight, cutting out paper dolls, engaged in such brilliant imaginative play. We are so ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ Then Day 3 hit and the charm of screenless togetherness wore off. I was genuinely concerned that we were all going to kill each other.”

By the time the family made their way to a relative’s fully powered home, one of the children “had cracked like an egg, spending three hours glued to the TV and ignoring all humanity,” Ms. Ingall said. “My prediction: It’ll be a week to 10 days before we’re back to all our zoned-out-and-beeping habits.”

One home that still had electricity became a haven for family and friends to charge their devices. Another family fought viciously over the car charger. Some parents likened what their children were going through to withdrawal from a drug addiction. Others left the state in search of power. One mother found conversation with her ten year old son so difficult she was “…silently pleading for someone to turn the power on.”

Addiction – or at the very least, dependency – may be the best word to describe our relationship with digital media. Yet, despite its controlling effects, most of us aren’t willing to impose any limit to its sovereign reign over our lives. Our attention spans get shorter. We are exposed and desensitized to sex, violence, and tragedy. Our days are one constant distraction. We lack the initiative to read a book much less attempt something significant with our lives. We build our beliefs on sound bites from bloggers and vent our rage in Facebook posts. We have become a generation with nearly limitless information but no real knowledge. We can instantly look up the speed of light, the winner of the 1996 Super Bowl, or the best recipe for fried chicken, but we lack the wisdom which comes from study and experience.

A Christian is called to something more than mindless and endless consumption of digital media. Paul writes in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.” Are we being conformed by our media or are we being transformed by the God we supposedly worship? Many Christians have never read their Bibles; not because they won’t but because they can’t. Their steady diet of Twitter feeds has made the Old Testament wholly unintelligible. Many have no real prayer life because it doesn’t provide the instant gratification found in the click of a mouse or the tap on a touch screen. Many fail to serve Jesus in their church or community because of their service to Call of Duty on xBox.

Does this mean televisions, computers, smart phones, gaming consoles, and tablets are bad? No. Like most things humans create, how we choose to use or not use them makes them good or bad. We can redeem digital media and use it as a blessing and for the glory of God or we can let it slowly strangle us.

Do we control media or does it control us? 1 Corinthians 6:12 tells us, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.” Digital media is enslaving millions who bow to its every beep and vibration. Does that include us?

Do we place any limits on our consumption or do we put the fire hose of media in our mouth and turn it on? Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Digital media and its often questionable content are shaping the culture but the Word of God should shape Christians. What is shaping our lives?

According to a Verizon Wireless survey, children receive their first cell phone at age 11. A Nielson company study said the age could be as low as 9. Digital media is here to stay and is already saturating the next generation. How we use it will shape our lives, families, churches, and communities. Maybe we should unplug and discover if the fountain of living water we’re drinking from is Jesus or Google.

-Brian

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http://www.cjr.org/the_research_report/tmi.php

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/fashion/hurricane-sandy-reveals-a-life-unplugged.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The Undeniable Ugliness of Human Nature

In Joseph Conrad’s classic novel The Heart of Darkness, Marlow, a steamship captain, journeys up the Congo River at the end of the 19th century to bring home the sick and dying Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is a station chief renowned for his command of language, his intelligence, and his ability to generate large quantities of ivory. Yet when Marlow pulls his boat up to Kurtz’ residence, he is shocked to find the yard decorated with severed human heads on poles. Marlow observes:

…there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which, when the pressing need arose could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say.

The lawless jungle had taken a civilized man and turned him into a brutal savage. Conrad sharpens the picture when Marlow goes to visit Kurtz’ fiancé after he dies. In the midst of her grief, she says, “…of all his promise and of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remains – nothing but a memory.” And again she says, “Men looked up to him – his goodness shone in every act.”

Classic literature digs deep into human nature including its often brutal ugliness – something lacking in many present-day novels. Whether it’s Melville’s Moby Dick, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, many of those who wrote in the past were well acquainted with the ugliness of human nature when the restraints of law and society were removed.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a small piece of a much larger tragedy. When the Congo was taken by King Leopold II of Belgium as a colony in 1885 he grabbed as much profit as he could in the form of ivory and rubber. The Europeans who went there found no restraint – governmental, social, or religious – to their behavior in gathering ever greater profits. Murder, starvation, disease, and a plummeting birth rate combined to cut the native population of the Congo in half in just 23 years. The good, noble, civilized men – like Kurtz – were responsible for the deaths of over 10 million.

The story of Ilanga – one woman who experienced the brutality personally – will illustrate its ugliness. Her village was busy with crops when soldiers came and pulled them from their fields and homes. She reports:

When we were all collected the soldiers brought baskets of food for us to carry, in some of which was smoked human flesh… We then set off marching very quickly. My sister Katinga had her baby in her arms and was not compelled to carry a basket; but my husband Oleka was made to carry a goat. We marched… each day until the fifth day when the soldiers took my sister’s baby and threw it in the grass, leaving it to die, and made her carry some cooking pots. On the sixth day we became very weak from lack of food… and my husband, who marched behind us with the goat, could not stand up longer, and so he sat down beside the path and refused to walk more. The soldiers beat him… Then one of them struck him on the head with the end of his gun, and he fell upon the ground. One of the soldiers caught the goat while two or three others stuck the long knives they put on the end of their guns into my husband. I saw the blood spurt out, and then saw him no more… Many of the young men were killed the same way, and many babies thrown into the grass to die.

These events in the Congo vividly display the depravity of human nature. Yet though they are not even a hundred years old they are nearly forgotten. We have moved on to the depravity of the latest pop star and convinced ourselves we aren’t so bad.  Yet 10 million killed in the Congo, eight-hundred thousand dead in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Holocaust under Nazi Germany, present day killings in the Sudan and Syria, and the empty eyes of millions of children sold into sexual slavery remind us there is something ugly in human nature. Laws restrain it, society pressures it, religion commands it, yet it remains.

We may protest, “Not me! I wouldn’t do those things!” Can we be so sure? It’s easy to believe in our goodness from the comfort of a suburban American living room. But what if we experienced real horrors in our life? What if the restraints on our various lusts and desires were suddenly removed?

Wrestling with his wicked deeds as he floated down the Congo River, Mr. Kurtz offered a final assessment with his dying words – “The horror, the horror!” If we were to be confronted with the sum total of all of our sin and its horrifying consequences our assessment may not be much different. All of us have inherited a corrupted and sinful human nature. Wayne Grudem writes:

This inherited tendency to sin does not mean that human beings are all as bad as they could be. The constraints of civil law, the expectations of family and society, and the conviction of human conscience all provide restraining influences on the sinful tendencies in our hearts. Therefore, by God’s common grace, people have been able to do much good… But in spite of the ability to do good in many senses of that word, our inherited corruption… which we inherited from Adam means, that as far as God is concerned we are not able to do anything that pleases him… every part of our being is affected by sin – our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts, our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies.

When surveying the havoc wrought by his own sin, the Apostle Paul exclaimed in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He looked into his own heart and was left with despair. Yet he goes on to write: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus Christ was the one who could deliver him from the ugliness of human nature he saw within himself. Only Jesus can repair the corruption of the human heart.

Our hope isn’t found in a 6 step plan to be better people. It isn’t found in small lifestyle changes. It isn’t found in learning from the consequences of our actions. It isn’t found in progressively better laws with a big enough police force to enforce them. It isn’t found in foolishly patting ourselves on the back for being better than Hitler, the guy on the sex offender registry, or that crazy uncle on his fourth marriage.

The only hope for the ugliness of human nature is a Savior.

-Brian

Information on the events in the Congo including Ilanga’s story comes from: Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

 (image credit)