Across the Charles River from the Church of the Advent sits mighty Harvard. There, the famous psychology professor Steven Pinker thinks the world is getting better. In a recent interview, he makes the statement that, thanks to the Enlightenment and especially to science, life on earth is improving. He acknowledges that human beings “tend to backslide into irrationality,” but all in all, he thinks the data show that we’re making headway. Pinker is not ignorant about human evil, but he genuinely believes that human progress is unstoppable and that science and technology can solve our problems if we can only be rational, high-minded people—presumably, people like himself.

The Bible pushes back against the naive optimism of Pinker and many others like him. It is a story, not a scientific document or a collection of spiritual principles. It tells us how we came to be who we are in this world, how we fractured the image of God in ourselves by our rebellion, and how our creator came in his own person to transfigure us into the likeness of the son, who became incarnate in our human flesh. It tells us of the powers of sin and death and their hold on us.

The biblical story is rigorously unsentimental. It doesn’t offer optimism. It doesn’t offer “positive thinking.” It looks deeply into human misery, human folly, human pain, and plain old human disappointment. I like what the writer Lance Morrow said about the 20th century era of world wars and genocide: “Instead of a growing Enlightenment, it seems more like an Endarkenment.”

The Advent season, properly understood, is designed to help us understand this “Endarkenment.” It strengthens us for life in the real world, ...

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