Book Review - Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World

Gloomy. That’s the general outlook that the vast majority of Americans seem to have when it comes to our future. Whether it’s political wrangling, economic turmoil, pandemics or education—the present is bleak and the future is downright scary. It’s not just Al Gore predicting global devastation caused by global warming, nor is it simply the war-mongers who see a jihadist behind every bush, it’s Christians too, who seem to enjoy pointing out how bad things are (and are getting).

Bradley Wright, in his new book published by Bethany House asks, “What if the Doomsayers have it all wrong?” A Christian sociologist, in Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World, Wright explores why it is that so many of us can’t get enough bad news, and why we all think that things are continually getting worse. The reality, however, is a far cry from the perception! And Wright proves his point by the end of the book.

Reading Upside, was like inhaling a deep breath of fresh air. On so many fronts, there has been remarkable progress in the world. Life expectancy, health and disease, poverty and access to clean water, air pollution, crime, financial well-being, literacy—all these areas and more have seen astounding improvement in the last 200 years.

Amazing progress in health, literacy and more

For some examples: Life expectancy has doubled around the world in the last 100 years, as vaccines, hygiene improvements, medicine and general safety measures have become widely available. Did you know that in the 1820s, the world average of life expectancy was only 26?  Now it’s 66 and rising. Literacy rates have soared from 25% to over 80% worldwide in the last 100 years, and in developing countries, extreme poverty has been cut in half just since the 1980s. Financially, world income rates have increased 1300% since 1820—300% per capita income increase just since 1955. We are able to feed more people for less money than ever, and more people are healthy than ever. And they’re living longer, fuller lives. Things have dramatically changed since the early 1800s.

Some would counter and say, well what about pollution and global warming. Wright shows that both air and water pollution have dramatically improved since the 1970s when the issue was first trumpeted and environmental controls started being written into law. Even deforestation is beginning to level out with some gains being made in some regions of the world. There are still improvements to be made, don’t get me wrong, but the direction has turned.

Others would say crime is on the rise. But statistically it is not. Even as the population has soared, the homicide and burglary rates have dropped significantly since the 1980s. This drop correlates with a dramatic rise in the incarceration rate. In the US, we have 1 in 100 adults behind bars, and including probation and parolees, that number rises to an astounding 1 in 33 adults!

Certainly, most Christians would think the family is weaker and morality is far worse than it has been in America’s past. But for three generations, levels of premarital sex, for instance, have been fairly consistent, with a slight rise in today’s numbers versus the previous generation. Divorce rates have actually fallen since the 1980s, as have abortion rates. For marriages and families, the reality is certainly a mixed bag, but the immoral culture of America has been on a trajectory away from the Judeo-Christian ethic for the last 75 years or more.

Now, with all the good news, why is there still so much pessimism? Much of the pessimism, Wright claims, can be traced to advocates not wanting good news to cause people to relax when it comes to supporting their cause. Environmentalists, for example, don’t want you to know that the environment is getting better, otherwise they may lose financial support. It can also stem from the fact that bad news sells, and a steady diet of bad news breeds an expectation of more bad news. The problem with all this is that unwarranted pessimism can obscure our focus on areas where we really should be pessimistic. Wright explains: “Pessimism, if accurate, can serve us well, and ignoring real problems has its own costs. Accurate perceptions of the world both in the ways that it’s getting better and worse, is the ideal” (p. 31).

Worth being thankful for

Wright’s findings aren’t all positive. He started his book “with the simple question of whether life is getting better,” and his answer is “mostly yes.” He goes on: “Think of it this way: Is there any other period in history when people were better off than now? I don’t see one” (p. 205). In his conclusion he challenges his readers to to be aware of all the good news, and thank God for the state of our world: “While we hear people thank God for their food, their healthy children, or their job, when was the last time you heard someone thank God for the declining national crime rate? Or the rise in literacy around the world? Or the amazing decrease in poverty over the past generation? Aren’t these things worth being thankful for?” (p. 217).

Wright has an important point, which is why I think it is so important to read this book. It’s not just a book full of dry statistics, nor is it written with a preachy tone. Interspersed throughout his analysis of the state of our world are personal anecdotes, witty observations and off-the-wall interesting stats. The following quote, illustrates Wright’s knack at keeping his discussion of numbers fun: “On average, a passenger would have to take a commercial airline flight every day for 20,000 years before they died in a crash. By then, death might be a welcome escape from peanuts and pretzels” (p. 111).

There are not many books out there like Upside. I recommend you purchase a copy for some needed relief from the deafening drone of constant bad news. Read it and rejoice in what God has done for this world in the last 200 years. Then tell someone else that things aren’t all as bad as they might seem!

Author Info: Bradley Wright, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, researches American Christianity. His first book, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, won the Christianity Today book award in the category of Christianity and Culture. Brad is married, has two children, and lives in Storrs, Connecticut.

Disclaimer: This book was provided by the publisher for review. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.

[node:bio/bob-hayton body]

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There are 18 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks, Bob.
I'm kind of a glass-is-half-full guy, so I don't find the premise of the book hard to believe. And I believe most of the progress in the world is due--directly or indirectly--to non-centralized economic systems (free markets with strong property rights and rule of law... also known as capitalism).

But it looks like most of the progress is material: better living conditions, better health, longer physical lives.

My guess is that improvements in education are mostly material-related education--"how-to" stuff vs. "why-to" stuff.

As for the decline of the family, looks like the best Wright can say is that it has leveled off. But I'm reluctant to accept that. It's always hard to evaluate statistics but the numbers in America the last couple of years have continued to show new levels of degeneration (number of children growing up in single parent families, number of couples shacking up before marriage, etc.)

In any case, a burning question for believers is how the phenomenon of improving world conditions fits passages like these:

2 Ti 3:1–7 NKJV 1 But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! 6 For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, 7 always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

See also 2Tim.3:12-14, 1Tim.4.1, 2Pet. 3.3, etc.)

Regardless of how we understand the "last days" passages, sinners are as lost as ever and the gospel is as relevant as ever and nothing is going to change that until the reign of Christ on the earth.

But that doesn't mean things can't get better in many ways and in many places before the final fail and fix.

Re 11:15 NKJV 15 Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!”

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

James S. Lowery's picture

Thank you, Mr. Blumer, for that realization that it is God that is The Christian's Hope, not positive headlines.

Yes, it IS nice to hear good news IF it is true, honorable, right, pure . . . (Phil 4:8). But if The Ten Spies had encouraged Israel to "go up and possess the land" in their own strength, the result at Hormah could have been the same (Numb. 13-14). God is The Ruler yet, and He will not share His glory with another.

Jim Lowery
Richmond, VA

Bob Hayton's picture

I agree. Life, health, long-lives, peace, lower crime, better environment -- all these things are just physical. But they are all blessings that God has given us.

The last days were present in Paul's time as evidenced by a study of "last days" in the New Testament. The world, apart from God, has been and will be full of evil and vice. But the kind of good news chronicled in this book stands testament to God's common grace and His blessings.

Now some might take it as an argument for postmillennialism! I won't go there. Smile

I think sometimes in our eagerness for Christ to come, that we highlight how bad things are too much, as Christians. We over-exaggerate the evils of today as if it has never been as evil as it is now. When in reality things have gotten better in many respects. The respect for life (abortion notwithstanding) is much higher now. The Church has brought hospitals and respect for the aging to our world that wasn't there before.

Think of pagan Rome with the Senators openly having male prostitute boys with them. Think of the mystery cult religions with open sexual perversions in the main district in town. Paligamy was rampant, slavery was rampant. Wars of all kinds were extremely common. Think of the raping and pillaging that the Assyrians did, along with their unspeakable war atrocities. Think of even the Book of Judges and the woman being molested and then cut in 12 pieces and sent throughout Israel. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind as well.

There always has been an evil age and an evil world. And you could argue that in some respects things are not as bad as they were -- only because of the salt/purifying influence of believers and the influence of God's Kingdom on earth through the Church.

We are to work for the good of our city and should be able to rejoice in good things and aim to help further good things through our political involvements. Letting the good and positive changes go unnoticed and unthanked is not wise. So I am truly thankful for this book and wish that others would read it, even if it doesn't address every concern that Christians would have.

The world needs Jesus, that is true. But God has been blessing us and we would do well to be aware of the amazing blessings we have so often taken for granted.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Ed Vasicek's picture

I like the way Bob thinks, and I appreciate his review.

I picked up a Kindle copy of the book and look forward to reading it. I also appreciate the comments of Aaron and James.

"The Midrash Detective"

gdwightlarson's picture

The historian, Barbara Tuchman, stated what is now known as "Tuchman's Law": "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (or any figure the reader would care to supply)." So much news involves negative issues that we can easily find ourselves thinking like the "world" (Rom. 12:2?). I find many Christians so negatively focused that they are difficult to be around. "My brethren, these things out not so to be!"

gdwightlarson

"You can be my brother without being my twin."

Bob Hayton's picture

Thanks Ed. Hope you enjoy the book.

Gordon, you are right. The focus on negative news also sells. So we're more likely to get more negative news and it just compounds.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The book/topic brings together two interesting problems: First, you have your anxiety marketing--news that draws attention by playing on fears and insecurities. (I suppose that because we're all aware that things can go wrong in so many unexpected ways, we've all got plenty of uncertainties and worries to exploit... and it sells papers/ratings/Web post hits).

Second, you have anxiety hermeneutics. Might not be quite the right term... but I've heard plenty of sermon points that were predicated on the idea that things are getting worse in just about every way. For some guys, the entire body of their preaching seems to depend on the idea that everything is the worst it's ever been and will only get worse from here.

I wonder, do you think that growing awareness of this kind of info will spark a revival of http://www.theopedia.com/Postmillennialism ]postmillennialism ?
(Personally, I have a hard time seeing how this kind of progress correlates to the growth of Christ's Kingdom, though many seem to have sufficient imagination to see it.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

I believe that there is always cause for rejoicing and this author has pointed out reasons why we should be rejoicing. I also believe that "The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it." (Prov 22:3).

Respectable Pastors like Erwin Lutzer, John MacArthur, Dave Jermiah,and many others have rightfully pointed out that our nation is in a time of unprecendented moral and spiritual decline. I would disagree with author's stats on abortion. We have places in New York State where 40 percent or more of all pregnancies end in abortion. Al Mohler pointed that out at the beginnig of this year in his blog.

Growing numbers of economists are warning about a recession in 2012 that could even turn into a depression. When you look at the unsustainable debts of many nations, there warnings raise cause for concern.

On top of these, the rise of anti-Christian, anti-semetic thinking is alarming.

I think Pastor's, churches, and individual believers would be better off to face these concerns as they grow in Christ and serve the Lord.

NoahB's picture

Aaron Blumer ]</p> <p>[quote wrote:
In any case, a burning question for believers is how the phenomenon of improving world conditions fits passages like these:

2 Ti 3:1–7 NKJV 1 But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! 6 For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, 7 always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

See also 2Tim.3:12-14, 1Tim.4.1, 2Pet. 3.3, etc.)

Regardless of how we understand the "last days" passages, sinners are as lost as ever and the gospel is as relevant as ever and nothing is going to change that until the reign of Christ on the earth.


As prosperity increases, the perceived need for God decreases, and vice increases. Down on the ground, it may be a little murkier than this, but I think that this is a general principle we can apply to this.

NoahB's picture

To me, there's kind of a prosperity bubble, which as it expands aids the spread of Christianity, but once the prosperity bubble expands too much, it pops and prosperity's impact on Christianity starts going downhill, and in turn with Christianity going downhill, the prosperity soon follows suit.. China is pre-pop; America is post-pop.

NoahB's picture

Wow, I'm not sure how I ended up blowing so many bubbles there. Sorry about that.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's OK. People seem to experience duplicate posts occasionally, though I've never been able to make it happen myself (it may be that it happens when there's a lag in the page update and the poster hits "save" again... when it catches up, there are two posts, etc.)

NoahB wrote:
As prosperity increases, the perceived need for God decreases, and vice increases. Down on the ground, it may be a little murkier than this, but I think that this is a general principle we can apply to this.

I think it would be hard to show that vice increases as prosperity increases, and I think the correlation between affluence and neglect of God may be iffy, too. Intuitively, it seems to make sense that when people are more comfortable they seek God less. And this is true, but what kind of seeking is happening if it's motivated by financial stress? To put it another way, a person who does not seek God when prospering, probably is not genuinely seeking Him when things go wrong either. (This seems to fit the cycles in Israel's history in the OT... there is repentance when things get bad enough, but the lion's share of the motivation seems to be the desire to have a better life rather than a true discovery of what matters most.)

The bubble idea rings true with me to a degree. There tends to be a point where personal affluence goes from "high productivity" to "high distraction and indulgence." But it's only a tendency. Plenty of people who have little are distracted and indulgent--because in this country you do not have to work to put food on the table. Your basic survival is really not in jeopardy. In previous eras, you could only afford to entertain yourself to death if you reached a fairly high level of prosperity first. Too much tiddlywinks would literally result in starvation.

So I think that the right place to locate the wealth-spiritual apathy relationship is really to see it as a productivity-spiritual apathy relationship. I'm still working through these ideas and sense that there is more to it, but when "prospering" becomes a pursuit of more stuff for stuff's sake (or more distraction for distraction's sake) rather than a pursuit of more ability to produce real value, the malaise sets in.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bob Hayton's picture

On the postmillennial question, I don't think there is a wide enough appreciation for this kind of thing to really influence things. I do think that if you compare the world of today to the pre-Reformation, dark ages, you'd have to say there has been a net gain for Christ and a huge improvement in living conditions. I guess the question is, how does that reality factor into your end times theology?

An amillennial view can be optimistic that the influence Christ's Kingdom will have will grow, before the final apostasy. And that doesn't have to be a postmillennial viewpoint. Even historic premillennialism doesn't require a gradual increase of wickedness before Christ's return. Neither does dispensationalism either, I wouldn't think.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Bob Hayton's picture

Pastor Joe Roof wrote:
Growing numbers of economists are warning about a recession in 2012 that could even turn into a depression. When you look at the unsustainable debts of many nations, there warnings raise cause for concern.

On top of these, the rise of anti-Christian, anti-semetic thinking is alarming.

I don't discount this, Joe. But there have been terrible depressions before. There have been global pandemics before (Spanish influenza, bubonic plage). We've seen 1/3 of Europe's poplulation devastated, and 1/2 of the Native American population (or more) wiped out by disease. We've seen awful global wars and rampant slavery. This is life in a fallen world.

Anti-Christian sentiment is par for the course, and is promised in Scripture. Think of how often Christians were snacks for lions, or lightposts for the Nero's of this world. A lot of pagans enjoyed roasting marshmellows at the Christians' expense. Even in the world today there are persecuted Christians all around.

And yet, us American Christians are so alarmed and scared and outraged that the society we live in would have anti-Christian sentiment and threaten our rights and our liberties. We really and truly live in a historical bubble. Religious freedom is the exception not the rule, and it is a short-lived exception. In the mid-1800s in Massachusetts Baptists still had to pay a tax to support the Congregational state church.

I struggle to see the anti-Christian sentiment and even the pro-homosexual movement to be "unprecedented" moves in the sweep of history.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

These things are unprecendent moves in modern times. Yes. we should expect them. That is why men like Lutzer, Mohler, Jeremiah, and others are calling on the American church to wake up to the reality of these developments.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Pastor Joe Roof wrote:
These things are unprecendent moves in modern times. Yes. we should expect them. That is why men like Lutzer, Mohler, Jeremiah, and others are calling on the American church to wake up to the reality of these developments.

We do have unprecedented challenges and temptations because of the new technologies and the breakup of families, etc. Look at what drugs have done to Mexico, for example. Perhaps the best approach is "some things better, some things worse."

"The Midrash Detective"

Steve Newman's picture

I can appreciate that the author is trying to look at the world with "Christian sociology", but like so many modern disciplines, it is not sufficient in describing the present world. 2 Timothy 3:13 speaks of a trend of evil men and seducers getting worse and worse. This is in a different sphere than the world of the sociologist. While there have been many other corrupt societies, there is a high level of moral decay in the forms of false teaching, decline in Christian influence, and tolerance of sin in the present world.
While it is a great thing that people are living longer and in more prosperity, it is not that concern that is man's greatest issue today. Their greatest issue is what they will do with Christ. The amount of unbelief, error and opposition is increasing rapidly.

Bob Hayton's picture

Steve Newman wrote:
I can appreciate that the author is trying to look at the world with "Christian sociology", but like so many modern disciplines, it is not sufficient in describing the present world. 2 Timothy 3:13 speaks of a trend of evil men and seducers getting worse and worse. This is in a different sphere than the world of the sociologist. While there have been many other corrupt societies, there is a high level of moral decay in the forms of false teaching, decline in Christian influence, and tolerance of sin in the present world.
While it is a great thing that people are living longer and in more prosperity, it is not that concern that is man's greatest issue today. Their greatest issue is what they will do with Christ. The amount of unbelief, error and opposition is increasing rapidly.

Even here, I think our wishes that it be the "end times" get the better of us. We still have it much better off than many Christians had for centuries. Think of the world before the Reformation? Can we honestly say we have more unbelief, error and opposition now? Can we honestly say we have less Christian influence than true believers had in the 1400s? Think back to the world at 1800, right around the time that William Carey and Adoniram Judson were pioneering the world missionary movement. Think of how many more languages, cultures and nations are impacted for Christ now than before 1800! And the very idea of having "Christian influence" and there being a decline in that today was almost unthinkable for the first 1600 years of the Church. Christians were hounded and persecuted continually. And many still are. But we have a much better situation when it comes to freedom for Christians today, then perhaps we have ever had. The whole world hears of the upcoming execution of an Afghanistan man for his faith. And even if that execution does happen, still the angst that it brings all over the world is far different from the situation in Rome in the first three centuries AD.

I'm not trying to pretend that we don't have apostasy and error today, nor that we don't have problems as Christians. But I think we blow those problems way out of proportion. We can even start to think like the 19th Century cults that everyone else, except our group, has apostosized and we should just discount the rest of Church history when thinking about our church and our methodology. We should be realistic about our place in history, and not forgetful of the past. We have much to be thankful for. We can hope for Christ's soon return, but we don't have to imagine and assume the worst behind each news story we hear today. That kind of conspiratorial thinking can mute our witness to Christ.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

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