Half of our 2007 New Years’ resolutions have already crashed and burned. Health club memberships are up, attendance has begun to slack. Americans are like Jay Gatsby who “believed in the green light… that year by year recedes before us.” We’re “motivated by the Paradise Spell,” as David Brooks puts it, “by the feeling that there is some glorious destiny just ahead.”1 Yet we rarely achieve our aim of lasting life-change. Why?
People generally do what they’ve been remembering. These are the findings published two weeks ago in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.2 According to National Academy researcher Karl Szpunar, “Our findings provide compelling support for the idea that memory and future thought are highly interrelated and help explain why future thought may be impossible without memories.” If true, this explains why so few Americans enjoy sustained life-changes; including “born again” folks.
Gatsby’s green light means Americans suffer from amnesia. How many of us, for instance, can recall the first names of our four grandparents? Our great-grandparents? How many of us remember the sermon we listened to three weeks ago? “Our society is basically motion without memory,” according to Librarian of Congress James Billington, “which of course, is one of the clinical definitions of insanity.” The Academy’s findings help explain why amnesiacs have difficulty imagining a personal future and affecting changes in their life. This is why real life-changes slip through our fingers. Our future-focus makes us amnesiacs.
Not entirely, though. We do remember parts of our past, and this might explain why religious people often fare worse in experiencing life-change. That’s right; worse.
For two thousand years, the gospel was recited in four chapters titled creation, fall, redemption, and the final restoration. It reminds us that we are made in the image of God. This gospel started in Genesis One and can be found in the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creed. Tragically, two hundred years ago the story was edited to two chapters; the fall and redemption. The opening chapter of creation was largely forgotten. The new starting line was Genesis Three. It reminds people that they are fallen sinners. We’re both – made in God’s image and sinners. Yet the two-chapter gospel accentuates our wounds. The four-chapter gospel elevates our worth as image-bearers of God. The two-chapter story focuses on our deficiency. The four-chapter story reminds us of our dignity. If we recall our shortfalls; it’s likely we’ll fall short.
The divorce rate among “born-again” Christians, for example, is slightly higher (26 percent) than that of mainstream society (22 percent)3. Ninety percent of those who profess to be “born again” initiate divorce proceedings after embracing their new faith.4 Professor Brad Wilcox, a Princeton-trained sociologist who specializes in family issues writes: “Compared with the rest of the population, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce.”5 And just as likely to download copyrighted material, fudge on taxes and reimbursements, abuse a spouse, consume pornography, and plagiarize. So much for a “glorious destiny.”
Many churches have forgotten the premium that the historic Judeo-Christian tradition placed on remembrance… and recalling the right things. The “great sin” of the Old Testament was forgetfulness (at least it is the most recurrent offense). “Remember” is the most frequent command in the Old Testament. We’ve forgotten our story begins with people being made in the image of God and enjoying a capacity for making lasting changes.
Bruce Cole once warned “We cannot see clearly ahead if we are blind to history.”6 He joins past leaders, such as former U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who noted that “there is nothing new but history we do not know,” and George Santayana, the philosopher, who asserted that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Now that science is catching up to what the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition has always upheld, maybe we’ll remember the “four-chapter” story. Otherwise the “glorious destiny” Americans long for will continue to be the green light… that year by year recedes before us.
1 For more on our future-orientation, see David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).
2 The study is the work of Karl K. Szpunar, Jason M. Watson, and Kathleen B. McDermott Department of Psychology, Washington University, St. Louis, MO 63130 It was published by Endel Tulving, Rotman Research Institute of Baycrest Centre, North York, ON, Canada, November 13, 2006.
3 George Barna, “Family,” 2000. Available from Barna Research Online, http://216.87.179/cgi-bin/pagecategory.asp?categoryid=20. See also George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point: It Only Takes One Degree (Regal, 2001), p. 42.
4 The Barna Group, The Barna Update, “Born Again Adults Less Likely to Co-Habit, Just As Likely to Divorce,” August 6, 2001, http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=95.
5 W. Bradford Wilcox, “Conservative Protestants and the Family,” in A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement, ed. Michael Cromartie (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), p. 63.
6 Bruce Cole is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.