RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Precisely at the midpoint of the century now ending, William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for literature.
“I decline to accept the end of man,” he declared in his Nobel speech. “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
It was a startlingly hopeful utterance from the Mississippi master, who powerfully portrayed human failings in his novels. Moreover, he was speaking to a world still clearing the rubble of World War II, yet apparently rushing toward atomic destruction.
Almost 50 years later, Faulkner’s hope has been vindicated. But the source of it is misplaced. Man has endured, yes, but not prevailed. If the bloodstained 20th century and the millennium of “reason” it closes teaches us anything, it is that.
The tumultuous 20th staggers to an end this month in most people’s minds, if not in mathematical fact. Historians will recall many things about it: two world wars, the fall of old empires and rise of new ones, the devastation wrought by communism and totalitarianism, the Holocaust, the spread of democracy and capitalism, man on the moon, the computer, the Bomb.
Their central theme, however, may be this: the lightning advance of technology, and the ways we have used it to improve life and to inflict suffering and death. Faulkner himself admitted in 1950: “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up?”
Yet the “problems of the spirit” Faulkner spoke of remain the source of our struggles. After the savagery of our time, however, we still have spirits “capable of compassion and sacrifice” only by the grace of God.
The fresh movement of God’s Spirit, in fact, is the real story of the century. How else to explain the staggering growth of the church, the gospel’s spread to countless places worldwide not just in the West and the glorifying of God’s name among peoples who’ve never heard it until now?
And God isn’t finished with us. Remember the scriptural antidote to the millennium hysteria infecting some believers: “[T]his gospel shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14, KJV). Then and only then.
He isn’t finished, but his Spirit is quietly, inexorably, powerfully moving like a vast, unseen river. We have glimpsed some of its tides this year in selected “trends for the millennium,” including:
— Prayer movements. Millions of Christians now unite to pray for world evangelization. “The decade of the 1990s has been a period like no other,” contends International Mission Board prayer strategy leader Randy Sprinkle. “The spirit of prayer is upon the earth.”
— The great people-group awakening. The overdue realization among Christians that the “nations” of the Great Commission are ethnic peoples, not political states, and that more than 2,000 of them comprising nearly a third of humanity remain unreached.
— Church-planting movements. The “spontaneous, rapid multiplication of churches among a people group that enables them to reach their entire people then to reach out to other peoples.” They’re indigenous, lay-led, “out of control,” passionate and powerful and they’re happening where God is at work.
— Global mission force. The steady movement of Christianity’s “center” to the east and south, and the emergence of tens of thousands of missionaries from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
— Chaos, suffering and persecution. God opened many doors this century for the rapid spread of his name amid war, disaster and suffering. Example: the explosive church growth in China during and after the destructive Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.
— The new student volunteer movement. The growing waves of college students and young people going to the ends of the earth not necessarily because they intend to be career missionaries, but because God has called them to worship him and lift his name among the nations.
God’s great unseen river will surface one day. On that day, all knees will bow, all tongues confess that he is Lord. Until then, we wait and serve expectantly.