Just before Lent hits and the horizon darkens, how about a glimpse of sunny skies? This is taken from the recently released Future Issue of The Mockingbird Magazine – get your copy here:

Rembrandt captured the scene marvelously. In his painting, “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem,” the wizened prophet slumps in a palace hallway, head on his hand, eyes half-closed as the city burns in the background. The image hums with pathos and tragedy. A light shines on Jeremiah, who saw this coming, but darkness otherwise engulfs the surroundings. The Babylonians are at the gate, and the world, for all intents and purposes, is ending. Exile awaits.

Ask an artist to paint 2020, going off headlines alone, and they might produce similarly apocalyptic work. It doesn’t matter which outlets they survey—left, right, center—doom pervades pretty much every corner of today’s discourse. Ecological doom, political doom, economic doom, spiritual doom, etc. The end, it would appear, is nigh.

Journalists may exaggerate for the sake of clicks, but the foreboding is more than just a media narrative. I personally have a lot easier time thinking up reasons to despair about the future than reasons to hope. Most of them have to do with the Internet, all the disembodied shouting and polarization and posturing.

Yet doesn’t every generation believe they are living through the “end of history”? There’s something deeply hubristic in the conviction that our specific problems will be the ones to do in the human race. They more than likely aren’t. Sure, there will always be weeds in the flower bed, and sometimes they’ll grow so tall you can’t see the blooms. But that does not mean the blooms aren’t still there. I have aimed to point out three of them in this short essay.

In doing so, I’ve tried to avoid spiritualizing. It is indeed true that the more difficult our lives get, the more that opportunities for faithfulness grow. As the point of surrender approaches, so does hope in That Which Is Not Us. I’d like to focus on trends which appear encouraging on their own terms rather than ones which only look redeeming in light of 2 Corinthians chapter 12 (“my power is made perfect in weakness”). In a sense, everything looks redeeming in that light! Beautifully so. The challenge in this list is to find areas that don’t require subversion.

I’ve also steered clear of subjects where I lack personal knowledge. It could well be, for example, that women are experiencing a higher baseline of respect and dignity in the public sphere than in times past, but I couldn’t say for sure. When I mentioned this assignment to friends, nearly all of them mentioned advances in medicine and bioenhancement, both fields with which I’ve been spared much contact.

So this list is meant mainly as food for thought as opposed to anything comprehensive. And speaking of food, what we eat has gotten so much better, not just in terms of taste or ingredients but availability and nutrition, that the foodies among us surely have plenty to look forward to in the coming decades. Seculosity notwithstanding, the cuisine of the future will blow minds.

Enough disclaimers – let the optimism begin!

Perhaps the least depressing thing about the future has to do with how much we will talk about… depression. Addiction and anxiety, too. We will talk about these things a lot. I remember when I was diagnosed with chronic depression back in the mid-90s, the stigma remained solidly in place. Subjects related to mental illness were very much cloaked in shame and secrecy. Depression was viewed as a sign of weakness. This is no longer the case and will only become less so.

Some might say our increased comfort with talking about mental health is a result of us being that much more addicted and depressed and anxious than we used to be. They would have a point. Certainly as mental health terminology becomes part of our shared vocabulary, we run the risk of pathologizing every bad feeling, of over-diagnosing our young people, or of simply ignoring the spiritual elements that contribute to a person’s wellbeing.

And yet, even with the potential downsides, talking too much about mental illness and addiction still beats suppression by a mile. More people will get the help they need. More sufferers will be met with compassion rather than condemnation. I’d wager this bodes well for the church. Jesus was an exorcist after all.

The second area of Non-Grimness relates to where these conversations are taking place. When we fixate too much on the ills of social media, we forget about the democratization of other forms of media, which has allowed all sorts of fresh voices to emerge. I’m referring to the proliferation of podcasts and music, writing and filmmaking, made possible by the Internet.

The barriers to entry in all of these fields, which were once so high, have more or less disappeared. Which means, on the one hand, that there’s a lot of less-than-amazing product out there, a lot of dross to sift through, a lot of, well, noise. On the other hand, the dethroning of cultural gatekeepers means more breadth of viewpoint and a much larger talent pool. Artists with type-B personalities—which the world could use many more of—now have a much better chance of gaining an audience. Mainstream orthodoxies are easier to challenge. “Influencer” may seem like a poor substitute for “public intellectual” but as Nicholas Carr recently pointed out, an influencer engages the hearts of her followers, not just their minds.

Some lament the loss of a monoculture and the watercooler discussions that sometimes bound us together. But given the choice between a centralized Big Media that produces the superstars of yore vs having every song ever written at one’s fingertips, I’d go with the latter every time. My inner indie rocker is thrilled, to say nothing of my inner zine-ster.

The explosion of podcasting is particularly exciting—a new artform!—both as it relates to storytelling and the exchange of ideas. Sustained monologues, lengthy dialogues, audio narratives—such modes of communication were thought to be outdated, attention spans having withered. And yet, here we are, having only just begun to realize the medium’s potential. This bodes well for those who enjoy words and the speaking of them, churchy types most of all. The Gospel comes through hearing.

The third and final strain of future Non-Grimness may be the most controversial. Here goes: I believe we are getting funnier. As in, better jokes and more of them. Come what may, geo-politically, the future will at least be hilarious.

What about Jeeves and Wooster, you ask? Or Richard Pryor? Or Seinfeld? Or Calvin and Hobbes?! Lord knows there are exceptions aplenty. I do not mean nothing was funny before, or that everything today is funnier than everything in the past. Of course not. But on average, the human race has gotten funnier and will get even funnier in the future. (Joy is a different matter entirely).

To wit: humor has never occupied such a central and vaunted position in the culture. Comedians, in addition to (or in spite of!) serving as modern-day preachers, enjoy more of our attention than at any time in the past. This will only expand. Plus, like chefs, there are so many more of them than there used to be!

At the same time, meme culture has turned everyone into a cartoonist, and much of what’s being produced is inspired. The same is true with YouTube and even TikTok. More people are spending more of their time trying to make more of their fellow humans laugh. And they’re succeeding.

This is not just happening on a micro level. Watch an episode of MASH and then an episode of Parks and Recreation, an episode of The Simpsons and then one of Rick and Morty. With all due respect to those wonderful older series, today’s comedies are simply funnier. They may boast less heart and more cynicism, but the actual jokes are superior in both quality and quantity.

I remember when Disney’s (animated) Aladdin came out in 1992, how critics made a big deal about how funny it was for a kids’ movie. Well, basically every children’s feature released today has it beat in the laughs department, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse being just one prominent example.

Some will object that this is more a matter shifting sensibilities than an uptick in net hilarity. Doubtless that plays a role—but it doesn’t account for everything. Since humor is often an expression of anger, it could be that the increase is more a product of higher amounts of rage. Clearly humor can be used to erect walls just as much as break them down, in the service of cruelty just as much as love. If late night TV is any indication, then reinforcing the in-group is a key aspect of this whole trend.

Talk to comedians themselves, though, and they’ll tell you that the West has lost its sense of humor, that it’s impossible to tell a joke today without offending everyone. You could just as easily argue that it feels this way because more people are paying attention. Whatever the case, I would be a lot less hopeful about the future if people had genuinely stopped laughing, or stopped looking to laugh. The opposite appears to be true, thank God.

Humor is about the last word a person would associate with the prophet Jeremiah. He tended to stay in the key of wrath. The prophet of doom, they call him. Which is why it’s so surprising that his book contains one of the funniest moments of the entire Old Testament.

As the siege of Jerusalem reaches its fever pitch, and poor Jeremiah strikes his Rembrandt pose, he hears a knock on the door of his cell. Outside the threshold stands his cousin Hanamel, smirking his best used-car-salesman smirk, “Boy, have I got a real estate deal for you!”

Say what?! Judah is being sacked, as we speak, and you’re looking to sell me a timeshare? One that lies in a zipcode that’ll belong to a different government on Monday? Go bother one of the other cousins. Get lost.

But before Jeremiah can spit those words out, God intervenes and tells the prophet to lay his money down. Don’t even haggle – pay full price, and make sure everyone knows what you’re doing. God being God, he can’t help but insert a promise. “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” he proclaims, and apparently Jeremiah took him at his word.

You can picture Hanamel walking away, grinning and weighed down by silver, his gullible cousin having made an absurd investment in an impossible future. It is a laughable situation.

I’m told Rembrandt used the same model for Jeremiah as when he painted another haggard old man of faith, St Paul. Imprisoned under even harsher conditions, Paul had every reason to despair of his future. Instead he penned missive after missive of grace and faith.

Who knows, perhaps Paul could hear the message reverberating from every splinter of that ol’ wooden cross, that despite all appearances to the contrary, the future drips with hope for the hopeless. Glory be.