Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularized the phrase black swan in the title of his fine book The Black Swan. A black swan event is a surprise, it has a major impact, and there will be those (after the fact) who claimed they saw it coming. But in actuality, virtually no one saw it coming because these things are extremely difficult to predict. But after they happen, they seem so obviously inevitable. Take a daily feature of everyone’s life now — the development of the Internet. There it is, a black swan.
In fact, any historical event, once it occurs, however unlikely, can be shown to be inevitable by any competent historian. But reading the clues before it all happens is a different matter.
Christians understand the resurrection of Jesus was the black swan of all history — it was a surprise to everyone, it has transformed the world, and modern Christians like to tsk at the twelve disciples for hiding in the upper room instead of being out by the Lord’s grave, looking expectantly at their watches. Jesus had told them plainly beforehand what He was going to do, and then after the fact, He showed them again — going through all the Scriptures — how these things had to happen. It is so plain to us . . . now that it has happened.
But the resurrection was not a one-off event — it was more like a theme. And so, as Chesterton observed once, Christianity has died often, but it has not even slowed us down. This is because we serve a God who knows the way out of the grave.
But however many times it happens, the result is always the same — total surprise, a major impact, and then a short period of time where we all adjust, learning to take it all for granted. As any apt student of church history should be able to tell you, reformations and revivals are quintessential black swan events.
“But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9):
When it comes to revivals, the reason why it comes as such a surprise to us is simple. God — in order to keep the glory where it needs to be kept — makes sure that we are in such a bad way, in such a condition of death and hopelessness, that nobody expects a resurrection. Resurrections are a key ingredient in what might be called one of God’s favorite events — the surprise party.
In fact, this element of surprise is so key, I would be inclined to argue that if someone genuinely (and accurately) expects it to happen, this should be taken as evidence that it is already starting to happen. He may not see the valley flooded, but he does see cracks in the dam, and an abnormal amount of water coming through. Some people call it five minutes beforehand, just not five years.
Why does God let things get into a horrible condition before He rises up and acts? The text above tells us why He did that to the apostle Paul. It was so that they would not trust in themselves. Now if there is any group of Christians who need to be taught not to trust in themselves, but in God who raises the dead, that group would be American evangelicals. For us, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is a Christian school slogan for our track teams’ t-shirts. Paul was talking there (Phil. 4:13) about this profound death and resurrection cycle in his life, while we tend to think it is about jumping higher, running faster, hanging with cute girls afterwards, and all with whiter teeth.
There are of course a number of situations where a “can do” spirit is admirable, but we don’t really need to be reminded of those occasions. There are other places — like the boneyard — where such a mentality is plainly demented. We need our preachers to stop telling the skeletons to develp a positive mental attitude.
So is this why our country is coming apart in our hands? Is this why popular entertainment is so corrupt? Is this why our justices despise the gift of life? Is this why our laws cannot make out the reason God gave us boys and girls? Is this why Congress does not understand the concept of red ink? Yes — so that we would stop trusting in ourselves.
Is this why our fathers devise various means to run out on their families? Is this why wives are terminally disrespectful to them, doing what they can to chase them out early? Is this why our children are so sullen and unhappy? Yes — so that we would stop trusting in ourselves.
Is this why our seminaries do their level best to train sexless capons for future ministry? Is this why pulpits are treated as bunkers to hide in, instead of cockpits to fight from? Is this why we call theologians conservative if they condescend to believe most of the Bible? Yes — so that we would stop trusting in ourselves.
All hope is lost? Good. That means the conditions for a black swan revival are improving by the day. The stone cold deader we get, the more God is hastening the day. Nothing is dying but what needs to die. Let it go, and let the black swan surprise you.