This article first appeared in 2018.
He is 78 years old and now retired from a long and culturally relevant musical career, but in 1986, Paul Simon took a look at headlines full of pain and promise—stories about advances in science and medicine, bombs in baby carriages, ubiquitous cameras, and the ever-constant streams of information that engulf us—and wrote “Boy in the Bubble.” His lyrics, coupled with Zulu-pop-infused instrumentals recorded in South Africa, conveyed a jaunty optimism with an undercurrent of nerve-jangling foreboding:
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in the corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby don’t cry
The world has only become more miraculous and wonder-filled since then, so much so that we are almost blasé about it when read stories like this one about a little girl, born without a windpipe, who was fitted with one created from stem cells drawn from her own marrow. In little more than a generation, computers, phones, and cameras have been combined into a handheld gadget so dazzling and self-reflective we can barely force ourselves to look away from it.
So comfortable are we with interactive technology that we barely notice the electronic eyes on every corner, watching us as we walk or drive. Algorithms are used to track our every move: what we are reading, where we are vacationing, whether we are walking enough, and what spiritual or medical direction we are seeking out. Yet we shrug off all of that data collection because it comes back to us in helpful recommendations about what we should next do with our lives—and for now we’re alright with that.
Miracle and wonder, yes, and yet instead of looking up at a nighttime sky full of movement and light and infinite depth, we keep our heads down. We can no longer see that sky for the artificial illumination all around us.
But no matter; the heavens are empty of interest. We have pierced their boundaries and walked the stardust. Having been there, done that, we’ve narrowed our exploration to whatever we can see through our four-inch screens.
Informationally, the world is ever-broadening, but our interests continue to shrink as we close in on ourselves. In our reading, our entertainment, our news venues, our social media, our political involvements, we seek out echo chambers we may depend upon to repeat us back to ourselves in a reassuring loop, with dissenting ideas continually pruned away for the sake of purity. Settled within virtual enclaves of the like-minded, we bask in an illusion that most sensible people think as we do, and when we are forced to venture out beyond our unsullied orthodoxies and ideologies the world feels increasingly dangerous and disordered. We cannot wait to get back to our “safe zones,” which are really just aspects of ourselves reflected back to us.
We used to read about “the boy in the bubble” and feel sorry for him. He was trapped within a limited world free of exposure to even the “good” germs and bacteria that keep our immune systems adept, functional, and ready to withstand and beat back infection. Now, we have become him. Though our bodies may wander freely, we keep our minds and spirits tethered to what is comfortable, unchallenging, and pristine, until our mental and spiritual immune systems become so weakened that a mere difference of opinion feels like an assault, and an encounter with an opportunistic bully can send us reeling to the canvas.
Self-idolization is a natural by-product of the instrumentalization of our age, and it is weakening us. The GPS destroys our sense of direction; social scientists cripple our instinctive knowing. The world says True North is a relative concept, and so whatever path one takes is the right one—the path to the All-Knowing Me, who knows nothing and is stranded and alone and weak.
A glance at the headlines is enough to know that these are the days of bullying and idols—of menace and braggadocio, browbeating and constraint. We see it in authority seeking to control; we see it in media and moralists who pester us into mental submission; it lives within us when we oust the theologically untaught or ideologically confused among us, and settle for our own comfortable understanding.
We need to look up again if we are to become strong enough to shake off our own tendencies toward idolatry and fend off the hectoring bullies. We need to gaze starward and beyond, into the vastness of the One who created everything by the full-out intention of his almighty “YES!” and then trust in the rightness of that intention with all our being. To face the coming battles, we will need to look far beyond “a distant constellation, that’s dying in a corner of the sky” and grow strong again, through the paradox of dependence and surrender.
And, too, we must raise up our heads in order to do something as basic as looking outward, where we can see each other again as human beings, all distinctly individual, all entitled to their own thoughts and opinions—others loved into being by God, just as surely as we were, and therefore not ours to serve up to the idols of own political or cultural obsessions. In that direction be dragons.
The urge toward idolatry becomes rampant among us whenever we feel insecure, vulnerable, disconnected from all that is safe and sure. At such times we do precisely what the Jews in the desert did, when they were were completely uncertain of what Moses was about as he abandoned them to his mountaintop: we construct and burnish a shiny idol that will reflect us back to ourselves, whether that be in the fever swamps of social media or elsewhere. Fear makes us forget that we have a God who loves us, a Savior who redeems and heals us, an Advocate who guides us, and that all of them are faithful.
Beyond the present powers and principalities, these are—still and ever—days of miracle and wonder, of right paths that can lead us safely home. These are the days of miracle and wonder, and “don’t cry, baby, don’t cry” is just another way of saying, “do not be afraid.”