Are you on my side or the wrong side?
Choosing other than hollow triumphalism or shallow despair
I’ve always been more of a “write your way through something” than a “write what you already know” person. Once a fellow writer told me there’s two kinds of book writers: experts who are trying to teach you everything they know and explorers who are trying to bring you along on a journey. The latter resonates with me, but it does mean most times I begin to write having no earthly idea where I’m headed.
This past week I caught up on some of the Top Ten Books of 2022 lists that had been gathering dust on my browser tabs. I have absolutely no extra time to be reading anything except work + school books right now, but there’s always that hour just as we wind down to bed, right? From those not in the faith world, there were the expected recommendations: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Demon Copperhead, etc. (all of which I’ve just placed on hold at the library). From folks of faith, there were some books I wasn’t surprised at all to see topping their lists, and a few I was. A theme kept occurring though and this is what I want to sort of mangle my way through here.
If everyone else feels half as undone as I’ve felt over the past few years, then I suppose we can be excused for feeling a bit...resistant (Is that the word?). Perhaps sensitive is a better word. Maybe defensive, although I suspect most of us would prefer resistant.
But many of the books I saw topping lists were books against something rather than for another thing. Against progressive Christianity. Against Nationalism in the church.1 Against “wokeness” or against those who hold to traditional marriage. There were warnings against deconstruction and writings against those who feel sure about their theology. I follow a wide spectrum of readers and writers, so this wasn’t a one sided thing, and maybe this isn’t new, but it definitely feels like the particularly potent angst of 2020-21 resulted in some angsty books in 2022.
For one of my classes we’re reading through N.T. Wright’s superb book, Surprised by Hope. It’s my third time through it and I never get tired of it. Today I read this,
"If the church identifies its structures, its leadership, its liturgy, its buildings, or anything else with its Lord—and that's what happens if you ignore the ascension or turn it into another way of talking about the Spirit—what do you get? You get, on the one hand, what Shakespeare called "the insolence of office" and, on the other hand, the despair of late middle age, as people realize it doesn't work . . . Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair"2
Reread that last sentence there (minus the parenthetical): “Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church, only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.”
I underlined those bolded words twice. This is what many of the write-ups I read resounded of. Hollow triumphalism that sounded like “Thank God I am not like those people—those progressives, those conservatives, those nationalists, those traditionalists, those liberals, those washed up deconstructionists,” or shallow despair at how marginalized our group is.
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