Mixed feelings about this little book. Maybe that’s because I’m naturally cynical.
In Mere Hope, Jason Duesing instructs the reader to do four things: look down (hope’s foundation), look in (hope’s fountain), look out (hope’s flourishing) and look up (hope’s focus). Each of these steps is centered on the overarching theme of remembering Jesus, meaning that we are to live each day intentionally conscious of His presence and work in both our lives and the world at large. In this first chapter, Duesing writes:
By the Middle Ages the use of the phoenix as a Christian “resurrection bird” faded, but throughout other forms of literature, the avian myth appears to convey and remind of Christian hope. … What I love about the phoenix…is that just at the darkest moment, when you think this majestic creature has died or given its life for another, it is reborn, returning to life. … The foundation of our hope rose from the ashes of death; “something greater than the phoenix is here” (see Matthew 12:41). This mere hope is good news, for ours is a cynical age without much hope.
– p. 5
Given the chaos of our world and our growing awareness of it due to the constant connectivity of the internet, particularly via social media, this is a good reminder. All is not lost. The darkness, no matter how great, isn’t going to win. Our Savior, though He died, lives. We must continually reflect upon this truth.
I particularly appreciated the chapter on looking out, which seeks to move us from reflection to action:
…mere hope flourishes when it is employed in the service of others.
– p. 94
Just as we easily forget that God really is in charge and that evil really isn’t going to win, we also forget that our job is to go out and not only preach the Good News, but to take care of people. The two go hand-in-hand, for as James wrote, faith without works is dead (2:17). While it’s just a short jump into the terror of believing that our works keep us in right relationship with God (wrong thinking that has to be consistently battled), it’s an equally short jump into a “they need to pull themselves up/nobody ever helped me and I’m fine” mentality. This is not the example of Christ. He rolled up His sleeves. So, too, must we.
What brought me up short while reading this book was Duesing’s mediation on Evangelical Stoicism:
…Stoicism that is high on morality, asceticism and indifference plays well into our day of mutual challenges to “just grind it out.” … We are experts at “toughing it out.” … We have gotten very good at being proficient and we know how to get by. … In the face of the decline of cultural morality we hunker down and huddle up. Yet, simple joy, faith, hope and thankfulness are conspicuously absent as we “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
– p. 118-119 (emphasis mine)
Duesing is right in his claim that Evangelical Stoicism exists. I think he is wrong that it arises as a result of cultural shifts or societal pressure, however. I cannot speak to other parts of the world, but here in the United States Evangelical Stoicism exists because of the movement’s intimate connection to the very Western value of individualism, as well as the ever-present specter of the “American Dream.” As I alluded to above, it is with great difficulty that we expunge the “bootstraps” notion from our psyches. Thus, while Christianity itself has an extremely interdependent mindset, broken people living and working together in the power and for the glory of God, that way of being is largely foreign to us, here and now. We know how to be Stoic. We know how to strive. We know how to put on a brave face.
I agree with Duesing’s remedy for the problem: look up. Refocus on the Gospel. Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have no choice but to daily, moment-by-moment put all their trust in Christ. We get distracted by…stuff. Bank accounts, jobs, Netflix, whatever. You know what gets you, just as I know what gets me. In order to shrug off the shackles of “keeping up with the Jones’,” which is certainly a major element of our Stoicism, we have to forcefully remind ourselves that we are nothing without Him. A constant awareness of the Gospel and what it means – suffering and death for you and me – is the only thing that will break us out of our individualistic shells.
Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with this book. The author has a Calvinistic framework through which he views the world, which isn’t my jam, but no biggie. He doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it. I do find Wayne Grudem’s endorsement annoying, given his political activities in the last few years, but his standing as an author and teacher in Southern Baptist circles (this book is published by B&H Books, part of Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing and distribution arm of the SBC) means that most first-time authors of that particular denomination would seek out his approval. Given what I know of the publishing world, I get why Duesing and his team went there.
I would have preferred some practical application tips or discussion questions at the end of each chapter. What does it look like to put mere hope into action? How do we move from the realm of the theoretical to “feet on the pavement” living? As one who really is naturally cynical, that would have been helpful. In the end, though, I do appreciate Duesing reminding us to continually look to Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).