Hope is a centerpiece of Christian faith, and it’s beautifully on display in the Christmas season. But something is happening to the message Christians have heralded through the centuries. We have turned down the volume, to be sure. Even more, though, we are discarding the bedrock truths that make hope plausible when life turns impossibly hard.
This is nowhere more apparent than in a cohort of celebrated young female writers who’ve gained large followings, not for building faith and hope, but for taking things apart, for deconstructing it, piece by piece. They communicate that faith must be rid of every last vestige of racism and patriarchy, or whatever ill can be laid at the feet of Christians. It must be “reimagined” in order to be believed.
Into this stream of thought has come a new book by Kate Bowler. It’s her story of facing advanced cancer as a young woman of 35, potentially leaving behind a small son, a husband, and a promising career as a seminary professor. “No Cure For Being Human” is beautifully written and widely read for good reasons.
Bowler provides a front-row seat to the sheer human struggle of cancer that forces her to admit how tenuous life really is. “Who wants to be confronted with the reality that we are all a breath away from a problem that could alter our lives completely?” she writes. Indeed.
She busts through the insanity of a prosperity gospel that claims you can have your best life now if you try hard enough. The reader follows Bowler through a maze of intricately woven narrative as she gathers the courage to live with chronic uncertainty.
I read Bowler’s book as a fellow Christian, but also as a therapist whose occupation pulls me into stories so awful, so tragic, I could not have thought them up on a bad day. I, too, want to know what it means to offer hope to modern souls for whom faith may seem like their grandmother’s china, the relic of a bygone era.
So I read a book like this waiting for the punch line. Where does her courage come from? Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School, a top-tier seminary that prepares people for Christian ministry. I wait for her to remind me that God came in the flesh into our broken world — the glorious message we purport to celebrate at Christmas. I hang on the edge of my seat longing for even a small word about Jesus taking on our sufferings.
Please, I think, at least hint about the hope of redemption, or God knows, about the hope of living beyond the grave. But this talented writer, who is also a seminary professor, won’t go there. By the last page, the reader has been lifted to no horizon higher than human experience.
How have we reached a point where the essential Christian truths that form the basis of hope are hidden in the footnotes, muffled and muted beyond recognition? Why is it noble and brave to face death merely by being … noble and brave?
Through the centuries, Christians have held to a faith in which hope is not nebulous and gnostic but grounded in specific content. You can hear it in the ancient refrain repeated through the ages in churches around the world on any given Sunday. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Hope is not floating out there in thin air. It’s tethered to truth, to the gritty reality of a dirty manger, a cross set against a darkening sky, and an empty tomb.
“No Cure for Being Human” is a gentler version of a string of books by female authors in which doubt and skepticism are trumpeted far more than faith. Kristen Du Mez, Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker, and Glennon Doyle have all set out to correct the failures of the church, of Christians through the ages, and thus, they have plenty of material to work with.
Such is the scourge of deconstruction. It is easy to tear down. It’s far harder to offer something of substance in its place. Or, in the case of Bowler’s book, it’s easier to leave out the guts of a message that can seem embarrassing to the modern mind.
But when a person is staring in the bathroom mirror at 3 a.m., unable to sleep for worry that his business will go under after the lockdowns, or afraid of the future her children face, this sort of deconstructed hope is not enough. There is nothing in which to sink your teeth. No strength except what you can muster.
Think of the sheer contrast of the Apostle Peter’s words, written to people under great trial, words that have sustained many through the centuries: “… now for a little while, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:5-9).
In every age, people facing hardship and uncertainty turn to a babe in a manger, to a God who brought his goodness to us. He came into the world, we killed Him, and he rose from the dead. It’s a pretty astounding message. God blew a hole through the back door of death itself. We find hope when we grab hold of the real stuff that for 2,000 years has held shaky souls all the way home.
There is actual substance to hope that would be called Christian hope. This is what we historically proclaim, especially at Christmas. If we flatten that hope into something that begins and ends with human experience—fundamentally, with me—then we have little to offer.
Christians would like to be taken seriously in the public square. We want to be heard. Perhaps we might begin by taking seriously again the essential truths at the very heart of the faith we claim.