A Review of Zach Hoag’s “The Light is Winning”
I don’t really know where to begin with Zach Hoag’s The Light Is Winning, a book that seems theological sound but is a narrative mess. Essentially, the book chronicles what’s wrong in the American Christian Church by juxtaposing the author’s upbringing with an authoritarian father in a Texas cult. The author has spent many years in the wilderness trying to find a faith that works, even failing to plant a church in the process. (That he attempted in one of the least religious cities of the U.S. — Burlington, Vermont — probably had something to do with that.) These days, he’s happily a Methodist after years spent being a Calvinist. But these distinctions mean nothing to me. I’m sort of new to the church and all of its denominations. You’d think the author might stop to explain things for some of us, but no.
The title of this book is also culled from TV’s True Detective. Virtually everything in this book is derived from pop culture, which I would normally have liked, but it just felt as though that the author was forcing pop through the lens of his own experience — and he does this “reading into things” once too often with shows as diverse as The Walking Dead, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. To make sense of it all would mean a pretty hefty binge-watching session (if you haven’t already binge-watched those shows to completion). That’s not the most annoying thing, however, about The Light is Winning.
Can you say that this book is vague? It’s part of a growing trend of Christian books I’ve been reading lately that talk about very personal, almost memoir-esque experiences — but says nothing at all about them. It’s as though these authors want to talk about their feelings behind their experiences, without actually talking about the experience. You know, I’m pretty sure that Zach Hoag has a very interesting story about growing up in a cult, and some of it is here, but it’s so fragmented and jumbled as to not actually make a whit of sense.
If you’re going to bring certain things up, I don’t know why authors don’t just come out and say it. It’s as though the preservation of certain relationships with real people are probably part of the problem. However, there are ways to talk about the past without being vague about it. For instance, and in keeping with the spirit of these reviews being more of an ongoing conversation that I’m having with both you and myself, perhaps offering them up as prayers, I could tell you all about my Roman Catholic upbringing.
For instance, I could say that one of my most very earliest memories of growing up in Toronto, Canada, is being in a church. I was probably about two years old, and I was acting up as I found this whole church thing to be boring. At one point, my mom (bless her heart) pulled me aside and told me that if I didn’t stop misbehaving, the boogeyman was going to jump out of one of the side doors and take me away! So, yes, folks — that’s my introduction to Christianity.
As you can see, in that preceding paragraph, I’ve given you a concrete story or narrative about one of my first — if not my first — religious experiences. You can probably imagine in your head how things were unfolding. But if you read The Light is Winning, you really get none of that. You get a few very sketchy details here and there, and then have to tie them all together as the book progresses. There is no narrative as far as I could see. And that’s really troubling for a book of this kind. You want it to say something, but you get the impression that Hoag is mostly talking (in code) to fellow church leaders. This was probably not a book for me, but I can say that even the church leaders to whom this book is seemingly targeted at have expressed profound problems with the book.
I wish that Hoag would have slowed down and stopped to explain things more clearly to laypersons. Not all of us are savvy when it comes to Calvinism and Reformism, for example. So when you bring those things up, the reader shouldn’t have to be running off to Wikipedia or some such thing to scan for definitions of terms. I think this could have been done in a way that wouldn’t have bored the, for lack of a better term, more educated among his readership.
All in all, I’m not sure what to think of The Light is Winning. I like the author’s conclusion that the church is far too authoritarian and invested in maintaining a stranglehold on power — and needs to better reflect the teachings of Christ instead. How do we get there? I’m not sure if the author really had any hardcore answers. The book seemed light and fluffy somehow — as though its page count was ticked up by just rambling on at length at how certain TV shows fit with the author’s model of the church and the world. In any event, I didn’t really feel educated by the book. It felt as though the author was mostly talking to himself just to get ideas down on the page. Perhaps this book would have been better as one lengthy blog post. I don’t know.
In any event, The Light is Winning is a book that is sorely lacking. I’m sure its author means well, and I’m pretty sure that if he opened himself up a bit more he would have some very interesting and illuminating things to say. However, its lack of focus and reliance on pop culture to further its examples leave me a bit bewildered for all of the wrong reasons. That’s a long way of saying that you can afford to take a pass on this. I was expecting so much more, but The Light is Winning delivered oh so little.
Zach Hoag’s The Light is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life was published by Zondervan on June 6, 2017.
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