Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism — Jason Duesing

A short but important book that has the potential to change your outlook on the world

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The age of anxiety has given way to the age of cynicism. Among my generation, cynicism is no longer a bad word: it’s being celebrated, and it is often mistaken for intelligence … It is better to be wry and distrustful than to be open and trusting. — Mohammed Fairouz

This quote, employed early in Mere Hope to define the problem of cynicism. Fairouz is four years older than me, but I think we share a common definition of our generation. Cynicism abounds, and I am often caught in it myself. But while it may be on an upswing today, cynicism is not new. In the book of Isaiah, the people of Israel were “wry and distrustful” to the prophet when he told them of their imminent judgment. They answered cynically and sarcastically: “Let him hurry up and do his work quickly so that we can see it! Let the plan of the Holy One of Israel take place so that we can know it!” (Isaiah 5:19, CSB). C.S. Lewis makes a concise and intelligent case against cynicism in The Abolition of Man. He writes:

But you cannot go on “explaining away” forever: you will find that you have explanation itself away. You cannot go “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? … a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.

How often do I claim to “see through” the things of the world and call it wisdom? Yet, if I am not clinging to something instead, I am just an arsonist burning stuff down without any plans of replacing it with anything better.

C.S. Lewis is a fitting writer to quote in reviewing Mere Hope not only because he takes down cynicism and not only because C.S. Lewis quotes are as ubiquitous as a Russell Moore blurb in a Southern Baptist’s book (Moore writes the foreword to Mere Hope). I quote C.S. Lewis because Jason Duesing gleans wisdom and insight on hope from Lewis and his fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and employs their writings in most of the illustrations in his book. If you like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings, this book is for you. He even has the audacity to use Harry Potter (gasp!) in not one but two illustrations. The result is a work that draws on themes of recent accomplished writers to make a point about the Christian faith: the gospel of Jesus Christ is the hope that puts all the world’s problems in a different light.

The cover of Mere Hope features the feather of a Phoenix, the fictional creature that is said to combust upon its death only to be reborn from its own ashes. This is a perfect symbol for the message of the gospel. It also answers the question, “Is the world getting better or worse?” A biblical answer to this question must be nuanced, and I believe the metaphor of the Phoenix is a useful one. The world is both getting noticeably worse and ultimately better at the same time. God is bringing his redemption to the world. It is simply harder to see from our finite view.

Duesing uses J.R.R. Tolkien’s term “eucatastrophe” to further describe our hope in Jesus. Duesing writes:

A eucatastrophe is built from catastrophe — literally “to turn down” — and the prefix eu, meaning “good.” Thus, in a story with eucatastrophe, at the point of greatest tragedy, you have the workings also of the greatest good. In a later letter to his son, Tolkien wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”

This plot device is elemental to the best parts of The Lord of the Rings (think the Battle of Helm’s Deep or the climactic scene at the fires of Mordor), it is true of God’s redemption of me (“…while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”), and it is true of God’s plan for the world as well. As we see the world’s worst, and we so often do, we have hope because of the God that is going to bring a sudden happy turn to the story, and we will stand before Him in tears. As the contemporary version of a classic hymn goes:

Through it all, my eyes are on you
Through it all, it is well.

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of B&H Books and Lifeway, but my opinions are my own.