How are Christians to live in such difficult times? Unique of all people, Christians are called to embrace a hopeful outlook on life. Mere Hope offers the core, Christ-centered perspective that all Christians share, and that Christians alone have to offer a world filled with frustration, pain, and disappointment. For those in darkness, despair, and discouragement, for those in the midst of trials, suffering, and injustice, mere hope lives. The spirit of the age is cynicism. When our leaders, our families, and our friends let us down at every turn, this isn't surprising. But we need another perspective; we need hope. Rather than reflecting resigned despair or distracted indifference, author Jason Duesing argues, our lives ought to be shaped by the gospel of Jesus—a gospel of hope.
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About the Author
Jason G. Duesing serves in academic leadership at Midwestern Seminary and is the author of Seven Summits in Church History, and editor and contributing author of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty, Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary, and other works. He is married to Kalee and together they have two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve.
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Mere Hope Lives
Hope does not put us to shame.
— Romans 5:5
An Emblem of Hope
At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome invoked a curious symbol when describing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Borrowing from ancient legend — though he clearly thought the creature was real — he described the phoenix as "an emblem of our resurrection." Clement was followed by a second-century catalog of creatures, the Physiologus (meaning Naturalist) that included biblical references and commentary for each entry. This work articulated more clearly that the phoenix (like Christ) has the self-sacrificial "power to slay himself and come to life again" and resurrects from the dead "on the third day."
These two appropriations of the bird baptized this myth and led other Christians to employ the symbol for education and edification. In the third century, Tertullian referred to the phoenix as an instrument of general revelation God provided as a "complete and unassailable symbol of our hope" in the resurrection. In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote his Catechetical Lectures to train new disciples in the Christian faith. In his lecture on the resurrection he, seemingly believing that the creature exists, though "remote and uncommon," mentions the phoenix also as an example in nature for the unbelieving world to have a symbol of Jesus' own resurrection. He states:
The bird ... makes itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, and entering into this when its years are fulfilled, it evidently dies and moulders away. Then from the decayed flesh of the dead bird a worm is engendered, and this worm when grown large is transformed into a bird. ... Afterwards the aforesaid Phoenix, becoming fledged and a full-grown Phoenix, like the former one, soars up into the air such as it had died, shewing forth to men a most evident resurrection of the dead.
Now, lest we get sidetracked by the Christian usage of a fictional creature, it is helpful to remember the limits of knowledge and etymology in these early centuries. As professor Micah Mattix explains, even though many of these early Christians seem to believe the bird is real, "most of them are less interested in animals as animals and more interested in their symbolic significance." By the Middle Ages the regular 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. To name two of the most popular, in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, a phoenix resides in a silver apple tree, the fruit which gives life, in the creator Aslan's garden. And, in the twenty-first century, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter employs a phoenix to convey themes of resurrection, hope, self-sacrifice, and healing.
What I love about the image of a phoenix — and I suspect it is what our friends in the early church loved as well — 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. Just as Jesus said, "I lay down my life that I may take it up again" (John 10:17). Only through the death of the phoenix do we see an even more glorious life — through its suffering and demise, it finds victory.
Thus, the Christian use of the phoenix serves as a fitting emblem for what I call mere hope. The foundation of our hope rose from the ashes of death; "something greater than the phoenix is here" (see Matt. 12:41). This mere hope is good news, for ours is a cynical age without much hope.
An Age of Cynicism
When I was young, faced with washing dishes or some other such chore, my siblings and I would wonder when science would catch science fiction and our home would function like The Jetsons, where everything was automated awesomeness. In the decades since then, our world does indeed resemble the dreams of yesterday's science fiction, but it has also traveled further into dystopia. As one columnist wrote, "In contrast to science fiction tales set in fantastical futures on distant planets, dystopian novels take the anxieties of people on earth and amplify them." With instant global interconnectedness alerting us to all forms of tragedy and conflict, our society appears to have defaulted either to resigned despair or distracted indifference. When regularly our leaders disappoint us by their actions and their human flaws are flouted and magnified due to our relentless and merciless scrutiny, it's easy to see why many have come to a collective understanding that no one can stand with a message of hope. Once a small genre of fiction literature, dystopian-themed novels, games, and movies seem now to be the predominant world in which entertainment takes place, and increasingly the real world as well. Hope, rather than dystopia, is the fiction of our day. What happened?
In the process of avoiding the anxiety of a Big Brother governmental takeover like in George Orwell's 1984, society instead followed Neil Postman's prediction that we would amuse ourselves to death. And, with anxiety and amusement gone, only cynicism remains. In 2015, composer Mohammed Fairouz wrote, "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." The age of cynicism, Fairouz continues, is where "it is better to be wry and distrustful than to be open and trusting." Luis Navia, in his critical study of classical cynicism, explains that in modern times a cynical person is:
someone who rejects ethical values and ideals ... and who reacts skeptically and sarcastically to even the most innocent and well-intentioned human actions. For such a person, most if not all human activities are suspect and unworthy of trust, since no one, according to the cynic, ever seeks or pursues anything except for the specific yet often secret purpose of benefitting himself. For the cynic, accordingly, hypocrisy and deceitfulness, primitive selfishness and unbounded egotism, and gross materialism and disguised ruthlessness are the hidden characteristics of all human behavior. Hence, the cynic does not believe in ideals or lofty aspirations, which are in his mind only linguistic and behavioral games promoted for the purpose of manipulating and duping people, or ways to hide the enormous state of confusion that permeates the average human consciousness.
In addition to these active characteristics of a cynical age, I think there are passive characteristics as well. As we have seen, active cynicism is essentially a functional, if not actual, atheism, where the ultimate end is despair and hopelessness. Passive cynicism is subtler, but perhaps more common. Passive cynicism is more of an idle indifference to the world and the people in it. Here the focus is more on oneself and the ultimate end is elusive or even ignored, often reflected in the common vernacular of the day, "whatever." The passive cynic is like the infamous literary figure Don Quixote, who is impulsive, acts without thought to consequence, and can spend time and energy fighting imagined enemies or tilting at windmills. The passive cynic is a day-trader only focusing on or reacting to the temporal, the shiny, or the loud. In either case, the notion of biblical hope is scoffed at or ignored.
However, Christians should take heed, for we, as those living in this world, are prone to bend toward it. Often, the pull toward cynicism is easier to follow than the struggle to resist. Sarcasm comes too easy, complaining is default small-talk, and despair can mark us more than joy. We might refer to the "Evangelical Cynic" to describe the active voice and the "Evangelical Stoic" to describe the passive.
How are we, as Christians, to live in such times? This book is my attempt to answer that question. But first I want to assert, right into the jungle of cynicism that so easily entangles, that mere hope lives.
Mere Hope Lives
"Frodo Lives!" While traveling a New York subway or the sidewalks of London in the 1960s, you might have come across this exclamation written in chalk (or something more permanent) — but like most passersby, you would not have known what it meant. Following the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s, a growing number of readers developed an attachment and affinity for the epic fantasy, but the novels had not yet achieved the widespread success they have today.
The initial rise in popularity came only after paperback versions appeared in the mid-1960s where they quickly assumed the status of bestseller. As they appeared during a turbulent era of nuclear threat, war abroad, civil rights conflict at home, and a general devolution of culture and society, many young people flocked to Middle Earth to assuage their perplexities — and there they found hope. The least likely of main characters, Frodo Baggins, is a diminutive hero reared in a countryside of conflict avoidance. Thrust by providence into a journey of world-saving self-sacrifice, Frodo and his companions see evil undone and good triumph. But not without cost. The wear and tear of goblin gnashing and literal wrestling with the depths of depravity take their toll, and the hero is worse for wear. This leads to his merciful departure at the hands of the saintly elves, where he is transported from the Grey Havens to a heaven of sorts. Because Frodo's journey does not end in physical death, like many others in the story, readers conclude their reading with a shared hope that Frodo lives. In the 1960s, the Tolkien enthusiasts adopted this early meme as a slogan to express their hope and joy in a dark time, and the phrase "Frodo Lives!" was born.
My aim in this book is to remind and establish the certainty that hope still lives. For those in darkness, despairing, discouragement, trials, sufferings, injustice, and any other besetting maladies, hope can be found. Joy can be rediscovered. While the Bible discusses hope in a variety of contexts, and Christians use multiple expressions of hope, I am presenting the term "mere hope" as a helpful perspective for life in an age of cynicism. In addition to exploring the roots of mere hope found in the Bible, I will use illustrations of hope from some helpful conversation partners, known as the Inklings. J. R. R. Tolkien, mentioned above, and his colleague, C. S. Lewis, regularly included the idea of hope in their works and those remain helpful for what I aim to accomplish in this book. To start, here is what I mean by mere hope.
Perhaps the most famous use of this word in the history of Christianity is C. S. Lewis's employment of it in his book Mere Christianity (1952). Yet, this was neither the first time Lewis used the term, nor was he the first to use it in reference to Christianity. Lewis admired Richard Baxter's use of "Meer Christian" in 1680 to assert "nothing but simple Christianity" in an age of growing factions. Lewis used it similarly, happy for prospective readers to think, at first, that his book introduced the very basics of the faith, but he actually sought to put forward "central Christianity," or the very core of the faith.
Writing to explain further what Lewis (and Baxter) meant by the term mere, Timothy George explains that their use of mere is an ancient use and does not mean "merely" or "barely," but rather "truly" or "really." George calls this a "thicker kind of mere — not mere as minimal but mere as central, essential."
When thinking about the hope that all Christians share in a cynical age, my aim is not to develop a full "theology of hope," or address every instance or way in which we think of hope. Instead, I wanted to hone in on the core of Christian hope, the essential facets that help believers live and endure. Hence, like Baxter and Lewis, and in the tradition and approach that Lewis started, I find the thicker kind of mere a helpful word for this project.
The idea of hope is described 146 times in the Old Testament and 108 times in the New Testament. As such, we could fill an entire book this size with definitions and explanations. For the purpose of establishing here what I mean by "mere hope," I want to provide a few definitions that get at the central or essential biblical understanding of hope.
In the most common sense, biblical hope is "a patient, disciplined, confident waiting for and expectation of the Lord as our Savior." J. I. Packer sees the Bible as, "from Genesis to Revelation a book of hope." Here is what he says:
The first recorded divine promise, that the woman's seed would crush the serpent's head, was a word of hope in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15), and the last recorded promise of Jesus, "I am coming soon" (Rev. 22:20), was a word of hope for churches facing persecution. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith in terms of hope ("Now faith is being sure of what we hope for"). Hope, the guaranteed expectation enabling believers to look forward with joy, is in truth one of the great themes of Christianity and one of the supreme gifts of God.
Finally, Lee Strobel describes hope as "the inextinguishable flicker God ignites in our souls to keep us believing in the prevailing power of his light even when we are surrounded by utter darkness."
The idea of mere hope does not intend to convey every aspect of the biblical doctrine of hope, nor can it. Rather, mere hope conveys the core perspective of hope that all Christians share.
Jesus instructs in Matthew 6:22 that "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light." In other words, it matters where you look and what you see. In this book, I discuss mere hope from the perspective of four directions to look. If where we set our eyes affects our bodies and hearts, I propose that a healthy way to live in an age of cynicism is regularly to look at hope. First, we should "look down" at the foundation of our hope, the good news of the gospel. This is our gospel hope. Second, we should "look in" and find the fountain of our hope, Jesus Christ, the hope within us. He is our living hope. Third, we should "look out" and see the flourishing of our hope, as the hope of the nations is meant to be shared. This is a global hope. Finally, we should "look up" and see the focus of our hope, a reminder of what is true. This is our future hope. A final chapter will explore how we can live out mere hope in an age of cynicism.
John Bunyan, in his allegory of the Christian life, Pilgrim's Progress, introduces a character named Hopeful to aid Christian on his journey "from this world to that which is to come." Hopeful is a fellow pilgrim who joins Christian after his earlier companion, Faithful, was martyred. Bunyan describes him in phoenix-like terms as rising out of Faithful's ashes. Hopeful proves a worthy and helpful companion to Christian. When they were imprisoned together in Doubting Castle by the Giant Despair, it is Hopeful's words that helped calm Christian's mind. Later, as they neared the end of the journey and were faced with crossing a deep river in order to enter the gate to the Celestial City, Christian began to despair, and as they waded in, he began to sink. At that moment, Hopeful provides the encouragement that pulls Christian across the finish line: "Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good."
Christian reader, in a cynical age where despair abounds, there is a mere hope that has found the bottom, and it is good. As you read, be of good cheer, for mere hope lives.CHAPTER 2
Mere Hope's Foundation
We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain.
— Hebrews 6:19
A Philology Problem
Philip and Carol Zaleski, in their massive book on the Inklings, The Fellowship, give this revealing insight into the mind of J. R. R. Tolkien: "People thought Tolkien was joking when he later said that he wrote The Lord of the Rings to bring into being a world that might contain [his] Elvish greeting. ... The remark is witty — but also deadly serious."
J. R. R. Tolkien loved words. As the Zaleskis explain, the sight and sound of words affected him the way colors and light must affect painters or notes and rhythms affect musicians. More than that, he loved the study of words and delighted in philology or "the zone where history, linguistics, and literature meet." He saw language especially, as both a "fallen human instrument and a precious divine gift." On the one hand human misuse of a common language led to judgment after Babel. On the other hand, God spoke the world into existence with words, sent his Son as the Word, and the Spirit breathed perfectly all the words we have in the Bible as Scripture. Thus, the Christian life is a life clothed and shaped by words, even as some of those words require hard work before revealing their full meaning.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mere Hope"
Copyright © 2018 Jason G. Duesing.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Mere Hope Lives 1
Chapter 2 Look Down: Mere Hope's Foundation 21
Chapter 3 Look In: Mere Hope's Fountain 59
Chapter 4 Look Out: Mere Hope's Flourishing 87
Chapter 5 Look Up :Mere Hope's Focus 113
Chapter 6 Living Mere Hope 143