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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"A Glorious Dark" (A. J. Swoboda)

TITLE: A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension between Belief and Experience
AUTHOR: A. J. Swoboda
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (240 pages).

Many books have been written about Good Friday or Crucifixion Day. With the revival movement, there are even more about the Resurrection and the glorification of Jesus who rose on the third day. Like many projects in life, beginning enthusiastically is easier. Reaping the fruits of diligence toward the end is also relatively easy. It is at the middle that people are most vulnerable to emotional struggles and mental toggles between hope and despair; optimism and pessimism; faith and doubt. Using the Good Friday to Resurrection Sunday story, Professor A. J. Swoboda talks about the obscure and less noticeable day in the middle: Saturday. How many believers know about this silent and somber day which Swoboda calls “A Glorious Dark?” We know what happened on Good Friday and the Resurrection Day. What about that Saturday where people’s faith seemed to be “sleeping in?” The key point the author tries to make is that God meets us most profoundly at the tensions that we felt most acutely. It is when the reality of the world and the beliefs we have do not seem to match up that God will show up. It is another way of saying that when the journey seems darker, our capacity to anticipate God’s movement is sharpened.
The trouble with some Christians is that they tend to be picky about what they want to experience. They want the good without the bad. They prefer the comfortable over the uncomfortable. They choose the fast over the slow anytime. When something is not happening, they think it’s dead. Like a frozen river, to a person who simply sees the surface covered with ice, he would have dismissed the river as totally frozen solid, oblivious to the fact that rushing waters are gushing under the frozen ice cap. This is another way that Swoboda uses to emphasize the potential of finding hope and belief in the midst of a dark Saturday. No matter how dark it is, no matter how discouraging the middle circumstances are, there is hope that is running under the frozen ice cap.

The book is written in three parts. Part One is a collection of six articles about Good Friday. While he does not exactly say that we are murderers of Jesus, he points out that we are the “monsters” whose sins had nailed Jesus to the cross. We read about how Jesus gladly forsook the things of the world, preferring the communion of God as he “danced through the trees” praying, seeking, and loving God. He mentions God’s will as something that details our pilgrimage rather than a mere prize to hunt down. God’s will is more a passageway to guide our travels to grow and to remember rather than a one-time trophy to obtain and to forget. He reflects upon some of the most intriguing questions about faith, whether the great saints of old are “insane” or imagining things of faith. He ponders upon the tensions between faith and intellect. He points out some of our escapist tendencies, like refusing to acknowledge the darkness in us, and as a result failing to see the opportunities to grow our faith. It is not loving the dark but embracing the opportunities to grow in spite of the dark situations of life. In Swoboda’s view, shaking up of our faith brings clarity, like shaking up an old-time Polaroid picture in the process of developing it. The story of Coretta Scott King is a case in point, where the woman who had gone through much discrimination, instead of hatred and revenge offer love and goodwill.

Part Two covers Holy Saturday which the author calls “Awkward Saturday.” Awkward because we do not have a word to describe it. If Good Friday is death, and Resurrection Sunday means life, what about this day in the middle? There is more unknowns, more uncertainties, and more silence in the midst of a culture that yearns for something visible, audible, and tangible. Silent Saturday refuses to entertain all that. Perhaps, it is a time to rest, a time to observe Sabbath, and a time to simply take a break from activism. In spite of its relative insignificance, readers are reminded that this Saturday is significant for the following reasons. It is a day in which man cannot pick and choose but wait and let God choose. It is a time in which we recognize that death is not that powerful, and life is not that far away. It is an opportunity to reflect on the glorious promise of a New Jerusalem without taking our step away from the very earth that God had promised to make new. Swoboda attacks the place of cynicism that is nothing more than just a refusal to entertain joy or the promise of Jesus. Cynicism is often how people deal with disappointment. Two realities are necessary for us to maintain that hope. The first is to receive grace humbly. The second is to run to God.

Part Three affirms the humanness in us about our natural doubts, and at the same time our divinity in terms of our longing for God. The Resurrection is a time where we are all “surprised by joy” with four words from the Bible. The “parousia” (presence); the “apokalypsis” (unveiling); the “epiphaneia (disclosure); and the “erchomenos” (coming) all reflects the “surprise” that Jesus will come. No one knows when, just like no one expected Jesus to rise from the dead on the third day. Toward the end of the book, readers get a small surprise wondering why the author chooses to talk about hymnals, books and publishing. Hidden within these chapters is a gentle prompting for readers to expect the unexpected from God when we read the Bible. Do not read the Bible as if we already know it all. Even the most difficult parts of the Bible can bring about a surprising revelation, as long as we trust that God had our best interests at heart.

So What?

This book is a surprise in itself. Surprise because it talks about the day that not many people talked about for Holy Week. Surprise because it is not a typical Christian book that writes about what people want to read but what people needed to hear. Surprise because of Swoboda’s take on darkness, that escapism is not the problem. It is the escaping from self that is the problem. Surprise because the author draws us back to community instead of something that starts and ends with self-improvement or self-exercises. In talking about the superhero motif, the glory that the Bible reveals is not the kind of glamour that the world offers. It is one of servanthood. It is one of faith. It is one of humility that it is God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Why should we read this book? Let me offer three reasons. First, it is the very few, if not the only, that shines light on the “Awkward Saturday.” Holy Week is an Annual event in the Christian calendar. For many, it is the most significant event for without Easter, there is no Christianity. Without the cross, there is no atonement. Without the middle Saturday, there is no sinking in of the reality of life amid the anticipation of hope. This Saturday needs to be talked about more often, even when the gospels do not record much. It could very well mean that we pray more, wait more, and ponder more about faith, life, Jesus, and our communities. Second, darkness or pockets of darkness are real circumstances that will hit us from time to time, if not sooner then later. If that is the case, why not use it as an opportunity to grow? Faith is not about a religious life that is lived only in happy times. In fact, faith often blossoms in the midst of trials and difficult moments. Take the case of doubts. Like what Swoboda had said, “Faith without doubt can be dead.” It is the dark moments of life that force us to grapple with what we really believe in. It shakes up our beliefs so that we can consolidate what really matters to us. Finally, readers will find a lot of tips for Christian living. There are stories about community and Church life; about reading the Bible like a child that anticipates surprises; like thoughts about pain and suffering; about our own struggles; tackling atheism and non-beliefs; and so on. These thoughts about Christian living are subtly weaved around the three days from Good Friday to Resurrection Sunday, which is a gentle reminder that the Christian lives with the centrality of the Cross and the reality of the Resurrection. All things flow from this truth and in Jesus, we know that as long as we have Jesus, He will make all things glorious, even in the midst of darkness.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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