A Review: The Promise of Despair by Andrew Root

The Foreboding Place of Promise

As the beauty and hope of spring emerges, how can I convince you to consider a book entitled The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church?

Well, this might be the most ironically fitting time to wrestle with this penetrating and provocative work. While the season of new life breaks out and blooms around us, theologian Andrew Root challenges us to live within the confession that we are never without death’s presence, never removed from the limitations and sufferings of human existence. That God is most concretely present in the dark places of experience: a hope secured and a promise given by the crucified and risen One to be with and for us.

As a young preacher, I labor to learn the art of giving voice to despair without losing the hope of the gospel — but, I also suspect this tightrope has been a lifelong walk for the seasoned preachers among you. If this is the case, this book will make a stimulating, if not discomforting, companion on your journey.

Through penetrating cultural insights, profound theological reflections, and personal stories, Root calls for a church that bleeds — a church marked by the cross of Christ and willing to face the myriad ‘cultural deaths’ (see below) endemic to late-modern/post-modern experience.

Root’s argument rests on Luther’s understanding of a “theology of the cross,” by which we learn to utterly despair of our own ability before we are prepared to receive the grace of Christ. This theological framework is unpacked in two book sections: in part one, Root articulates how despair is present in our late-modern context; in part two, he contends:
          “The church’s call is not to solve, fix,
           or oppose this despair, but to enter it,
           to make the church’s life there, to
           discover the promise of God within the
           emptiness, separation, and nihilism that
           we all know so well but are often too
           scared to admit.” (pp. xxviii-xxix)

Each chapter begins with a story from Root’s life — often a remarkable insight from his young son, Owen. Chapter content deftly mixes theological interpretation with pop-culture and personal references. A reflection on the promise of despair within the story of scripture concludes each chapter and discussion questions follow.

Throughout the book, death is referred to as “the monster.” This allows Root to vividly communicate death’s active presence and horrifying personality that entices us to serve it as the ultimate reality.

The Monster at Work…
In part one, Root sketches four cultural deaths in late modernity, provoking questions such as these:

  • The Death of Meaning — in a world of hyper-reality where image is divorced from reality, how can your congregation become a place that lives from the real?
  • The Death of Authority — in a world where tradition no longer organizes our lives, how can your congregation become a trustworthy place?
  • The Death of Belonging — in a world where community is based not on obligation, but on preference, style, and taste, how can your congregation become a community by articulating the loneliness of liquid belonging?

  • The Death of Identity — in a world where identity formation has shifted from career and lifelong love to consumption and fleeting intimacy, how can your congregation become a place where people are identified by their wrestling with God (the connotation of Israel’s name)?

A Love that enters Death…
In part two, Root unpacks how the way of the cross might become the way of the church. A technical chapter reflects on the cross of Christ, asking, “Will death ever fall in love?”
           “To love is to enter death. To love is to bind
            yourself so completely to another that their
            very being puts parts of yours to death. It
            is to open our beings to the ways the monster
            confronts them, to wrap our beings together
            in vulnerability to death. Love is born
            through death. Love is to be together through
            the storms of existence.” (pp. 81-82)

Four chapters follow, exploring how the church might seek:

  • Discipleship through Death — how can your congregation become a place of honesty, a      “community that places the doubts of the world before the God of love”? (p.106)
  • Community through Death — how can your congregation become a community formed not by obligation to tradition or attractiveness for consumption, but by shared suffering and weakness?
  • Justice through Death — how can your congregation confront the insidious work of “the monster” in our societal structures, by moving beyond morality to a mortality that stands for life against death?
  • Hope through Death — how can your congregation become marked by a hope that bears darkness more than an optimism that creates artificial light?

I highly encourage you to pick up this book and reflect on how its message might take shape in your life of faith, your preaching and teaching, your ministry, and in the life of your congregation. The practical implications of Root’s message will be an interesting discussion to follow. Application will demand creativity and courage. For an example of a community attempting to bring this thought to bear in life together I refer you to the companion website, http://www.thedespairproject.net