Quite the title, isn’t it? Yes, The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church by Andrew Root has quite the suggestive title, but that is part of the point. This is a book about death, in both a literal and symbolic sense. Death is not limited to people physically dying, but is also present when we lose a job, are debilitated by illness, or a slave to addiction. Death lurks all around us. Root contends that the church usually tries to avoid death, but that a true church can only be found in the midst of death, by facing it and owning up to it because we worship a God who also can be found in death, facing it, and not turning and looking the other way: “Christian faith is a faith that has as its central event the cross, the reality of death” (xxvii).
In a way, this book is a kind of practical theodicy. It does not so much answer the question Why is there evil, pain and suffering in the world? as much as it tries to answer What does the church do about evil, pain and suffering in the world? For Root the source of pain and suffering is the “monster” of death, and he carries this personification of death as a monster throughout the whole book.
The book is divided into two parts. The first sets the groundwork regarding our current cultural situation, an environment where we must deal with things like the death of meaning, authority, and identity. Although postmodernism seems like a topic that is starting to become overhyped, Root gives one of the most succinct and philosophically robust accounts of the current postmodern landscape. The first part of the book functions well as a primer on postmodernism. Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Baudrillard, and Anthony Giddens are some of the philosophers who weigh heavily in these discussion.
On of the best chapters in the book, especially for youth ministry, is the final chapter in Part One that deals with the death of identity. In this chapter Root explains how identity used to be formed by work and love: what one did for a living and one’s family. Today, he says, identity is defined by consumption and intimacy. It is no longer what we do or produce that form us, but what we have and consume. Root defines intimacy as “feelings of closeness” (60) as opposed to love, which is a commitment. In youth ministry, where we are dealing with adolescents constructing their own identities, this chapter has much for us to ponder.
Part Two outlines the reasons why the church must face the reality of death and enter into it as a central practice. He draws from Luther’s theology of the cross, arguing that the God of the Bible is encountered in Jesus Christ on the cross: “The church is the community that seeks to live from the new order–not from life to death, but from death to life” (88). When the church faces death, the church faces reality. The church must be with people in death because we are a people who hope in a future when death will be no more; we are a people moving from death to life. This hope that the church can offer to those in the midst of death is not to be confused with optimism:
The problem with an optimistic church is that it spends all its energy on creating optimistic artificial light, seeking to pull people who know so well the darkness into faux light. An optimistic church seeks to cover the darkness. But the church of the cross seeks to make its life in what is, in darkness, hoping for the day when darkness is no longer covered but is overcome completely by the dawn of God’s future. (147)
It should be noted that Root is not speaking about death in the popular sense of “dying to self.” Instead, he is speaking more about passages like Galatians 6:2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” In fact, he uses the word sacramental to suggest that God is particularly present in a special way, conveying his grace, when we encounter someone else in their despair. If this is the case, then the church should not shy away from ministering to those facing the monster of death in their lives.
Though this book is a weighty book simply because of the subject matter, it is a fairly concise and accessible book (160 pages or so). And while I think that Root might be a bit repetitive at times, this is such a unique book that there is no where else to go for a treatment of this subject. For Christians and church leaders trying to lead lives and churches where we deal with people’s lives in reality (and not in an idealized state), this book is a must-read.
For another review, see Jake Bouma’s review of the book in the American Theological Inquiry .
Disclaimer: This book was provided as a review copy free of charge from the publisher.