A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience, by A. J. Swoboda. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. $14.99 | 240 pp.
If we are to take seriously the witness of Holy Scripture, to follow the One True God means that an individual’s life will often be marked – at least contemporarily – more by tensity than resolution. This stems from the fact that believers in the God of Israel “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Indeed faith – which is the sine qua non of inclusion among God’s people – entails conviction regarding the existence of “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). But to believe things that run contrary to experience, while not necessarily logically ruinous, can still lead to real existential crisis.
It is precisely this tension between belief and experience that Portland, Oregon-based pastor, professor, and author A.J. Swoboda explores in A Glorious Dark. In it, a means of navigating between these poles is identified: hope. And yet, Swoboda does not offer this as a huckster’s panacea, but rather, as a sincere solution – one characterized more by grit than gloss.
In order to unpack just the sort of ‘hope’ he is commending, Swoboda deploys a framework gleaned from the Church calendar: “a long weekend Christians call Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday” (2). These three days, says Swoboda, supply three different perspectives on our existence as those living in ‘the tension between belief and experience’: Friday represents “defeat, death, and loss”; Saturday refers to “uncertainty” and “doubt”; and Sunday references “victory, prosperity, and blessing” (4-5). But these are not simply three options wherein one (or two) can be chosen to the neglect of the other(s). Rather, each of these is a vital component of the believer’s life in this world. Lose any one of them, and your outlook on will be skewed.
Rather than a book of mere platitudes, in A Glorious Dark the outline provided by ‘Friday’, ‘Saturday’, and ‘Sunday’ is filled in by honest accounts from Swoboda’s own life. In these, the tenor is surprisingly candid. And yet, Swoboda’s candor remains compelling rather than mawkish. It doesn’t hurt that Swoboda knows how to turn a phrase, dispensing a litany of quotable quotes. Along with this, he illustrates the concepts that he seeks to convey in memorable ways. For instance:
Faith will either be like a Polaroid picture or an Etch-a-Sketch. They share one commonality: both will be shaken. For one, being shaken will cause faith to become clearer. For the other, shaking will cause the faith to blur and disappear. (72)
A key strength of Swoboda’s, quite evident in this volume, is his narrative sensibility: he knows how to tell a story . . . or rather, the story. Indeed, in many ways, A Glorious Dark is a retelling of that old, old story – the good news that God, in Christ, took on humanity to live and die in our place, in order that we may truly know life. And to tell this story in all its fullness, each event in the plot sequence must be given its due.
But this is not simply a story to be told – it is a story to be enacted. For the follower of Jesus, the gospel supplies the template upon which one’s life is to be traced. And to be faithful to the lineaments of this pattern, one must embrace “all three days – pain and death on Friday, doubt on Saturday, and resurrection on Sunday” (3). Retracing the movement from mortification to vivification . . . from humiliation to exaltation . . . Swoboda thus treads a well-worn path – one not only walked by our Savior, but also by all those who seek to walk in his steps.
In sum, A Glorious Dark – equal parts memoir and manifesto – relates how Swoboda’s own life has been formed by Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and in so doing provides us with a prescription for our own lives. This approach echoes that of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Along these lines, as followers of Jesus, the stories that make up our individual lives are never ultimately about self. Instead, they function to foster the imitation of Christ by those whom we share Christ with. And, while the details of our stories will be different, there is commonality in their source, namely, that which God has accomplished through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moreover, we share a trajectory: that day when faith will become sight . . . when our vision of God’s glory will utterly displace this present darkness.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.