(RNS) — Seventy percent of Americans are dissatisfied "with the way things are going in the United States at this time," according to a Gallup poll. This presumably includes a large number of Christians — a group of people who claim to have reasons to hope no matter how dismal the moment. Christian hope, of course, is not tethered to the success of America. But the darkness of our present age raises questions about how followers of Jesus can nurture the light of hope.
Writer Zach Hoag wrestles with these very questions in his new book, "The Light Is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life." The darkness is real, he says, but it is also receding. He explains why America is in a time of "great revealing" and how Christians can stave off nihilism and nurture hope.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In our current moment, many Christians feel like the darkness is surging. You argue that "the light is winning." What do you mean?
"The light is winning” isn’t a statement of wishful thinking or artificial positivity. There is so much darkness, and in the words of a favorite TV series (HBO's "True Detective"), it looks like “the dark has a lot more territory.” But I want us to consider — and then, maybe, begin to believe — that even as the darkness surges, there is a light that is gaining ground, and indeed, winning. This is not a call to deny reality, but to face it in hope and begin moving towards genuine renewal and flourishing.
Many Christians — including 81 percent of white evangelicals — voted for Donald Trump. Does this bother you, and if so, why?
In one sense, yes, it bothers me greatly. I finished writing the book in the thick of the 2016 primaries when the likelihood of Trump winning still seemed like a long shot. Yet, I was struck by how his candidacy was revealing the real, underlying values and goals of American evangelical culture.
These are apocalyptic times for American Christianity, in the literal sense that they are revealing times. The decline of Christian faith in the U.S. is, I believe in part, a result of this revelation. There is a deep compromise with the wealth, power and violence of the empire at work in the church in our time.
In another sense, though, I remain hopeful and resolute. Despite the percentage of evangelicals who voted for and support Trump, I believe we are witnessing the last angry gasps of a perspective that is coming to a necessary end as a dominant force in American society.
But you stay optimistic amid these trends. What staves off the depression?
The depression is real, and I’m not sure it is staved off all the time. When health care for the working poor is threatened, when another racist cop kills an innocent black man, when women are relentlessly attacked by the leader of the free world in the name of his own fragile ego, I cannot help but feel, with the rest of the good people in the world, deep sadness, anger and lament.
To get to that place of resolute and resistant hope, we have to go through the wilderness of pain and lament. So really, “the light is winning” is a political statement: that even though the empire business of oppression is booming, we believe another kingdom is gaining ground, and is, despite appearances, going to win. And then, we join in.
You say you've seen forward progress from death into resurrection for the American church. Paint a picture of what this looks like. What are most people missing?
I see the beginnings of it, the rumblings of it. We are still, collectively, in the “great revealing” phase, I think, where the darkness of American Christianity’s empire business is being unveiled. But in the midst of that revealing, followers of Jesus across movements and denominations are seeing this moment as a time to reflect, repent, reform and resist — rather than hunker down, hide and protect the status quo. In some ways, we are all caught up in a tide that will, as with all reformation times, expose the egregious harm and un-health in the church and bring about change. Apocalypses cannot be controlled. A necessary ending is coming.
The growing number of religiously unaffiliated — the "nones" or "dones" — has garnered a lot of press in recent days. Does this surge bother you?
The statistics themselves sadden me, but they don’t alarm me. While the nones and dones are different groups with different reasons for avoiding organized religion, God is present with them and gracious towards them right where they are. The nones and dones are telling us something that we desperately need to hear.
The church’s response ought not be to anxiously devise new strategies for “getting them back” to recoup the losses and meet institutional benchmarks. Nor should the church’s response be to dismiss them as unsaved, unregenerate, nominal knuckleheads and continue on with business as usual (what I call the “status quo illusion”). Instead, we must listen, reflect and lean into reform.
How do you encourage the nones and dones to move forward into faith?
Don't rush the process, and resist feeling that God is absent or distant or disapproving. God is present with them, right where they are. And, I would add this plea: Don’t give up, and don’t stop. This deconstruction need not be demolition, need not bring an absolute end to your faith. It just might be ushering you in to a brand new spiritual beginning and genuine religious flourishing.
The age of Trump has sparked great divisions among Christians. Those who are for or against often malign the other group. How can we pursue peace and unity in such a moment?
This is really hard. Especially because we desperately need a prophetic witness against the egregious abuses of American empire in these times. And prophets tend to not make friends with empire. They often become the empire’s worst enemies.
Where I see the need for peacemaking is at the small-scale interpersonal level. Recently, I was on a radio show with a conservative, Trump-supporting host, and we were still able to find areas of common ground in our conversation. This made discussing differences possible in the tension of newfound relationship. But there is a point where following Jesus brings “a sword” and not peace. Ironically, it’s at the point where we must emphatically object to the oppressions of empire. That’s when we may find ourselves at odds even with members of our own households, just as Jesus warned.
If Jesus were physically present in America right now, what do you think he would say about our political climate? Would he be optimistic, in your opinion?
He would not be blindly optimistic. No, he would resist the powers that be. He would protest the empire business in the American church. He would drag everything into the light, because Jesus is the light. He would invite all of us to place our hope in another kingdom entirely, and to participate in realizing that kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. He would dare us to believe, despite the darkness, that the light is winning — and then tell us to get to work.