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Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience

by A.J. Swoboda

If you haven’t choreographed your own personal happy dance yet, now is the time, because you are going to want to do one while you read this book by Dr. A.J. Swoboda. The title, A Glorious Dark — Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience may not indicate it, but this volume of Holy Week reflections might cause you to do some hand clapping and toe tapping.

It is not that this book is made up of light hearted content, nor is it light-weight in its approach to the Christian life. Swoboda embraces and explores the tension between Christian belief and the trials of day-to-day life. He covers a wide range of topics focusing on the difficulties Christians slam into when following Christ, and the disturbing observations about Christian life that keep many people from choosing to follow Christ. So what’s to dance about? Swoboda writes with honesty and self-deprecation, employing metaphor and imagination in such a way that he cheers the intellect and fills the soul with exuberance. In A Glorious Dark, tough questions and thoughtful answers find their expression in syncopated rhythms of the Spirit.

According to his website, Dr. A. J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and a number of other universities and Bible colleges. He also served as a campus pastor at the University of Oregon. 

The title “A Glorious Dark” refers to rivers Swoboda recalls from his childhood in Oregon which, in the deep cold of winter, would appear frozen and dead. His father would remind him that beneath the cold, dark, dead surface was a wild, powerful river that untrained eyes could not imagine. “You had to believe it was alive. Rushing waves lurked underneath the stillness of death, as powerful as ever.” 

The book itself revolves around another acknowledgement of death — Holy Week, especially the last three days: Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The author holds that most Christians seem to resonate with the theme of only one of these days. Swoboda suggests that all three days deserve our attention. According to Swoboda “’s because of that one weekend in history that Christianity exists. Christianity works precisely because death didn’t. I write this  because I’ve come to believe that there truly is abundant — one might say bottomless — life in Jesus. However, this life isn’t found on Sunday alone. Life is found in all three days — pain and death on Friday, doubt on Saturday, and resurrection on Sunday.”

Following the introduction, which is worth your time to read, the book is divided into three parts, one for each day of the final weekend of Holy Week. With chapter titles such as “Numb”, under Friday, “Awkward” under Saturday and “A Different Kind of Hero” under Sunday, Swoboda writes meditations that are not typical Holy Week fare, but which surprise, disturb and sometimes charm the reader. Here is a paragraph from the section called A Different Kind of Hero:

“Jesus wasn’t the caped hero whom people expected. What kind of hero washes feet? He was a different sort of hero. He wore no cape, didn’t fly, didn’t have boundless energy, got tired, served his disciples, ate meals with lepers, made shelving units, and then died with some criminals. This hero emptied himself rather than do the sensational thing. What kind of a hero is a servant?” 

A perennial topic of discussion among Jesus followers involves recognizing God’s will for our lives. Questions always arise, when a potential direction for service to Christ opens up, about how to determine if we are truly hearing from God or not. 

Swoboda offers this bit of advice about discovering God’s will for our lives. It is in the chapter titled The Gospel According to Lewis and Clark:

“Therein lies the importance of the Bible and the church. In the Bible we find a book reporting to us the things God has spoken in the past to others. And since God does not go back on what he said, we can compare all we think to those words because of God’s faithfulness. This is exactly why discerning God’s voice is best done in the context of a community holding its feet to the Bible, a book that has the ability to tell us if we are being idiots or not.”

A Glorious Dark is filled with thought provoking offerings. Creative and illuminating, this book is a valuable resource to meditate on, pray through, and immerse your spirit in for the final days of Holy Week. It may also be a good book to read in these weeks of Eastertide, in order to keep your mind and heart aware of Christ’s wonderful victory over death at the resurrection.

I started this review by suggesting you create a happy dance of your own. Here’s a paragraph from A Glorious Dark that might inspire you to do exactly that:

“Concluding his most brilliant book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton briefly discusses what Jesus did when he went to the wilderness with God early in the morning. In the wilderness Jesus prayed to his Father. We might often imagine Jesus going into the wilderness sort of white-knuckling his relationship with the Father. How, before coffee, Jesus begrudgingly went up to force himself to pray. But, Chesterton says, that’s not what it would have been like if we saw Jesus up in the wilderness praying. Chesterton says that if we could have hid behind a tree and watched Jesus in the wilderness with his Father, we would have seen something that would surprise us all. 

We would have seen Jesus laughing as he danced through the trees.”

I hope when you read A Glorious Dark you find yourself moved by the Spirit to get your dancing shoes on.



Thoughts to consider in your own life or to talk about with your church group:

  1. Many church-goers jump from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, avoiding the darker, more difficult days of mourning in between.  Some would say that we avoid or fear allowing ourselves to experience those more emotional, times of mourning.  Has that been true in your life?  If so why?
  2. Why do you think that Holy Saturday is so vital to the understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection? What rituals could help the church move through Holy Saturday better?
  3. How can the church help people through times of doubt and grief and into a time of “resurrection” assurance?
  4. How has this book enriched your sense of Christ’s resurrection gift?