When Realism Isn’t Enough: Cultivating Hopeful Lament in an Age of Disillusionment

The observant reader will notice that the strapline of this blog contains the phrase, “refreshingly realistic”. As I explain here, this is my attempt to pay homage to realism, which I describe as a way of sailing between the extremes of utopianism and cynicism. I argue that for realism to work, it must be thoroughly Christian in nature. That is, it must be shaped by the church’s teaching on who we are and the times we are living in.

Another way of saying this is that realism must be shaped by the Christian conceptions of lament and hope.

Without lament and hope, realism is a gateway to cynicism, a “contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives”. This post is an attempt to explain why our realism desperately needs to be characterised by practices of hopeful lament.

In our everyday experience, realism lives next door to disillusionment and cynicism. More precisely, realism is, or at least can be, a gateway to cynicism. In his book, Faith Without Illusions, Andy Byers helpfully sketches out the pathway that takes us from realism to cynicism. The process usually begins with disillusionment, when we encounter some cold hard reality that disperses our illusions (another word for our falsely held or unquestioned and naïve preconceptions about the way things are). Encountering this evidence about the facts of life is an illuminating experience. Contrary to what we often think, disillusionment is not a falling from the light but a moving from darkness to light. It is revelatory. It rids us of false beliefs about ourselves and the world, and, most crucially of all, about God. In this sense, disillusionment is a gift for the church and the world. But disillusionment also hurts—in being disabused of false ideas, we do not simply come to know the painful realities of life in a cerebral fashion. Rather, they touch us deeply and personally. We live them. Such experiences bring us face to face with the brokenness of our existence. And this is where cynicism can take root. Cynicism, Byers goes on to note, is where this brokenness turns to bitterness. From a place of contemptuous distrust, we can do little good for ourselves or for our neighbour. Indeed, we can do a lot of harm.  

This is why realism only gets us so far. The realist who turns to cynicism can be likened to an ill patient trying to cure the sick. Or to a man pouring oil on to a bonfire. The cynic who encounters disillusionment needs healing before she can offer her powerful insights to the world. 

So the fall to hard cold earth can easily find us spiralling towards bitter cynicism. 

But it need not. There is another, more excellent way. 

This is the path of hopeful lament. 

Simply put, hopeful lament holds together, and in tension, the reality that things are not as they should be and that God is working to bring about his new creation partly now, but then in full. It is painfully honest about the thorny ravages of sin (“our human propensity to fuck things up”, as Francis Spufford rather colourfully and honestly puts it). But being hopeful—not falsely optimistic but rooted in what we take to be the firm hope of God’s reversal of wrong in the end—means that as those who hopefully lament also point to the shoots of new life that are emerging among the thorns.

Hope and lament, and hopeful lament, are baked into the church’s liturgy, its daily, weekly and yearly practices. Any church worth its salt, or worthy of its Saviour, will practice lament and hope each week, in the corporate confession of sin followed by the absolution of those sins and, most chiefly of all, in the celebration of the Eucharist in which we are reminded that “Christ has died [death is real and God has entered into its depths; he has died for our sins, in our place], Christ has risen [death has been defeated even if we experience it now, and a new creation has begun], Christ will come again [to completely vanquish death and completely restore that new creation, finishing the work he began]”. 

By now, it should be clear the difference hopeful lament makes. Hopeful lament is so different from embittered cynicism and so refreshing precisely because it is not just realistic but hopefully realistic. What differences does hope make here? 

Here’s one way of putting it. Those who practice hopeful realism and hopeful lament, do not simply persist in honestly and unrelentingly observing and facing up to the way things are (though they do this as well, and often at great cost, as anyone who has told the truth in the face of powerful peer pressure will attest). But those who are hopeful realists will also carry these experiences to God, pouring out their hearts to him in honest, masks-off lament. To put it most simply, the practice of lament is the act of committing our experiences to God, praying for his deliverance in faith that he can, has and will act. “Lament”, as Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote after the death of his son, is “part of life”. Our painful experiences cannot be denied or explained away. They are part of who we are. And yet as hopeful realists cry out, they know that while this state of brokenness and pain defines our lives now, it is not how things will always be. 

The Church doesn’t always do hopeful lament, or at least it often doesn’t do it very well. I’ve walked into churches that seem to run on a frothy and superficial happiness that noisily blares out of loudspeakers and where, like characters out of A Brave New World, members of the congregation appear to have secured a steady supply of the soma happy pill. I’ve also entered churches for Sunday worship that have felt like funeral dirges vacated of any joy in the resurrection hope and where, at the sound of the blessing, congregants race to the door like Olympic sprinters. It is no wonder that when encountering these extremes of mandatory and shallow happiness, on the one hand, and obligatory and dirgeful dreariness, on the other, we are driven into an ever-deeper state of cynicism. 

I would wager that hopeful lament is something we need to recover just now. 2020 has given us much cause for mourning, for frustration and for despair. In this time of crisis, many of us have witnessed the death of loved ones, the loss of livelihoods or indeed the general wearing away of the social fabric as a result of social distancing. Might we say that 2020 has disabused us of certain falsehoods (that we do not need the company of others, for instance, or that we are all “in this together” or, perhaps most obviously, that we are immortal and immune to the ravages of sickness and pain)? Might we say that 2020 has disillusioned us? I think so. But might we also say that, if we aren’t careful, this disillusionment could breed mass cynicism? 

Where will the painful reality of our human brokenness drive us? 

In closing, let me commend the practice of hopeful lament. I would like to offer a concrete recommendation here. In recent weeks, I have taken great solace from Bifrost Arts’ album, Lamentations and, the more recently produced Lament Songs by Porter’s Gate (recorded in July 2020 by a group of quarantined musicians). Melding the confronting language of the Psalms of Lament and other scriptural texts with beautiful instrumental music, both albums contain powerful testimonies of waiting on God, crying out to him with honesty and pain and looking in firm hope for signs of his deliverance. The tagline of Bifrost Art’s album cover sums it up beautifully: Simple Songs of Hope and Lament.

Image Credit: Anna Shvets (Free Stock Image).

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