“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
— Romans 5.5
— What do you believe? — “I believe in everything.” — “You make it sound almost easy.” — “It’s hard as hell.”
— Frederick Buechner, The Book of Bebb
Hope is hard to come by these days. Overwhelmed by climate apocalypse, exhausted by COVID, horrified by mass shootings, outraged by war crimes, saddened by the evisceration of democracy, savaged by racism, maddened by tribalism, sickened by political insanity, many of us have grown increasingly dispirited. Are we just going from bad to worse, or is hope still a viable practice? On this Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit, I choose hope, no question. But I have to admit, it’s hard as hell.
My hope does not rest in any existing social mechanism or political ideology. As an American embedded in this historical moment, I will continue to support political efforts and movements to bend our political, economic, and social order toward justice and human flourishing. But recent years have left me with few illusions about the capacity of our frail and broken system to deliver us from crisis. Although the stupidest man in Congress complained last week that “you can’t even lie to Congress or lie to an FBI agent or they’re coming after you,” the safeguards aren’t what they used to be.[i] And the prospect of America becoming a dystopian “Gilead” is no longer inconceivable.[ii]
But despite the heretical and dangerous claims of America’s “Christian nationalists,” God’s friends do not rest their faith in any nation-state, which by its nature has no theological aim or sense of ultimate purpose (telos). “The Church as a community transcends every political order because it is animated by the Holy Spirit and has as its telos and aim friendship with God and neighbor.… What distinguishes the community that is the body of Christ is not only its redirection to humanity’s proper telos, but also the regeneration of the heart that makes redirection toward the pursuit of this telos possible.… As such, it stands in contrast to every other polis [communal society] insofar as no other shares its narrative (the Scriptures) or is the site for the Spirit’s regenerative, sacramental, and sanctifying presence.” [iii]
Is it realistic to expect communities of faith, consisting of flawed human beings, to be sites of the Spirit’s sanctifying and renewing presence? Many of us have encountered spiritless churches in our own day, and through the centuries far too many Christian communities have managed to extinguish the Pentecostal flame. But for God’s friends, “people of the Spirit” is who we must be. In the 17th century, Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes used a memorable image to preach the centrality of the Spirit to Christian identity:
“The Holy Ghost is a Dove” he said, “and He makes Christ’s Spouse, the Church, a Dove … No Dove, no Church.” Noting that the dove is a symbol of peace and blessing, innocence and gentleness, he warned against all who “seek and do all that is in them to chase away this Dove, the Holy Ghost.” In its place they would have a monster of their own making, with “the beak and claws of a vulture.” Instead of an olive branch, this terrible creature would “have a match-light in her beak or a bloody knife.” [iv] (“Christians” who love your guns more than children, I’m looking at you!)
We may not always make the best Spirit-people, but that is our only true vocation—to receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts and our communities, not hoarding it for ourselves, but distributing its gifts for the repair of the world and the flourishing of humankind.
Edwin Hatch, a nineteenth-century Oxford scholar who wrote the famous Spirit hymn, “Breathe on me, breath of God,” said that “the fellowship of the Divine Spirit is a sharing in [its] Divine activity, in an unresisting and untiring life, always moving, because motion and not rest is the essence of [the Spirit’s] nature—always moving with a blessing.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is a gift, and gifts exist to be shared—passed around freely in perpetual circulation. As Jesus exhorted us, let your light so shine, that all the world may see and know Divine blessing. Or as Hatch put it:
“The blessing of God, if it be within us, must shine forth from us. No one can see God face to face without [their] own face shining.” [v]
The gifts of the Spirit are many, but hope is my subject today, so I’ll stick with that. As divine gift, hope isn’t a mood that comes and goes. Nor is it something we work hard to produce out of our own psyches, willing it with all our might against all odds. Rather, it comes from beyond ourselves, as a gift from God, not to be grasped in blindness or indifference to the chaos and sufferings of history, but as an enduring disposition, a habit of being, practiced daily in confident fidelity to the divine future which “broods over the world warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” [vi]
I will close with two compelling affirmations of the nature of hope. May they be an encouragement to your own practice of life in the Spirit. The first is by theologian John Cobb:
In spite of all the destructive forces [we] let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles [we] put in its path. In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in others also.… what makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another, but a Spirit that moves us all.” [vii]
And from the inimitable Frederick Buechner:
But the worst isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well. [viii]
[i] Louis Gohmert, a Republican representative from Texas, made this sadly revealing remark in an interview on right-wing media on June 3, 2022.
[ii] Gilead is the name of the scary theocratic American state in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). If you don’t have HBO, just watch the latest news from Texas and Florida.
[iii] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 237, 239.
[iv]Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 118.
[vi] The full line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” is: Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of God’s future, nurturing the new creation into being, even as the Spirit brooded creatively over the waters at the beginning of time.
[vii] John B. Cobb, Jr., Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology (Beverly Hills, CA: Bruce, 1971), cited in Marjorie Hewitt Suchoki, “Spirit in and through the World,” in Trinity in Process: A Relational Theory of God (New York: Continuum, 1997), 180.
[viii] Dale Brown, The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 124.
Human narcissism and all that it has wrought, including the destruction of nature, will finally be our downfall. In the end, McKay isn’t doing much more in this movie than yelling at us, but then, we do deserve it.
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled Into the depths of the sea.
— Psalm 46:1-2
Spoiler alert: If you want to see Don’t Look Up with innocent eyes, watch the movie before reading this. It is currently streaming on Netflix.
Kierkegaard once told a parable about the human capacity for denial. A fire broke out backstage in a crowded theater before the performance. With the curtains still drawn, the audience was unaware of the danger, so one of the actors stepped out to warn them. But he was dressed as a clown, and the people thought his cries of alarm must be some kind of joke. The louder he shouted “YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”, the more they laughed and cheered. By the time they realized the peril for themselves, it was too late.
“I think,” said the Danish philosopher, “that’s just how the world will end—to general applause.” [ii]
One of the most popular current films, Don’t Look Up, is a farce about the extinction of life on our planet. It dresses its message of disaster and death in a comic premise: most of humanity is either too witless, deluded, or self-absorbed to acknowledge the threat. The more ridiculously the characters behave, the more we laugh—at least until the (literally) bitter end.
Like Kierkegaard’s clown, director and co-writer Adam McKay has serious intentions. “I’ve been really terrified about the climate, the collapse of the livable atmosphere,” he told an interviewer. “It seems to be getting faster and faster. Yet for some reason, it’s not penetrating our culture.”[iii] Since climate change is a gradual process stretching far beyond our attention span, McKay has substituted a more instantaneous disaster for our consideration. In the movie, an immense comet is headed straight for planet Earth. In six months, all living things will be destroyed.
An astronomy professor at Michigan State, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his protégé, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discover the comet and try to warn the White House and the world. But their pleas for action go largely unheeded, and things go merrily downhill from there. As Manohla Dargis writes, Don’t Look Up is “a very angry, deeply anguished comedy freakout about how we are blowing it, hurtling toward oblivion. He’s sweetened the bummer setup with plenty of yuks — good, bad, indifferent — but if you weep, it may not be from laughing.” [iv]
During preproduction, the world was struck by a different disaster—the pandemic. The mismanaged Trumpian response, followed by the deadly denialism of the anti-vaxxers, added fuel to the satirical fire. McKay’s parable became as much about COVID as it is about climate change. It was hard to keep the fictional script ahead of the times. McKay said they had to make the film “20% crazier, because reality had played out crazier than the script.” [v]
In most disaster movies, human ingenuity and determination win out in the end, and the world manages to survive. But Don’t Look Up is not so forgiving. Human folly and sin guarantee global extinction. And no matter how much we have been entertained by the stellar cast and amusing scenarios, we are meant to come away unsettled. Complacency is not an option. The theater of Nature is on fire. This is not a drill.
The film has been embraced by the viewing public as well as activists, but many critics have been not only dismissive but contemptuous: “… it’s one joke, told over and over and over again”[vi] … “the attempts at mockery are broad, puerile, and obvious, unintentionally trivializing the issues it seeks to highlight”[vii] … “drowns in its own smugness”[viii] … “its simplistic anger-stoking and pathos-wringing mask the movie’s fundamental position of getting itself talked about while utterly eliding any real sense of politics or political confrontation.”[ix]
David Fear of Rolling Stone is particularly brutal: “… a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire .… So caught up in its own hysterical shrieking that it drowns out any laughs, or sense of poignancy, or points it might be trying to make … it’s never able to find a way to crawl out of the tarpit of its own bone-deep despair … it doesn’t mean that one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss is funny, or insightful, or even watchable. It’s a disaster movie in more ways than one. Should you indeed look up, you may be surprised to find one A-list bomb of a movie, all inchoate rage and flailing limbs, falling right on top of you.”[x]
There have been more measured critiques. Some find Don’t Look Up heavy-handed and misanthropic. Most of the characters, they say, are too cartoonishly stupid or corrupt to make us care deeply about their fate. Some think the filmmaker is too cynical about our collective capacity to counteract moral blindness and systemic evil, leaving us discouraged rather than empowered. Others, weighing the effectiveness of the relentlessly over-the-top caricatures, ponder “the question of whether our culture has become too depressing, too absurd, too lamentable to satirize.” [xi]
In a lengthy and sober analysis, Eric Levitz judges the comet scenario to be a misleading metaphor for climate change:
“In the film’s populist, polemical account of the ecological crisis, there is … no need for Americans to tolerate significant disruptions to their existing way of life, no vexing question of global redistribution, no compelling benefits from ongoing carbon-intensive growth, and thus no rational or uncorrupted opponent of timely climate action. Don’t Look Up casts the conflict between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term economic growth as one pitting the interests of billionaires against those of everyone else.” [xii]
What I find missing in all this criticism is a sense of genre. The lack of political nuance, psychological depth, or aesthetic rigor is beside the point. This film embraces the method of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, where stock characters “make sport of human foibles and universal complaints while burlesquing the most socially or politically prominent members of a given community.” [xiii]
In the early 20th century, the Commedia model was adapted by Russian “agitprop” theater, “noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule.”[xiv] Agitprop’s aim was not to create great art, but to inspire collective action. In the American 1960s, groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe practiced a similar “guerilla theater,” whose purpose, as stated in a 1967 manifesto by R. G. Davis, was to criticize “prevailing conditions … expressing what you (as a community) all know but no one is saying … truth that may be shocking and honesty that is vulgar to the aesthete … There is a vision in this theater, and … it is to continue … presenting moral plays and to confront hypocrisy in the society.” [xv]
It’s a playful form of politics, using laughter to dethrone the powers of this world by undermining their pretensions to ultimacy. As the Psalmist says, “God is laughing at them; the Lord has them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). Prophetic mockery is the genesis of revolution. It’s liberating and cathartic. But if it remains merely a way to blow off steam, or a refreshing but temporary lightening of spirit, that is not enough. Action must follow. We must become the change we seek.
Millions of people have seen Don’t Look Up. Its content and aims are being widely and passionately discussed. Is it a good movie? How accurate is its central metaphor? Which actors stand out? Is it funny? Given the film’s vast global reach and the urgency of the crisis, these become secondary questions. What I want to know is: Does it make a difference? Can it provoke repentance? Will it produce change?
Every preacher and every liturgist wonders the same things. How do our sermons, images, rituals and stories contribute to the transformational mix? In a podcast conversation about the film, Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber addresses this issue:
“I think this quest for movies to deliver a message that changes people’s minds is maybe quixotic. There aren’t a ton of works in history like that. But what they do do is give you a set of images and characters and metaphors and clichés that, when they work, become absorbed into our language. They help us talk about the world in ways that are hopefully progressing our discourse and society.” [xvi]
Of course, a film about global annihilation is a hard sell (and released at Christmas, no less!). The prospect of unimaginable loss opens the door to nihilism and despair. Why bother? Why go on? The director himself describes his film as a place where “absurdist, ridiculous comedy lives right next to sadness … so the trickiest part of the movie was to ramp down that tone in the last 20 minutes.” During a script conference before shooting started, one of the producers asked McKay, “Where’s faith in this movie?” And the director, whose mother was a born-again evangelical, exclaimed, “Oh, you’re right. You’re right!” [xvii]
As the comet nears its collision with earth, we see people facing extinction in various ways. Some are praying, some are partying, some are weeping, some are just staring at the sky in disbelief, fear, or hopeless resignation. But in a dining room in East Lansing, Michigan, a small group of friends and family have gathered around a table for a communal last supper. Among them are Randall and Kate. For six months they had tried and failed to awaken humanity to effective action. Now they are back home, choosing neither anger nor despair for their final moments on earth, but gratitude and communion.
As the food is shared, each of them names something they are grateful for. Then Randall says, “Well, we’re not the most religious here in the Mindy household, but, um, maybe we should say ‘amen?’ Should we do that?”
Most of them are unpracticed in prayer, so this suggestion creates an awkward pause. But Yule, a young Christian skateboarder (Timothée Chalamet), speaks up. “I’ve got this,” he says. Everyone joins hands around the table, and Yule begins to pray:
“Dearest Father, Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride; your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all, Lord, we ask for your love, to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.”
Somewhere across the globe, the comet strikes, and an immense tsunami begins to swallow planetary life like the biblical flood. Yes, there is a parodic ark, reserved for the billionaires, bearing them to a justly ironic fate in a galaxy far, far away. But the true ark of the righteous remnant is that Michigan dining room.
In their final minute on earth, the men and women around the table discuss small, ordinary blessings like the store-bought apple pie and the delicious home-brewed coffee. In an inspired ad-lib that had occurred to DiCaprio between takes, Dr. Mindy speaks his last words:
“Thing of it is, we really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.”
The simple human beauty of this last supper, more than the script’s many earnest pleadings, makes the film’s best case for preserving the world. It seems no accident that the one who sets the spiritual tone is named Yule, an old word for Christmas. Even at history’s last moment, Love is being made flesh.
Then, as the walls around them begin to disintegrate, the screen goes suddenly dark. The circle of human love has vanished into the Divine Mystery.
After watching Don’t Look Up, I came across a poem by John Hollander which articulates for me the feeling of this moving finale. “At the New Year” is about the new beginnings that emerge from all the endings—those moments when we feel “every door in the world shutting at once.” Then the poet prays, “let it come at a time like this, not at winter’s / Night,” but “at a golden / Moment just on the edge of harvesting, ‘Yes. Now.’ / … as we go / Quietly on with what we shall be doing, and sing / Thanks for being enabled, again, to begin this instant.” [xviii]
So the apocalypse ends not with a bang, but with a softly spoken thanks for everything. Even when the worst arrives, the answering word is Yes, and the circle of love goes “quietly on with what we shall be doing,” and singing our thanks. Every moment, even the last one, is a gift to be savored. May our own precious moments on this earth be hallowed with gratitude, acceptance, and trust, now and at the hour of our death.
The turning of the year is the only ritual observance shared universally by humankind. Each religion has its own sacred days scattered across the months, but tonight everyone on earth will join in one great procession, time zone by time zone, into the New Year. We pause a moment to look back, with a mixture of gratitude and regret; then we turn our faces toward the unwritten future. We usually do this with gleeful clamor and warm embraces, welcoming the New with our brightest hopes. The arrival of 2022 may strike a more tentative note.
In my seven years of blogging, I have written a reflection every New Year’s Eve. Most of those posts have been about hope. On the eve of 2017, with my country “teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin,” I hoped that we would “not to be mesmerized by the abyss,” but rather be on the watch for the divine ingenuity “already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history.”
Three years later, with the flag of hope tattered and torn by endless battles, I drew inspiration from Thoreau, who continued his quiet work of studying the natural world even as the Civil War ravaged the American consciousness. We must, he argued, refuse the hypnotic spell of the chaos which seeks to seduce our gaze. The refusal to take our eye from the transcendent goodness and beauty at the heart of things is “the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.”
At the end of 2021, such spiritual poise feels elusive, if not unimaginable. This was supposed to be the year we returned to normal. With COVID now raging like the fires and storms of climate change, and our body politic critically ill with malice and madness, normal is no longer on the itinerary.
Didier Maleuvre, a specialist in the study of Western culture, describes hope as an inherently perilous task: “So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future.” Isn’t that where we find ourselves on the eve of 2022—at the mercy of the future? It is an unnerving time for sure, and few of us will be stepping so bravely into the New Year tonight.
Yet we must, now more than ever, light our candles in this dark and declare our fidelity to the dawn, whenever and however it may come. God desires a better world. However our follies may frustrate and obstruct divine hope, God is wiser than despair. “Behold,” says the Holy One, “I make all things new.”[i] May we all heed the summons to embody that great redemptive labor in our own stories, whether it be in small acts of kindness or collective works of social and spiritual transformation.
The world as we know it is passing away. But death is never the final meaning, only the portal to new birth. Can we embrace this moment in time as an invitation to radical transformation? The Indian writer Arundhati Roy expresses such a hope:
“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus … It has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”[ii]
Dear reader, I believe that our faith and our love, as well as our hope, will be severely tested in the coming year. When the demons of weariness and discouragement do their worst, remember the Paschal Mystery: The way down is the way up.
When Dante’s descent into the abyss of Hell reached its deepest point, his downward trajectory ceased. Once the poet passed through the nadir—the center of the earth—his motion became, without a change in direction, an ascent back toward the surface. His journey taught him that even the “lightless way,” if you take it far enough, is bound for glory.
… we climbed the dark until we reached the point where a round opening brought in sight the blest
and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars. And we walked out once more beneath the Stars. [iii]
Dear readers, thank you for engaging with my posts over the last year. I am especially grateful when your own thinking is stirred or your soul is fed by what you find here. My work is to pass on whatever comes to me in reading, experience and the occasional inspiration, planting what seeds I can in the community garden. It is a labor of love. To all who take the time to write a comment or share a post with others, thank you for valuing and extending the conversation.
I wish for you both courage and joy in the New Year. Keep tending the fires of hope!
For summaries and links for previous New Year’s Eve posts, click here.
[ii] Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” in Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, (New York: Penguin, 2020). This quote has been widely posted on the Internet, and you can see her read the full text on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7hgQFaeaeo0
[iii] Dante Alighieri, Inferno xxxiv.140-143. John Ciardi translation.