A Feature Review of
The Light Is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life
Reviewed by Leroy Seat.
The present day often seems like a rather discouraging time for many Christians. Those who are in the “moderate” camp are embarrassed by many of the things conservative evangelicals say and do. But the moderates are also unhappy with the way many of the progressives/liberals deny or downplay some of the most central aspects of the Christian faith. Additionally, many of today’s Christian denominations—whether conservative, moderate, or liberal—seem to be in decline.
This new book by Zach Hoag, who self identifies as “an author, preacher, and creator from New England,” speaks a word of hope into these discouraging times through sharing his own story and some ongoing theological reflections.
Hoag (b. 1979) was the son of a radical preacher who took his family to join a Pentecostal cult in Texas when Zach was ten. By then Hoag had already been thoroughly indoctrinated, so he acknowledges that he was “a radical, a militant, at ten years old.”
Hoag’s perspective, however, changed several times over the next 25 years. His thinking was broadened/deepened by Reformed theology. Later he and his new wife became members of a Calvinistic Baptist church. They left that church after four years, partly because of what they experienced as the “heavy handed exclusion of women.” They continued to search for a satisfying spiritual home.
In 2008, Zach and his wife planted a church in Burlington, Vermont, which is one of the least-churched cities in the U.S. Despite of their best efforts, they failed, and the church closed in 2012. Hoag is now a writer and an occasional preacher at his new church home, the local United Methodist Church—and wherever else he is invited.
There are three parts to The Light Is Winning. The first is “Illusion and Revelation” and in this part of the book, he tells his life story from boyhood to 2012. “Darkness and Deconstruction” is the next part, in which Zach relates his struggles when he thought he had failed in his life’s calling. But in the book’s third and final part, “Illumination and Resurrection,” he shares an important message of hope.
The book’s first chapter is titled “Apocalypse Now,” and he uses the term “apocalypse” with its literal meaning, that of “revealing” or “unveiling.” In the midst of his struggles, that unveiling gave him hope for the future. He closes this chapter by referring to “death paving the way for a resurrected, rooted, flourishing faith, opening the door into an abiding hope and a bright future.” It is that sort of forward-looking, hopeful perspective that makes this book of great significance for Christians who tend to feel discouraged at the church’s present challenges.
In the second and third chapters, Hoag begins his recurrent criticism of empire and of authoritarianism, which he sees as a pervasive problem in American Christianity. He is also quite critical of institutionalism, which he considers to be “just another expression of empire business.”
Hoag’s changing worldview through the years wasn’t just in the realm of religion. His political views also changed, as he steered away from being a talk-radio conservative to a critic of right-wing Christianity linked to the “American Empire,” which he uses for the title of Chapter 4. That empire, as he perceives it, is closely linked to the “military consumerism” that he now sees as standing in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus. By the end of the fifth chapter, Hoag confesses that because of his rejection of the schisms in Christianity “wrought by pathological ambition, empire building, and authoritarian control,” the only demographic he could see himself belonging to was “the dones.”
In the sixth chapter (the first one in Part 2), Hoag writes of the help, and hope, he received from Richard Rohr, the prolific Catholic writer, and also from N.T. Wright, the even more prolific New Testament scholar. Then in “The Desert of Deconstruction,” the next chapter, he writes about help received from varied sources—including the movie “The Matrix,” the TV series “Mad Men,” Pope Francis, and Garrison Keillor.
All of these help him find an “Exit through the Wilderness,” the title of Chapter 8. Having recognized that deconstruction without hope is just demolition, he declares at the end of this next chapter that if we exit through the wilderness to the place or promise, then deconstruction is not demolition.
Chapter 9, “Songs of the Resurrected and the Undead,” is the first of five chapters in Part 3. Hoag almost lost me here in the subsection on “Zombie Religion,” as he wrote about AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” But his conclusion was easy to understand and to agree with. Zach acknowledges that the only way he was going to be resurrected from the darkness and deconstruction unleashed by his apocalypse was “to come face to face with the Light of the World, the Light of life himself.”
In the next chapter, “Making Progress,” Hoag tells how the title of the book actually comes from an episode of the HBO series “True Detective.” One of the characters in that program remarked that “the light’s winning.” The next day Hoag says that he wrote in his blog, “I believe—I mean, I really believe—that the light is winning.” And then for this book he states, “Everything changes when we begin to believe the light is winning.”
As Hoag came more and more to immerse himself in Jesus, the light as expressed in the first chapter of John, he began to question his theology. This questioning eventually led to him rejecting the image of a vengeful, wrathful, and punishing God, and the Reformation doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement. That led him then to Chapter 12 “Resurrection Religion.” The clouds of deconstruction cleared and he began to see hope— his “unconditional belovedness before God.”
In the last part of Chapter 12, Hoag importantly emphasizes that Jesus and his kingdom are relentlessly inclusive, economically just, and nonviolently peaceable. This leads then to the final chapter, whose title is the same as that of the book, “The Light is Winning.” Unfortunately, that closing chapter may be the weakest of the book—but maybe it will be amplified in Hoag’s next book.
In this discouraging time for so many Christians, I highly recommend reading Zach Hoag’s book. It is an honest and relatable telling of his own story, along with thoughtful reflections on the nature of the Christian faith, as taught by Jesus and practiced by his early disciples. His central point is one we must embrace for constant encouragement in the struggle: the light is winning!