“Given Realities of Our Fallen World”
A Review of
Hard Times Come Again No More:
Suffering and Hope.
By Alex Joyner.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Hard Times Come Again No More:
Suffering and Hope.
Paperback: Abingdon, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
Ps. 90:10 NIV
[ Listen to Mavis Staples’s moving rendition of the title song… ]
The story of the fall in Genesis 3 reminds us that life will be difficult and painful in our fallen world. This reality is one that for many decades we in the United States have found ways to suppress or to outsource to other parts of the globe. Our labor-saving devices often do save us labor, but are we storing up even greater trouble for our children and grandchildren in the ecological consequences of generating the energy that these machines require? We are too busy to make (or to learn how to make) our clothes and basic household items, so we search the globe for cheap goods made by people who are willing to do this sort of labor, often in substandard conditions. Similarly, we buy all manner of processed foods that we do not know where they come from and that are filled with all sorts of substances whose effects on our bodies are questionable at best, and in some instances likely harmful. Additionally, we face the massive, yet underexplored, emotional crisis created by our alienation from the land and from other humans, as we find ourselves interacting less and less with humans and more and more with machines and other technologies. It is amidst crises of this sort, obesity, sweatshop labor, global warming, etc. – crises that very much have their roots in our avoidance of the pain and monotony of labor – that Alex Joyner has written his lovely new book Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering And Hope.
Although the book is, as the sub-title indicates about the place of suffering and hope in our lives, Joyner has chosen to tackle this topic by exploring the life and works of the nineteenth century songwriter Stephen Foster, whose widely recognized songs include “O Susannah,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and of course, the song that lends its title to the book. Thus, with its unique and thoroughly engaging blend of history, biography, popular culture and theology, Hard Times resists classification. Joyner, however, notes in the book’s introduction that his intent is to address the realities of suffering in our own lives and of those around us. He says:
[This book] is born of my own struggles and of my dissatisfaction with the answers that come too easily to our lips when we are faced with hard times. Honesty demands that we approach suffering knowing that no rational word can make sense of the loss and the pain (13).
The book begins with a general chapter on learning from hard times, which also introduces unfamiliar readers to the life of Foster and the struggles that he faced as he essentially carved out the singer-songwriter role in American pop culture, a story that finds him at many turns struggling to make a living and then dying of a tragic accident, alone and near-broke. These struggles that Foster faced worked their way out into songs like “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and Joyner does a fine job of exploring this theme of suffering in Foster’s songs over the course of the book. After this introductory chapter, the remaining chapters address emotions related to our suffering: longing, anger, audacity, hope and ending – appropriately – with beauty and joy. Joyner does fabulous job of exploring the meaning of these emotions within the context of the scriptural story, which is to say also the story of creation. He writes in a smooth and engaging style, very much in the tradition of the great American essayists. Several times throughout the course of the book, I was reminded by the book’s content as well as by Joyner’s wise, gentle and cautiously pastoral style of the work of Frederick Buechner, particularly his memoirs and volumes of essays.
In the book’s final chapter, on beauty and joy, Joyner offers a summary of how we should deal with suffering as followers of Christ, developing the following six points:
1) Trust in the words and deeds that make Christians distinctive
2) Cultivate the restless desire that points us to our ultimate end
3) Recall that victory is not a human capacity but a divine assurance
4) We are not only victims but agents who can address suffering where we can
5) Do not neglect to see beauty
6) Trust the joy
There is very little said about suffering in this slim little volume that has not been said elsewhere (and Joyner himself raises this point in the book’s introduction) but Joyner is a talented and insightful writer and the book is a timely one as we face the economic challenges of the present, as well as the potential ecological and social crises that seem to loom just beyond the horizon. May we have the honesty to follow Joyner in recognizing that pain and trouble are given realities of our fallen world, and may we join with Stephen Foster and the host of musical luminaries who have recorded his tune over the years and sing “Hard times, Hard times come again no more.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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