Three years ago, when pastor, seminary professor and author A.J. Swoboda’s first book Messy made its debut, I said I hoped the book would not be his last; so when a review copy of Swoboda’s second book, A Glorious Dark, arrived in the mail last week, I was like a kid on Christmas morning unwrapping a gift.

I was not disappointed.

The same knack for funny and conversational theological gab that made Messy an enjoyable and engaging read is once again on display in these reflections on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter—and just in time for the events of this Holy Week. The premise of the book is both simple and profound: that Christians need the whole Gospel, as in “pain and death on Friday, doubt on Saturday, and resurrection on Sunday.” Swoboda critiques an all-too-prevalent, pick-and-choose buffet approach within contemporary American Christianity: whereas some Christians choose a Good Friday spirituality of “defeat, death and loss,” for example, other Christians spend their time in the dessert line, skipping the meat and potatoes of pain and death entirely and preferring instead variations on the health and wealth gospel.

Then there are those of us who have decided we are somewhere in the middle, on Holy Saturday, choosing “in-betweeness, a liminality, an uncertainty, a doubt.” (Here— maybe because I am sympathetic to Holy Saturday-ers and find myself among them often—I’m not sure I completely agree with Swoboda that we are “cynics and deconstructionists” who think “that everyone should sit in our graves with us.”) But the overall tenor Swoboda strikes, one of calling the church to embrace a whole Gospel rather than piecemeal parts of it, is well-taken, and I applaud him for what he has done in another great book—namely, giving his readers a winning and provocative presentation of the Christian faith.

Here, as in Messy, the witty, one-liners wake me up and draw me in:

Faith will either be like a Polaroid picture or an Etch-a-Sketch.

The Trinity is the world’s Chewbacca.

Everyone’s addicted to something. Even God.

The last of these I want to quibble with: the notion that God is an addict addicted to dispensing grace clashes with my Barthian and Reformed sensibilities; a perfectly free and sovereign God cannot be an addict, even for the sake of a pithy illustration. Doesn’t God precede grace afterall? A small quibble.

This instance is one of a few in the book where I want to press Swoboda to explain a bit more what he means. He is on the move at a breakneck speed throughout this book, a bit like a very gifted and engaging theological tour guide with a small (and endearing) hint of ADHD. There is methodological brilliance in this approach: theology eludes systematizing; and there is so much terrain to cover between Good Friday and Easter, why not catch the most important highlights? But there are a few times when I think I’m being driven towards the theological equivalent of one of the Seven Wonders (like the problem of human evil and depravity, for example) and am then distracted by roadkill.

By way of illustration, some illuminating reflections on human evil veer into a somewhat terse and dismissive critique of evolution: “In fact, my biggest beef with evolution isn’t what evolution says about the past. My problem with evolution is what it says of the future. It ultimately suggests, ‘Hey, give humanity a few more years and we’ll get everything cleaned up. We’ll be better.”

The digression into a critique of evolution in turn causes this reader to lose sight of the more compelling point Swoboda is making here about the problem of human evil. Instead, I become a bit distracted wondering whether contemporary models of evolution really do make the teleological assumption that with evolution human beings will become better and less evil. (I am pretty sure they don’t; besides, I had thought the primary beef that many evangelicals have with evolution is precisely what they deem as evolution’s inherent randomness and lack of a teleology.)

But these points are minor in a book that will enrich and challenge your Christian faith or lack thereof. Swoboda’s pastoral concerns are evident. He reserves some of his best one-liners and metaphors for talking about the church and why we still need the church. But I don’t want to spoil these for prospective readers, who will have to pick up the book and discover its depth and charm for themselves.

They won’t be disappointed.


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