Hope and Other Superpowers (John Pavlovitz) -- A Review

HOPE AND OTHER SUPERPOWERS: A Life-Affirming, Love-Defending, Butt-Kicking, World-Saving Manifesto. By John Pavlovitz. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. Xvii + 235 pages.

                The economy seems to be going pretty well, at least if you measure things by the Stock Market. That doesn’t mean everything is going well in here at home (for me, the United States) or around the world. We seem more divided than ever. People talk at each other, but not with each other. The political divide is wider than it’s been in my memory. The racial divide seems to be re-widening. Of course, not all is bad, it’s just there is this feeling that things aren’t right. Even the religious world is a mess. So, is there any hope for us?  

I remember Barack Obama writing a pre-election best-seller titled The Audacity of Hope. Many of us had great hope that he would usher in a new age of hope and change and progress, but he gave way to Donald Trump who wants to “Make America Great Again.” I’m not sure we moved the needle much over the past few decades. That doesn’t mean things were better back when I was growing up, it just feels different.

There have been and will continue to be efforts to offer a way forward. John Pavlovitz is a some-time pastor and blogger, who has written a manifesto for our times. Although I didn’t read his first book, I accepted an offer to review his second book. I knew that he had gained some notoriety as a spokesperson for the religious left and that he was highly critical of Donald Trump. His first book was published by a denominational press, which suggested a religious message. This book is published by a secular press. That could mean a more secularized message, but I may have assumed the author would, since he is identified here as a pastor that this book would have strong religious roots. My expectations may have clouded my reading of the book. It is more secular/political than religious, so I may have struggled due to expectations. On the other hand, the book title suggests that superheroes would be at the center of the story.  So, maybe I should have known better.

In this manifesto, Pavlovitz draws on the stories of superheroes, such as Spiderman, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to move forward his vision of saving the world. Like many people, I have an affinity for such stories, having grown up with comic books and Superhero shows. I still enjoy a good Marvel or Justice League movie, so I can see how a person might draw on such stories to illustrate a point regarding faith and life itself. The basic message here is that ordinary people have superpowers. We just may not realize that we have them. However, in this point in history, Pavlovitz believes we need to take stock of them and begin using them in pursuit of a world-saving vision. Thus, this is a manifesto calling forth activists to engage in a world-saving mission. That’s not a bad thing.

Before I go further, I again need to confess where I went wrong in reading the book. Because he is a pastor and that is the primary designation of his professional bio, I assumed that God would play a major role in the story. The fact is, Pavlovitz makes few references to God until he gets well into the book, and those references serve as a way of letting us know that this isn't a book about God. Since he's the author of the book, that is his right. I just expected something different. Once I realized that God wasn't going to make much an appearance (I figured that out long before he made the revelation) I was better equipped to hear his message. 

Pavlovitz suggests that the "vital question at the heart of these pages is, 'What kind of person does the world need right now?" (p. xiii). In answering that question, it appears having a relationship God is not necessarily essential. One needn't be religious to discover one's superpowers. One simply needs to understand that they are there to be accessed. With this as the premise of the book, Pavlovitz divides his book into three parts. The middle section being the longest of the three.

Part one sets the stage. In the four chapters that make up the section, the author informs us that there is a Hero in all of us. He speaks of the origins of superhero stories, secret identities weaknesses (kryptonite) and resources (utility belts and armor suits). One of the assumptions here is that we all have adversaries to be overcome. When we come to part two, the focus is on the superpowers themselves. He offers up eleven superpowers: compassion, sacrifice, courage, humor, humility, honesty, kindness, creativity, persistence, wonder, and gratitude. It is when he gets to wonder that he brings God into the equation, or at least the possibility of the divine. Again, he brings the stories of superheroes in so as to illustrate these powers. Thus, with the power of honesty, he opens with a quote from Doctor Strange who declared "Truth is my shield." As we know, honesty is a commodity that is in play. He writes that "the world we live in now is one where truth has become fluid, where the people who best package the narrative, practically speaking, often determine what is real and what is false in order to exert their influence." (p. 121). Of course, Wonder Woman possessed the lariat of truth that could get truth out of even an unwilling person. 

Part three is titled "Training Ground." In five chapters he reminds us that if we're to join in the act of saving the world, we need to train for it. If you’ve ever watched a superhero movie you will know that there is training involved. So, in chapter sixteen, which is titled "Flying and Falling," he writes that growth most often happens during moments of difficulty. In his mind, we are in one of those moments, which makes this a moment for growth. As he makes clear in the closing chapter the point of the book is to encourage us to discover our superpowers and take up the life of the activist. He writes that "at the end of your time here, the world will either be more or less kind, compassionate, generous, funny, creative and loving because of your presence in it—and you alone get to choose." (p. 231).

It’s clear that Pavlovitz is a storyteller, and the book depends largely on stories. Sometimes they are rooted in his life story.  At other moments, he draws on stories of people he knows. Of course, there are the stories of the super heroes. I can't judge him for not doing as I wish he had. I've written a few books myself, though none as big a draw as his, but I know that the author gets to choose the subject and the method. Such is the case here. However, as a pastor myself, I would have liked to have heard whether God has a role here. In fact, I wonder if, in the midst of activism, there is room for grace. I feel like I missed both grace and God in this manifesto. Again, that just might be me. The author gets to choose how to present and the reader gets the choice in how to respond. I agree that we’re in difficult times, and that there is need for action. Again, I just missed the God part. But, maybe this is meant for a different audience, one that wants to act but isn't sure God has any answers. Whatever the case, we do need to work on this hope thing!


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