January 10, 2017
A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World by Mark Meynell. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015, 223 pp., $18.99.
Cynicism and distrust within the context of modernity has given author Mark Meynell much to discuss within the pages of A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World. His personal battle with depression and cynical distrust after years of ministry, which culminated in a breakdown, provides the reader a unique ministerial perspective regarding the theme of this book. This work sets out to rehearse the various aspects in which cynicism and distrust are fostered within modern society and then offers three solutions which, “…offer our culture a viable escape from…a wilderness of mirrors.” (p.18). Meynell has provided a counter-narrative to modernity’s cynical age which will generate a renewed trust in the person of Jesus Christ, community through the local church, and the story of God’s redemptive work culminating in the positive message of Christ’s redeeming love.
Mark Meynell is the associate director (Europe) for the Langham Preaching arm of Langham Partnership in London, England. He previously served as Academic Dean at the Kampala Evangelical School of Divinity in Uganda. His previous books include, Cross-Examined and The Resurrection: Encounters with the Risen Jesus. He is the author of a blog site, Quaerentia at markmeynell.net.
Wilderness of Mirrors is a social commentary on how the effects of modernity eroded trust in the traditional institutions of stability in society; namely, that of the civil government, the Church, and community. It then goes on to offer solutions by which individuals can recover that trust once again. The book is divided into three major sections: “Fracturing Trust: The Legacy of Our Age”, “Mourning Trust: Life After Losing It”, and “Regaining Trust: Hope for Our Age”. The first two sections outline a social-economic and political philosophical history of how people lost trust in the traditional institutions of social stability. He also discusses the effects of cynicism and distrust in people brought on by the failings of social institutions. The third section gives the reader a reasoned response from the pragmatic application of Scripture and theology from an Evangelical perspective.
The introduction to the first section functions as the introduction to the entire work. The author states that the book is “self-consciously optimistic.” (p. 15) in spite of the perceived cynicism of contemporary society. He offers a prognosis of the issue early by stating that society “seems afflicted by a deeper, more corrosive cultural mood than previously.” (p. 15). He delineates how the upheaval of the twentieth century undermined trust in what he terms, “…authoritative frameworks or ‘metanarratives.’” (p. 17). This sets the framework for the discussion in the first two major sections of the book that review the historical processes and outcomes that lead to the current cultural mood observed by the author.
The first section of the book, “Fracturing Trust: The Legacy of Our Age”, Meynell articulates how the failings of trusted political leadership contributed to the cynical mood of the age in chapter one. In chapter two, the reader is informed how society’s information networks through the mass media fostered distrust in people. He, then, discusses how caregivers undermined trust through failings in moral, ethical, and legal standards in chapter three. The key portions of chapter three that will be of interest to those in ministry are the subsections: “Power and the Center of Truth”, “Power and the Savior Complex”, “Power and the Cultic”, and “Power and Particular Theologies”. These subsections deal specifically with the influence that power can have to corrupt even good, noble, or benevolent motivations in the pursuit of ministry that result in spiritual abuses. He asks, “So, under what circumstances can people drift into committing unwitting spiritual abuses?” (p.56). Meynell offers two indicators that set the conditions for enabling spiritual abuse. They are, “when religious leaders tightly control the interpretive boundaries of truth, or if they claim unique access to it…” (p. 56). The insights articulated in these subsections are important reading for those entering into professional ministry within context of the local church.
The subsections regarding ministry also reveal the author’s own perspectives on the matters discussed. For example, when he explains how those who “control the interpretive boundaries of truth”, foster spiritual abuse, he fails to be specific enough to allow the reader to understand his exact meaning regarding his understanding of both truth and interpretive boundaries. Are all attempts by ecclesiastical leadership to encourage or maintain consistent orthodoxy and orthopraxy within their creedal, confessional, or denominational bodies part of part of those who foster spiritual abuse? Is he referring to theological fundamentalism or those who practice separatism as those who foster spiritual abuse? Could he be referring to the debate going on within the Episcopal Church regarding the ordination of homosexuals and recognizing homosexual marriages? Nevertheless, the text of these sections seems to indicate that his intended audience will understand the meaning of his references without further explanation.
The second section of this book, “Mourning Trust: Life After Losing it”, discusses the psychological, emotional, and spiritual outcomes upon individuals when they become cynical and abandon trust due to the failings outlined in the first section of the book. In chapter four, the author discusses how the political, scientific, and social philosophies of the Enlightenment set the conditions for deconstructionism which inevitably led to Postmodernism. Postmodernism took away any anchors in a person’s life, leaving them to drift in the morass of relativism. Chapter five reviews how the Cold War fostered social and political paranoia and an us-against-them mindset. He reveals that this paranoia came about by the discovery of political intrigue through law enforcement investigations, espionage novels, and through mass media entertainment resulting the popularity of conspiracy theories. The resulting conspiracy movement fad only served to exacerbate the cynicism and distrust of the age.
The third section, “Rebuilding Trust: Hope for our Age”, finds the author transitioning from a narrative of melancholy social, political, and economic contemplation to a more hopeful tone. In chapter six, Meynell reminds the reader of the purpose and worthiness of each person because of his reflection of the imago Dei (i.e. the image of God). He goes on to tackle a tough and perplexing problem in theology regarding the paradoxical nature of man regarding man’s propensity for good and evil deeds. Yet, he insightfully concludes, “Purpose and meaning in this barren universe are only ultimately possible if our existence has been granted purpose and meaning by being created.” (p. 114). Furthermore, he writes, “It is enough simply to state that because God created us, we matter.” (p. 114). In chapter seven, the author reassures the reader that Jesus Christ’s love and servant disposition transcends the cynicism of the age to give hope to the hopeless and to give a vision of a positive potential for each person. Chapter eight demonstrates the therapeutic nature of the local community of Christians known as the local church. Meynell articulates his view of the church when he states, “In short, the church is a community of grace—-people drawn together by God’s bewildering kindness to live in a community characterized by unconditional kindness.” (p. 161). Chapter nine reminds the reader of the unifying power of narrative (i.e. stories). This culminates with helping the reader to understand that the greatest unifying story is the redemptive story of the Gospel narrative of God’s love, Jesus redemptive work on behalf of mankind, and God’s ultimate restitution of all things. He thus demonstrates that a way to overcome the cynicism of the age is to remember how the Gospel narrative provides the light of hope against the dark contrast of a cynical world.
The one observed weakness in the text of A Wilderness of Mirrors concerns the nature of sin. Mark Meynell writes in chapter four regarding how the abuses and excess brought on by economic and political philosophies such as Marxism and Capitalism enabled an attitude of cynicism. He states, “Even apart from blatant forms of government deceit, alienation and social fragmentation are the products of a common, inherited outlook on the world.” (p. 75). What are the “…products of a common, inherited outlook on the world”? Meynell does not address this. Moreover, throughout the first two major sections of the book, the nature and extent of sin is not discussed as a possible mitigating factor in motivating the cynicism and distrust of the age. The author seems to view the cynicism and distrust of modern society as a passive reaction to the abuses and injustices of previously trusted institutions and philosophical metanarratives. However, could it not be also said that what is being observed and experienced in our modern age is a result of sin’s degenerative and debilitative nature as anticipated by Christ (Matt. 24:12)?
Overall, Mark Meynell brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the age of cynicism that characterizes our contemporary society. He offers cogent points and solutions through theological application to the problem of meaninglessness and hopelessness. He successfully argues his thesis that, “the Christian framework continues to offer our culture a viable escape from what we shall see as a wilderness of mirrors.” (p. 18). A Wilderness of Mirrors demonstrates the author’s journey from cynicism to trust by offering a unique narrative on how Christians can successfully overcome the dark mood in which they find themselves. It also offers a way to engage a hurting and aimless culture with the positive message of the redemptive story of Christ’s redeeming love. The message of Christ’s love is demonstrated in a community grace characterized by unconditional kindness. Ultimately, the gospel of Christ is the counter-narrative to the dark metanarratives of modernity’s postmodern deconstructionism. Every pastor, missionary, and Christian educator should read and study this book. Moreover, this book should be owned and read by every Christian.