Book Review - Cynicism[1] by John Leach


John Leach is an Anglican Priest, currently ministering in Folkestone. He is also a self confessed cynic who recognises that the institution he works within has a natural trajectory towards cynicism. He claims this is a destructive attitude which debilitates churches and disempowers leaders.

 Cynicism traces its origins back to the Ancient Greeks and to a school of thought founded by Antisthenes around 339 BC. His philosophy was simple: virtue not pleasure is the only purpose in Life. This was a call to reject the hedonistic culture of the ancient world where pleasure and self expression were rejected and virtue (which was seen as something you could be taught like any other academic discipline), was embraced. Anthisthenes and his followers were not exactly popular: they were often unkempt and took to public debates and to challenging people in the streets whose lives were examples of excess, not moderation.

Cynicism today

Cynicism today is often seen as mocking and sneering – a way of expressing an individual’s jaded approach to life. Its modern roots lie in personal mistrust of institutions, leaders and activities and it is often given a public expression through TV and Press Media – Private Eye, TW3 and Spitting Image are prime examples.

Spiritual Roots in Christian Theology

Centuries before Christ, “The Preacher” – seemingly coming to the end of his life – expresses a world weary view of both culture and personal experiences. We now read his cynical dismissiveness of human endeavour (“vanity of vanities, all is vanity[2]”) as the book of Ecclesiastes. For “The Preacher,” cynicism comes from his perception of life as meaningless: he’s tired and disillusioned rather than angry or out to wreak revenge on those who have slighted him.

Even in the midst of his cynicism, the inescapable truth remains. Where all else, when all else fails or falls, there is still God. It is enough to be able to live, eat and worship. Perhaps it isn’t so bleak after all.

Contemporary cynicism in the church

Leach recognises the dangers that cynicism brings to the church today. He also details the fertile soil within which it can germinate: at a time of falling numbers worshipping in churches alongside the established Church’s decreasing influence in national life alongside the secularisation of culture – it seems that the church has a lot to complain about.

Add to that the increasingly tribal nature of denominations, there is considerable potential for any Christian witness to be destroyed by internal strife and suspicion, even before we hit the streets.

Cynicism in its place

Leach draws attention to a number of bible verses which detail the attitudes inherent to authentic discipleship, whilst at the same time recognising the place of a balanced view of life and culture. One example illustrates this point particularly well:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.(Ephesians 4: 29, 31)

The real danger in seeing others with the negativity of cynicism, is that we see (or treat) God in the same way. Cynicism says we expect little of others so come to expect little of God: the net result is that we develop a focus that is self centred and self driven, with an unhealthy vein of mistrust running through our dealings with others.

Cynicism and faith

Cynicism flourishes at times of doubt and particularly when prayer appears to remain unanswered and/or God appears to be blessing others instead of us.

The immediate solution is perhaps best described as rediscovering the goodness of God. In Leach’s analysis this takes the form of:

  • learning to lament when our faith is shaken
  • being able to say no
  • immersing ourselves in God
  • placing God above the evidence: He is at work even though we cannot see it
  • learning to wait: whose timescale is it really?
  • make praise a discipline and a practice
  • repent and forgiving quickly
  • learning from others’ example
  • putting ourselves in others’ shoes

[1] Leach J., Cynicism, Cambridge, Grove Books, 2009
[2] Ecclesiastes 1:2 (King James Version)

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