In this conversation post, Emma Pavey offers a personal reflection following our latest podcast episode: ‘Listening to echoes of hope: Evidence-based climate stories and a hopepunk God’, which features Dr Steven van den Heuvel and Dr Elin Kelsey.
In one of our recent podcast episodes, our guest Elin Kelsey made passing reference to the idea of hopepunk, a term coined by Alexandra Rowland in 2017 with a Tumblr post: “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on”. The term describes a sense, first observed in the narratives of various books, tv shows, and films, that humans aren’t monsters, and that we should and can cling to our humanity and actively, continually pursue kindness, compassion and hope – the ‘soft and strong’ qualities, as it were. Hopepunk, as Rowlands notes, is counter-cultural, hence the ‘punk’. The term reflects the disruptive, rebellious nature of believing in an underlying goodness to the world and a stubbornly optimistic view of humanity.
The term is set in contrast to other hashtag-friendly compound words, grimdark and noblebright, the former reflecting a view of human nature as essentially evil or bad, and a situation that is hopeless (exemplified by shows such as Walking Dead or the awfully watchable characters of Succession). In a grimdark world, the thing with feathers (as Emily Dickinson described hope) is stuck in an oilspill. Noblebright refers to the special, singular individual who saves the day and provides a telos, a happy ending, thanks to their heroic qualities, single-handedly plucking the thing with feathers from the oilspill. For a hopepunk outlook, in contrast, “There are no heroes and no villains. There are just people”. It is not in denial – there are still oilspills – but there’s also the thing with feathers and hopepunk means we try together to save it. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t, but we try.
It’s difficult to tell if a hopepunk life requires effort because humans are essentially originally sinful, individualistic monsters motivated by cynical schadenfreude and so we’re constantly pushing ourselves to rise above that nature, or if it’s hard because humans are essentially good, relational, hopeful beings motivated by love who are trapped in bad systems or at the mercy of brokenness. Perhaps we feel a resonance with both of these possibilities at different times. A hopepunk approach attempts to yoke together a loving, joyful, persistent hope for humanity with a realistic grit that knows this involves counter-cultural, live-or-die activism against an apathetic or antagonistic norm. Which seems like a good description of the life of Jesus.
And there’s more to explore. Discussions of hopepunk often use battle imagery to represent the method of promoting itself. We find phrases such as “weaponising hope” or fighting the good fight, with kindness. We see battle language in some theologies (and indeed in scripture) and the ‘noblebright’ Jesus as the hero in defeating death. But this kind of language can be used to perpetuate the systems that hopepunk is trying to counter, and can seem more than a little sinister, especially if we try and tie that to theologies that justify harmful church practices.
So, I’m curious what it would mean – theologically and practically – to go deeper, enhancing the rebellious, disruptive nature of hopepunk by moving beyond battle imagery towards drawing on non-violent and transformative notions of power and influence (also found in scripture) that seek to mutate aggression and don’t weaponise anything. This would truly be radical – tapping into muddy roots of relational energy and a dark mycelial love, what Wesley calls the “greatest medicine of life” (p3). I often return to a quote from Ignatian writer Margaret Silf that illustrates this: “All the fire-power that the world can muster is not capable of pushing a single crocus through the frozen winter soil” (p118).
Hopepunk theology, then, sees “[d]eath on the cross,” as Jim McDermott writes, “not as some brutal cosmic math equation but a personal choice to continue to love and give and believe even when your life is at stake”. Hopepunk theology doesn’t focus on winning the fight – “there’s no such thing as winning” – it imaginatively transmutes the fight, redefining strength to transform swords into ploughshares. It focuses on Jesus’ life as living out a disruptive belief in the power of hopeful faith to heal and reunite.
It doesn’t emphasize winning in the end, nor does God fix, solve or remove suffering, but rather it persistently believes in the potential of the present, equipped by a God who presents hopeful possibilities at every turn, with every choice and in every unchosen situation. Through birth and growth, and even decay and death, “[o]ur salvation lies in hope,’ argues Miroslav Volf, “not in hope that insists on the future good it has imagined, but in hope ready to rejoice in the kind of good that actually comes our way”.
Hopepunk theology would say that God offers a prevenient hope that never stops singing, inviting us towards corporate sanctification, giving us eyes to see and enter the fullness of both the heaven and the hell all around us. We are called to a continual and communal process of stumbling and striving to love creatively enabled by an awareness of our shared humanity as we embody the resurrected Jesus’ hands and feet in each moment. 
In our podcast episode, Steven van den Heuvel relates the legend that when asked what he would do if the world were to end tomorrow, Luther responded that he would plant an apple tree. The fact this persists as a story despite probably being factually inaccurate makes it even more hopepunk. Our “wild and precious” hope invites us to just take action, to do good, believing that “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly” (58m33). Or, as adrienne marie brown puts it, “less prep, more presence” (p42).
Hopepunk: a useful, motivating concept to ponder for thinking about our lived-out theology in relation to others, in our faith communities, in our neighbourhoods, in our political action, on our planet.
To end, a hopepunk poem from Mary Oliver.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
 I’m indebted to Tony Appleby for the idea of us embodying the resurrection of Jesus.