A Hope in the Unseen charts Cedric Jennings’s gentle separation from the Christian church as he develops more confidence in himself and his abilities. While his religious faith has given him the foundation to hold on to hope through difficult times, he eventually finds that it is holding him back from achieving the future that he wants. The book illustrates that religion is both helpful and harmful, providing a source of belonging and purpose while also narrowly confining its adherents to a specific set of values or identity.
Scripture Cathedral, their local Apostolic Pentecostal church, plays a central role in the lives of both Barbara and Cedric Jennings, bringing them a positive sense of belonging and purpose. The church gave Barbara the opportunity to view her difficult past as a series of challenges of her faith in God and to see the world though simple divisions of right and wrong. This clear set of rules acts as a compass by which Barbara can orient her life, giving her both structure and a sense of justice within a world that is often messy and inherently unjust. She cooks for the church on Sundays in exchange for a free meal for herself and her son, and there are weeks when this is the most nutritious meal either of them has all week. In this way, the church provides both physical and spiritual nourishment, positioning the church as a force for good. Meanwhile, Cedric is moved by the religious fervor he witnesses every week at church, and finds a place at the front of the choir, regularly soloing and performing on local television. Even as a teen, sitting in the back pew, he feels the power of Bishop Long’s words like “a wave crashing over him,” strengthening his hope in the future. The Bishop’s encouraging words highlight that, at least in Cedric’s youth, the church is a positive force in his life.
For all of the support and faith that the church has to offer, it quickly becomes clear that it is also holding people like Cedric back by condemning individualism and ambition, and by asking community members to make unrealistic sacrifices. While Cedric’s role in the choir was one of the only things that kept him motivated during the eighth grade, his relative stardom was too much for some of his fellow churchgoers, and he was eventually asked to step back. He is deeply hurt by this, and feels as if he is being punished for his abilities and for being proud of himself. Thus begins his internal struggle, as he tries to balance his desire to achieve great things with his belief in God. Cedric is not the only one asked to make a great sacrifice on behalf of the church. Scripture Cathedral drills into believers the idea that faith is giving every last dollar to God, and believing that it will be returned tenfold. Thus, Barbara not only puts her faith in the church, but also all of the extra money she has. When Barbara is facing eviction from her apartment for failure to pay her rent, one of the ministers from Scripture Cathedral arrives to pay the $2,790 that she owes, renewing her faith in the church as a support system. But while this is a welcome and much-needed gesture, it also encourages Barbara to continue to depend on the church, and to feel that she owes them a debt of gratitude. Later on, when she is evicted a second time, the church is nowhere to be found, and all of Barbara’s trust has been for nothing.
Once Cedric has been exposed to a wider set of values, he recognizes the ways in which the church does not meet his needs, and he eventually leaves. However, Cedric never loses faith in himself or in God, and this tenacity and unshakable faith is a lasting benefit of his religious upbringing. When Cedric returns home on a college break, he visits Bishop Long to discuss his changing feelings about his relationship with the church. Noting that he still believes in God, Cedric informs the pastor that he feels he has “outgrown the church,” and would like permission to leave. For all of Cedric’s concerns about the church itself, he does not lose his faith in a higher power that guides him in the right direction. As a high schooler, Cedric is desperately focused on a future that he can only envision vaguely, in a world he knows nothing about. He maintains faith in that blurry future thanks to his strong religious foundation. When he speaks with one of his teachers about his desire to attend college in a part of the country he has never even seen, the teacher responds with a biblical quote from Hebrews 11:1: “The substance of faith is a hope in the unseen.” Cedric notes that his teacher has misquoted from the Bible, but the sentiment is the same: Cedric’s hope in the unseen will bring him far from home, and will carry him into a different world.
Religion plays a complex role in the lives of Cedric’s friends and family, as many of them place all of their faith in the church as an institution and support system, in the absence of anything else they can believe in. Cedric, on the other hand, separates his faith in God, and his belief in himself, from the religious institution itself. And as he moves away from Scripture Cathedral, he is able to sustain that sense of faith and hope on his own. The role of religion in A Hope in the Unseen demonstrates that it is possible to establish some distance from religious institutions, pursue individualism, and retain a faith in God all at the same time—in other words, Cedric’s arc suggests that there isn’t necessarily a “right” way to live and be religious.
Religion and Hope ThemeTracker
Religion and Hope Quotes in A Hope in the Unseen
“Faith is taking the last $10 from your checking account and saying, ‘God, I give this to you, because I have nothing but faith, I live on faith, and I know in my heart that you’ll bring it back to me in ways too grand and too many for me to even imagine.’”
“Hebrews 11:1. ‘The substance of faith is a hope in the unseen.’”
“You’re low, you’re tired, you’re fighting, you’re waiting for your vision to become reality—you feel you can’t wait anymore! […] Say ‘I’ll be fine tonight ‘cause Jesus is with me.’ SAY IT! SAY IT!”
The problem stems from a conundrum he’s thought through a thousand times. Worldly success—the kind of genuine, respect-in-the-community, house-in-the-suburbs achievement that he finds among his neighbors in Mitchelville—has never fit well inside the doors of Scripture. And going to college is a first step on that path away from here.
Cedric, ushered here mostly by adrenaline and faith, realizes he’s now facing a living, breathing, credentialed counterpart to his revered Bishop. Nothing theoretical about it. Around here, nothing is exempt from dissembling questions and critical examination—not even religion itself. He can see Bishop’s one eye, looking through him, and hear the words, “The only true answers lie with God.”
He reminisces for a while and throws out a few light aphorisms before turning bleak and discussing Bosnia and balkanism, victims of wars, and conflicts around the globe. “Unless one wants to lie,” he says […] “I am rarely truly hopeful.”
“I still believe in God, that Jesus is my personal savior, and my friend, and my guide, but I just don’t feel as tied to the church so much anymore. I like coming and all, but, at the same time, I feel like I’m ready to venture out.”