Bear with me on this one … I am wrestling with a challenging idea – productive pessimism. I know, pessimism is a negative word and it may be too strong, but I am trying it out. Could pessimism every be a good thing?

Perhaps “redemptive realism” would capture what I am trying to say. However, I like the punch of “productive pessimism.” Keep in mind, I am primarily looking for a way to describe story-based art forms and narrative story-telling. I am not sure pessimism – productive or otherwise – works in the real world.

The central idea is this: There are times when an unflinching, pessimistic, realistic look at the ugliness of the human condition in art can be productive or even redemptive – think righteous indignation or holy discontentment. The pessimism or realism becomes productive when the anger over darkness leads to action. The “glass” is half empty, but the “glass” can one day be at least half full.

Story-based art forms such as literature, music, and cinema often use stark realism or pessimism as a device to explore the fallen world. Some authors, musicians, and directors leave us wallowing in the dregs of brokenness. This was the great failure of the grunge movement. Bands like Nirvana knew the existential pain of broken families and loss but had no answers or hope. They left us with pessimism.

Other writers, musicians, and directors have redemptive purposes or possibilities in their difficult works of art. Yes, their art is pessimistic, but it doesn’t stay there … in the end it offers hope. I dare say that some of these works touch on beauty that would be unattainable without the contrast of human brokenness.

Productive pessimism understands that the world, left its own devices, is headed to very a very bad place. But after they paint the picture of the fallen world, they attempt to bring hope.

As I wrestled with the idea, Ephesians 5:8-11 came to mind:

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”

In the next few weeks, I will attempt to write about novels, albums, and movies which exemplify Productive Pessimism/Redemptive Realism.

Photo by Joseph Greve on

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