Theologians of the cross emerge from unexpected sources. Which is fitting, since the Gospel is for nobody but those who fall short of expectations (AKA all of us). These purveyors and exemplars of low anthropology are psychologists, athletes, journalists, philosophers, and, beyond their job titles, just average people with their own screw-ups. What is less average about them is their forthrightness in acknowledging those screw-ups and allying themselves with the average.

Still more unexpected is that these “theologians” often don’t believe any theology at all, or remain agnostic on the subject. “Pagan priests” one might call them—not themselves Christians, but voicing very Christian ideas. Perhaps a new name to add to the roster of such characters is Jack Halberstam, a literary critic and cultural theorist. In The Queer Art of Failure, he takes a long look at the ways we popularly think about and strive toward “success.” And although he’s steeped in Butler and Derrida and Marx, his primary material for analysis isn’t obscure European philosophy but what he calls “silly archives”: SpongeBob, Toy Story, Little Miss Sunshine, and other films and TV shows that usually don’t pass muster for intellectual investigation. Using these pop culture references is a way of demonstrating his point: more vibrant possibilities are available for our lives when we don’t measure up.

At the beginning of the book, he asks us, “What is the alternative…to cynical resignation on the one hand and naive optimism on the other?” Otherwise put, what do we do about success? We can feel pessimism and despair when we don’t accomplish what we want, or we can buy into self-improvement to hope for that accomplishment (even if we’ve failed countless times before). But Halberstam suggests another way. First, though, his introductory tirade:

I argue that success in heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation. But these measures of success have come under serious pressure recently, with the collapse of financial markets on the one hand and the epic rise in divorce rates on the other…. [This book] dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world. Failing…can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon ‘trying and trying again.’ In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.

What kinds of reward can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood that disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.

I’m often struck by how Christian many critical theorists sound, either in their moral outrage or their calls for liberation. Here, even the imagery is biblical: “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” sounds pretty similar to his quote. Replace “kingdom of heaven” with “queer anarchist utopia,” and Halberstam could’ve written that sentence. And I know that slight replacement is enormous, really, but that his argument echoes scripture that much demonstrates not only the intellectual influence of those Gospel inversions (“blessed are the poor”) but their lived reality. “Failing” out of expectations really does breed new possibilities.

Is this embrace of failure harmful, though? I appreciate that Halberstam faces that concern head-on. Yes, failure involves “disappointment, disillusionment, and despair.” And these feelings hurt; they can even kill. In the theorist’s defense: failure is gonna happen to me anyway, so I might as well acknowledge it and, perhaps, find good in it. Embracing failure can then loosen not only my burden but also those of others, especially those who lack my (white, male, middle-class) privilege. In another jab at positive thinking, Halberstam writes, “Indeed believing that success depends upon one’s attitude is far preferable to Americans than recognizing that their success is the outcome of the tilted scales of race, class, and gender.” Taking a look at who “fails” and how can be a preliminary act of justice.

And in this vein of justice, Halberstam doesn’t gloss over the ethical failures of his heroes, either, even when they screw up his theoretical schema. “In order to inhabit the bleak territory of failure,” he writes, “we sometimes have to write and acknowledge dark histories, histories within which the subject collaborates with rather than always opposes oppressive regimes and dominant ideology.” His genealogies of failure as liberation are still about failure—not only by “hegemonic” standards, but even by his radical ones. It’s a humble admission on his part, which warrants greater trust and appreciation of his arguments.

Yet despite the many happy convergences between this book and the Gospel, they remain crucially distinct. Halberstam says his book is “about failing well, failing often, and learning, in the words of Samuel Beckett, how to fail better.” But “failing better” can become just a backdoor to another metric—with emphasis not on the “failing” but on the “better,” which puts us squarely back in the territory of successful outcomes. The main problem, though, is the broader question of whose expectations we fail. For all it’s postmodern involutions and glitz, Halberstam’s argument is still essential humanism. The expectations, the failure, the revaluation of values, the call to action…they’re all for and by humans, figuring it out by ourselves, inside ourselves. There is no Other to turn to, so we get caught up in ourselves, in our elite gnosis and our actions (even if conceived negatively)—so much so that we don’t look to receive. Which is the main thing about the Gospel: that when we fail, rating is irrelevant, and our attention can shift away from ourselves, even if just for a moment.

Halberstam argues for a “a new kind of optimism” to emerge from failure: “Not an optimism that relies on positive thinking as an explanatory engine for social order, nor one that insists upon the bright side at all costs; rather this is a little ray of sunshine that produces shade and light in equal measure and knows that the meaning of one always depends upon the meaning of the other.” The critic concludes in Stoic equanimity, an aloof resignation and a resolve to keep his composure. I’m sure this outlook is helpful at times, especially in moments of mild disconcertion. But a stiff upper lip is emotionally unsatisfying, if not impossible, in the face of abiding depression, infertility, joblessness, divorce, isolation—all the deepest “failures” we experience. In my lowest slump, the darkness has long shut out any “little ray of sunshine” or chiaroscuro play of “shade and light.”

Nor do I think “the message of Christianity” feels like a better response to such pain and failure. Not often anyway. After all, God reveals himself most fully in a godforsaken murder victim. Is that what God does with people who entrust themselves to him?

Halberstam says that “the goal” of his project “is to lose one’s way, and indeed to be prepared to lose more than one’s way.” In life in Christ, that “more” turns out to be one’s very life. But “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Which is what God also does with people in his care: resurrection, for everyone who “utterly despair[s] of his own ability.”

And on that point, Halberstam isn’t far off: “We will lose our way, our cars, our agenda, and possibly our minds, but in losing we will find another way of making meaning in which, to return to the battered VW van of Little Miss Sunshine, no one gets left behind.”