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Book review ‘Romance of Religion’ defends Christian faith

  • Published Saturday, March 8, 2014, at 7:47 a.m.

“The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty” by Dwight Longenecker (Thomas Nelson, 214 pages, $15.99)

Battling to defend a particular religion is a daunting challenge. In Christianity, the primary weapon of engagement is called apologetics (Greek for “speaking in defense”). And the list of those who have fought in behalf of the Christian faith (apologists) is impressive.

From the second-century saint Justin Martyr, to the 13th-century priest and theologian Thomas Aquinas, to more contemporary faith contenders such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Roman Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman, and the atheist-turned-evangelical Lee Strobel (and this is a mere sampling of spiritual heavyweights), add a new name to the list of apologists who have taken up the challenge: Dwight Longenecker.

In “The Romance of Religion,” Longenecker, a Catholic priest and chaplain at Kings College, Cambridge, charts a path through literary figures and pop culture icons to explain the allure of the Christian faith to contemporary readers who often are dismissive of organized religion. For him, religion is a romance story, and most people revel in a good story about a romantic hero. Whether it’s Don Quixote on a windmill-tilting adventure, Cyrano de Bergerac pursuing unrequited love, or Luke Skywalker taking on the Death Star, “the child at the heart of each of us,” Longenecker asserts, “is a romantic.”

Longenecker takes a measured approach in defending his thesis that “a life of faith … is a glorious adventure or it is nothing at all.” Using literary references to advance his beliefs, Longenecker asserts that despite the cynical, utilitarian age in which we live, people long for truth, beauty and goodness. The sad fact is that many people are reluctant to embrace the romantic adventure that religion offers.

“We assume a mask of insouciant indifference because we fear that the romantic way will expose our vulnerabilities,” he writes. “We affect intellectual superiority because we fear that the romantic way will lead us to absurdity, foolishness, and failure, never realizing that it is only in our absurdity and foolishness that we will discover our dignity and purpose.”

Longenecker sees the romantic as a fool, a Narnian mouse jousting with giants, but that doesn’t stop the romantic from believing in an ultimate victory even while losing battles along the way. “This romance seems dead to our modern life,” he says. “We have been taught to believe nothing, to doubt everything, and to take no one’s word for it. We have been taught to be cynical of the romantic, to debunk the idealist, to doubt the believer, and to discredit the zealot.”

To counter such cynicism, Longenecker describes and then refutes the Epicurean and Stoic ways of life. Both, he states, lead to an unavoidable end, empty of hope. He asserts that those who follow such paths are hiding a deeper truth about themselves: “In the end, both the cheerful Epicurean and the austere Stoic are wearing masks. Like the Greek masks for tragedy and comedy, one is sad and one is happy, but beneath both masks they are neither cheerful nor austere but despairing.” As Longenecker sees their plight, “If death will devour us, then what is there really worth living for?”

Longenecker’s arguments are philosophically grounded, building his case for the Christian faith even as he revisits old theological disputes that have engaged the serious-minded about religion for centuries. What is new is his effort to present them to present-day readers in contemporary garb that gives them a fresh appearance and, he hopes, an irresistible attraction. He contends that the desire for goodness, truth and beauty – the subtitle of his book – is what is inherently hungered for by people.

In the first 100 pages of the book, Longenecker refers to Christ only twice. His purpose, it seems, is to construct his arguments in language that logically lead to a critical decision about the Christian faith. And though his point-by-point case won’t satisfy every rationalist’s arsenal of arguments, Longenecker does join the ranks of serious combatants defending religion, and more specifically, belief in Christ.

Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.

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