The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. By Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Thomas Nelson, 2014.
Dwight Longenecker is an increasingly prominent figure in Catholic apologetics. He is a former Protestant minister with a family, but he has become a Catholic priest. His unconventional backstory can been found in my February 2011 review of his book More Christianity (http://catholicbookreviewsmonthly.com./archivedReviews.aspx). Fr. Longenecker’s blog, Standing on my Head (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/), covers numerous religious subjects, and as its title indicates, Fr. Longenecker has a special interest in helping people view Christianity from a different perspective. One of the reasons why many people are not attracted to Christianity is because it seems so stodgy to them. There is nothing attractive in something perceived as pallid, and Fr. Longenecker’s goal in this book is to change how people view Christianity.
In his introduction, Fr. Longenecker writes:
Although I am a Catholic priest, this book is not an attempt to convert my readers to Catholicism. Instead, this book is a call for ordinary people to examine the radical claims of the table-turning teacher from Galilee. It is a call for others to get up out of their fishing boats and to follow the Master. It is an argument for a life that has meaning and purpose– a life of faith that is a glorious adventure or it is nothing at all.” (xviii).
Before I move on to the many wonderful virtues of this book, I need to get one negative comment out of the way. There is one stylistic aspect of the book that I found rather annoying. Fr. Longenecker has a lot of wonderful lines in this book. There are dozens of brilliant, pithy, eminently quotable lines in The Romance of Religion. Amateur apologetics, debaters, and evangelists would be well-advised to take note of these great quotes. Unfortunately, the book makes sure that the reader doesn’t miss these quotes. On approximately forty percent of the book’s pages, a particularly nice line is given special attention by being reprinted shortly after (or occasionally before) its initial appearance, being emphasized in bold italics in twice its original size. It seems as if the book wants to wallop the reader over the head with the best lines. Indeed, without these emphases, the book would probably be about twenty pages shorter. It would be a shame if Longenecker’s wonderful quotes were overlooked, but the frequent forced emphasis produces a comparable effect– the quotes become lost in all the highlighting. If a handful of the best lines were singled out here and there, or if a couple of great lines were printed at the start of each chapter, that would help to give the lines the proper attention, but with the over-quoting, the book seems rather like one of those wretched library books that has been heavily underlined by some thoughtless previous reader.
Here are a handful of Fr. Longenecker’s choicest lines:
•“Wherever I turned religion had become not real but respectable.” (xvii).
•“We need to discover once again that we have something to live for, for it is only when we have something to die for that we have something to live for.” (5).
•“Despair is the compliment the cynic pays to the romantic idealist.” (12).
•“Whether we are choosing a spouse or a religion or a philosophy to guide us, we’ve got to make a choice. It has to be all or nothing. A half and half romance won’t do.” (16).
•“In ancient times heroic stories were told by wealthy and powerful wizards who lived on a holy mountain or in a sacred grove. Today heroic stories are told by wealthy and powerful wizards who live not in a holy wood, but in Hollywood.” (28).
•“Life itself is a mysterious energy. And there is good reason to understand it as something that is bigger and better than the simple biological functions of any living being.” (76).
•“Like Pontius Pilate, we sit before this mysterious man from Nazareth, and we must try to figure out who on earth he is.” (153).
Fr. Longenecker frequently cites some of his personal favorite literary references. C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are clearly sources of great fondness for him, and in particular, the character of Reepicheep, the swashbuckling mouse, is referenced many times. The idea of a mouse with the heart of a lion, who is ready, willing, and able to do battle with foes that are far larger than he is, is a delightfully romantic image. Vast reserves of courage and virtue can be found in the smallest of bodies. Reepicheep is used as a model for Fr. Longenecker’s ideal of the Christian on a quest, someone willing to defend his faith against a hostile and dismissive society.
“The wise man, therefore, does not ignore death. He prepares for it, and the best way to prepare for that journey into the dark is to go on that journey every day. This is what the religious romantic sets out to do. Through the practice of his religion he sets out on the quest. He faces the dark. He meets with monsters. He tilts with windmills, draws his sword, engages in the battle, fights for the fair maiden, and defends the truth. How religion helps him to do this is the subject of the rest of this book.” (115).
Throughout the book, Fr. Longenecker debates an anonymous fictional typical cynic– a strawman character, to be sure, but one that embodies all of the sneers and jeers of the modern atheists who believe that they are far wiser and more sensible than all of those silly deluded believers. A common theme amongst such people is that Christianity is based upon myths. Fr. Longenecker’s response is that Christianity may contain elements of myths, but in Christianity’s case they are myths that have become true. Given Fr. Longenecker’s fondness for Tolkien (his upcoming autobiography is titled There and Back Again), it is not surprising that Tolkien’s specific theories on the role of religion and the True Myth are influential to this book. At one point, Fr. Longenecker writes,
“The materialist critics of religion sneer, “I hear all this talk of heroes and quests, but your castles are nothing but castles in the air. It is nothing but a dream of the big granddaddy in the sky who gives you what you want if you’re good little boys and girls! It is all child’s play. It is fairy tale foolishness! Why don’t you people get real?” This not only shows how little the materialist understands religion; it also shows how little he understands fairy tales, how little he understands children, and how little he understands reality.” (33).
The Romance of Religion is a fresh and invigorating look at religious belief. While Longenecker does belittle the roles that piety and intellectualism play in religious life, he makes a brilliant point in observing that if people are to thrive in their faith, they need to stop looking at religion as a duty that makes demands on them or as a casual social convention. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” That epigram could serve as a perfect summation of the philosophy behind Fr. Longenecker’s book.
The book ends on the following hopeful note:
“This Love and this Light will make this world seem shallow, flat, tasteless, and bland. It will be to this world what a full Technicolor 3-D movie is to a black-and-white still photograph– and more. This Love and this Light will be utter, complete, and simple fulfillment of all things. It will be Reality at last. The adventure will be over. As we ride into the West– as we sail over the sea and into the sunset– we will know that sweet Reality which is the destination, the end, and the purpose of the Romance of Religion.” (216).