The Romance of Religion seems like a strange title, at first blush. “What,” after all, “is so romantic about religion?” Religion seems like the hidebound formal ritualism that has such little appeal nowadays. Add to that the even stranger fact that a Catholic priest has written such a book for a major Protestant publisher (Thomas Nelson), and you have the makings of extremely odd bedfellows.
Yet Fr. Longenecker’s book is a delight to read. With an enjoyable, cavalier style. Longenecker takes us on a journey of myth and belief, illuminating man’s universal desire for the infinite. He skewers the cynics of today and yesterday and reveals how the religious romantic is the real hero, for he is following the only path that is worthwhile, the path toward truth.
Fr. Longenecker channels his inner Chesterton. Every page is filled with clever turns of phrase, alliterations, and puns. Like Chesterton, he turns ideas on their heads to reveal their worth (or worthlessness). Take this incisive section on modern religion:
One of the reasons most modern religion is considered dull and boring is because it is dull and boring. Modern religious people have forgotten that religion is not about being good but about being religious. In other words, religion is about an encounter with another world. It is about reaching for reality. Religious leaders are full of politeness. They have become charming, but they have forgotten how to charm.
The mystic, the poet, the Reepicheeps and Cyrano de Bergerac’s of the world, these are the people (and rodents) who are living life to the full. They are embarking on the great adventure, diving in head first, laughing at the critics and encouraging the faint of heart. This, Longenecker explains, is what real religion is, and what the romance of religion is all about.
But the journey is not one of willy-nilly relativism, where each of us can head toward his own version of truth. As the book progresses, Fr. Longenecker moves from the general to the specific, from the truth of myth to the Truthful Myth: the story of salvation history, beginning with the Hebrews and culminating in Jesus Christ. He skillfully builds the case for the God of Israel and God Incarnate.
The book stops short of advocating for the Catholic Church or Orthodoxy or Protestantism. Fr. Longenecker’s purpose with the book is not to decide that question, but to bring as many people possible into the big tent of Christianity. And that is a noble goal. I wondered how he would handle that subject, and he does so in the very last pages with aplomb.
I gleaned many insights while reading the book. The section describing the religious dogmatist hit uncomfortably close to home for me. I realized that, of all the temptations a Christian can face, that particular one draws me in. I end up mistaking the dogmas for the greater Truth they are pointing to. That truth is a person, Jesus Christ, and the dogmas are only like boundaries on a treasure map. The goal is not to glorify the map, but to go on a journey to find the hidden treasure.
The Romance of Religion is an exciting romp through metaphysics, romance, heroism, and truth. It is accessible to anyone, no matter their faith (or lack thereof). (I received an advance copy of the book. It will be published in February of 2014.)