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The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty

The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty

by Dwight Longenecker

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C. S. Lewis said that Christianity works on us like every other myth, except it is a myth that really happened. Dwight Longenecker grabs this idea and runs with it, showing that the Christian story is the greatest story ever told because it gathers up what is true in all the fantasy stories of the world and makes them as solid, true, and real as a tribe of dusty


C. S. Lewis said that Christianity works on us like every other myth, except it is a myth that really happened. Dwight Longenecker grabs this idea and runs with it, showing that the Christian story is the greatest story ever told because it gathers up what is true in all the fantasy stories of the world and makes them as solid, true, and real as a tribe of dusty nomads in the desert or the death of a carpenter-king.

In The Romance of Religion Longenecker calls for the return of the romantic hero—the hero who knows his frailty and can fight the good fight with panache, humor, and courage. Conflict and romance are everywhere in the story of Christ, and our response is to dust off our armor, don our broad-brimmed hats, pick up our swords, and do battle for Christ with confidence, wonder, and joy.

Is religion no more than a fairy tale? No, it is more than a fairy tale—much more: it is all the fairy tales and fantastic stories come true here and now.

“This book is witty, whimsical, and deadly serious. With panache and aplomb, Dwight Longenecker sets out to prove that Christianity is, in every sense of the word, fabulous. And does he succeed in his quest? I encourage you to read it to find out.”

—Michael Ward, senior research fellow, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and professor of apologetics, Houston Baptist University

“If you've never thought about the Christian faith as romance and story, then this book will introduce you to a whole new way of thinking.”—Frank Viola, author of God's Favorite Place on Earth

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this exploration of the underlying themes of religion as romantic ideas, Longenecker (The Quest for the Creed), a parish priest, author, and blogger, urges readers to return to a vision of religion not as a respectable, rule-bound institution but as a way of life that is “a glorious adventure or nothing at all.” To make his case, he examines the role of the romantic— a lover of stories that get at truth— and the role of story in the development of the Christian faith, from the time right after the resurrection of Christ up to modern literature’s own spiritual and romantic stories of heroes and quests. Drawing on his own ideas about beauty, truth, and love, as well as his views on the use of language in the Bible, Longenecker offers a far-ranging study. Though his love of alliteration and metaphor occasionally borders on the precious (“He combines sonnets with sugar icing and terza rima with a raisin twist”), Longenecker’s thorough treatment of the topic provides armchair students and scholars alike a way into an important conversation. (Feb. 4)

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Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty


Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2014 Dwight Longenecker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8499-2294-7


Cyrano or Cynicism?

Why Rollicking Romanticism Is Good for You

In a world of useful things, it might seem absurd to write a book in praise of romance. Who needs romance in a world that has been rationalized, economized, mechanized, and computerized? Can romance survive in a world of profit margins and the bottom line? Isn't romance (with its unfulfilled longing) a waste of time in a world where every desire can be gratified cheerfully and cheaply? Can the frail flower of romance live in the winter of a cold and cynical age? Can romance thrive where angels in full flight are shot down with facts and fragile ideals are shattered by the hard stones of reality?

Let's be optimistic. We should never be too convinced by the attitudes and emotions of the age in which we live. When poisonous ideas are universal, the desire for an antidote becomes all the more urgent. Like Achilles, the hero who forgot his heel, or like Icarus who, flying close to the sun, forgot that his wings were made of wax, we should be wary when triumphant ideas seem unassailable, for then there is all the more reason to predict their downfall. Anything that has reached its peak must be on the brink of decline. The bigger a bubble, the more likely it is to burst. Likewise, any process of thought that seems down-and-out is probably about to come up and in. That which has reached its nadir can only go up.

History shows that the pendulum swings back. Just when we think a political system, a philosophy, or an attitude is true and fixed for all time, it is swept away by some revolution. Those systems (like atheistic communism) that are built on false premises simply cannot stand. Like the house built on sand, they must fall when the tide comes in. Does our Western, materialistic society seem thoroughly rationalistic, atheistic, despairing, and brutal? All the more reason to believe that the edifice is about to crumble and that everyone will soon be swept away by the supernatural, fascinated by faith, and enchanted by the romance of religion.

It is a sad diagnosis, but the Western mind is seriously sick. Like the psychotic, we can't think straight anymore—even if we want to. Like the psychotic, we have only two options: either we drift further into the nothing of nihilism and continue to commit a kind of cultural and corporate suicide, or we get better. And to turn away from the dark void means we become romantics once more. We realize we are members of a frail and finite little race, and as such we are all a little bit mad. Because we are limited in our knowledge, even the sanest of us are slightly insane. Our limitations are a kind of madness, and we can only choose to deny we are mad—and so descend into a dark spiral of total insanity—or accept we are mad and embark on a quest to regain our true and wholesome sanity.

To do this we need to engage in battle with the dark and embark on a valiant quest. We need to find the costume cupboard, dust off the broad-brimmed hat of the musketeer, practice brandishing the rapier, and fare forward to defend the honor of our beloved. I'm suggesting that, like old Don Quixote, we blow the dust off our books of chivalry, don a suit of armor, whistle for Rocinante, and ride out to joust with windmills. In other words, we need to discover once again that we have something to die for, for it is only when we have something to die for that we have something to live for.

The Quaint Romantic Hero

An English friend delivered a backhand slam some time ago when she said with a snooty smile, "The Americans are so quaint! They still think it is possible to be heroes." I felt chastened, but I had to admit it: some of us (and not just the Americans) retain the romantic hero as our role model. We cheerfully concede that there is something absurd about the romantic hero. He is not a sensible sort of soul. We know that had Romeo been a practical man, he would have chosen dull friends, gone to a good school, married the Montague next door, and inherited the family business. The noble Narnian mouse Reepicheep would have stayed home to consolidate his collection of fine cheeses, and Don Quixote would not have set off as a knight in rusty armor but would have entered a rest home to play checkers and watch daytime TV.

But then, the romantic hero has always been a figure of fun. He is blamed not only for being romantic but for being obstinate. "You are a bombastic fool!" his sensible critics cry. "You are an absurd poseur, an amateur, and a fake!" they accuse. "You deal in generalities, broadsides, and caricatures!"

Of course, the critics are right. The romantic hero strides through life with an air of superiority. That is not because he thinks himself better than everyone else but simply because he is looking in a different direction. His nose is in the air not because he looks down on others but because he is looking up. The romantic hero marches to a different drumbeat not because he wants everyone else to march with him but because he wants them to hear that a different drumbeat and a different way of marching exist.

We admire the romantic, but we also admit that there is something dangerous about the romantic hero. We are frightened of anyone who is willing to die for his beliefs. We've seen people fly airplanes into skyscrapers. The problem there, however, is not the willingness to die for one's beliefs but the willingness to kill those who do not share those beliefs. There is all the difference between a martyr and a murderer, even if the murderer thinks he is a martyr.

A Nose by Any Other Name ...

I confessed to my English lady friend that I am unashamed to believe that both romanticism and heroism are still possible. I brandish this belief like a white plume, which brings me to my favorite among all the romantic heroes of the world. He is the fictionalized Frenchman Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano is a swashbuckling poet with a monstrous nose—a character who makes more enemies than friends and who practices swordplay and wordplay at the same time, composing poems against pride and puncturing pomposity with a pun. Is there anyone in the history of the world more romantic and absurd? A tragic character with a rubber nose—more a clown than a Hamlet—takes the stage in big boots and a broad-brimmed hat to swagger over his inferiors and swoon over his lady.

With supreme confidence Cyrano ridicules his enemies with riddles and skewers them with a song. He is the quintessential romantic hero as he mocks the hypocrite, denounces the dilettante, and woos the fair Roxanne with a rhyme. Cyrano is brave, noble, and true both in victory and defeat. In fact, it is in his defeat that his nobility is tested and proved, for it is when the brave are crushed by the ruthless and the loyal are laughed at by traitors that the romantic soul's nobility is confirmed.

Cyrano accepts rejection as the price of honesty and failure as the price of nobility. In the last act of the play by Rostand, he dies after being ambushed by an enemy. A blockhead drops a block on Cyrano's noble head, and in a magnificent climax, the hero draws his sword for the last time and duels with the shadowy figures of cowardice and corruption, duplicity and death.

In a final flamboyant gesture, Cyrano holds aloft the white plume from his broad-brimmed hat. He might just as well have pointed his magnificent nose into the air as a defiant symbol of his romantic and indomitable character. Cyrano's nose is his red badge of courage and the symbol of his nobility, but it is also the red nose of the clown and the sign of his absurdity. This is why Cyrano is the quintessential romantic hero—not only because he is intelligent, courteous, courageous, and true, but because he is absurd. He is a swashbuckling fool, a hilarious hero; a cross between d'Artagnan and Jimmy Durante. His nobility, like his nose, is both admirable and laughable.

As such, Cyrano de Bergerac is an exemplar for all who are romantics in our cynical and utilitarian age. In a world where truth is "what works for you," the fool who proposes that truth is objective will seem as laughable as Cyrano with his rubber nose. In an age where beauty is a skeletal slattern, a pornographic picture, or a butch biker with tattoos, the one who believes in the frail beauty of Belle or Beatrice or the Blessed Virgin is an amusing and archaic knight. In a world where the bottom line is the profit margin, one who seeks the top line of honesty and honor will seem like a ridiculous Don Quixote.

Truth is Beauty and Beauty, Truth

It is popularly thought that the romantic is simply one who has fallen in love, but the real romantic has fallen in love with something greater than a beautiful human being. He has fallen in love with beauty itself. The romantic is on a quest for the absolute; he is in love with the beloved and with beauty because they are expressions of the absolute. The romantic's real love, therefore, is the love of truth, and he finds his truth not in philosophical or theological theories but in philosophical and theological stories. A little linguistic sleight of hand will help to make my point. The word romantic comes from the word romance, which comes from the word roman, which is the French word for "story." (More particularly, a chivalric story written in the language of Rome.)

I will return to that particular Roman story later, but for now the romantic, if you like, is one who not only likes stories; he believes in stories. He does not believe the stories as one believes a well-researched biography or historical account. He believes in stories as we believe in fairy tales, legends, myths, and movies—not necessarily because they are factual, but because they are true.

In other words, the romantic loves a fine romance, and by "a fine romance" I do not mean candlelit dinners, whispered words, and the mellow voice of Andy Williams singing "Moon River." A fine romance is a good story—a story, like all good stories everywhere and at every time, that reveals eternal truth within a gripping tale. We are entranced by a good story because the plot is slick and the storyteller skilled. We are captivated by a good story because it incarnates the truth. A good storyteller locks the truth so tightly into the story that you cannot get at the truth without telling the story. The romantic believes the truth in the story, but he also believes that he can make that story come true in his own life.

Consequently, when the romantic sees Cyrano de Bergerac duel with death and then gasp his last, he wipes his tears and vows in his heart that he, too, will be a noble soul and do battle with the forces of cowardice and compromise, duplicity and death. The true romantic rises up and cheers when Luke Skywalker drops a bomb into the heart of the Death Star—not because the good guys won, but because the hero took a spiritual decision to "go with the force." The romantic soul cheers because at that point he has decided (whether he knows it or not) to go with the force forever and to lead the life of the conquering hero.

The Hidden Hero

If this is the definition of the romantic, then almost all of us are romantics at heart. Simply take us into the darkened hush of the cinema or theater and all our cynicism drops away. Allow us for one moment to be entranced by the spell of the storyteller, and the Cyrano de Bergerac in each one of us comes alive. There in the darkness the child within still believes that there are such things as truth, beauty, and goodness. Even when we lapse into cynicism, doubt, and despair, the romantic in us lives—otherwise why would we be cynical and despairing?

The reason we become cynical is that we have come to believe that the ideals we thought were true are not true after all, or if they are true, they are impossible. We lapse into despair because we have lost the hope that goodness, truth, and beauty will prevail in the end. Thus, even the most despairing cynic proves that the romantic's beliefs and hopes are an indelible and universal part of the human heart. If you like, cynicism and despair exist like parasites on belief and hope. You could say that despair is the compliment the cynic pays to the romantic idealist.

So the romantic, like the child within, continues to exist. The reason we dare not recognize the sleeping romantic is that we are frightened. Like the adolescent who has been wounded in love, we avoid the romantic way because we fear we may be hurt again. We assume a mask of insouciant indifference because we fear that the romantic way will expose our vulnerabilities. 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.

The best joke is on the person who attempts to be dignified and serious. If the Lord Mayor's trousers fall down, it is far funnier than if the slave's trousers slip. The only people I can't take seriously are the people who take themselves seriously. Therefore, the person I find most ridiculous is myself, since I am constantly being made aware of how very seriously I usually take myself. I must remember that it is only at the point of absurdity, foolishness, and failure that I begin to find real meaning, wisdom, and success. It is only when we realize that we know nothing that we can begin to learn everything. It is only when we stop standing on our dignity and start stumbling over our foolishness that we begin to find wisdom. It is only when we realize that we were absurd all along that we can begin to enjoy the joke, and in laughter at ourselves we acquire real dignity.

The child at the heart of each one of us is a romantic. That romantic may be timid. He may be asleep. He may be wearing a grown-up mask of suspicion, cynicism, anger, and despair, or he may be wearing a mask of jolly indifference or stoical resignation, but still the romantic lies there, even if he is terminally ill. Those who remove their masks, take a risk, and take up the quest are the foolish but wise ones. If you are one of those, or suspect you may be, or if you know you are not but want to be, then this book may inspire and instruct you to pick up the map and go farther in the quest.

If you, on the other hand, are convinced that life is simply for pleasure or simply to be endured, then you must follow the logic to nihilism and nothing. Because you are reading this book, you should be warned that your objective, distanced approach will not be allowed to last for long. You will discover that reading this book is like being in the audience for an unusual play. This drama is designed around audience participation. You are welcome to stay in your seat, but you will eventually be invited onto the stage to play a part. No one will force you to participate, but if you do not, then eventually you will be left in your seat alone. The curtain will come down, the play will be over, the stage manager will bring the house lights down, and you will be left in the dark.

If, however, you wish to take part in the drama, you may join that huge portion of humanity who have risked their dignity and stepped out to follow the path of the hero and the romance of religion.


All er Nuthin'

The Non-Romantic Options

There's a romantic duet in the corny musical Oklahoma! in which Will tells his girl, Ado Annie, that for him it's "all er nuthin'." He's not going to put up with a now-and-then kind of wife. "No half-and-half romance will do!"

I confess, I like Broadway musicals. I like them because the characters face life's great questions in a down-to-earth way for ordinary folk to consider. The corn might be as high as an elephant's eye, but corn is a staple food for ordinary people, and the two ordinary lovers are asking a comical question with roots that go down into the very deepest choices and questions of life. They're right. 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.

The romantic is a person who believes such a choice is vital if life is to have meaning. He realizes that what he believes influences everything he thinks, says, and does. The romantic accepts with childlike wisdom that he needs something to believe in. The antiromantic believes that such an approach is sad and naive, because to believe in something means that there has to be something to believe in. In other words, there has to be such a thing as truth, and the antiromantic cynic does not believe that objective truth is possible. When you turn this inside out, however, isn't it the antiromantic who is sad and naive? He seriously believes he can go through life not believing anything, never seeing the fact that is larger than a rubber nose on his face—to believe belief is impossible is, in fact, to believe in something. Compared to such self-deception, the romantic is a cold, hard realist.


Excerpted from THE ROMANCE of RELIGION by DWIGHT LONGENECKER. Copyright © 2014 Dwight Longenecker. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dwight Longenecker has served as a parishpriest, chaplain at Kings College, Cambridge and a country parson on the Isleof Wight. Dwight has written sixteen books and countless articlesfor websites, magazines and papers in the USA and Britain. His blog Standingon My Head has been voted one of the top religious blogs in thecountry. Dwight's weekly radio show More Christianity has anincreasing following, and he is a dynamic, entertaining and inspiring speakerat conference and parish missions across America. He holds a degree intheology from Oxford University and currently serves a local parish inGreenville, SC.

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