In his new book, The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty (Thomas Nelson, 2014), Father Dwight Longenecker brings together the likes of Don Quixote, Yoda, Dante, and Frodo to introduce readers to the power of a story—the Christian story, in particular—in shaping our lives and the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty. In an interview with CWR contributor Christopher White, Father Longenecker provides a hint of what readers of his book can expect to find if they’re willing to consider the possibility and the power of Christianity.
CWR: In this new book you draw heavily on literature, film, and art to illustrate the great ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty. Stories have the ability to teach and provide us with insight into our own life experiences. Do you think this is why some of the great communicators of the truths of Christianity have been artists (be it visual or literary)?
Father Longenecker: At the heart of the Christian faith is the fact that the “Word” was made flesh. Therefore the abstract truths are always being lived out in the human drama. This is why Pope Benedict XVI said that “the saints are lived theology” and, “We can only interpret Scripture in the lives of the saints.” Therefore it is always the task of the Christian communicator to continue to flesh out the truths of the Gospel. Theology comes alive in the lives of the saints, but it also comes alive within drama, stories, art, and music.
CWR: You say that “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.” Is that the romance of religion? And if so, how can dying be romantic?
Father Longenecker: It is not in the dying, but in having something to die for. The great romantic quests have always been “do or die” propositions. So in Star Wars Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.” The Romance of Religion is therefore about the call to launch out on the great adventure to risk all to gain all. Following Christ has become a suburban weekend past time, and no wonder so few are interested!
CWR: Meanwhile, we tend to flirt a lot with unromantic notions. What are these and why do we fall for them?
Father Longenecker: The most tempting unromantic notion is that our religion is supposed to be no more than a practical matter of trying to be nice people and make the world a better place. This is not religion at all. It is a set of table manners. Gardeners make the world a better place, so do designers of theme parks. Christians are not called to simply be nice people, but to be human beings, by the grace of God, living on a new dimension and in higher plane of reality. Nothing is more dull than trying to do good. The romance of religion calls us not just to do good, but to be good—to become one with Goodness itself.
CWR: If religion is a story of the impossible becoming possible, a story of “heroes and quests,” how can we convince skeptics that it’s a story worth paying attention to?
Father Longenecker: We convince skeptics that it is a story worth paying attention to by living out the story in our own lives. The point of my book is that not only do the great stories incarnate the truth of Christianity, but our lives are supposed to incarnate the truth of Christianity. The thing that makes people take notice and take our faith seriously is when we start to live the faith seriously. It is very hard to ignore and very hard to resist the attraction of a person whose life has been transformed by the power of God and who is living a dynamic and joyful Christian life to the full.
CWR: Why are the great romantic heroes always warriors? What are they fighting for?
Father Longenecker: I make the point in Romance of Religion that the powers of evil are always engaged in corrupting what is good, twisting what is good, and perverting what is good. The only way they will be overcome is to realize what they are doing and to fight against it. Therefore if one believes in the beautiful, good, and true, then one must necessarily want to defend it against all that would destroy it and this involves battle. Jesus Christ does not call us to a playground, but a battleground. We must not forget this. At the same time, we are called to be joyful and jaunty warriors. There is no room for sour, puritanical defeatists. We need the absurd and robust attitude of a musketeer, a Don Quixote—a happy warrior.
Father Longenecker: The sign of beauty is that irrational surge in the heart, that lump in the throat, that pause of realization when we behold the beautiful. Beauty is not simply something lovely to gaze at, but we perceive beauty in moments of love and passion, in the beauty of the natural world, in an action of self-sacrifice and service, in beholding what is also good and true, for beauty cannot be separated from what is true and good. The three make up one of the little Holy Trinities that God sprinkles throughout his creation.
CWR: The quest for truth, you state, leads us to a person—namely, Jesus Christ. How are we to understand truth as not just a concept, but a lived reality?
Father Longenecker: We have made “truth” into a series of theological propositions combined with another list of moral regulations. These things are important, but they are the map for the journey, they are not the journey. They are the résumé, not the person. Jesus Christ is astounding when he says, not “I teach the truth” but “I am the truth.” This is a profound and remarkable assertion, which echoes down through history and through humanity as an enormous challenge and a humbling realization.
CWR: The romance of religion has held sway over you personally. Can you describe, briefly, how you made your journey from an Anglican priest to a Catholic priest?
Father Longenecker: As an Evangelical young person I was convinced that the Christian journey was a great adventure of faith or it was nothing at all. I was resolved not to be satisfied with a dull, respectable version of the faith, but was looking for the table-turning Jesus—the Christ who turned the world upside down. This curiosity and quest to find more led me to the beautiful and historic Anglican faith. I went to live in England and studied at Oxford. I traveled across Europe and around the world. My search for the historic faith that Jesus Christ founded led me eventually to the fullness of the Christian faith in the Catholic Church. The problems in the Anglican Church were only symptoms of a deeper lack. Anglicanism is, by definition, the Church of England. I hope I will be forgiven if I wanted not a national church, but an international—not a church founded by a King, but one founded by the King of the Universe.