Author and priest Dwight Longenecker says the Christian story is more than a myth and the greatest story ever told. - Image taken from "The Romance of Religion," courtesy of Thomas Nelson Publishers

Author and priest Dwight Longenecker says the Christian story is more than a myth and the greatest story ever told. – Image taken from “The Romance of Religion,” courtesy of Thomas Nelson Publishers

Author C. S. Lewis once argued that Christianity works on us like every other myth, except it is a myth that really happened. Dwight Longenecker takes this idea a step further in his book, “The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty,” arguing that the Christian story is the greatest ever told because it gathers up what is true in the best fantasy stories and makes them real. Here I talk to the author, blogger, and priest about his big idea and why he believes the Christian faith is fundamentally romance.

RNS: When someone calls faith a fairy tale or fantasy, some Christians might have a negative reaction, as if this undermines the authenticity of their faith. Your thoughts? 

DL: The problem is when people say faith is “merely” a fairy story, fantasy or myth. The word “merely” is a killer because nothing in life is as simple as that. “Merely” is a word that reduces rather than amplifies. I am always looking for the “more” not the “mere.” Instead of saying that faith is a fairy tale or fantasy, I like to say the stories of the  Bible are as powerful as a fairy tale or fantasy. I then explain what myth and fairy tales really do–how they connect with the deepest parts of our hearts through the imagination and how the real life faith stories have that same power to inspire and transform.

Cover image courtesy of Thomas Nelson Publishers

Cover image courtesy of Thomas Nelson Publishers

RNS: Opponents of religion doubt Christianity because there are so many other ancient stories and myths that parallel those in the Bible. How do you respond? Is Christianity just one more myth? 

DL: It is interesting to consider the similarities between the Bible stories and the ancient myths because the same themes, characters, and plot lines do echo through all the stories. This proves the universality of these deeply human religious stories. However, while we consider the similarities we also have to consider the dis-similarities. When we look more closely the pagan stories and the stories in the Bible are not deeply similar at all. The similarities are superficial.

The main difference is that the pagan myths do not pretend to be historical. But the authors of the Biblical stories always root them in recognizable place and time. While the places and times are not always verifiable according to our criteria of proof, the point is that the authors consider the stories to be about real people at a real time in a real place. The Biblical authors are insistent that these “mythical events” occurred not to mythical beings, but to ordinary people.

RNS: In naming the fairy tale quality of the gospel, Frederick Buechner says that “it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still.” Can you say something about how the Christian story continues to be realized? 

DL: My grandfather was walking across a bridge on a frozen winter morning with his two young sons when the driver of a coal truck lost control. The truck skidded across the icy road straight into my grandpa and my young uncles. He threw himself in the path of the truck, pushing his sons out of the way. When he died a few days later after great suffering his last words were, “Don’t you see them, they’re so beautiful!”

The story of his heroic self sacrifice is told in our family today, and it keeps alive the same ancient themes of the love between father and son, the heroic self sacrifice and the mystery of suffering overcome through faith and the presenceof the angels and the hope of everlasting life.

Thus the same ancient stories with their mythic themes are being lived out today, and I would contend that we only have eyes to see this because the Judeo-Christian tradition has enabled us to see what might be called “living myth.”

RNS: You identify Christ as a romantic hero, yes?

DL: The classic hero follows what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the mono myth.” This is the “hero’s quest” in which the hero leaves his ordinary world and launches out into a realm of adventure. He goes through the dangerous realm and risks everything to complete a perilous quest. He goes through a death and resurrection and returns home victorious–having won redemption and salvation for his people.

If you consider the Christ story in these terms, then yes, he leaves his heavenly home to come into this world to engage the powers of evil in a great battle. He does so to attain the great prize of life for himself and his people, and through his sacrifice he conquers. The story turns, and in his resurrection and ascension, we see his triumph and return. The Christian message is that through faith and baptism we identify with Christ the hero and we hear his call to embark on our own heroic adventure–the adventure of faith.

RNS: If true, then the Christian faith is “romance.” What does this mean for believers to live into the romance today? 

First, we drop the idea that religion is no more than a dull adherence to a set of moral rules, social regulations, and set dogma. We need the rules, regulations and dogma, but they are not the journey. They are the map for the journey. At the heart of true religion is for one to hear the call to adventure, respond to that call, and set out on a path that may cost us, in T.S.Eliot’s words, “Not less than everything.”

This is the heart of the story from the very beginning with Father Abraham setting out for the promised land, of Moses and the Israelites, right through the whole Old Testament to Jesus calling those rough and ready fishermen to become fishers of men and knocking Paul off his horse to be totally converted. This is the story from the beginning, and when the faith story is re-vitalized and ordinary people hear the call and take the risk, faith comes alive again.

13 Comments

  1. Susan Humphreys

    Mr. Longnecker destroys his own argument with this sentence. “The main difference is that the pagan myths do not PRETEND to be historical. But the authors of the Biblical stories always root them in recognizable place and time. ” The Bible pretends to be historical, the other myths don’t! A VERY important difference. Story tellers, the myth makers, have always rooted their stories in places familiar to their audience and peppered them with real local characters and even real local events. George Washington didn’t cut down that cherry tree. BUT he was a real character and cherry trees were familiar to the locals. Davy Crocket was a real man but I doubt that he wrestled and killed a bear when he was only 3. Although bears were a reality to the listeners. Modern historians have followed the path of the Iliad and the Odyssey and yes there really was a Troy as well as other places mentioned. Myths are myths, and that includes the Biblical myths, simply or should I say merely, good stories.

    • Susan, you misread both this article and the Bible. The Bible doesn’t PRETEND to be anything, except for the occasional intentional use of parable or metaphor. It is about reality. It is about real people posited in a real time in space and history. Some of the events and characters may be compressed a bit, but they point to real memories in human experience. This is especially true in the New Testament. There is something bigger and stronger at work there than made-up fairy tales. It is the invasion of the Divine in our human history, and the divine Christ’s victory over evil and death in spite of our resistance to Him and His message. His living presence still has the power to totally transform broken lives, whereas legends and stories like Davy Crockett and George Washington lift us for the moment but make no lasting transformational change.

      • Susan Humphreys

        Unfortunately all of us witness everyday the sad reality that Biblical stories also fail to transform people. That is a pleasant fantasy, but a fantasy all the same. Far too often the Biblical stories have helped people become worse people not better people, the stories have been used to justify and sanctify great evil and peoples bad behavior. Reality is what it is.

  2. On the question of pagan mythology and similarities to the biblical narrative, I am comforted by leading ancient authorities concerning myths. It was either Socrates (Plato) or Aristotle who said myths were a record of 1) things that had happened (i.e.-History), 2) things that always happen (i.e.-everyday life), or 3) things that are yet to happen (i.e.-prophecy). Accepting that God was working to bring about His will and bring Jesus into the world “at just the right time” – paving the way in the minds and general culture of Man for His arrival – I see no difficulty viewing pagan myths about a son of a god being born even of a virgin, living a heroic life, dying an unjust and sacrificial death, and being resurrected by the god as a sign of the son’s goodness. In fact, such mythical elements, taken as a pagan form of God’s prophetic voice, are simply putting into story-form what the Old Testament prophets revealed about God’s emerging plan. What does it mean that ancient pagan authorities viewed their myths in a way that can support, not combat, Christian tradition?

  3. Drawing out the dissimilarities of Christianity alongside other ancient myths should also include the vast difference between the character of those ancient gods and their relationship with creation. In many of those cases, the gods are depicted as warring among themselves, acting out of envy and jealousy, and disinterested or manipulative of creation and humanity. The Christian story comes in with a God who creates out of love and who relates to his creation from a place of blessing and generosity. There is an ongoing interaction with humanity that is not bent on deception, abuse or fear. We are supposed to see the stark difference inherent to Christianity that is then played out in reality, as the biblical authors believed and lived themselves.

  4. This book may be the most important work to come around in a long time. The Catholic belief, at it’s core, has always been about the Truth (Jesus Christ), and with the correct way these Biblical stories are introduced, the reader is invited to learn what it means to follow this Truth. The comparison with other mythologies invites people to, well, ‘think,’ which is what the religion is really all about. To paraphrase Fr. Longenecker: “a skeptic is like the person who looks into a window and sees only glass.” God only reveals to us whatever He wants to, when He wants to do it. No one understands why. But the mythical format of the Gospel accounts are each very compelling – with one central Truth in them: the person of Jesus Christ.

    • Agreed, Jesus Christ is the definitive point. Unlike ancient myth, Jesus was a real person which no historian will dispute. There is ample and accepted evidence for his existence and death at the hands of Pontius Pilate. This is the defining issue that separates Christianity from all other religions and myth – a real person who met the prophetic claims and fulfills the story God has been telling since the beginning.

  5. I feel uneasy about the whole “romance” idea. Jesus spent most of his ministry walking around teaching, and though teaching can lead to those wonderful breakthrough moments of listeners “getting it,” much of it is just plain hard work, not “Adventure” as we normally think of it. The very human drudge work involved in what Jesus did most of the time might get lost in the romanticizing.

  6. Susan Humphreys

    Many here have bought or should I say fallen “hook line and sinker” into the myth. AND the stories about Jesus are myths, nothing more nor less. No more true nor less true no greater or lesser value to those of us living today than the stories about Buddha or Lao Tzu, or those found in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Myths have much to teach us IF we are open to what they have to say. Unfortunately far too many get hung up on the issue of “Truth” and miss the message.

    • It gets hard to defend the myth theory when you are dealing with a real person and real events as historians agree existed. For a long time many refused to accept the historical fact of Jesus’ existence, but no one denies that fact any longer. Unless you accept the premise of the Jesus Seminar that modern analysis can determine what is real and what is myth from history, then you must find a more sane way of dealing with the reality that confronts you. You may claim myth, but all you have is opinion. Facts and history are not on your side.

  7. So, in faithful obedience, Noah, his three sons, Shem, Ham,
    and Japheth, his wife, and his son’s wives spent 120 years building an incredibly large
    boat, in a land that had no water and had never seen rain. Gerwig
    plays a seamless version of Frances, though she purportedly isn’t much like her character in real life.
    Flood geologists theorize that before the Flood there were interconnected  subterranean caverns of water, tightly compressed beneath the earth’s crust.

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