The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty
By Dwight Longenecker
Some call it romance; some call it melodrama. Either way, Dwight Longenecker is in favor of it. Every romantic story, and every romantic hero, is dedicated to the reality of truth and the possibility of finding it. Indeed, the best stories show truth lived out, truth incarnated. Fictional romances are not, of course, factual. But they are true, because they communicate what the world is really like. Fulfillment is possible. Stoic acceptance of fate and Epicurean ignoring of fate are not our only two options. There is a third: Be a romantic. Live like Cyrano de Bergerac and Don Quixote and Samwise Gamgee.
Longenecker has a theology degree from Oxford, is a Roman Catholic priest, and loves puns. His The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty (Thomas Nelson, 2014) argues that the glory of all romances is that they all point to the great romance, the love story between Jesus Christ and His bride. What the pagan myths pointed to has come true. The Son of God came in the flesh, lived perfectly, died painfully, and rose gloriously. At this point, Longenecker starts an apparently irrelevant new chapter on how much he enjoys conspiracy theories. They take existing evidence for the falsity of their theories as proof of a government cover-up, and the lack of positive evidence as being exactly what one would expect from such clever conspirators. Of course, this is exactly how mainstream scholarship treats the life of Christ. The existing evidence (a document known as “The New Testament”) is discounted as a fabrication, and evidence-free theories hold the field. What an opportunity for the romantic to charge academic windmills!
Of course, living romantically mostly means fighting the darkness in one’s own heart; the hero’s outward quest must parallel his inward growth. Who knew growing up should be so melodramatic?
Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty
By Gregory Boyd
Greg Boyd’s commitment to human free will permeates everything he writes in Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker, 2013). In brief, the book argues that many American Christians think faith is a psychological state of “feeling sure.” So long as you refuse to entertain doubts intellectually, then you have a strong faith and are “saved.” This view of faith usually accompanies a legal, contractual view of salvation, in which God makes a deal with the individual sinner promising salvation if the sinner meets certain conditions.
Both of these models are, according to Boyd, wrongheaded. Faith is not about refusing to entertain doubts; faith is an overall trust in the character of a person. Salvation is a covenantal relationship in which God saves sinners who put their faith in His loving character as revealed at the cross.
These two overall points are correct, and well expressed. But the problem is that Boyd has thoroughly integrated them into his theological system, which sees the cross as an expression of love, not justice. This false dichotomy pervades, and cripples, every page of Benefit of the Doubt. It leads Boyd to affirm that the “wrathful God of the Old Testament” is, in some sense, different from the loving Jesus of the New. It leads him to contend that certain parts of Scripture must be rejected if they fail to harmonize with the absolute love that God is.
In short, while Benefit of the Doubt diagnoses a real problem and offers a sophisticated solution, it carries along far too much other baggage. Boyd is an open theist; that is, his commitment to libertarian free will leads him to argue that God does not fully control the future. No wonder, then, that he argues against psychological certainty: According to Boyd, not even God can be sure.
Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Present
By Brendan Simms
Germany, too big for Europe but too small for the world, is at the heart of Cambridge professor Brendan Simms’ narrative. Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Present (Basic Books, 2013) recounts bids for hegemony by state after state. All these bids have foundered, of course; conquering one’s neighbors only creates new neighbors.
Simms clearly embraces a “realist” paradigm, in which anarchy in the international system forces states into domestic unity so that they can project power abroad. Of course, one state’s aggrandizement causes its neighbors to seek greater power for themselves, lest their powerful neighbor prove unfriendly. This, then, is the security dilemma: Weakness makes one vulnerable, but strength makes one a threat and thus a target. And, as Simms would say, nowhere has this been more proven than in Germany.
The old Holy Roman Empire, weak and disunited, was easy prey for Louis XIV’s France and any number of its other neighbors. Indeed, at times in the 17th century, it appeared that Sweden would make a virtual colony of “the Germanies.” But the united Germany of the Third Reich provoked an unstoppable coalition that did, in fact, colonize half the country for 40 years.
Simms’ unapologetically realist view leads to some statements that, to a contemporary American audience, appear almost ludicrously politically incorrect. Simms argues that Lincoln’s emancipation of American slaves was driven not by moral concerns, but by the logic of grand strategy. In order to compete on the world stage, the United States had to unite its population. The same motives, according to Simms, drove Russian emancipation of the serfs.
If you like a little art and culture with your record of the past, don’t read Simms. But those who enjoy watching grown-up states beat on each other will find Simms a veritable romp.