October 2015

The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  By Dwight Longenecker. Thomas Nelson. 240 pages. $15.99.

In The Romance of Religion Fr. Dwight Longenecker offers an imaginative take on apologetics. With a style reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, he argues that, contrary to what most people think, Christianity is something bold, epic, and thrilling — something romantic. And far from the mainstream perception of a banal dogmatist, the Christian can be likened to a romantic hero who forsakes the empty distractions of the world and sets out on a valiant quest in pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Longenecker believes that, although it is no longer fashionable, deep down we are all romantics. And the way he sees it, those of us in the 21st century have one of two choices: We can either succumb to the “nihilistic suicide” of our times or we can learn once more to become romantics. “We need to discover once again that we have something to die for,” Longenecker writes, “for it is only when we have something to die for that we have something to live for.” Like Don Quixote or Cyrano de Bergerac, the romantic is an absurdity in the eyes of the world, but this reputation causes him no shame because he does not take himself too seriously. The romantic “believes in something bigger, older, and more eternal than his own small life. He believes that truth, beauty, and love are real and that his life is not worth living unless it is a quest to find and hold these elusive and eternal treasures.” This quest is essentially a religious one, for it is ultimately a journey toward God — the source and summit of those treasures the romantic seeks. Along the way, he must be a warrior like Odysseus, or even Bilbo Baggins, and battle forces of evil that fundamentally oppose his mission and place him in constant peril.

It may seem impious to liken the Christian life to myths, fairytales, and other fanciful stories that involve romance and heroes, but Longenecker explains that in these stories “the truth is dressed up and acted out as in a drama.” They tell of basic human realities in timeless and understandable ways, just as the ancient Greek and Roman myths still have meaning and relevance for modern-day romantics. Longenecker says that in a similar way the Bible is full of stories of heroes and romance with universal meaning, but with a dramatic twist: they actually happened. His explanations of how the key stories of the Old and New Testaments were real historical events are easily the best parts of the book, and he presents persuasive arguments for how the realities of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection demand a life-changing response from the romantic. He states, “Our response to [the truth of Christ] must be one of wonder and awe and delight and fear at where it will lead us. If Jesus is God in human form, then human history is terrifyingly transformed.”

The religious romantic’s quest, then, points him to the Person of Jesus Christ. At his aid are the dogmas and laws of religion, which serve as his “map” for the journey, and by his baptism he travels in the company of the Church, “the fellowship of the ring, the band of brothers, the army of the united.” At the culmination of the quest is the romantic’s personal re-creation, his transformation in Christ: “The goal is to be transformed not into somebody else but into who we were originally intended to be…. Whenever a human being reaches his full potential and becomes all that he was meant to be, God is not only happy but he radiates glory the way an artist radiates joy at the completion of his finest work.”

The Romance of Religion has many special appeals for an apologetics book. Longenecker offers powerful refutations of common modern ideas like logical positivism and the mentality of being “spiritual but not religious,” which make the book timely and practical. It focuses on themes like warfare, adventure, and the knightly pursuit of fair maidens, and is therefore particularly well suited to a male audience. Yet its broader themes, especially regarding the power of love and the transcendental properties of being to lead to God, can be deeply appreciated by all. Longenecker has an approachable, non-academic way of writing that is full of clever alliteration, puns, and anecdotes, and his frequent references to well-known books, movies, cartoons, musicals, songs, and other cultural works make the book relatable and more engaging for those who want or need more than a straightforward, unembellished approach to apologetics.

Although Longenecker is a Catholic priest and writes from a Catholic perspective, the book is free of any overt mention of Catholicism. Some would find this a drawback, but it’s clear that this is intentional in order to reach a wider audience that may otherwise be put off by talk of the papacy, the Magisterium, the seven sacraments, or other specifically Catholic topics. Longenecker hints at the need for the Christian romantic to arrive at Catholic fullness, such as when he says that, while fighting in the Christian army, the romantic must find and join the “best, fullest, and most complete battalion.” If readers drawn in by this book are ready to take it to the next level, they can then turn to Longenecker’s More Christianity (2010), wherein he explains how the Christian must go beyond the basics of the faith to discover and enter into the one true Catholic Church.

Fr. Longenecker deserves three cheers for providing a lively and compelling book to inspire both the modern unbeliever and the jaded Christian. The Romance of Religion is much-needed refreshment for the faithful who are disillusioned by our challenging times and is a valuable resource for the new evangelization.

- Stephen J. Kovacs



Frog: A Novel.  By Mo Yan. Translated by Howard Goldblatt. Viking. 388 pages. $27.95.

Mo Yan’s novel Frog at last has been translated into English. Mo Yan, whose pen name means “don’t speak” in Chinese, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012 for work that has been described as “hallucinatory realism.” Frog blends recent history with the fantastic, and employs obscure cultural references — but flying unicorns, leopard fables, and fertility goddess temples do not distract from the horrific subject matter. In scenes of unnerving violence, the author, a nominal Buddhist, depicts the end game of Bl. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 predictions about a society governed by the contraceptive and abortive mentality.

The novel opens as rural China is emerging from poverty. “Ignorant old midwives” give way to modern medicine, led by Gugu, a doctor so skilled in obstetrics that she comes “close to being deified” by the women of the township. She yells at midwives for their misdeeds and superstitious methods; she delivers hundreds of babies. Upon delivering her thousandth baby, she joins the Communist Party. After a post-famine baby boom, the party issues its 1965 policy: “One is good, two is just right, three is too many.” A county film screening is planned. Before the movie, family-planning slides go up on the screen, producing shrieks and laughter from the viewers. The youth respond by coming together on the sly: “The birth control propaganda acted like an aphrodisiac.”

But as Gugu promotes Chairman Mao’s decrees, her prestige falls. Instead of being honored, she is shunned. She tells the villagers that “mankind is doomed” unless the population is controlled. Condoms and oral contraceptives are distributed but actively refused. Vasectomies are then ordered, with grain and labor penalties for the noncompliant. The Communist Youth League sings a lyric from the rooftops, “the tiniest cut, half an inch long.” It becomes counter-revolutionary to refuse.

The next step is, of course, abortion. At one point, Gugu is proud to be called “Living Queen of Hell.” She inserts non-consensual intrauterine devices (IUDs) in post-partum women and will “deal mercilessly with those who go beyond one pregnancy — every last one of them!” Her family-planning team travels by boat to a remote village and ruthlessly searches for a woman who is pregnant for the fourth time. The woman’s husband feebly tries to prevent her capture with a club, but after a harrowing river chase, she is brought to the “health center” for an abortion. Similar bloody vignettes follow. Gugu’s apocalyptic obsession becomes a tyranny over creation; she desires to kill nature in order to save it.

When her nephew’s wife dies after an abortion, Gugu blames her death on the lack of an IUD. When another woman goes into labor after fleeing the family-planning boat team, Gugu blames her pregnancy for her death: She shouldn’t have conceived in the first place. Gugu is unstoppable. Once “pretty as a lotus,” over the next 40 years she changes into a harsh, smoking alcoholic who wears a 1970s military uniform with “the look of a commune cadre from the Cultural Revolution.” Criminalizing the fetus, she declares that “love is selfish.” The helpless rural peasants can only scream damnation at Gugu; it’s the only weapon they have against centralized urban committees. She retorts that communists do not believe in Hell.

Yet Gugu develops a weak spot: frogs. Thousands of frogs attack her “like ocean waves, enshrouding her with their angry croaks.” Thereafter, she passes out at the sight of them. The reader learns that frogs represent babies, and is introduced to the surrogate baby business — the next step of coercive family planning. Rich people pay fines to have more babies, mistresses are impregnated, and “great genes” are sought after on the black market. A surrogate girl is a “tool you’re renting for a while, and that’s all.” In a now materially wealthy Chinese society, superstition creeps back in, similar to the poor midwife days. Anti-aging concoctions are prized. Gugu, in her old age, helps take a baby from his biological mother so that Gugu’s abortion assistant, now post-menopausal, can have a child.

In the end, Gugu doesn’t know if she is alive or dead, and the reader can’t tell either. She exhibits the common symptoms of doctors who violate the Hippocratic Oath. Soviet and Holocaust lore contain such characters. American abortionists have high rates of substance abuse, and can end up lonely, burned-out racists. Like them, Gugu boozes to forget, but she remains proud of her deification, and never misses a chance to trumpet the national program. She admits to blood on her hands while simultaneously boasting of her accomplishments for the program, to the last dead frog.

Frog raises the question of whether a given translator’s perspective on abortion can taint the meaning of a text. A quick look at Chinese dissident poetry from the late 20th century sheds light here. Bei Dao, an expatriate leader of the genre, brought this poetry to the U.S. in the 1990s with the help of, among others, John Rosenwald, emeritus professor of English at Beloit College. As a Beloit College undergraduate, I was able to obtain a copy of “Abortion” by Zhang Zhen. Stories of Chinese forced abortions were just emerging in the West at the time, and I held onto this poem as a clandestine literary possession. Another version of “Abortion,” translated by Tony Barnstone in the 1993 compilation Out of the Howling Storm, differs from Rosenwald’s translation so much that I initially doubted it was the same poem. For comparison, here is Rosenwald’s first stanza: “The sky’s light sways and sways / You took shape there, so beautifully / Trembling like a chicken / My little chicken / Fortunately you missed the fatal disaster / The umbilical cord which will not exist / Brings me, though, to sadness.”

And here is Barnstone’s: “The sky keeps flashing / Beyond it / you beautifully take form / humble, a helpless bird / You are my little bird / on the verge of a fatal slip / There is no umbilical / And I despair.”

As difficult as Chinese-to-English translation must be, the feminine voice of affliction is not obscured in either version.

What of Frog, then, a book full of sobbing women? Does it seem that the translator remained impartial on abortion? It turns out not to matter. Scenes of Gugu’s family-planning boat crew chasing pregnant women would soften even the most hardened heart.

- Thaddeus Whiting





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