Telling the Old, Old Story
The week before Christmas in 1944 my grandfather was tromping through the snow to market with his two young sons. As they crossed the river bridge, the driver of a loaded coal truck turned his van onto the icy road surface of the bridge and lost control. My grandfather looked up in horror as the truck slid across the bridge towards his boys. He instantly jumped forward and pushed them clear, but the truck crushed him against the guard rail.
Well-meaning passersby folded his broken body into the back seat of a car and rushed him to the hospital, but, as they did, his splintered ribs punctured his vital organs. The doctors could do nothing. After a few days of terrible suffering with my grandmother at his bedside, my grandpa opened his eyes. He smiled, and they prayed together. Then he looked up to the corner of the room, smiled and said, "Don’t you see them? Don’t you see them? They’re so beautiful!" Then he was gone.
The story of my grandfather’s death has passed into our family history. I explain that this story works on us like a present-day myth. All the themes of the great stories are there in our own family’s faith story. Grandpa’s heroic self-sacrifice, his simple faith and fortitude in the face of suffering, his triumphant reward at glimpsing glory just before his death and the consolation his vision brought to his widow and our family all work together to have a powerful, inspiring and cleansing effect in our lives.
We enter into the story, and as we experience the fear and grief, we participate also in the transaction of faith.
What most people mean when they say a story is a myth is that it is simply untrue. The popular use of the word "myth" is that the story is bogus and, therefore, worthless. A myth, however, is not just a make-believe story; it is a story that works on us in a profound way. A myth engages us in an emotional response that opens the deepest parts of our lives to truths that cannot be experienced any other way.
Every successful story functions in our lives like a myth. When we identify with the hero and go on the quest with him, our lives open up, and we experience truth in a fresh way.
A good example of how this works is a superhero movie. In a blockbuster, an ordinary person gains extraordinary powers and goes on a great quest to overcome evil and win a great prize. As we go into the darkened theater and watch the movie, we come out of ourselves and identify with the hero. We fight the good fight with him, and as we do, we experience his feelings.
We face his dilemmas with him, and we make the right choices as he does. As we go on this sympathetic journey with the hero, we grow a little in virtue, we understand life a little better, and we, therefore, take another step on our own hero’s adventure called life.
The mythic hero’s quest is at the heart of the Christian calling. One of the reasons religion is so reviled in the modern world is because religious people have too often turned what was meant to be the greatest adventure of all into the dullest experience of all. They have turned religion into a dull regime of following moral rules, social regulations and dull rituals and dead dogmas. The rules, rituals, regulations and dogmas are important, but they are the map for the journey — they are not the journey itself.
From the very beginning with Father Abraham, God has called individuals to leave their comfort zones and embark on the adventure of faith. To go on that adventure, we need to step out of our comfortable "hobbit holes" and walk by faith, not by sight.
This is the great "romance of religion": that ordinary people embark on extraordinary adventures and that even our ordinary trials and troubles can surge with new levels of meaning.
It was because my family was filled with faith that we could unlock the deeper mythical mysteries within the seemingly senseless tragedy of my grandfather’s death. This was not a random and meaningless accident, but part of a larger, more mysterious plan in which my grandfather took on a heroic stature.
His self-sacrifice was linked with a far greater cosmic self-sacrifice. His love was part of a greater love. And his suffering was part of a greater redemption.
This is why it is vital not only to embark on the great adventure of faith, but to share our faith stories with one another. This is the timeless tradition of the Judeo-Christian faith. The Bible is not first and foremost a rule book for life, nor is it primarily a collection of proof texts for doctrine. It is the story of the pilgrim people of God — the story of the heroes of faith who followed the call of God and endured great hardships on their journey to the Promised Land.
I am convinced that living out the romance of religion is the key to the New Evangelization. As people see the adventure of faith lived out with authenticity, they will want to join in that same adventure. Evangelization is sharing the stories of our adventure of faith, but we can only share that adventure as we live that adventure.
Therefore, if you do not have a faith story to share ... you better get one soon!
Learn more about Father Dwight Longenecker’s latest book,
The Romance of Religion, through his website:
- Feb. 23-March 8, 2014