Friday, July 13, 2012

The Road to Emmaus Is Not Straight or Paved

Joseph Loconte, The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Christian books and Sunday sermons are different. One is printed, the other oral. One lets the audience set the pace, while the other exists under external time constraints. One encourages careful unpacking and examination of claims, while the other has little opportunity to do more than illustrate points. So why do authors lose sight of this distinction?

When I learned that Manhattan historian and policy expert Joseph Loconte had turned his scholarly eye to the Road to Emmaus narrative, I had high hopes. As a classic expression of the doubt all Christians suffer when life collides with our faith, Emmaus retains a central place in Protestant theology. In a sense, we all find ourselves on a journey of doubt, often unaware of who is on the road with us.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the Road to Emmaus is a part of the Resurrection narrative unique to the Gospel of Luke. Two Christians walk home on Easter Sunday, having survived the turmoil of the Crucifixion. Deep in despair, they converse with a third traveler, a stranger who expounds to them on the true meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Only when they sit to eat do our two Christians recognize the stranger as the resurrected Jesus.

Loconte uses Emmaus as a metaphor for the struggles Christians face when life’s turmoils intrude. When marriages implode, loved ones die, or any other great tragedy upsets our lives, we find ourselves in a very real sense walking a dark road, unsure of our destination. Only at the conclusion, when we see Jesus face to face, do we understand the purposes God has always had for us and our lives.

Yet somehow, Loconte circles the point without ever touching it. He approaches the point with endless throat-clearing, constantly introducing topics but never really touching their core. More than once, I thought Loconte was about to say something profound, but instead, he would end the chapter, skipping merrily onto the next idea. I repeatedly found myself ruefully shaking my head, wondering what went wrong.

It occurred to me that Loconte might mean to introduce topics at a level suitable for a general reader. I read a lot of theology, and Loconte might have a target audience less steeped in Christian thought than me. Yet when he introduces illustrations like John Ford movies, the Buddha’s journey, and the writings of Joan Didion—then repeatedly walks away—I wonder what audience wouldn’t feel confused and let down?

I keep reading Loconte approaching the inherent profundity of our human need for a spiritual journey. He talks about people faced with divorce, death, and even the 9/11 catastrophe, who confront these crises by simply giving up on God. The difference between these people, and those who find their faith strengthened, as I see it, is whether their spiritual journey actually commences. But Loconte evidently misses this.

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, notes that all cultures and nations share a myth in which true believers journey through death, into renewed and purged life. Some refuse that journey. When the gods summon them from their comfort and rest, into the walk of rebirth, those people call the gods “monsters.” They cling to the life they have, even if it gives only hollow comfort, and never discover why they were born.

The hero, though, embraces that journey. The hero leaves everything familiar, and acts on trust. Like Abraham, Moses, or Christ in the desert, the hero wanders in search of purpose. The hero always dies. Whether literal death, like Jesus, or figurative death, like Moses’ exile, the hero only knows rebirth when old life has fully and permanently passed away.

While all cultures share this myth, only Christians have the Spirit to walk with us. Buddha may guide, or the prophets point the way, but all other faiths send sojourners on the path of new life alone. Christians believe we have Christ at our side. That’s why the Emmaus journey looms so large in our theology, despite only occurring in one Gospel, because we all walk that road, but we need not walk alone.

Loconte dances around this idea, never quite reaching it. He’s so busy with his illustrations, sermon notes, and other cow paths, that he misses the opportunity to share a profound insight. I think Loconte has all the pieces in his hands. He just hasn’t assembled them in a way that communicates with his audience.

On a related topic:
If God Is Awesome, Why Is Christian Lingo So Tedious?

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