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The Romance of the Gospel

[Loosely adapted from my portion of the Hutchmoot 2014 session “The Romance of the Gospel”*]

Five years or so ago, I took swing dancing lessons in the name of trying scary things. Ballroom dances evoke images of poise and elegance and precision, but swing appealed to me as a reckless street dance that anybody can join, regardless of skill or athletic ability. (So no, I never did experience being tossed in the air and flung over someone’s head, thank goodness.) But of course, if you’re going to dance, there are always a few rules to get out of the way.

The teachers stressed two major elements at the start of every class: frame and connection.

Frame involves how you hold your body and keep a good posture as you move with the music. Connection is where the two frames meet, and the silent, subtle communication between leader and follower. If your frame is too loose, the follower flails around, unsure where to go. But hold your frame too rigid, and her moves become snappy and robotic, losing the flow and rhythm.

The trick is keeping these things in balance, just taut enough to signal each move. Two great dancers can make it look like mind reading, even if they’ve just met. Without tension, there is no dance.

It reminds me of the balance between head and heart as we contemplate the mystery of the Gospel.

G. K. Chesterton suggested our religion “be less of a theory and more of a love affair,” that maybe the Gospel is big enough to contain both the highest reaches of our intellect and our most rapturous flights of romance. Sure, the idea of being “so in love” with Jesus can and does offend many a thinking Christian. For some, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship!” is a rallying cry against stuffy religious stereotypes, but once taken too far it slides into the mushy sentimentalism of a bad chick flick.

The hard truth is that nobody stays in love forever. Eventually, the idol of romance has to die, one way or another, with some measure of heartbreak.

Recognizing romance’s inevitable failure, the Gospel of the Intellect overcorrects, and we shield our hearts. We rationalize, theologize, and roll our eyes at emotional worship services. We seek evidence and proofs, and may even forget the early days of belief when we felt a stirring deep down that “just knew” the stories were true.

But we were made to love, feel, and desire. As Sheldon Vanauken writes in A Severe Mercy, “being a great brain in a tower, nothing but a brain, wouldn’t be much fun. No excitement, no dog to love, no joy in the blue sky—no feelings at all.”

These ideas are expanded well in C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves:

The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being.

And in that, maybe the Gospel really is like a love story.

There’s another section I love in A Severe Mercy where the author, afraid his theoretical exploration of Christianity is leading him to actually believe, exchanges letters with C. S. Lewis. He weighs out his questions and confides his simultaneous hope and fear that the Gospel is true. Lewis’s replies dismantle Van’s facade and concerns about making that leap into belief. Then, with a flourish of wit we all love him for, Lewis’s second letter ends, “But I think you are already in the meshes of the net! The Holy Spirit is after you. I doubt if you’ll get away!”

This is the romance of the Gospel. Some say love is a commitment, not a feeling, but that doesn’t make the feeling less real. The fall, the feeling that you “just know” it to be true, even when pieces don’t make sense, and especially when you doubt it, still hoping it’s true. It takes a measure of intellect to sustain love. Hard work keeps any fire burning: nurturing the relationship, self-denial, always striving to love better through action.

So there is a framework and connection. But there is also rhythm and music. There is laughter and mis-step, falling down and getting up and reconciliation. Take any element away, and there is no dance.

Or in better words: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal . . .”

* Note: I didn’t think of the dance metaphor until hours after we finished our session.

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