My favorite of the resurrection accounts has always been the story of the two travelers on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Though the romantic in me wants to identify Cleopas and his walking companion as husband and wife, the critical consensus these days favors two male friends. Regardless, the story is one of great longing and intimacy and has the power to leap off the pages of the NT and into the heart of the modern reader.
The reason for that power is that we have all felt, at times, like those two travelers. All of us have gone through periods of great disappointment and confusion when our hopes and dreams seemed to have been smashed. The two who left Jerusalem for their seven mile journey to Emmaus felt just that way about the death of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had hoped beyond hope would be the promised Messiah who would save them from the tyranny of Rome.
Yes, they had heard rumors that he had risen from the grave, but they dismissed such rumors (as many still do today) as a species of wishful thinking. And then, in the midst of their sorrowful journey, the risen Christ appears and walks with them. Slowly, gently, he opens their eyes, allowing them to understand how all that had happened to Jesus had been prophesied centuries before. Their hearts burn together as they listen, but it is not until they invite their unidentified fellow traveler into their home and participate with him in the breaking of bread, that their eyes are fully opened and they recognize that God has walked among them.
I know that I am far from the only person who has been touched profoundly by the Road to Emmaus. And yet, for some reason, no one has ever thought to write a book structured around that timeless tale. No one, that is, until now. With a firm command of the English language, an eye for detail, and a grasp of the greater patterns of God's divine narrative, Joseph Loconte, associate professor of history at King's College in New York City, has woven for modern (and postmodern) readers a tale of joy and desire that is as timeless as it is timely.
Avoiding both didacticism and polemicism, Loconte pierces to the longings and disappointments we all feel. For the two travelers, the fact that their own religious leaders had collaborated with the Roman oppressors to execute a son of Abraham proved a source of great cognitive dissonance. How could such things be?
In our own day, Christians struggle with the spotted record of the church. Rather than ignore the criticism of the new atheists, Loconte boldly confesses to past atrocities-the Inquisition, in particular-that have been committed by the church. Indeed, he goes so far as to adopt Christopher Hitchens's phrase the "poison of religion," a phrase he defines as "the Will to Power concealed by the language of faith."
Rather than try to conceal the "poison of religion," Loconte makes it clear that the Bible is utterly realistic about this poison and that Jesus himself attacked it head on. Still, he makes it equally clear that religion, especially Christianity, has been the source of most movements for freedom, tolerance, and innate human dignity. Other writers (Timothy Keller, for one) have made similar arguments, but Loconte incarnates the argument by keeping our focus on those two travelers who had been hurt by the poison of religion, yet still yearned for a higher vision.
Which leads Loconte to the core of his book: answering a critique that has reverberated in the modern west from Sigmund Freud to Sam Harris. According to that critique, the Christian story-grounded in the victory of Easter-is merely a species of wish fulfillment. The argument sounds like a powerful one, but it is flawed. Neither the travelers, nor any of the other followers of Jesus, were counting on a bodily resurrection. Despite rumors that Jesus had risen, the two were still skeptical. Yes, the good news that the carpenter from Nazareth had defeated death proved to be the answer to all their desires; but it was decidedly not what they were expecting.
So the wish fulfillment critique runs into trouble when put in its first-century context. But it runs into even greater trouble in the twentieth. In the century leading up to WWI, the Enlightenment had promised to remake the world through secular reason and science. As it turned out, the "most advanced, rational, and civilized nations of the earth had failed to prevent the worst conflict in human history. The verdict was in: progress was an illusion." And the same proved to be the case for Communism's promised goal to bring about "the complete transformation of modern society into a secular paradise." Alas, despite "its talk of equality, rationality, and social justice, Communism could not conceal its wretched crimes in pursuit of its goals."
The previous quotes might suggest that Loconte's book is a partisan one. But it is not. What Loconte offers is a meditation, filtered through the Road to Emmaus, on human need, longing, and desire. Even when he moves away from religion and politics to focus on that other hot-button topic (science), his focus remains on our need to make sense of our world. Whatever position we take on Darwinism, the fact remains that "the mystery of human existence" has not been, and ultimately cannot be, discerned through the "tools of modern science-reason, observation, experimentation."
Loconte the historian knows that the reason modern people love conspiracy stories is that they long "to give meaning and purpose to events that seem to lack meaning or purpose." What the travelers on the road to Emmaus learned, and what Loconte urges us to learn in our own day, is that the Resurrection offers just such a key for making sense of death and life, suffering and joy, disappointment and exultation.