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Romantic realism

Heading to New York City in pursuit of oxymorons

Romantic realism

I don't enjoy being called an ox or a moron, but over the years I've enjoyed developing oxymorons-putting together two apparently opposite words and waiting for combustion.

Back in 1986, since traditional press definitions of "objectivity" left out God, I started developing the concept of "biblical objectivity," the idea that since God created and sustains the world, He knows better than anyone else its real story-and the job of Christian journalists is to study and apply biblical thinking to current developments. That's now the cornerstone of WORLD's journalistic philosophy.

Three years later, since conservatives frequently sneered at the word "compassion," which had been seized by liberals, I started yakking about person-to-person, Bible-based "conservative compassion." The concept caught on in 1995 and then encountered the best and worst that can happen to an idea-a president adopted it and put it through the Washington meat grinder. Now compassionate conservatism in its political version is mostly dead.

I won't go through the past 15 years of hits and mostly misses, but one reader recently asked me to explain another weird combination I've mentioned at times, "romantic realism." The basic idea is that Christianity is the only religion that is both gruesomely accurate in its depiction of abundant sin but also hopeful in its showing that humans are not alone-for the bridegroom, Christ, does not give up even when repeatedly spurned.

My favorite authors depict life as both horror film and the romance of God and man: See Whittaker Chambers' autobiography, Witness (1952), and Jose Gironella's novel, The Cypresses Believe in God (1955). It's exceedingly rare that a movie combines both sides successfully, so I happily settle for both violent guy films (like The Departed) that depict the ravages of sin and some goofy chick flicks (like You've Got Mail) that show the comedic ravishing of hearts.

The Bible, of course, is the romantic realist book that best shows both graves and grace. It doesn't pretend that life is either heavenly or hellish, but shows how we're all thigh-deep in muck yet able, through God's grace, to see the sun. Jesus not only turned water into wine but turned Simon, who dreamed of fish, into Peter, a fisher of men-and he can do that to each of us.

Romances from Pride and Prejudice to Sleepless in Seattle show how people separated by continental divides in temperament or geography find their way to each other: The routes are magical in secular lore but Christians understand them as providential. The biggest obstacle in many situations, as romantic realist Walker Percy shows so well in his novels, is that we become sunk into everydayness, comfortable with our routines and unwilling to uproot ourselves.

What to do when we feel God's beckoning? "Throw caution to the winds" is not a Christian response, because God invented caution; sadly, Adam and Eve rushed in where only fallen angels feared not to tread. But sometimes, after prayer and realistic appraisals, we need to put aside our own "personal peace and affluence," to use romantic realist Francis Schaeffer's term, and accept new challenges and dangers. After all, that's what Jesus did, as the Kingston Trio a generation ago sang: "He come from the glory, He come down. He come from the glorious Kingdom."

Two months ago Stan Oakes, president of The King's College, told me a story about his thriving institution and its 250 bright students. Once upon a time (actually, only a decade ago) the college had a pastoral campus north of New York City, but the pretty college was mostly dead. The board of directors, for reasons both realistic (attracting students) and romantic (Christians should engage the largest U.S. city), decided to give up its semi-glorious kingdom and take out a long-term lease for office and classroom space in the Empire State Building.

Stan asked me to help out by directing the TKC academic program. My wife Susan and I balanced this Christian challenge against my 24 years at the sometimes hostile but generally comfortable University of Texas. We then said yes to the romance, and now live in an apartment a block away from the ESB. Oh, we have realism too-we plan to be back in Texas next January through May for the university's spring term-but right now we're enjoying the adventure. I'll let you know how it goes.