I have known and worked with Joe Loconte, associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City, for years. Thomas Nelson has just published Joe’s excellent book, The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt. Our Q&A is below. At the bottom of this post is a short video about the book. Enjoy!
Joe, your book has a unique concept: walking with the two disciples and Jesus on the Emmaus road, as a way to unpack humanity’s quest to know and understand the divine. Why do you think this passage in Luke 24 is so key to grasping this quest? How did it come to you?
The Luke passage demolishes two extreme views of Christian faith, both of which are deeply mistaken. One view, which comes from outside the church, holds that faith is a fundamentally irrational act. It’s the idea that belief in God is just an emotional crutch for emotional and intellectual weaklings. Under this view, faith and reason have nothing to do with one another. The other extreme view comes from within the church: the notion that faith arrives in a person’s mind, suddenly and out of nowhere, like a flower pot falling off a roof. It is the idea that God imposes a set of beliefs upon individuals whether they like it or not.
But the description of what’s happening with the two travelers on the Emmaus road is nothing like this. We’re told (in the original Greek) that they’re in the midst of an argument over what has just happened to Jesus, his execution in Jerusalem. And then the stranger, Jesus himself, walks up alongside them. He questions them. He chides them for their lack of faith. And then he leads them into the Hebrew Bible to help them understand the role of the Messiah in rescuing and restoring Israel—and the human race—from a desperate tragedy of its own making.
In other words, the quickening of belief for these travelers is a process. Their doctrines had let them down. Their religious leaders had misled them. They began their journey in a state of doubt and disillusionment. And then something happens—God takes the initiative. Jesus guides these men out of their doubt, slowly and persuasively. While they are still on the road to Emmaus, they find that their “hearts were burning” with the knowledge that has been revealed to them. And, yet, even then they did not recognize the stranger as Jesus. Faith did not fully awaken in them until they shared a meal with the stranger—a very physical, humble, and intimate act of fellowship.
Luke’s account gives us a glimpse into the nature of Christian conversion, an act of commitment that demands the whole man and the whole woman: heart, soul, and mind.
Tell me about your own spiritual journey.
I grew up in an Italian-Catholic home, a very loving home, and I’ll always be deeply grateful for that foundation. Somehow I didn’t really understand the meaning of the Christian gospel until I got to college and met a group of evangelical Christians, who got me reading the Bible for the first time. I began to realize that if Jesus was who he claimed to be—God in the form of a man—then I had to think carefully about what he said about life, God, heaven, hell, sin, death, and all the rest of it. I found that I couldn’t just walk away from him and pretend none of what he said was believable, knowable, or important. That was a turning point for me.
In the book you use very strong words, and a lot of honesty, about the church’s failures. Where do you think the church stands in the estimation of most searchers today?
I’ve spent a lot of time in my professional and personal life among searchers. If I had to identify one dominant mood among those outside the church—if we can call them searchers—it is the attitude of indifference. They just don’t think that Christianity has much to offer them that connects to their real lives in real time. The church doesn’t speak their language—more precisely, the church doesn’t seem able to talk about the world of the Bible and its message in a language that is deeply compelling and relevant to our own day.
Given that Christ calls us not to an individualistic faith but to faith in community, how do Christians address that?
I think it’s significant that the story of these searchers of the road to Emmaus involves a pair of individuals—either close friends or relatives. They were in community with one another. When the great crisis of faith swept into their lives, they didn’t go alone to a mountain retreat to sort it out. They journeyed and argued and reasoned together. And as soon as they discovered the true meaning of their faith and embraced it, they rushed back to their friends and fellow-travelers in the Jesus movement to tell them about it. There’s an important place for solitude in the Christian life, but we’re not built to face life alone and unattached. We simply won’t become the men and women we long to be apart from serious commitments to walk through life with other believers—whether they’re in our local church or wherever they may be.
Recent opinion polls seem to indicate that the percentage of unaffiliated people and agnostics is growing. Do you believe we are losing a generation to the possibility of faith, and, if so, what should we do about it?
Because of the nature of God’s relentless love for the lost—what theologians call “the seeking God”—I’m not willing to say that we’re losing a generation to the possibility of faith. Up until the point of death, a desperate and violent criminal could cry out to Jesus for God’s mercy, and receive it—as a repentant criminal actually did shortly before he died on a cross next to Jesus.
What do we do about this generation? I have only a partial answer. It has always been important for the church to tell the story of the gospel in ways that the surrounding culture could identify with and grasp. But it’s especially vital that we do this now, in our storytelling society, in fresh and creative ways. We have to identify the narratives of our own time—stories about healing, courage, sacrifice, and rescue—and show people how those stories relate to the gospel of Christ, “the greatest story ever told.” We need to be combing through history, film, and literature—and producing our own work in each of these realms—to make these connections and further this great effort.
Your book mentions a number of spiritual touchpoints that we can use to share the good news of Christ with our neighbors. Which ones might be particularly powerful in helping to draw our neighbors to his love?
Whether we are believers or doubters, we all share a longing to bridge a gulf that separates us from another reality: to live in a world characterized by justice, peace, courage, love, and joy. C.S. Lewis called this desire “our inconsolable secret.”
It is this vision of human life—of how life ought to be—that has haunted the imagination of the West for millennia. It is a vision of moral beauty, and it haunts us still.
Perhaps this is the secret of the success of The Hunger Games, the story of a remarkable girl prepared to fight to the death to save the life of her younger sister. “You don’t forget the face of the person who was your last hope,” says Katniss. The face of hope—the vision of moral beauty—is an image we cannot get out of our collective minds. In an age notable for its skepticism, we still want to believe in Goodness. We need to help people see how this longing for Goodness is met in the message of the gospel.