[*] Tony Campolo's "Speaking My Mind" review (part 2)

As some of you know, I own a Christian bookstore (an independent store; a chain of one link), and I had the good fortune of receiving Tony Campolo's book Speaking My Mind on a pallet of close-outs Thomas Nelson. I'll bet Mr. Campolo is not thrilled with that news, but I probably would not have read his book unless it had come to me through the circumstances that God often brings to us.

Since I've not said this on the blog before, me tell you that I am a Baptist, a systematic fan of fellows like Robert Reymond and John Calvin (who are not Baptists), an avid fan of the history of the Bible, a teacher of first grade boys' Sunday school, and a part-time scrapper in the hap-hazard world of internet apologetics. I guess I spell that out for the sake of not hiding any biases or personal flaws I might have.

I promised early on in the blog (the first entry) that I would review Campolo's book over the first 30 days of blogging, and I started by criticizing his treatment of Reformed theology. That may not be a very fair place to have started because I find some of his initial insights fascinating, relevant, and clear-minded. His chapter on what happened to "mainline" Protestant denominations, I think, is right on the mark. Its dual indictment of the objections that the "man in the pew" must have had in the last 50 years (both good and bad) as well as the actions of the leadership of these denominations (both good and bad) are about exactly right.

In particular, I'd like to consider a few passages and the thesis Campolo advances with them. On pg, 4 he paraphrases Langdon Gilkey's Naming the Whirlwind by saying:
    Theologians tried to make Christianity acceptable to those whose modernistic thinking lead them to scoff at anything that had even a tinge of the mystical and miraculous.
On the same page, he continues:
    While many sophisticated members of the clergy, who were trying to prove themselves acceptable in the halls of academia, were making cynical critiques of mass evangelism, congregants were flock to Billy Graham crusades. And when these members began leaving their churches to seek out a more evangelical message, their pastors counted the rejection of their preaching as evidence that their preaching was socially prophetic.
And on pg. 5 he offers:
    These leaders often failed to give significant recognition for people's need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of the scientific rationalism of modernity and addressed the painful social crises of the times. Too often they overlooked the fact that craved a feeling of connectedness with God that gave them the sense of being inwardly transformed.
While these are the jumping-off places I'd like to start with in considering Campolo's message, let me offer some other summaries I think do justice to his work. In the first place, he finds that the social action of the leaders of the mainline denominations was very much warranted by the times and situations in spite of the discomfort that it might have caused some of the members of their churches, and I would agree with that. The other side of that coin (with which I would also agree, and someone please correct me if I have misread him here) is that these same leaders mistakenly adopted some of the political and/or ideological undercurrents of these social issues. So for example, while they were preaching for civil rights, they may have adopted some other philosophical motivations based on then-current popular modes of naturalism and/or socialism. That kind of "leaven in the bread" (if we can say that without abusing the Biblical images) drove off portions of their congregations.

Which leads us to the second place: he also indicates that those who left their mainline churches for something else (which Campolo ultimately calls "evangelicalism") left for good reasons and for bad. On the positive side, they wanted to see and feel the change of heart that the Gospel promises: they wanted to be converts and have a relevant zeal for God and their neighbor. On what Campolo might call the negative side, they rejected innovative (in the historical sense) ideas like women clergy and homosexual lifestyles (and let's be clear that Campolo does not endorse the promiscuous homosexual lifestyle even before we cover that chapter of the book).

And that leads me to the final place of summary for his thesis on mainline decline (to be fair, Campolo gives this a whole chapter). The evangelicals have better (more charismatic, more program-minded) leaders, they take their product to the marketplace (so to speak), they capitalize on political influence, and they meet the needs of the people they contact. Frankly, evangelicalism is a kind of American Christianity, rooted in American ideals like individualism, pragmatism, and consumerism.

I agree with Campolo almost completely -- including his insight that part of modern evangelical success is that it did not have its head buried in the sand intellectually. The fact that many (though hardly all) major figures in evangelicalism today are holders of advanced degrees and can make cogent arguments for their moral and spiritual beliefs to those who disagree with or object to them is frankly a light-year ahead of the position the mainlines found themselves in during the 50's and 60's.

So in my first installment, I had a problem with Campolo's characterization of Reformed theology; in this installment, I find myself in broad-brush agreement with his introductory thesis. You might think I am of a mixed mind on this book, but there is so much more to cover. As I have read the rest of his book, I get the impression that he does not want to see the solutions he is offering "evangelicalism" (whatever that means today) in the context of the valid criticisms he has of the declining mainlines.

Particularly, rather than take the Gospel message of brotherhood in Christ to society on its own terms, the mainlines found something that sounded like the Gospel message and partnered with that -- and inadvertently allowed radical skepticism and naturalism into the community of faith. So they championed civil rights -- but found that the resurrection was better as a metaphor than it was as a historical event. They opposed a war they thought was evil -- and inadvertently lost the message of the atonement to the socialistic worldview of the perfectibility of man.

The goal of the body of Christ should be to preach the Gospel: it is the singular commission of the body. Our goal should not be to try to piggy-back on some movement that appears to superficially agree with the Gospel or have shared goals. We should care for the widows, the orphans and the fatherless as a working out of the Gospel. Just because (as one example) "pro-choice" advocates claim to want that same goal, it does not follow that we should be joined together to a movement that also preaches atheism, ethical pragmatism, and collectivist morality. The body of Christ must preach the Gospel, and is not called to partner with any secular or non-Christian body to do so: it is, in fact, admonished never to do so. For the record, I categorically reject a syncratic approach to relevance because it inherently leads to the errors Campolo has identified in the mainline decline. It inevitably seeks to make the church of the world rather than merely in the world as an alien and a sojourner.

Before I cover the significant examples of this as highlights in the remaining chapters, let me say plainly that the church cannot take up a bunker mentality and is certainly not called to live in isolation from the world. The first generation of Christians changed an utterly pagan and corrupt world into a place where God's love was clearly lived out in society. The explosion of converts in the first century is a testimony to the fact that they lived what they preached. In that, I agree with Campolo that we ought to live what we are preaching -- but we must be preaching the Gospel for that to make any difference.

Other entries in this series: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |