[*] Tony Campolo's "speaking My Mind" review (part 3)

In the last installment, I reviewed Dr. Campolo's view of the decline of mainline denominations in the US in the 50's and 60's, and you can obviously find those comments here on the blog. It is on that note that I begin with Chapter 3 of Speaking My Mind, particularly with the anecdote that begins that chapter. The chapter begins by citing some Barna research that non-Christians have a very low view of evangelicals. In fact, it turns out that evangelicals finished only ahead of prostitutes on the list (Campolo fails to footnote or cite that research, but the readers of this blog can find it here). That same table, fwiw, shows that "ministers" and "born-again Christians" rated 2nd and 3rd for "favorable general impression", the top slot being occupied by military officers.

That sets up a conversation Campolo recounts that he had with a professor at Harvard University. Let's keep in mind, as we think about Campolo's account and subsequent speculations, that he is himself a Ph.D. of Sociology and professor emeritus. The conversation is recounted thus:
    While on Harvard's campus, I asked one of the professors why the folks there were so negative toward evangelicals. I said, "the Jews respect the Muslims, the Muslims respect the Jews, and everyone respects the Dalai Llama. But there are sneers of condescension if someone says, 'I'm an evangelical Christian'!"

    The professor answered, "Imagine yourself at lunch. Seated at the table with you is the leader of the gay-lesbian task force, an ardent feminist, and an angry neo-Marxist African-American. You propose playing a game in which each of them is to respond to a word with the first word that comes into their minds. You say 'evangelical.' How do you think each will respond?"

    I said, "Given those three people, I suppose I would hear them say things like 'bigot', 'homophobe', 'male chauvinist' and 'reactionary'."
I'll pause for a moment before I give the balance of Dr. Campolo's story. I want to operate for the rest of this blog post under the assumption that this conversation actually happened and that Dr. Campolo transcribed here, in meaning if not in exact words, the content of this exchange. The reasons for that are simple: there is no reason to believe that Dr. Campolo is fictionalizing here, and he has no motive to make this story up as he presents it.

In those assumptions, I want the reader to think about the assertion that Campolo made above that the Jews and Muslims "respect" each other in the context that they both "respect" the Dalai Llama. I'll not comment on that statement at all, but let's see what unfolds:
    Then the professor asked, "Now, to these same three, you say the name 'Jesus'. What reactions will you get to that?"

    I paused for a moment. "Caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, empathetic ..."

    "Does it bother you, Tony," he asked, "that the name of Jesus elicits a completely opposite reaction from the name 'evangelical'?"
In the spirit of helping you follow along, that is on p. 25 of the book we are reviewing. As you can imagine, it does bother Dr. Campolo.

But when we consider the fable presented by the Harvard prof to Campolo, there are two massive omissions made in that game of association. The first is this: not one of those people playing would call Jesus "Son of God" or "Mighty God". I'm sure someone might be willing to propose that he has met some people in those groups who confess to be Christians. Perhaps Campolo himself might do that. But as a Doctor of Sociology, Dr. Campolo, ought to admit that those people are not the representative sample, and their "Christianity" is sociological at best -- not confessional or credal. Most importantly, that ought to be a premise of the tale as the Barna research is clearly about the opinions of those who are non-Christians.

In that, the representative sample might have nice things to associate with Jesus theoretically, but those associations are not based on accepting what the Bible says about Jesus. When the feminist associates "forgiving" with "Jesus" (and that's assuming she would; I think that's a pretty generous assumption), she is not talking about the kind of soteriological or even sovereignly-generous forgiveness of justly-condemned sin Jesus demonstrates in the Gospels -- the kind that pays for the debt of the sinner. I'll wager she is talking about the idea that Jesus forgave without the requirements of either belief or repentance, and that forgiveness is, more or less, free (costs neither the giver nor the receiver anything). She is talking about a secular Jesus who you might see on Oprah, or like the one proposed by the Jesus Seminar -- not the Jesus for whom Paul suffered martyrdom; not Jesus at the right hand of the Father.

Now why is that important? It is because we cannot equivocate on the terms of the Gospel. Just because someone proposes the statement "Jesus is forgiving," that doesn't mean we should have am ecumenical group-hug with them. You would think that a Ph.D. in Sociology and a Harvard professor having a conversation would understand this.

The other major omission is this: all of those groups are necessarily false worldviews in the context of the resurrected Christ, and as such they will reject the church because they reject Him. That is not a matter of callous indignation or self-fulfilling delusions: that is a matter of understanding that in their false views of Christ they reject Him for their self-absorbed philosophies, and adopt the images of created things in the place of the Creator of all things, as Romans 1 says they will do. Campolo sites an evangelical friend who said, "I really don't care what people like that think about us", and that may be somewhat glib in his reaction to hearing the professor's fable. But the other side of the coin is that when Paul said he became all things to all people in order to save some, he was not saying, "when I met the pagan orgyist, I participated in the orgies for the chance to preach the Gospel afterward". Neither was he saying "when I met the Greek philosopher who was a skeptic and an agnostic, I surrendered the historical facts of the Gospel to make friends with him". We are not called to abandon the premises of the Gospel in order to be good neighbors: we are called to live the premises of the Gospel which will result in us being good neighbors not on terms that men set down but on the terms that God sets down.

Listen: I am offended when Fred Phelps (man, I'm glad he's a "Calvinist"!) takes his "GOD HATES FAGS" show on the road. I am offended when KJV-only "street evangelists" heckle and verbally assault Mormons in Salt Lake City. I am offended when allegedly "pro-life" zealots murder abortion providers. But why? Why would that offend me when the world hates them for what they (the alleged Christians) think is the Gospel work? It is because they are not practicing the Gospel work: they are crying out "Lord! Lord!" in very pious tones, but they do not know Him, and in the end we will see that He does not know them, either. It really doesn't need any explanation, does it? The world hates plenty of things that are not the Gospel that are also not actually any good, either. As I discussed in my first blog on this book, that is actually part of the reason that no one has any excuse before God.

In all of that, the Gospel objective is not to pull the same plow with the feminist, the neo-Marxist, the homosexual: the Gospel objective is to speak God's word to them in the language and culture they understand for the purpose of the Holy Spirit to call some out. I agree with Campolo that we can't do that if we are just shouting past each other, but we cannot do that if there are parts of the Gospel which we avoid because they offend.

Moreover, the "image problem" Campolo describes in Chapter 3 is a result of something else he overlooks: the source of popular stereotypes. He seems to complain (my word) that the Falwells and the Robertsons of Evangelicaldom "control the microphone", but who gave them that control? Did they take it by force? Of course not. Did they buy it? I guess that's possible, but I think that's exceptionally cynical even in the context that they "own" the Christian media. These kinds of people control the mike in spite of the fact that those who hold the mike are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the kinds of views Campolo proposes in his book. I would think that they (the media) would be looking for a pastor like Dr. Campolo to say the things they agree with.

I ask rhetorically to Dr. Campolo: "Does it bother you that they don't?" I think it should -- because it says something about what they are trying to communicate in the final tally. I wonder what they have to gain by putting Jerry Falwell on rather than Tony Campolo when they want a Christian sound bite? I don't for a minute believe that Campolo would make a less interesting talking head than Falwell -- but I do believe that Campolo would change the way the "blue states" see the Baptist faith. What happens to the popular stereotype of Christianity if someone like Campolo starts representing it?

That's a blind spot on Dr. Campolo's part. To fail to see the whole matrix of causation for the end product is naïve at least. To say that the right-wing religious activists have an "agenda" (which he says plainly), but to call his own beliefs and political assertions "movements" and "convictions" is more of the same -- and that's not to attack Campolo. That's pointing out that one either believes his own message that the other (Christian) guy has the right to be wrong or one is simply asking for a special privilege that one would not grant to the other guy. The other guy's convictions are from the same kind of conscience one has himself, and are not an "agenda" whether one agrees with him or not. If one wants to be given the open right hand of fellowship, one needs to offer it as well.

Here's the real irony: that is the same double standard that caused the decline of the mainlines. In the pew, they said they wanted the Gospel truth, but not when it offended their sense of social order; in the pulpit, they wanted to preach a radical Gospel, but defined "radical" by secular standards rather than spiritual ones. If Evangelicalism is going to avoid the decline that the mainlines have seen, it has to avoid those two versions of the same story. And in that, Dr. Campolo's view that evangelicalism has an "image problem" is marred by his failure to see his own biases in assessing those with whom he disagrees.

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