Editor’s Note: After meeting Bart Campolo at the first Clergy Project Conference, I read this book with great interest. I recommend that you do the same for insight into how to approach the widest of religious differences in the context of a loving family. Please read on for our resident reviewer’s excellent analysis of this father/son dynamic.
By Alexis Record
Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son is a series of alternating missives by Tony and Bart Campolo outlining contrasting views on the faith they once shared. Many will find half the pages to be unfortunately incorrect in both position and conclusion, while the other half, insightful and worthy of consideration. Of course, which half of the book is which will depend upon the biases of the individual reader. Or it’s possible I misjudge those who would find this concept appealing outside of direct experience. For those with extraneous curiosity, here is a distinctly American look into the impact religious identification has on family bonds. For the rest of us, we will see ourselves as either the father or the son, and follow the discussion vicariously.
This book is a written tennis match. Tony serves up his response to Bart’s coming out as a humanist.
Bart then tosses back his process of deconversion.
Tony is quick to follow up with his own interpretation of Bart’s process. Each will share his view while bolstering or attenuating some previous point. The back and forth volley is quick, concise, and filled with rich personal stories. It’s a friendly game where no one keeps score, and both men seem to be aware they are primarily performing for an audience.
Most of this audience will doubtless be made up of believers who were taught not to “walk in the counsel of the ungodly,” Psalm 1:1 so Bart has a rare opportunity to put a good face on godless humanism. He will quote the Bible, focus on similarities with believers, and use familiar language and topics. As an evangelical, Tony has a much different task. He must reassure doubting believers who might be swayed by Bart’s honesty, while at the same time appeal to the atheists who could be potential converts. To accomplish this he will use conversations he once had with his students, quoted at length from memory, paragraph after paragraph, as a way to share the gospel without blatantly preaching.
After navigating these individual goals, both writers will come together as one voice in the end. The added responsibility of speaking for one another holds each man in check, making their final chapter their most powerful. I wouldn’t mind an entire book of the same.
I am familiar with Tony Campolo’s work much more than his son’s. Tony’s progressive version of familiar Christian doctrine, with an eye to social justice, was the kind of genuine faith I had once craved in my brief interlude with the Emerging Church. This version pulls up some of the bitter roots of Christian practice and belief without sacrificing the whole. It is also more focused on, well, those things every humanist values. Bart is an apple that felt straight down from this particular tree.
The title of Why I Left, Why I Stayed conjures images of a domestic relationship in my mind. I’m not alone; a friend saw the book on my coffee table and asked if I was reading about domestic violence. It’s interesting to think about. For both authors of this book, Christianity was a partner thrust upon them from birth, much like an arranged marriage. Also in both cases, Christianity was a bride not easily discarded. For Bart, a middle-aged adult whose eyes were opened to the hardships around him, there would be irreconcilable differences with Christianity, but they would ultimately remain friends. For Tony, an octogenarian who has been shaped by Christianity over a lifetime, divorce is unthinkably cruel.
So when Bart speaks of his joy at finding someone new—a worldview that gives him purpose and meaning, grounded in reality—his father still grieves the one his son let get away. Any declarations of happiness must secretly hide deep despair.
Divorce often ends more relationships than just the one. Sides are taken, battle lines drawn up. What does such a divorce from Christianity do to the father-son relationship? My personal curiosity was not what the Campolo boys’ arguments would be—apologetics are well tread ground for me—but instead how the conversation would play out. Would it end well? Would there be anger? Would their relationship suffer or be made stronger? How much emotional weight would each man shoulder? What would the consequences be for such candid conversation?
Would Thanksgiving be saved?
You see, I was contemplating having a similar dialog with my own father. I must admit that after reading this book, I decided against it. Here’s why:
Tony is one of the best representatives of a religious parent: mature, kind, loving, well spoken, fiercely loyal to his family, and knowledgeable about his faith. He has had the conversations and been given the time necessary to formulate his best responses. It is evident that nothing can separate him from the love of his son —
“…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come.” Romans 3:38-39
It’s not hard to imagine that Tony would say any combination of words to convince his son to return to the faith. He is an evangelical after all, and has even admitted to using his position at the University of Pennsylvania to convert students to Christianity. His life has been devoted to this cause, and the years have only made this passion stronger. Not that he comes across as a salesperson, but more like a satisfied customer who can’t believe you wouldn’t want what he has. It must be because you’re doing something wrong, or haven’t given it enough of a chance.
The most frustrating parts of the book are when Bart tells his story and then Tony reinterprets it through a religious lens. The effect is to have Bart’s motivations and reasoning crumpled to fit Tony’s worldview. It is clear that Bart’s words cannot be taken at face value; this is not because Tony is unwilling to understand, but rather he seems incapable. At the conclusion of one chapter, Bart praises his father for listening. He even recalls a time Tony thanked him for explaining himself well. Reading Tony’s interpretation of Bart’s experiences several pages later cheapened that moment for me.
I was disappointed when Tony used negative stereotypes when talking about Bart’s position. For example, Tony asserts that it must take a lot of faith to be an atheist, which betrays the most basic ignorance of those who simply reject religious claims. Another time Bart talks about how his brain’s rejection of belief is not really a choice, yet Tony labels it a choice anyway and bemoans Bart having made it. And despite Bart waxing poetic about humanism, Tony knows better. He knows it carries hopelessness about death and is on morally shifting sand.
Make no mistake; Bart is the sole expert here. Tony has never been an atheist; he cannot even fathom it! Unfortunately this does not stop him from freely opining on what they must think and how they must feel—sad, hopeless, and deluded, as they are deep down. Maybe these are the words of a man struggling to understand; yet it comes across as the worst kind of pessimistic guesswork. It would be like telling Buzz Aldrin what it must have felt like to walk on the moon, and concluding it was probably disappointing. If my own parent misunderstood or misattributed my values, I’d rather not spend the emotional energy breaking my position down into digestible bite-sized pieces for them in the first place.
This book also made me wonder what the price of communication with deeply religious family members truly is. Would this type of conversation include listening to sermons heard a thousand times? Would we be forced to sit through the same scripture verses that have been born into our skulls for so long that our default thoughts still ring out in King James? Would it also include pouring out our vulnerable hearts to people who have already decided to reinterpret what’s said to fit their predetermined worldview? Bart welcomes talk of Christianity, yet for others with negative experiences of it, this can be too much. As someone who has been drowning in Christianity for decades as a captive audience under a religious roof, why would I welcome more of the same in order to be heard?
There is a felt inequality in a conversation where both sides are given equal weight after years of being one-sided. What about the deficit of opportunity when it came to enjoying, engaging in, and expressing the truth found outside of Christianity? Is equal space in an identical number of chaptered arguments truly fair when we step back and look at the greater whole? This conversation has been a teeter-totter weighted down by years of indoctrination on one side, practically pummeling it to the ground. A thousand tennis balls stand stacked behind Bart’s back before the book’s opening serve. Yet “balance” dictates we give both sides equal speaking time now. What might be fair for the myopic purposes of the book, even necessary to market such a product, does not strike me as true equity when seen from atop the avalanche of Christian inculcation and cultural dominance. Would Christians ever be willing to sit through years of talk about atheism to make up for the past? Those in power rarely give such reparations.
For me, a moratorium on religious discussion with certain family members is best. We can discuss any number of other things when passing the potatoes. Yet I recognize that for Bart and Tony, these difficult conversations were priceless.
In the end, Why I Left, Why I Stayed is one of the best examples of an evangelical father responding the best way possible to a son with whom he deeply disagrees. It invites my captious nature simply due to its being cemented into print. Real sit-down conversations without the added pressure of an audience are much more flexible and forgiving than our fears might imagine. Many atheists I know are extremely thankful when their friends or family members even think about approaching such a table. Too many of us were ghosted by those closest to us. What a difference a listening ear makes.
I would just encourage those who have traditionally done all the talking to really exercise that listening ear now. We maybe have a few thousand tennis balls to toss back your way.
Bio: Alexis Record is a feminist, humanist, ex-Christian atheist, and mother to children with disabilities. She devoted the first 30 years of her life to Christian study and service due to indoctrination, and is working to repair the years the locusts have eaten.
>>>Photo Credits: https://www.amazon.com/Why-Left-Stayed-Conversations-Christianity/dp/0062415379 By Bartcampolo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60448583 ; By Neelix at English Wikipedia – I am the originator of this photo. I hold the copyright., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47030032