Religion News Service offers a strangely oblique report by Jonathan Merritt headlined, “Tony Campolo’s surprise reaction when his son came out as a humanist.” (Note to RNS: Buzzfeed-ish heds aren’t really your thing.)
The news here is that Bart Campolo, son of evangelist/sociology professor/author Tony Campolo, is now working as a humanist chaplain at USC. Here are two separate reactions to two separate threads in this report.
1. I expect Bart Campolo will make an excellent humanist chaplain. I don’t know him real well, but we’ve met numerous times over the years and had a handful of longer conversations. More importantly, I’ve known a whole bunch of young people over the years who have worked for and with him, and I’ve seen the positive impact he’s had as a mentor helping them grow as people. Bart is a mensch.
The only hesitation I would’ve had about hiring him as a humanist chaplain is that he wasn’t a humanist, but a born-and-bred evangelical Christian. But it turns out that’s no longer the case. “It wasn’t until I exhausted every option for staying a Christian that I gave it up,” he says in Merritt’s article.
So, OK then, I can say without hesitation that Bart Campolo should make an excellent humanist chaplain.
I get that there’s a script that calls for us to express shock or dismay when a believer stops believing (or starts believing something else). But the news hook here is not “Bart Campolo Declares Apostasy.” The news hook is that USC has hired a good person for a good job. And that strikes me as good news — at least for the students of USC.
If Bart had left evangelical Christianity for Randian objectivism, I might break out the sackcloth and ashes, but he describes himself as a humanist. I like humanists. (I suspect God is rather fond of them too.)
2. That quote from Bart above hints at a fascinating conversion story, but that’s not what we get from Merritt’s article. He describes Bart Campolo’s loss of faith as a progression in stages, but doesn’t seem interested in understanding or exploring any of those stages.
His first step away from orthodoxy occurred while doing inner-city ministry near Philadelphia. Bart encountered a girl who had been gang-raped at age 9 and who rejected Christianity after her Sunday school teacher said God could have stopped the act but allowed it for a reason.
Bart decided that if he was going to remain a Christian, he had to believe that God did not authorize that child’s rape and was not in control of the world. He began to imagine God as engaged in a battle with good and evil rather than a cosmic marionette pulling the universe’s strings.
Merritt weirdly describes this as a step “away” from faith and toward unbelief — as though viewing God as a “cosmic marionette pulling the universe’s strings” and orchestrating the brutalization of a child were somehow a more orthodox, more mature form of faith.
Creepy. And, also, WTF?
The book of Job, last I checked, was still part of the Christian canon. And it’s … unusual to read Job regarding Bildad, Zophar and Eliphaz as the heroes of the story and as spokesmen for a mature orthodoxy.
The next rejection occurred as a student at Haverford College in 1981, when two of Bart’s roommates came out to him as gay. Though evangelical Christian teachings repudiated same-sex orientation at the time, he chose instead to jettison the biblical verses that spoke negatively of homosexuality.
This is pretty baffling. Merritt is correct that it was hard to find evangelical Christians in the early 1980s who took an inclusive, affirmative approach to LGBT people and the goodness of their relationships. Way back then, most of us knew of just one outspoken evangelical advocate for LGBT equality — one person making an adamantly biblical case for just the kind of attitude Merritt describes here as unfathomable. That would be Peggy Campolo, Bart’s mom.
In the years since then, a lot of us have come around — far too slowly — to realizing that Peggy was right. (Someday, in a generation or less, that should be a headline on the cover of Christianity Today: Peggy Was Right.) I know that Brian McLaren was grateful to be honored this year as the recipient of the Peggy Campolo Award from the Church of the Open Door. And I know that for McLaren and for me and for many others, embracing the inclusive Book-of-Acts Christianity she has long demonstrated has only strengthened and deepened our faith.
All of which is to say that I suspect there’s a lot more involved with this part of the story than Merritt’s report mentions. And I suspect that the thing he neglects to mention has something to do with Bart’s aversion to the hypocrisy of a white evangelical subculture in which people often neglect to mention liberating truths lest they offend the tribal gatekeepers.
I suspect, in other words, that the crisis of faith here has less to do with the exegesis of a handful of anti-gay clobber-texts and more to do with the existence of a vindictive army of clobber-texting gatekeepers and the culture of fear they have created. That fear — a legitimate fear of meaningful, career-and-ministry-destroying retaliation — has created a toxic atmosphere in which there are things we all know, but will not say, even though not saying them means participating in pointless harm to others.
I’ve seen how explicit this gatekeeper extortion can be for someone doing the kind of Christian ministry Bart used to do. “Nice little after-school tutoring program for poor kids you got here — shame if anything happened to it. … No, no, ‘threat’ is such an ugly word. Let’s just say it’d be sad if you was to get squishy on the gay thing and then, suddenly, all your funding was to dry up. Think of those poor kids. …”
Hearing that for a couple of decades — as I’m sure Bart Campolo did — might well push anyone away from a faith that legitimizes and lionizes such wealthy bullies. Seeing that kind of extortion and cruelty practiced by sanctimonious buffoons who have conveniently “jettisoned” the thousands of biblical verses decrying such sin ought to produce a crisis of faith.*
But the strangest bit in Merritt’s article is how he summarizes both of these things:
Having rejected the sovereignty of God and authority of the Bible — two cornerstone Christian beliefs — he was already substantially outside the evangelical fold.
Again, WTF? These characterizations are unsupported by anything Merritt reports. And they’re just horrifyingly wrong.
I have to hope that sentence above is a bit of acerbic sarcasm — a dry, withering dismissal of the crudity and ignorance that passes as “orthodox” belief within the white “evangelical fold.”
Please — let it be sarcasm. Because, seriously, if that’s not meant with acidic irony, then Merritt’s implication here is just vile. If that’s not sarcasm, then he’s pointing to the facile Bildadism of a Sunday school teacher’s white-knuckled just-world fallacy — God “allowed” the torture of a 9-year-old — and rechristening it as an orthodox representation of the doctrine of “the sovereignty of God” while further suggesting that any disagreement with that view is a rejection of a “cornerstone Christian belief” that puts one “substantially outside the evangelical fold.”
Whether or not it’s meant ironically, that’s one of the harshest criticism’s I’ve ever read of white evangelicalism.
And if Merritt is not being deadpan sarcastic, then it’s also one of the ugliest, nastiest things I’ve ever read anyone suggest about God. If that were what God was like, then please — show me to the exit of this church.
If not sarcastic, then the latter “cornerstone Christian belief” Merritt references — identifying the “authority of the Bible” with a particular modern, white, American hermeneutic — is also vastly misleading, but not quite as morally repugnant. It’s just kind of dumb — like saying that Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins could not possibly believe in ice cream, because everyone knows it only comes in vanilla.
So I hope that was just a vicious bit of sarcasm. But I fear it wasn’t intended to be.
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* So too should the constant, hypocritical and dishonest way that words like “jettison” and “abandon” are employed to reinforce this corrupt, toxic culture. “Jettison,” for God’s sake. You know, like Isaiah 58 jettisons fasting and holy days.
Feh. Jettison this.