“A Thought-Provoking Book” series (post #1)
As part of our Christmas shopping at the mall a couple of weeks ago, I went into a Barnes & Noble store to kill some time while Tonya shopped for shoes or something like that. I made my way to the “Religion” section and started browsing, not looking for anything in particular, and the one book that piqued my interest was entitled Why I Left, Why I Stayed. It was coauthored by Tony Campolo and his son, Bart. Tony is a bestselling author, a Baptist who has long been one of the leading figures in what is known as the “evangelical left.” Bart is a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California.
Even though I didn’t pull the trigger that day, purchasing the book stuck in my head until I finally ordered it through Amazon a couple of days later. What made the book so appealing to me was its unique subject matter. After publicly professing Christ as a sophomore in high school, and spending several years assisting his father in ministerial efforts, Bart Campolo made the radical decision to forsake Christianity and go the atheist-humanist route. Consequently, his half of the book is Why I Left, referring to why he left Christianity. The book’s other half, obviously, is his father’s Why I Stayed.
I wouldn’t attempt a full book review here or try to cover every bit of ground the Campolos cover, but what I do feel led to do is build a blog series around some of the point/counterpoint arguments the two men use to make their differing cases. I realize this isn’t your typical Christmas-season fare, but it’s the stuff that is rattling around in my brain these days after reading the book. I’ll present the highlights of one argument per post, and as you consider each argument please take the time to look deep inside yourself and do some personal introspection. That’s what I found most helpful about the book.
I’ll lead off the series by using this first post to address Bart’s argument that he can find no evidence of a supernatural God who deals in the miraculous. By Bart’s own testimony, he could never fully shake, even when he was knee-deep in ministry circles, the fact that he found major sections of the Bible to be pretty much unbelievable. Those sections were the ones that have to do with the miraculous.
His argument reminds me of Thomas Jefferson, who famously went through the Bible and cut out the portions that he didn’t accept. What did he keep in? The words and some of the deeds of Jesus. What did he edit out? Christ’s virgin birth, all of Christ’s miracles, Christ’s resurrection, and anything else having to do with the supernatural. Jefferson’s “bible” ends with Jesus being laid in the tomb.
Bart Campolo admits, “…for me, the supernatural aspects of Christianity were always the price of admission, not the attraction.” The paragraph that follows that line is one of his most compelling in the book. He writes:
Of course, all those revelations and miracle stories in the Bible might not have seemed so unbelievable to me if I had seen anything like them happening in my own world. Unfortunately, even on those occasions when divine intervention was most clearly called for, I saw no such thing. These days, people often ask exactly when I lost my faith, as though there were a single moment when the scales fell from my eyes. But the truth is that my Christian orthodoxy, and eventually my ability to believe in anything supernatural, actually died the death of a thousand cuts — and ten thousand unanswered prayers — over the course of more than thirty years.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Bart’s conclusion, you should at least appreciate the fact that it comes from a man who is being bluntly honest. Who among us hasn’t begged God to show up and been disappointed when He didn’t? Who among us hasn’t longed for a parting-of-the-Red-Sea moment and never gotten it? Who among us hasn’t wanted to see a Lazarus come walking out of the tomb, only to have the grave remained sealed?
Specifically, Bart references the late 1970s when he and three of his fellow high schoolers ran a Christian summer day camp in the inner-city ghetto of Camden, New Jersey. That ghetto was marked by boarded-up houses, broken-down cars, graffiti-laced buildings, and a whole lot of the new drug-of-choice: crack cocaine. As Bart spent the summer trying to play the role of missionary to the children of that setting, he heard story after story from them about everything from street violence to sexual abuse. All those stories took a toll on his core beliefs. At the time, he was still just a teenager and was young and green in his profession of Christianity, but he was already asking hard questions such as, “If God is a God of love and power, why doesn’t He help these poor kids and their parents?”
It was the plight of Shonda who got to him the most. She was the mother of Craig, a ten-year-old who was one of his favorite campers. When Bart tried to win her to Jesus, she quickly informed him that she didn’t want to hear about the love of God. Then she told him her story. She had been raised in a Christian family and had enjoyed going to church, but one day, as a nine-year-old walking home from school, she had been gang-raped. Later, when she had asked her Sunday School teacher why a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful hadn’t stopped the rape, the answer given was, “He must have allowed it for a good reason. So, what can you learn from the experience that will enable you to love God more and glorify Him more?” That answer went over like a lead balloon with Shonda, and she never wanted to hear anything else about God.
After hearing Shonda’s story and getting to know her, Bart simply couldn’t fathom that a God of love would send a woman with her history to hell. That was the beginning of his disbelief in the reality of hell, and from there the process of his retreat from his profession of Christianity continued. After high school, he attended Haverford, a liberal arts college just outside Philadelphia. That’s where he met two gay roommates who caused him to reject the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality is a choice and a sin. That was the final nail in the coffin of his belief in Biblical inerrancy. Later on, while he was employed as a youth pastor, he and his wife Marty worked to recruit Christian college students to organize evangelical day camps for inner-city kids. In summing up that season of his life, he offers another telling quote:
Later, as we saw one beloved child after another crushed by neglect and abuse, along with loving couples unable to conceive, young parents dying of cancer, and addicted friends relapsing — not to mention the destruction of poverty, war, and all kinds of natural disasters — despite our desperate prayers, the idea that God could do anything more than grieve with us slipped away too.
And it’s there that I’ll put a period on this first post from the series. I trust, though, that I’ve given you enough of Bart’s opening chapter to explain why he ultimately chose to reject the supernatural altogether, including his belief in an omniscient, omnipotent God. In my next post, I’ll give you some of the highlights of the chapter that Tony, Bart’s dad, offers in reply to Bart’s opening chapter. How will the dad respond to the son’s sledgehammer opening remarks? Tune in next time to find out.