A lot of folks are talking about a piece in the New York Times Magazine that profiles Bart Campolo, the born-again atheist son of Tony Campolo, famous progressive evangelical activist and media-friendly buddy of President Bill Clinton.
This is a very readable, albeit totally non-critical, look at a new spokesman for a growing movement that is linked to the whole coalition of atheists, agnostics, religiously unaffiliated "nones" and the old religious left.
The writer, Mark Oppenheimer, wrote the “Beliefs” column for the Times for six years, at which point he did his own exit interview this past summer. (The most astonishing thing in that interview was his remark that he’s paid $3/word for his freelance work. Maybe .00001 percent of all freelancers get paid sums like that).
Oppenheimer also did a Q&A with GetReligion back in 2012. The bottom line is that he is a brilliant columnist and magazine-style writer. Those looking for hard-news content are going to be frustrated.
The Campolo article begins with a long intro about a bike accident he had in the summer of 2011 and then:
For most of his life, Campolo had gone from success to success. His father, Tony, was one of the most important evangelical Christian preachers of the last 50 years, a prolific author and an erstwhile spiritual adviser to Bill Clinton. The younger Campolo had developed a reputation of his own, running successful inner-city missions in Philadelphia and Ohio and traveling widely as a guest preacher. An extreme extrovert, he was brilliant before a crowd and also at ease in private conversations, connecting with everyone from country-club suburbanites to the destitute souls he often fed in his own house. He was a role model for younger Christians looking to move beyond the culture wars over abortion or homosexuality and get back to Jesus’ original teachings. Now, lying in a hospital bed, he wasn’t sure what he believed any more.
After the accident:
Though Marty, his wife, had long entertained doubts about Christianity, Campolo had always done his job and, in his words, “brought her back.” But the truth was, he had been breaking up with God for a long time. “When I took off on the bicycle that day,” Campolo says, “the supernaturalism in my faith was dialed so far down you could barely notice it.” It had been years since he made God or Jesus or the resurrection the centerpiece of the frequent fellowship dinners he and Marty hosted. Talk instead was always about love and friendship. In 2004, he performed a wedding for two close lesbian friends, and in 2006, he began teaching that everybody could be saved, that nobody would go to hell. To evangelicals, he already sounded more like a Unitarian Universalist than like any of them.
Now, after his near-death experience, his wife told him — more bluntly than she ever had — what she thought was going on. “You know,” Marty said, “I think you ought to stop being a professional Christian, since you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in heaven, and you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead three days after dying — and neither do I.” He knew that she was right, and he began telling friends that he was a “post-Christian.”
The real truth was: He loved everything about Christian ministry except the actual doctrines of Christianity.
As it turned out, God was in the details.
Now that he had crossed the bridge to apostasy, he needed a new vocation. But as he took stock of the rest of his life, Campolo decided that there was no reason an atheist couldn’t still be a minister too. Instead of comforting people with the good news of Jesus, he’d preach secular humanism, a kinder cousin of atheism. He’d help them accept that we’re all going to die, that this life is all there is and that therefore we have to make the most of our brief, glorious time on earth. And he would spread this message using the best evangelical techniques -- the same ones he had mastered as a Christian.
The article then explores the growing neo-atheism movement and Campolo's journey toward being a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. The article professes some surprise with the non-reaction by evangelicals to Campolo’s apostasy, with the exception of a 2014 essay by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today, which Oppenheimer labels as “catty.”
Here’s the essay for you to read for yourself. After reading Stetzer's column three times, I think he was trying to say this: The word on the street is that lots of people are trying to blame Tony and Peggy Campolo for their son leaving the faith. However, the truth is a more complicated than that. In other words, all kinds of people have children who struggle with their faith. At the end, it's the child who decides.
As it turns out, the Stetzer essay started quite an online slugfest.
Back to Oppenheimer, whose piece ends with a visit by the author to Campolo’s campus ministry, which he started as an unpaid worker. We never do learn whether Campolo is presently salaried and if so, who supports him. (I looked for his ministry on guidestar.org, the bible for non-profits, but could find no listing).
Oppenheimer seems to like interviewing prodigal sons of famous evangelicals, such as the 2011 piece he did on Frank Schaeffer, who have repudiated nearly everything their fathers stood for. Such was the case with Frank and his evangelical theologian father Francis Schaeffer. Both are completely non-critical looks at these men. The younger Schaeffer and Campolo are interesting people, but isn’t the job of a reporter to consider whether or not there are two sides to their stories?
For instance, Bart Campolo hasn't entirely stopped using the family name to, well, make money.
Check Bart's Facebook page for the latest on the new book he and his dad have co-authored about Bart's leave-taking and, of course, a movie. (See above for the trailer.) Am I the only person to feel that the film's title "With Whom I Am Well Pleased" is an odd choice considering these were words God said about a son who was faithful to His plans?
I looked around for other pieces about Campolo’s change of heart and found this World Magazine piece where Bart Campolo notes that God never heals people with amputated limbs and that he might change his mind if he saw a compelling miracle. We don’t know why God doesn’t aid us in healing amputees (or kids with Down Syndrome and or brain tumors), but Jesus said 2,000 years ago that miracles often don’t convince people.
Campolo’s journey is a lot like former Los Angeles Times religion reporter Bill Lobdell’s 2009 book Losing My Religion; where a born-again Protestant reporter ends up covering the Catholic priestly sex abuse crisis plus some scurvy televangelists and finally concedes that religion is just another game. Both men said they felt the presence of God in their early years, but explained it away as a head trip in their non-believing years.
I would have asked the younger Campolo if he’d ever heard God’s voice and if so, what did it say? How does it feel to turn your back on Jesus? Oppenheimer’s narrative makes it sound as though Campolo got into Christianity mainly for the ride.
The article focuses on how Campolo’s views began changing when he couldn’t understand why God allowed people to be sexually abused and when he had two gay roommates at college whom he could not believe were doing anything wrong. The article said he “adjusted his theology” to accommodate his friends. I wish Oppenheimer had pressed him on this point, as Campolo’s evolving theology was not squaring up with numerous biblical verses condemning homosexuality. At what point did Campolo decide the Bible was not reliable?
The paragraphs about the Christian conference circuit were quite illuminative, as there’s very good money in appearing at churches and various conferences, especially when you’ve got a famous family name. The sad truth is that the religious circuit is as in love with famous people -- as its secular counterparts. One wonders if a certain no-name carpenter from Nazareth would rate a spot on such motivational speakers lists.
Also, if you’ve been following the career of the elder Campolo, it was common knowledge that his wife, Peggy, was way to the left of him on all matters theological. Eventually, he -- in a famous media storm -- came over to her side. Bart Campolo’s wife played a similar role in his loss of faith. There’s definitely some parallels here.
If there's any issue I take with Oppenheimer's prose, it's that his characterizations of the Campolos and Schaeffers of this world are of truth-telling younger men who see through the scams their fathers perpetrated and how their innate honesty won't allow them to go along with the game. That's a truly shocking stance to take in the pages of The New York Times.
Campolo parted ways with his father over why God allows evil, as in the ancient question of "theodicy." Is the writer saying that other Christians who've also agonized over the same thing -- yet have hung in there -- are not as brilliant, nuanced and evolved? Sticking with the program, even when you don't understand why God has allowed it, is what the book of Job is all about. History is full of brilliant and brutally honest saints who talk about this.
Campolo got off easy in this article. Other reporters might have pressed him much harder.