A Feature Review of
Why I Left / Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son
Bart Campolo / Tony Campolo
Reviewed by Jeff Nelson.
Early in this book, Bart Campolo shares the story of what led to his leaving the Christian faith. During a ride on his bike, he crashed head-first into a tree that led to weeks of recovering his memory followed by fresh realizations related to identity and belief. Among such realizations came one of the biggest: he, the son of a nationally renowned evangelical leader and speaker and with his own long career as a pastor, speaker, and missionary himself, no longer believed in God.
Bart’s subsequent sit-down with his parents to share this news is told from both sides. Bart shares his anxiety and uncertainty about how they would react, and Tony (and Peggy in her contributed foreword) both tell of their dismay coupled with their resolve to continue loving their son just as much as they did before. There would be more conversations between them during family gatherings and trips, and at some point Tony and Bart decided to put some of the general topics they’d engage in book form, which of course is this newly-published volume.
Similar to when Tony co-authored his book with Brian McLaren a few years back, father and son take turns writing chapters on various subjects from a Christian and humanist perspective, one often responding directly to points made by the other. They cover topics such as how one grounds one’s sense of morality, the afterlife, the person of Jesus, and spiritual experience.
It may be for others as it was for me that Bart’s story of de-conversion and explanations of how he sees the world may be of greater interest to readers. After all, the tagline for this book is “Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son,” which suggests that the overall framing of the work is toward a Christian audience. Tony is arguably much more well-known than Bart and thus his arguments more familiar. It is Bart’s side of the debate that many may hear for the first time, at least in this context.
As mentioned, Bart tells his story early, beginning with his experiences growing up heavily involved in evangelical subgroups in high school and college before embarking on his own vocational ministry in urban mission. His questioning of faith is a gradual one, as he subconsciously begins to emphasize things like goodness and community in his speaking more than explicit theological claims. By the time he’s recovered from his bicycle accident, he has fully realized what he no longer believes and what has taken its place.
In a later chapter, Bart advises any fellow humanist reading this book to begin with finding common ground in any conversation with Christians and following up with one’s own story rather than combative talking points for why God or religion in general is not worth one’s mental energy. The chapter that this strategy leads off, entitled, “Can’t, Not Won’t: Losing Faith Is Not a Choice,” offers several claims. First, as the title notes, one can’t be argued into a different worldview, and that is a two-way street. Second, a story is much more meaningful and effective than a series of “proofs.” Third, there is much more that Christians and humanists may agree upon in terms of showing kindness and pursuing justice than either side realizes. And finally, faith is not an intellectual pursuit that one can simply ascribe to or not.
Bart’s chapter on faith in particular showed an astute awareness that the debate between believers and non-believers over the years has often not been a productive one, for reasons he acknowledges and recommends avoiding. For Tony’s part, he also seems conscious of this. In fact, both authors often attempt to re-state the other’s viewpoint in order to engage it with honesty and respect. In that sense, this book succeeds in bypassing the vitriol often exhibited in similar works.
While some may argue that Tony has come a long way over the years in terms of how much more progressive his views have become, his rejoinders to Bart’s claims often seem to be the stuff of mainstream evangelicalism. When speaking of morality, he claims that humanism has no foundation aside from the shifting sands of the culture. When speaking of death, he suggests that non-believers have nothing to hope for. To his credit, he seems to desire dialogue and understanding, but these statements may not win many over.
Bart gets his fair share of similar jabs in. At one point, he expresses his reasoning why he rejects the substitutionary atonement theory of the cross and the belief that all humans are completely depraved, saying, “How could slaughtering an innocent make the guilty party any more fit for divine fellowship? Parental discipline I can easily accept, but not the retributive violence of the Cross. To me, that is what’s really immoral” (95). Bart is arguing here against a specific Christian tradition, which is limited in its inability to account for divergent views of topics like Jesus, the cross, and sin in non-evangelical belief systems.
While I would not expect Bart to address experiences that he doesn’t know, this becomes another instance of assuming a particular doctrinal interpretation is common to all within Christianity. It is a debate tactic that many on both sides use and that both Tony and Bart are guilty of more than once in this work.
This is why Bart’s exhortation to begin with common ground and make heavy use of story and experience becomes so important and is especially relevant. The moments when both authors share their own are the most powerful and interesting of the book. From Tony’s perspective, the reader is able to hear why faith has been such an important touchstone for him throughout his life, and is afforded small glimpses into his struggle with his son’s change in philosophy. And we are privy not only to Bart’s tale of gradual unbelief but how he has striven to make sense of his worldview and new vocational direction in the aftermath.
The cerebral back-and-forth may interest some. But within the authors’ sharing of their ongoing discernment regarding their relationships with themselves and each other are the kernels of truth that most readers may find worthwhile.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and writer. He is author of the book Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday. He lives with his wife and two children in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves in ministry at Grace United Church of Christ. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at http://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.