Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Elusive Tony Campolo

On Tuesday, amidst the snow and wind, I made my way to Franklin College to hear Tony Campolo, preacher and social activist. Over a hundred students and faculty plowed through the snow to hear what he had to say. The chapel was full. After all, Campolo is a dynamic speaker. He knows how to inspire and motivate. It was vintage Campolo. I wasn't disappointed.

Or, was I? Upon reflection, I realized how far I have traveled in my own theological journey. The Pietism of my past has been challenged, and, hopefully, corrected by the gleanings from Orthodoxy. A whole new world has been opened.

However, upon hearing Campolo I recognized (again) the deep flaws that characterize Protestantism in America. To be sure, I resonate deeply with Campolo's passion for the poor. There is no doubt we are on the same page. His critique of the Pat Robertson's and Joel Olsteen's of the world are on target.

However, I must say that as I was sitting there listening to Campolo a gulf began to open between him and me. I saw how divided the church is in this country, and I realized how shallow our notions of the church are. In fact, it is becoming clearer to me that most folks have little conception of the church and what the nature and purpose of the church are about. That's where I began to question Campolo's own use of scripture and the ways he utilizes the Baptist tradition to offer critique.

For example, as I stated in my last blog, I have come to see how we can appropriate the Epiclesis in our practice of Holy Communion. The Lord's Supper is not simply a Memorial Meal, but the presence of Christ in our midst. How such presence is communicated remains a mystery, of course, but the bread and wine come to us as Christ's body and blood. As Campolo made clear, bread is bread and the wine is wine. Period!

Second, it is also clear after hearing Campolo that he operates out of a notion of scripture that gets to what I would call "the one who has the most verses on your side wins." Yes, the Bible has over two thousands verses indicating how the people of Israel and the church are to deal with the poor. Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts. He worked and ministered among the oppressed. In many ways, he was a revolutionary. There is no getting around it. As Campolo stated because there are more verses dealing with these issues the other issues simply must take a back seat. The minimalist mantra is well-known in some circles of the church: because the Bible says little about it, then we need to say little about it too. What matters is how the church is perceived by others in the public.

Campolo is right to bring our attention to the intolerance and bigotry that exists in some quarters of the Christian community. But I am wondering, though, if this minimalist strategy of biblical interpretation really carries water anymore. Persons have deep disagreements about abortion, terrorism, homosexual behavior, divorce, etc.; the list is quite lengthy. And yet, I also wonder how the church can begin reading scripture together. Is it even possible that a Campolo and an Olsteen can sit down and search the scriptures together? Can we even imagine such a possibility? I fear not.

What Campolo was espousing was simply another twist to the old strategy of finding what appeals to him and then sticking to his guns in making the appeal. Here, the poor have the privileged position. While this is certainly not false, it is also not the whole story. The Bible says many other things too! And while discerning God's truth is not simply about counting verses and seeing how I agree or disagree with those verses, it is also about struggling with ways I can speak the truth in love and practice justice for all God's children - rich and poor.

It was hard to pin down Campolo on some what he said the other day. I don't hold that against him. Sometimes we preachers can say all kinds of things. And yet, as we move into the future, I can certainly see how we are moving more and more into what Billy Abraham and others have called a post-Protestant age: a time of increased fragmentation of the church and the inability of the church to discern how it may even come to agreement on the treasures it possesses. It is a concern that goes to the heart of who we will become. I just don't think counting and adding up Bible verses will be the only way to go.

Andy Kinsey

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