Speaking my mind – Campolo

By Brian Edgar

By its very nature evangelicalism should be prepared to test conventional wisdoms by the light of scripture.  It ought to be a mixture of theological conservatism (holding to orthodox, scriptural faith) and social radicalism (refusing to accept any view – whether secular or religious – which does not align with obedience to Jesus Christ).

Integrating these two dimensions is Tony Campolo’s aim in Speaking my mind: the radical evangelical prophet tackles the tough issues Christians are afraid to face (W Publishing Group 2004). Campolo is a popular speaker and occasional visitor to Australia. He is an American sociologist with a keen eye for social trends and an evangelical who is not prepared to simply accept conventional wisdom.  Especially the conventional wisdoms of North American evangelicalism.

The title and his overall approach indicate that he sees himself as having to challenge established positions within the evangelical community.  In considering this, readers ought to bear in mind not only the similarities but also the significant differences between North American and Australian evangelical cultures.

His robust defence of an evangelicalism which is biblically self-analytical is preceded by a brief examination of the decline of mainline/oldline churches and the rise of evangelicalism.   Mainline churches, says Campolo, have offered people an inadequate spirituality in that while they have been good at helping people relate faith and culture intellectually they have marginalized the actual experience of God and have failed to help those who have sought conversion, cleansing from sin, and life in the Spirit.  The leadership has also been in conflict with the membership on many social issues, and it is some of these to which Campolo turns his attention.

Briefly, he argues as follows: Gay relationships are not appropriate, but gays, like everyone, deserve to be loved, not vilified, have civil rights and are able to serve the Lord.  Hell is real (athough annihilationists are not irresponsible), but God should not be represented as vindictive because his fundamental character is loving and the real issue is that human freedom is real. Science is not the enemy of orthodoxy, miracles do exist and theology can get help from science (interestingly, there is not a word about the most controversial topics of Intelligent design and evolution). Yes, we can we can help the poor without making matters worse (a topic which is indicative of the kind of mind-set that Campolo feels he has to deal with). In fact, it is essential for evangelicals to be involved. Islam is not the way to salvation and Muslims do not worship the same God, but our social relationships can be harmonious, and criticism must be fair and the wholesale characterisation of Islam and Muslims as simply evil is not appropriate. What is needed are more examples and models of reconciliation. Evangelicals should be less militaristic should ask what this tendency means about their image of God. This chapter highlights some differences with the Australian scene and Campolo’s observations on the connection of faith to American politics naturally leads on to a chapter on why so many people throughout world hate America. He examines the effect on global attitudes of the connection between American wealth and multinationals with third world sweatshops, low wages and the exploitation of child labor. He also discusses the propensity to invade rather than aid, as well as the good that has been done by American aid and the work of missionaries.

Clearly, Campolo speaks as an American speaking into a specific context and the stances he repudiates and the evangelical image problem which he addresses emerge from a culture which is far more extreme than our own.  Last year I sent six months living in the USA and the differences and the comparative extremes within evangelicalism and the culture as a whole became very evident.  Nonetheless, Campolo does provide a good example of an approach which is unashamedly evangelical because being evangelical is to seek to be consistently biblical in all areas of life and to be conformed to the radical example of Christ rather than being conformed to the pattern of this world, even when that pattern is a religious one.

This review first appeared in a copy of Working Together – the journal of the Australian Evangelical Alliance.

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