“We need to get back in touch with our Catholic brothers and sisters. We need to say: ‘We can teach you some things, but you can teach us even more.’”
From David Crumm’s talk with evangelical scholar Tony Campolo
A Conversation With Tony Campolo kicks off what we hope will become a popular mid-week feature here at ReadTheSpirit, bringing you fresh exchanges with some of the leading spiritual thinkers of our age. (Just to whet your appetite, next week’s mid-week “Conversation” will be with the near-legendary author Frederick Buechner.)
Now in his 70s, Campolo is more vigorous than many scholars or evangelists half his age. He’s constantly hopping on airplanes, circling the globe. For this conversation, I caught up with him via telephone in a hotel room somewhere in the American South just before he delivered that day’s talk to that day’s audience.
Not only is he a famous evangelist, but Campolo is a sociologist who taught for many years at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. That rigorous, analytical framework in his professional training produced a relentless, restless edge to Campolo’s faith, which makes him one of the most fascinating and unpredictable spiritual voices today.
In fact, Campolo had so much to say in our wide-ranging conversation that I am reserving his provocative thoughts on the spirituality of animals for tomorrow’s story!
In today’s exchange, we reference Jim Wallis (and you can click on the title of Wallis’ most important recent book, “God’s Politics,” to jump to our review and buy a copy) as well as Brian McLaren (and, yes, we’ve already reviewed McLaren’s brand-new “Everything Must Change” and you can pick up a copy of that as well by clicking on the title here).
Campolo’s new book, which we discuss at length here, is one of the most important books he’s ever written: “The God of Intimacy and Action,” co-authored by Mary Albert Darling. (Click on that title to read our review – and we’ve also got a fresh review of Campolo’s other recent book, “Letters to a Young Evangelical.”)
Here’s our Conversation, Part 1 …
TONY: Hello, friend. Good to talk with you again.
DAVID: Hello! We’ve talked about each of your recent books, all of which I thought were important, but this new book, “The God of Intimacy and Action,” I think is really a milestone.
It’s as if you’ve produced the missing link here to connect the work of people like Jim Wallis with the work of all those who are moving toward a more spiritual expression of the faith. You’ve packed into your 56 pages of this book a very strong call to remember that the roots of both movements already were integrated into our Christian heritage.
TONY: You’ve got it exactly right. Yes. This is very, very important for us to work on right now. In the Protestant community, there’s been a strong awareness that we need to be equally committed to social justice on the one hand and to evangelism on the other hand. Those two things have always been with us, but there’s been a belief among us that they’re two different things.
In this book, we’re trying to make the point that they’re not different. Both things flow out of our spirituality. Both social justice and evangelism flow out of our experience with God.
For the book, I have traced this truth in particular through the lives of St. Francis and John Wesley. Most people know something about Francis, but John Wesley isn’t known as well. Here was a man who was very much into the Catholic mystics on the one hand. He was very much into centering prayer and contemplation. And, out of this mysticism came his passion for reaching people with the gospel story and reaching out to help the poor and the oppressed as well.
This kind of spirituality also links us to people like Billy Graham.
DAVID: You and your co-author Mary Albert Darling are arguing that this fusion of spirituality and social action shouldn’t lead away from the world.
TONY: Exactly. We’re reacting against the kind of monasticism that says that, when you become spiritual, you should leave the world and go off into a monastery somewhere.
DAVID: And you’re saying that when popular evangelical writers like Brian McLaren and others are pushing for a whole new version of Christianity to emerge – you want to make sure that, in the process, they don’t cut us off from our roots.
TONY: Yes. What I’m saying is that, when we had the Protestant Reformation, we left so much good behind us in Catholicism! We need to have a rapprochement.
We need to get back in touch with our Catholic brothers and sisters. We need to say: “We can teach you some things, but you can teach us even more.”
You know what prayer is for a lot of Protestants? It’s reading off a lot of non-negotiable demands that we make to God, then we tell God a lot of things that God already knows. There’s a whole lot more to prayer than that.
Catholics have spent centuries developing relationships with God in many forms of prayer and, as Protestants, we’re largely unaware of those wonderful forms of prayer. There’s a spirituality in Catholicism that we need to reclaim. We can hold onto our Reformation theologies, but we had better get back into pre-Reformation spirituality. That’s what we’re saying in the book.
DAVID: There’s this palpable sense of urgency in your work and usually you’re a good step ahead of the rest of the evangelical writers like Wallis, pushing in new directions sometimes before the rest are comfortable following you. A lot of people are very anxious these days about the next steps to take.
So, what gives you so much hope and energy.
TONY: A number of things give me hope. (And, he chuckles as he continues.) One is that we may have gone as far as we can go in the wrong direction and a reaction is setting in!
DAVID: Sort of a sad commentary.
TONY: It’s true wherever you look. Our marriages are falling apart. We are feeling ourselves alienated in the workplace. There is a sense of loneliness that has reached such a high level in our world. And, people finally are reaching out to discover something beyond themselves.
Just recently I was in England and was I doing a show on the BBC. They asked me, “Why are you over here talking about Christianity? Don’t you know that we’re almost done with that over here. No one goes to church.”
And I said, “I think you’re looking at the wrong thing. It’s pretty evident that you’re into spiritual things here. It’s everywhere you look. Walk into a bookstore. Look at the media. Listen to what people are talking about. Spirituality isn’t dead. The interest in it is everywhere.”
So what we need to say to the church, very strongly, is: “We’ve got to get more spiritual.”
DAVID: So, that gives you hope?
TONY: Yes, the Protestant church hasn’t really spoken yet out of its rich heritage. We have a powerful heritage if only we reclaim it and share it with the world, again.
Instead, for far too long, the Protestant church has focused on its rational theology that we developed from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment. The Reformers really came up with a strong, rational theology that spoke to people’s minds.
But we’ve got to wake up and realize that the Enlightenment is coming to an end. The hunger for spirituality is everywhere evident.
This is my great hope – that we will finally speak out of our rich heritage. And it also makes me weep, because I realize that we don’t have a lot of time here. If the church does not speak to the spiritual hungers of people more effectively, then people will look for this elsewhere.
DAVID: They’re doing that already, right?
TONY: Yes, you’re exactly right.
One evidence of this hunger and the willingness of people to move in new directions is the explosiveness of the Charismatic movement. Looking at it as a sociologist, this is a trans-rational movement. We’re talking about speaking in tongues. Healings. Miracles. These things that are at the heart of the Charismatic movement are things that are trans-rational. The kind of rational theology we like to preach in Protestant churches to convince people intellectually of the faith isn’t reaching millions of people.
Just look at that movement. It’s 100 years old and it has exploded from zero people a century ago to 600 million today. And mainline churches are standing back and saying: “Well, we’re not into this kind of emotionalism, sorry.”
And the fundamentalists are scared to death of this movement because it’s sucking people right out of their churches.
DAVID: You’re saying the response you see from most Protestant churches is headed in the wrong direction. People are obsessed with what amount to non-issues for the vast majority of people and they’re missing the core of this movement, which is springing from this deep desire to reintegrate spirituality into our lives.
TONY: Yes, exactly! As we’re talking today, I’m here in the South and down here we’ve got Southern Baptists working hard on attacking liberalism as if that’s an important issue for a lot of people anymore. And what’s really happening is that newer churches like the Assemblies of God are sucking members right out of their doors.
This movement is getting larger and larger around the world, focusing on the human hunger for spirituality. And, one of the reasons we wrote this new book is because movements that tap into the hunger for spirituality may be leaving this other important part of the faith—social justice—behind.
We have to reconnect the linkage between all of these branches of our faith.
DAVID: That doesn’t sound entirely hopeful, as you talk about the state of things. It sounds as though you’re very worried about the future.
TONY: There’s hope in the new hymnology. I can hear it out there already. I hear a lot of things emerging there, but there is hope. You know, our hymnology always precedes our theology. The reality is that we feel the future and we sing about the future before we understand it.
Sociologists for many years have known this. The arts always pick up the future before the intellectuals do. That’s why our hymnology is so important. The hymns we’re singing express the feelings we have about God before we fully understand what we’re feeling.
DAVID: Well, the Wesleys were legendary for the quantity of hymns they produced at the birth of the Methodist movement.
TONY: Right. And the old songs from that era were very evangelistic, but, if you look at them closely, the best hymns also were sermons set to music. They communicated entire theological lessons in a hymn.
Think about “Amazing Grace.” Listen to the words. That’s somebody testifying to a whole understanding of the faith. It’s a theological declaration set to music.
DAVID: But you’re not suggesting that worship should exclusively focus on hymns from that earlier era?
TONY: No, and there’s a whole new hymnology emerging. Listen to the new worship music. What I’m saying is that I think it’s time we looked at that new music and spoke to the musicians and hymn writers about what we should be saying in this new era.
I’m concerned that some of the new songs don’t really express our full faith. I’m concerned that many of the new songs don’t link us with the importance of social justice in our faith.
That really frightens me and, whenever I can, I do talk to songwriters about this. And they are usually interested in hearing what I have to say. It’s important that we talk.
DAVID: Can you give us an example?
TONY: The very popular song that young people sing all the time that goes, “It’s all about you, all about you, Jesus. I’m sorry, Lord, for the things I’ve made it. When it’s all about you, all about you, Jesus.”
I’ve stood up and said, “You know, Jesus would not have liked that song, because Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’
“Note that Jesus didn’t say it’s all about the first commandment. Jesus said that you can’t deal with the first commandment without dealing with the second one. Praise music that focuses only on the first part of that loses the total message of Jesus. Both things are required.”
DAVID: But you also like a lot of what you hear today, right?
TONY: Yes, there’s a lot in this new music that’s very good. In a sense, if we want to go out and find out what the future will be, we need to go out and listen to what people enjoy singing now.
You’ll glimpse the future in that. For example, a lot of the new praise music contains so much from our tradition about nature all around us praising God. I think that’s a good thing.
(AND, we will take a break in our conversation at that point. COME BACK TOMORROW for the conclusion of our conversation in which Tony talks about the theology of the natural world and the spirituality of animals.)