The inclusion of Tony Campolo in the “emergent gurus” series is not so much because he is emergent – in most if not nearly all ways, he is not – but because he is so frequently appealed to by emergents, and even co-authors books with them in what I would consider a misguided attempt to build bridges from one nowhere to another. For this article, we consulted 4 of his works:
- God of Intimacy and Action [GOI] – only 3 chapters are by Campolo, however, and our evaluation is limited to these.
- Speaking My Mind [SMM]
- Connecting Like Jesus [CLJ] –again, only 3 chapters are by Campolo
- Choose Love Not Power [LNP] –an often poignant and excellent critique of church abuses, and an expose’ of how power is misused of power in human relationships. But not without flaws; see below.
The Mystic Mojo Manager
Campolo’s view of God as an intimate relator is not new; however, certain twists he has upon the theme are – sort of. GOI is our main source for concerns, as it is presented as a handbook for how to “mystically experience God in the depths of [your] beings” . At the core of this lies a basic premise – quite accurate -- that in order to live a life as Christ demands, there must be some conceptual bridge that propels us from belief to action. For Campolo, mystical experience of God’s presence in our daily lives is that bridge: He believes everyone is called to “develop mystical intimacy with Jesus” [GOI 19] and says that“[o]ur intimacy with Christ should drive us out into the world to tell the salvation story and to work for a more just society…” [GOI 203-4]
In our view, of course, that bridge and that drive is provided by the historical fact of Jesus’ Resurrection, which should spur us to action if it is fully appreciated in its significance.
It’s not hard to guess what our concerns will be: Does Campolo provide any sort of sound epistemology that would enable us to distinguish authentic mystical experiences from false ones? Not at all. He goes into great depth describing various types of mystical experiences: “new insights”; “special subjective connectedness” with God; “hyperawareness” of God’s presence, “caught up into some mystical unity with God”, and so on. But Mormons, Hindus, and countless others claim the same experiences. How do we know ours is authentic, and theirs is not? Campolo says very little to help in this regard; he briefly states  that “[d]iscernment is crucial to mystical spirituality,” but that’s all he says – no guidelines, no epistemology.
Part of the problem is that Campolo is too much interlinked to overfamiliar readings of God: He commits several of the standard errors in various places (eg, “abba” meaning “daddy”; LNP 188; “yada” meaning “to know intimately,” GOI 13). He also imports “mysticism” unnecessarily into texts. For example, at GOI 16, he comments on how the church shared resources in Acts, and believes this sharing was the result of a “mystical relationship” with God. That is simply false: In this the church was merely being noted as a proper collectivist ingroup; sharing of resources in this way was the norm among various social ingroups, and no “mysticism” was required to spur this on. If anything, the Resurrection firstly, heavenly rewards secondly, and personal and social honor thirdly, would have been the spur for the ancient church to make itself a good example as a collectivist ingroup. Mystical relation to God would not have even been in the Top 100.
The matter here is a serious one because belief requires a sound epistemic basis. Campolo admits that his own conversion resulted in a temporary zeal that lasted but a month, and that others have told him the same. [GOI 26-7] He also notes – but seems unconcerned – that converts who used to be addicts compare their conversion experience to “a psychedelic high, but without the drugs” [GOI 24]. Such comparisons should warn Campolo that what he is seeing in such experiences is likely to simply be manufactured, merely emotional reactions to a momentous life decision – but it does not.
In short, Campolo has fallen for the myth that “experience” has any real meaning in terms of truth. He refers to churchgoers who object that “nothing spiritual happened to them” as they prayed at prior churches, and of how they were “despairing of ever having a mystical encounter with the living Christ,” [GOI 196, 198] without bothering to ask himself whether such encounters are actually meant to be had as he understands them. He refers [SMM 3] to mainline churches not meeting “basic subjective longings” and the “personal mystical spirituality for which so many Christians hunger,” without so much as a question as to whether this desire for “subjective emotional gratification”  is merely invented rather than genuine. But this is not merely a sideline question. Inevitably, if these subjective experiences are not genuine, it will lead to three types of people emerging -- the very sort we see today:
- Those who, like Campolo, are convinced that the experiences are real; but have such strong loyalty to Christ that they are not disturbed by epistemic incongruities, and simply “trust God” when they are confronted by them.
- Those who, like readers of books by the likes of Meyer and Osteen, seek repeated “highs” from books and other resources that imitate what they think is a mystical, personal encounter with God.
- Those who, like many deconverts from Christianity, realize the mystical “epistemology” is worthless and leave their faith because of it.
Relatedly, in CLJ 166-9 Campolo encourages a process he calls “lectio divina” – praying through the Scriptures to get insights. He advocates this under the supposition that God can and does reveal truth “from the bottom up.” Of course, the Mormons believe this as well; and of course, here Campolo is no more forthcoming with a useful epistemology of discernment. (He wrongly uses 1 Cor. 1 in support of the process; see here, as well as John 16:13, which we have no reason to suppose was meant to be extended beyond the select group of Jesus’ Apostles. That amounts to his Scriptural case for “lectio divina”.)
As Campolo describes the process in a group setting, a teacher has someone read verses aloud, then the group is told to bow head their head and close their eyes, “and in silence wait for the Spirit of God to speak to them.” Allegedly, the Spirit may come, and “electrifies” people, who afterwards may raise their heads and explain what they heard from the Spirit. In this way, “[t]he Bible becomes a vehicle through which God speaks to the particular situation” of those using this technique.
Really? The process sounds like one ripe for decontextualizations and self-affirming, self-serving interpretations; of course it may also raise genuinely correct ones, but that would be expected as a matter of course anyway. Some parts of the Bible are so simple that it would be very hard to arrive at a wrong interpretation of them even if we tried.
The rub of this is that while Campolo recommends consulting scholarly works, or discussion with others, or even apologists (! – albeit Josh McDowell among them!) after the fact in order to check one’s received message for accuracy, one is constrained to ask why this needs to be done if we have an epistemology that gives us the confidence to recognize when a message is inspired by the Spirit. The obvious and unfortunate implication is that such checking after the fact is needed precisely because we do NOT have such confidence – in which case, “lectio divina” is at best superfluous; at worst it is deceptive and misleading, and correct interpretations and applications are arrived at merely by coincidence.
Campolo for President
Campolo is well known for social activism, and I am far from disagreeing from many of his general positions regarding the church’s responsibilities towards the poor and towards social justice. Where I do find problems is in the path he takes to arrive at some of his conclusions: Campolo will at times advise treading rocky, epistemically unstable ground to get to a destination that should be arrived at by a less treacherous path.
- At GOI 38, Campolo compares lepers in the Middle Ages to modern AIDS
victims, in that both were said to be suffering for their sins. He then
says: “You should ask yourself how your own commitments to AIDS
victims, and to other ostracized and oppressed peoples, would change if
every time you looked into their eyes you had a Francis-like sensation
that Jesus was staring back at you.”
The intent here is good, but the reasoning is simply awful. To begin,
while it was untrue that lepers suffered leprosy because of their sins,
it is true that a great number of AIDS patients acquired their sickness
because of sinful behavior. To minimize this point is not appropriate
and if anything will cloud the issue and endanger serious attempts to
aid those who are ill.
The emotional appeal to “Jesus staring back at you” is likewise inappropriate, and verges on guilt manipulation. We might ask Campolo if, when he sees Jesus staring back at him, he supposes that Jesus would have gotten AIDS or some other disease through wanton sexual conduct or some other indiscretionary behavior. By all means, we are called to aid those in need. However, that never precluded a frank recognition of a need to recognize and repent from sinful behavior. By Campolo’s implied reckoning here, Jesus ought to have seen himself in the eyes of the adulterous woman and kept his mouth shut about her adulteries.
I have said “implied”. Admittedly Campolo does not say, “don’t recognize sin,” but the analogy of AIDS victims to lepers amounts (even if unwittingly) to a designation of both as hapless victims of something beyond their control. Beyond this, our commitment to those in need should be based on the historic fact of the Resurrection, and our responsibilities as clients (members of the Body) – not on some manufactured, subjective experience of staring into the eyes of Jesus. Although I doubt Campolo intended to imply here that Jesus could have engaged in sinful behavior, his refusal to recognize that aspect of AIDS transmission smacks of an obscurantism that will ultimately harm, not help, the credibility of his arguments for justice and compassion for those in need. Ignoring the root causes of problems will not aid in solving them.
- Here is another instance where Campolo lets his concern for the “poor and oppressed” get the better of his judgment: At GOI 43, Campolo tells us, “The Bible has to be read through the eyes of the poor and oppressed, because it is primarily the story of a God who hears their cries and offers them deliverance.” It is? No, not really. It so happens that 99.9% of the people in the ancient world were poor, and only slightly fewer were oppressed, so this is merely a coincidental function of the social world of the Bible and does not signify any sort of interpretative template for the text. While that of course can inform our reading in some places, to give it any primary place would not be responsible in the performance of exegesis – not least of all because much of the text was written by people who were among the most educated (and therefore,"least poor") and/or least oppressed in the ancient world. One may as well say that we ought to read the text through the eyes of the damned because it is God who damns them.
- We have seen this sort of shortsighted perspective before
in Michael Spencer as well: Campolo refers [GOI 197] to those who are
disconcerted that Christians are more disturbed by the President putting
“Happy Holidays” (not “Merry Christmas”) on Christmas cards then about
“the president’s announcement during Advent that there would be federal
budget cuts in after-school programs for poor children and in Medicaid.”
Aside from questions of whether these were appropriate
responsibilities, constitutionally, for the federal government to take
on in the first place (as opposed to state and local governments, or
charitable groups, like churches); and aside from the question of
whether these programs actually need the appropriations in the first
place (or just need to use what they have more responsibly; or whether
cutting fraud in Medicaid might be a better option), it ought to be
remarked that it is the media itself that has made such a big deal of
the first matter, focusing intensively on those who object to the
content of the Christmas cards, and giving relatively little attention
to such matters as Medicaid cuts (which are apparently not “sexy” enough
to warrant front page coverage). It is also doubtful, as a result,
that the public in general is even aware of what cuts in after-school
programs and such might imply for them or for anyone else: Who out there
is reading The Congressional Record, and what reporter thinks to write a gripping story about Medicaid cuts?
In the same way, Campolo remarks that more are worried about whether ID is taught in classrooms than the fact that “less than two-tenths of 1 percent of our national budget is designated for the poor of Third World countries.” Campolo apparently cannot see the long view here in which ID supports a worldview that encourages theism, which in turn provides a sound epistemic basis for aiding the poor – whereas the atheistic/materialistic worldview that would replace it would not.
- At GOI 204, Campolo tells the story of homeless people who
broke into an abandoned church looking for shelter. Church authorities
wanted to chase them out, but students from Campolo’s school “decided to
do something to express their solidarity with the homeless people” by
joining them in the church, sleeping with them in the church at night
and going about their normal routine by day.
Once again, Campolo allows his sentiment to blind him to the long
term problems with this scenario. While it may have given these
students some sort of emotional high to commit such a daring act against
the law (no doubt because they thought Jesus was giving them that
high!), it would be better to ask if, instead of encouraging criminal
trespassing, the students would have been better off finding these
homeless people better lodgings which would allow them to not be
breaking the law. The church itself, the one that owned the property,
might have assisted in this as well. No one really sparkles in this
instance, but Campolo is clearly too enamored of dramatic resolutions to
see the long term results of this type of activism, which in the end
will only encourage more daring (but also needless) acts of civil
disobedience without prior attempts at more rational resolutions. Civil
disobedience is certainly an option for followers of Jesus, but to make
it our first option is simply irresponsible stewardship. Rather, it
should be used at the end of a process wherein other solutions – legal
ones – have been tried, and when no other options present themselves.
Here, the students had plenty of options – in the main, finding these
homeless persons temporary shelter, jobs, and so on. Why not try these
Ironically, Campolo elsewhere DOES recognize the long term impact of unthinking “dramatized” assistance of this sort. At SMM 123, he notes how well-meaning missionaries can unwittingly hurt the very people they try to serve: In the example he uses, missionaries building a school or church for the poor end up giving these poor a sense of inferiority for having needed someone from “outside” to clean up their situation. Unfortunately, it seems that Campolo is unable to recognize such problems until after the damage is done, and I daresay this has a lot to do with his epistemology, which frequently prefers instant and dramatic action to careful forethought and consideration.
- At LNP 98-9, Campolo acknowledges that the presence of the
Evangelical right in politics is a reaction to earlier incursions by the
religious left into politics. However, like Spencer is our last issue,
he fails to see the same dynamic at work in terms of Evangelical efforts
regarding gay marriage. Indeed, like Spencer, Campolo avoids a rational
epistemology on this issue in favor of reactionary emotionalism, which
leads him to commit some rather illogical mistakes.
For example, at SMM 25, he relates how a professor asked him to
describe how Jesus was seen by others, versus how evangelical Christians
were seen: “Caring, kind, forgiving” was how Campolo supposed Jesus
would be described, while “bigot, homophobe” were used to describe
modern Christians. The professor then asked Campolo if it bothered him
that opposite reactions were elicited, and this apparently struck home
with Campolo mightily.
But why should it have? Jesus would have been called a “bigot” by many modern people (in fact, has been by many atheist critics, albeit wrongly!) and would assuredly have been regarded as a “homophobe” for holding to Jewish views on homosexuality of the time. He would also have been regarded as intolerant and rude for various acts and speeches, such as his treatment of the Pharisees. Campolo supposes that evangelicals have an “image problem,” and he is right, but sometimes, for the wrong reasons: Jesus, too, has an image problem – the view of him has been thoroughly sanitized to the point that no one seems to understand that Jesus himself was mighty intolerant of a lot of things that modern unbelievers think should be tolerated!
Too Quick To Think
I usually provide a roster of factual errors to close; but with the main points made I will not beat these into the ground with a long list (eg, Campolo using Galileo as an example of the church’s errors [SMM 27] and thinking the Zealots were contemporaries of Jesus [LNP 110]). Campolo expresses a favorable opinion of apologetics in more than one place, which means, I think, that he is open for correction when he is wrong, an admirable quality not found in many persons we have examined.
That said, we will only point out that where Campolo errs factually, it is apparently because he is too willing to accept a claim uncritically because it helps him make a point. At SMM 65, for example, he actually makes use of the absurd argument from the “Dr. Laura letter” that Leviticus would keep us from touching a football (those have not been made from pigskin for quite some time). At GOI 199-200 he reads Matt. 25 in terms of “members of my human family” (see on that here). But perhaps the most poignant example comes from LNP 108-110, where Campolo attempts to demonstrate the wrongheadedness of using “power” to achieve social justice.
Now we will not say that Campolo does not have a point: There are indeed situations where what he calls “love” (but is actually a form of ideological power being expressed – eg, the Selma marchers) is an appropriate reaction. But civil disobedience of the sort used by Gandhi, or marchers at Selma, worked in the main because of the presence of a larger court of opinion which was able to view offenses against these persons in context. Selma’s marchers achieved their goal precisely because their protests were widely televised in a nation that was greatly democratic. Their tactics would have failed miserably inside a totalitarian regime (as has been more or less the case in China, even following the Tiananmen Square protests, which failed to achieve significant reform within China).
To support his point, Campolo appeals to a story allegedly of the 5th century Roman Empire, of a monk whom he does not name, but who is known as Telemachus when this story is told by other sources. According to Campolo, Telemachus was horrified by the sight of a Roman gladiator contest in Rome, and placed himself in midst of the combatants, yelling, “In the name of Jesus, stop!” Telemachus was killed by one of the gladiators, and because of this, the crowd supposedly went silent, then slowly left the Coliseum, and that brought an end to gladiator contests in Rome. And this, apparently, is supposed to be an example of the power of love making changes for social justice.
I first read this story some years ago in Colson’s book Loving God, and upon further investigation have found an earlier source was "The Last Fight in the Coliseum,” from A Book of Golden Deeds. The story was also used by Ronald Reagan, according to Campolo. I have not bothered to trace the origins further, for as we shall see, it isn't really necessary.
The problem? Though it makes the rounds in sermons and all sorts of other places, it’s just plain ahistorical.
The story itself seems hard to accept in light of the agonistic (honor-shame) orientation of the Roman world. More in line with that is the version told by the earliest recorder of the event, the church historian Theodoret, who writes in his Ecclesiastical History:
Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladitorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death.
Secular historians (such as Alan Baker, in The Gladiator, 203), following what Theodoret further says, add that the emperor took this incident as a reason to ban the games, but note that the ban did not apply outside Rome, and may have only been temporary; references to gladiatorial combat are still found as late as the 430s and the 440s, and the ban may merely have been a punishment on the common people. Beyond this, Baker remarks that Christianity’s part in banning gladiatorial games is “not quite as straightforward as might be assumed” and “had little to do with the unacceptability of such cruelty.” The story as presented by Reagan, Campolo, and sadly, even Colson, is an urban legend, and Campolo accepted it uncritically and used it to make what is therefore an invalid point.
We have remarked here a number of times that teachers are in a unique position of responsibility. Campolo is in that position, and though he does not fail as often or as badly as some we have examined here, he does so spectacularly enough in some cases, and he has paid the price by his own admission: In one case, he recounts how Jerry Falwell appeared opposite him on a news program, and was unprepared with an answer when Falwell confronted him about certain beliefs. (He also seems to assume Falwell would have said that infants and the retarded go to hell when they die, which is unlikely to have been Falwell’s position.) Because of this confrontation, Campolo says, his organization lost a certain amount of support.
Campolo bemoans this loss, and I do not say that all who withdrew support did so with the best motives. But in the end, what happened is as it should be: Any Christian teacher who fails a public test of their preparedness in such matters should indeed lose the support of their donors. In this of course we do not say that a teacher should be able to answer any and all possible questions; certainly we do not expect Campolo to be prepared to answer criticisms of intelligent design, for example. But “I don’t know” is certainly better than a lame answer (such as Campolo admits he gave) that attempts to imitate an authoritative answer.
Campolo undoubtedly fills the emotional needs of many emergent Christians -- but he is failing them and others intellectually and factually on too many critical points.