This blog is different from any of my others. It reproduces an exchange of emails I had with Bart Campolo about my memoir, Where the Light Fell. Bart, son of the Baptist speaker and writer Tony Campolo, grew up in the heart of the evangelical subculture. He worked as an urban missionary and co-founded Mission Year, a year-long program in which Christian young people live in urban neighborhoods and find practical ways to love their neighbors. Ultimately, however, Bart declared himself an atheist and launched a new career as a “humanist chaplain” and podcaster. The book Why I Left, Why I Stayed, co-written with his father, explains his loss of faith as a kind of “death by a thousand cuts” over the course of more than thirty years. I’ve crossed paths with Bart several times, and recently sent him a copy of my memoir with a note suggesting that he would likely find much in it to identify with.
Happily, newly-diagnosed Adult ADHD be damned, I read your book in a jiffy!
First of all, thank you for thinking of me that way. You were right, of course, about me identifying with some of your story, but honestly, given my impressions of our few conversations, I was surprised by how little our journeys have in common. Indeed, one might fairly say we are polar opposites: You’ve worked out and kept faith in a good, loving and distinctively Christian God in the face of a thousand and one life experiences suggesting no such person exists, while I’ve let go of that same story despite growing up with every emotional, economic, and spiritual privilege imaginable and having more than my share of moments when the Holy Spirit seemed to be whispering in my ear.…
Likewise, it isn’t very hard for me to understand and perhaps even admire your ongoing commitment to the best kind of Christianity. What I still don’t understand, however, even after reading your book, is why exactly you first chose towards the end of Bible College to undertake what anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann calls “the incredibly hard work required to make God real.” As far as I know, all you’d seen to that point was craziness, legalism, and the human fingerprints on every page of the Bible and its myriad interpretations. You don’t mention the influence of a compellingly loving mentor or a charismatic band of brothers who drew you in. Was it [your wife] Janet, somehow, that motivated you?
Please don’t get me wrong, Philip. I’m not suggesting that the Jesus you met as the Good Samaritan in that little prayer room wasn’t genuinely present to you. Rather, I’m wondering why, after all the terrible, ichthus-branded nonsense you’d endured to that point, you kept seeking out that experience, or even stayed open to it, even though you’d not yet seen any indication that Christianity was a sane or reliable pathway to love and happiness. In other words, I’m wondering why you cooperated with a worldview that hitherto had only let you down?
What a great letter—one of my favorite responses to my memoir. My initial goal in writing was to try to capture the subculture in the same way others have captured the Orthodox Jewish subculture (Chaim Potok) and the Irish Catholic one (Frank McCourt). I sought to tell my story as truthfully as I could, without a hidden agenda or evangelical cover-up, and only a hint of a bridge between the person of my youth and the person I am now. I figure the 25 other books I’ve written, all idea-driven, speak for who I am as an adult.…
I’m sure you’ve heard dozens of dramatic conversion stories, in which one transcendent event changes everything for a prisoner, an addict, an Oxford don like C.S. Lewis, or a proud jerk like Chuck Colson. And similar accounts can be found in the Nation of Islam, Jehovah’s Witness, Marxism, and any other religion or quasi-religion. (As you know, there are conversions away from faith as well.) You ask how that one event could somehow overcome the toxic faith I grew up with and in. Well, that’s where the other 25 books come in.
I can envision an ironic God saying, “Philip, you’ve seen some of the worst of the church—let me show you some of the best.” While writing my first book, Where Is God When It Hurts?, I encountered Dr. Paul Brand, the closest thing to a saint I’ve met. He had the humble faith of a Mother Teresa, as well as a commitment to the lowliest people on earth, leprosy patients among the lowest castes of India. Unlike Mother Teresa, he was a modern scientist with laboratories full of engineers and computers.
We collaborated together for almost 10 years, at a time when my faith was just beginning to take shape, a kind of cocoon phase. He became a surrogate father to me. At his funeral I mentioned the exchange we had: I gave words to his faith while he gave faith to my words. Dr. Brand showed me, up close and in person, what I believe God had in mind with the human experiment.
Until the memoir, I rarely looked back on the mess of my childhood. I had moved away from the South, first to Chicago, where I finally found a healthy church that combined justice and grace, and then to Colorado, where I reveled in the beauties of nature, one of the places “where the light fell” for me. Tentatively at first, I started picking up the pieces of my faith, like smudged rocks, and in my books began cleaning them off, deciding what should stay and what should be discarded. We didn’t know the word “deconstructing” back then, but I suppose that’s what I was doing. My second solo book was Disappointment with God, and later many of my books asked questions—my questions: Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Church: Why Bother? and the implicit question in The Jesus I Never Knew. I tried to be honest in these books, picking up the pieces, sorting out what to keep and what to discard.
I greatly respect the path you’ve chosen, Bart, because I know of your devout and activist past and can only imagine the pressures you faced when you struck out in a different direction from your upbringing. My brother lived out a similar trajectory, and still does, and I honor that in my memoir. I love the book you did with your dad, and the pacific tone you both demonstrated.
Oh, do I know the craziness you speak of. However, I’ve managed to avoid most of it in my adult years. Indeed, in my travels to some 87 countries I deliberately seek Christians who act out their beliefs with compassion and selfless love. The finest people I know are Christians who have done great things: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, not to mention many others who serve on the front lines of human suffering. In my writings, I try to highlight those who act on what Jesus called for in his first sermon (Luke 4) and his last (Matthew 25). You don’t have to be a Jesus follower to take up those causes, of course, but I’ve been privileged to shine a light on those who are. My book Soul Survivor profiles the ones who became my mentors.
I can’t take credit for how my career has developed. So much of it happened through serendipity or grace, depending on one’s perspective. For whatever reason, I’ve been able to look forward rather than backward most of the time—until Where the Light Fell. To my surprise, writing about those painful days didn’t cause much “phantom limb” pain. I view my past through a redemptive lens, and feel liberated from the shackles of fundamentalism. At the same time, I see the damage in those whose faith doesn’t survive, such as my brother, and easily understand why so many choose the path of rejection.
At the core, we’re both “bridge people,” I think. We start from opposite banks of the river, and perhaps we’ll never meet in the middle. But we understand that, and still share the goal of finding a way across. Make sense?
You already know I think you’re the cat’s pajamas, so I’m cutting right to the chase: You still haven’t answered my question.
I haven’t read most of those 25 other books, but I’m pretty sure I understand how you overcame the toxic Christianity you grew up in after your dramatic conversion. Certainly Dr. Brand, a healthy church, the Rocky Mountains, Tutu, Gary Haugen, and Bryan Stevenson (you can’t have Mandela; he falls on my side) would all be great mentors in opposite-of-toxic Christianity, and like me, you’re naturally gifted at the kind of theological gymnastics necessary to wrap that kind of goodness around a fairly bloody atonement story.
What I’m still wondering about is your conversion itself, or to be more specific, what caused you to open yourself to that transcendent event before you met all those good people and had all those good experiences and worked out all those work-arounds to useless suffering and unanswered prayers. What made you so desperate to become a Christian when you’d not yet met one you could fully identify with? Why were you praying with those fellows in the first place when, at that point at least, you knew better?
We are indeed both bridge people, I think, but I suspect that most of the bridges we’re building are about helping people move from less hopeful and loving versions to more hopeful and loving versions of whatever worldview they’re stuck with.
It took me a while to read your email, because I got distracted searching online for the origin of cat’s pajamas. What a strange phrase.
I don’t know how to answer your question in a way that might make sense. The conversion story happened at a time when I relished being a cynical renegade. I attended the weekly prayer meeting only because it was required and I would have flunked the graded assignment if I didn’t. I had never initiated a prayer, and have no idea why I did then, other than perhaps to get in the lick that “I don’t care about all those people going to hell.” And the vision or epiphany or whatever one might call it took me completely off guard. I left the room unsettled and disturbed.
On reflection, the school had a regular parade of folks who did good missionary work in medicine, justice issues, poverty work—much like the ones you encountered in Mission Year. And I had read a bit of C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, W. H. Auden and others, enough to convince me there must be some reasonable Christians out there, though I’d not really met one. So I hadn’t outright dismissed the possibility of some Christian truth.
What else can I say? The power of that experience came from the fact that it felt like something that happened to me rather than one more expression of fake spirituality, which I had long forsaken. I was not desperate to become a Christian—indeed, almost the opposite, hence my sheepish response.
Good questions, Bart. I think I worded things pretty carefully in the scene in my memoir, trying to say no more and no less than I can vouch for. But, as I say, conversions only make sense from the inside out (like conspiracy theories?).
Hey, here’s an idea. Would you be open to me running some of our dialogue in a blog, much as you did in the book with your dad? I’m always looking for ways to help people relate to those who see the world differently, in a healthy and respectful way. I wouldn’t add commentary, and I’d run everything by you in advance. Think about it.
Ahhh…I very much appreciate these details! In very different ways, both your prior exposure to good and reasonable (or, to my mind, less unreasonable) Christian voices and your impulsive, somewhat defiant first prayer in the presence of that handful of sincere believers give me a clearer picture of the powerful moments that followed. Obviously, I’m bound to see that picture differently than you do, but I’ve seen [the movie] Rashomon enough times to know that doesn’t mean we can’t both be right.
Even so, you of all people should know better than to say conversions only make sense from the inside out, since you’ve surely seen more than your share of them carefully engineered by skillful, charismatic folks like Marjoe Gortner, the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, Carmen (remember him?), my father and me, with assists from various musicians, lighting coordinators, and youth retreat cooks.
Of course you can edit this dialogue for your blog, and add commentary as well if you’d like. I trust you and I know from these past ten years how valuable it is for people to see everyday examples of that too-scarce commodity I call “worldview humility.”
Thanks for your trust, Bart. I see that you turn 60 this year. May your remaining years be characterized by the same fierce search for truth and demonstration of compassion that have always defined you. And, by the way, I’m happy to learn that the work of Mission Year continues, under the good auspices of The Simple Way, led by Shane Claiborne.
I’ll close with a paragraph from What’s So Amazing About Grace?, a book I wrote two decades before I got around to writing my memoir:
Grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it and I am one of those people. I think back to who I was—resentful, wound tight with anger, a single hardened link in a long chain of ungrace learned from family and church. Now I am trying in my own small way to pipe the tune of grace. I do so because I know, more surely than I know anything, that any pang of healing or forgiveness or goodness I have ever felt comes solely from the grace of God. I yearn for the church to become a nourishing culture of that grace.
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Philip, you have been a tremendous blessing to me over the years. I suppose I have read all of your books but “What’s So Amazing About Grace” remains my personal favorite, and one that I have recommended to many friends and acquaintances. This communication with Bart Campolo was an amazing display of grace and manners on the part of you both. (Does anybody remember manners? Seems almost quaint these days). I’m curious as to whether or not you have had any communication with Bart Ehrman. Thanks for your continued help in my walk with Jesus.
Ehrman and I have exchanged a few messages, but we’ve never met.
Thank you Phil. There are elements of your story which relate to my own. I look forward to reading more of your works. I remember What’s So Amazing about Grace being very important to me during a suffering season. Thank you for journeying with me during that time.
This is a question for Bart:
Help me understand why you hold yourself and your dad guilty of having manipulated
people into a Christian conversion, or more generally, into Christian belief.
Thanks so much Philip, I’ve printed this out and tucked it inside “where the light fell” as a little postscript!
Even more than when leaders lose their faith, I’ve always found that when a friend or acquaintance I know personally loses their faith, it really, really shakes me.
Once or twice when I was younger it pushed me to the brink of giving up myself.
I know you have written on the issue of how/why you have kept your own faith in ‘soul survivor’, ‘where the light fell’, but I was wondering if you have written more explicitly about how you handle it when friends you respect lose theirs (I’ve read many of but not quite all of your books!).
Thank you so much.
Rob in Singapore
Not yet. But I’ll keep it in mind!
I discovered the link to this conversation from Bart’s side. I am a supporter of Bart’s podcast “Humanize Me”. He has helped me through the tumultuous journey of deconversion from a religious system, only to find that there are people on both sides of the spiritual fence that want the same thing. Better Love for and in Humanity. I didn’t make it through the 25 reads of PY… but I remember being impacted by “The Jesus I never Knew” and “Grace Notes”. In fact, I was just at my Mom’s this weekend and I snuck “TJINK” off her book shelf for maybe a reread. I want to remember what impacted me about that book. I read it in the heyday of my Pentecostal experience, and now I’m wondering if I can look at it through these agnostic eyes and see something still impacting. Jesus died last year for me and I thought it important to grieve that loss. But as with all other human losses, I still want to keep a memory of what that person meant to me. How do I keep Jesus alive, like I keep my dad alive who has been dead for fifteen years now. That means something so very different now? I don’t want a religious icon. Those days are over. Maybe I want to find something I can keep from a lifetime of embracing the story. I listened to a podcast conversation yesterday and these words stuck out. “God doesn’t get everything in the divorce.” That was recording artist Derek Webb. Somehow that is encouraging to me. Maybe I will even be able to read the bible again… but as a story, not as an inerrant rule book. I used to love the stories.
Bridge building is something I am passionate about, but I don’t know how to do much in my community other than love my people in their space and seek common ground. I am up against a belief system that doesn’t allow its adherents outside of their bubble, because of the fear of losing them to common sense or wisdom of any kind. I just want us to find a beauty in humanity and our diversity in how we navigate this life. The exclusiveness message of Christianity is toxic and needs dying. Love embraces every one. Was that not evident in the life of Jesus? It seems that a lot of Christianity has forgotten it’s leader.
Thank you PY for your conversation with BC. You both have been treasured influences in my journey and I am grateful that you connected.
I love your spirit and believe you’re already a bridge builder. Thank you for having an open mind and loving spirit.
I love the photo of you smiling, in the midst of all those books– it’s perfect. Like Michael Jordan with a basketball, that’s you and words in ink.
And what an interesting blog!
ease say thank you to Bart for being real, along with you.That’s hard for all of us..Everyone wants the burden of proof to be on the other side.
I was wondering as I read the emails if you and Bart ever talked about what lies behind our joint desire to see justice in the world? The fact that the desire is there for all of us– atheist and believers both– presents one of those bottom line WHY questions– I think for both believers and atheists . Because if there is no God, then where does our desire for justice and equality for the oppressed come from? If there’s no God, wouldn’t the evolutionary principle of the
“strong eating the weak” feel “normal” to us? Sadly, like the Nazi’s proposed– should t the weak be culled out, for the sake of improving and strengthening humanity in the long run?
And obviously the idea of a just and good God, who permits evil and injustice, is a common question believers have to deal with ( and do, as your writings illustrate). Just wondering if Bart might agree to share how those with his worldview understand “justice” if there is no God –and thus no moral laws in the universe.
Thanks so much, Philip.
‘That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’
A strangely worded verse, that light (explicity not Jesus) is undefined, but asserted to come from God, and enlightens everyone, Christian or not (?) (assuming that the word man was meant to be inclusive)
Then there is the song ‘Amazing Grace’, which has only a word or two referring to any supernatural being, and never to Jesus by name, to the point that many unbelievers find it as their anthem of knowing grace and meaning in life.
Finally, if one believes that this world/universe actually has meaning and there is such a thing as goodness or pursuing that is a sort of supernatural belief. We may have many more sisters and brothers in the faith than when we first believed.
I am somewhat amazed at the restrained and gracious content of the preponderance of contributions on this matter. I am about to upset the lenient character of the blog.
Bart Campolo has unequivocally thrust the destruction of his erstwhile Christian faith in our faces but no one has had the temerity to upbraid him for his volte face from active evangelical Christian, pastor and missionary to becoming the energetic protagonist of atheistic humanism and critic of all things Christian.
Campolo summed up his mission today in a 2014 motivational speech in which he expounded on how to effectively persuade Christians and other religious people toward humanism : “The question that we need to be asking is not, ‘How do we prove that they’re wrong?’ but it’s, ‘How do we offer people the same values that all people want, but how do we offer those values, not supported by ancient myths or by supernatural fairy tales, but how do we offer them love and goodness and purpose and mission, based on reason, based on common sense” See Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IDoNAWOC5g at 15.50
Reason and commonsense are now Campolo’s guiding forces in his Humanist crusade. His rejection ofhis Christian faith is deeply saddening, worrying and potentially destructive .
I wonder if a relevant portion of the New Testament has been brought to Bart Campolo’s attention. It is in 2 Peter 2 20-22
20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
These are serious statements to ponder,Philip.
Bart may have mellowed. I listened to one of his recent podcasts in which he interviewed a singer who had a career in Christian music, followed Bart’s path away from faith, and then re-converted. Bart gave him a platform and treated him with great respect.
I am always in awe and deeply respectful that you encourage these conversations. More importantly, your joint love and trust in each other enabled this dialogue. I wish we could have more of this, and in such a deeply caring way. Thanks for sharing this.
Almost 20 years ago J.B. Phillips wrote a book titled “Your God is to Small”. I think that for many that’s their problem. They don’t believe God still does miracles. They question many things in the Bible which they will never understand because they are not God. They ponder over things like which star did the wise men follows. Could not the God who made the universe will millions of stars create just one more for a specific purpose and time. My God can. I was 11 1/2 when Billy Graham preached the gospel in Brisbane, Australia, in May 1959. From that point on I have trusted Jesus. Raised Methodist, it wasn’t until some friends invited me to an Assembly of God Church where I received the baptism of Holy Spirit. John 14:26 says, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, . . . will teach you all things.” John 16:13 tells us that The Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. I’m so grateful that He has. My wife and I have been privileged to see many miracles take place. The blind have received their sight; the crippled have walked; and the barren woman has given birth (to twins). Our God is a big God; He is able to do more than we can think or imagine.
A friendly plug in response to Mr. Ragland’s question about the “fairly bloody atonement story”–check out N.T. Wright’s, The Day the Revolution Began. I’ve wrestled with similar questions and found his insights eye-opening.
SUCH a needed dialogue. It seems this conversation is too dangerous for people to have within faith communities, so they take it private and shrivel their faith away in the face of the damage that comes with retreat to dogmatic ontologies.
Love demands facing the real whole-heartedly, retreat is just that…loss.
Thank you Bart and Philip. I have just purchased both your books, and look forward to following your continued discussion from an albeit voyeuristic perch.
You “cats” keep it real, I dig this hep jam.
What is faith? Do we force ourselves to believe something or does faith come from conviction? Is trying to believe without understanding a faith?
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all definition of faith. Hebrews chapter 11 gives good insight. Faith does involve an intentional choice, one made without certainty (or it wouldn’t be faith). Your phrase “trying to believe without understanding” is not a bad place to start, because it shows intention, honesty, and humility.
Thanks, both. This feels like a hopeful thing.
After reading your blog yesterday and feeling very sad, I woke up with the parable of the Rich Ruler going through my head. He called Jesus good. He, himself, wanted to be good. He was endowed with wealth, whether inherited or earned. Yet he would not lay his possessions down. “When Jesus heard this, he became very sad.”
My 93 yr old mom, afflicted too many illness’, same care-giving Sis. Unfair Pension punishments, harassing letters, British gov. Gazillions of praying ppl, interventions to gov, Unanswered prayers! own chronic illness’ too; my Church’s arrogance-“We Alone, have THE Bible Correctly interpreted;” Mandate attendance; I’m Crisis of Faith. “Believe in Jesus, problems gone” How Untrue! Disappointment w God, Where’s God when-V Helpful. this blog, great! Thk u verbalizing when r faith fails; or i’d live in guilt, unpardonable sin. U’ve helped me; thank you
It was 16 years ago next month that our family met you and we skied our first run together. Skiing in the trees you yelled to me, “where did you go to school?” I yelled back the name of a large well-know southern Baptist university and you responded, “you’re in recovery too!” I am thankful for my early years when my faith foundation was laid, but so grateful for your books and friendship that God used to reveal His perfect grace and unconditional love to me. I am thankful I chose to believe in Him and He chose to believe me. Let’s go skiing!
It’s sad that the efforts of people in churches, thinking they are being Christian, have unknowingly damaged so many. I grew up in church, attended Sunday School, and youth group regularly, but certainly didn’t have a real relationship with Jesus. It took a tragedy in my life at age 36 before I fell on my face and finally submitted my life completely to Him. I said, “take all of me. I am yours.” That was the turning point in my life. God had always been there, but I had been avoiding Him at every turn in my life. I didn’t want to know Him. I didn’t care to have Him involved in my life. I was too big a sinner. But when I finally reached the end of me, I took His hand. He lifted me up and wiped away my tears of regret and guilt. It’s been so good to REALLY know that I am not alone because He loves me. As Tozer said, “friendly eyes are looking back at me.” The eyes of Jesus.
Thanks for sharing this. So many still just need to surrender to Him
Thank you both for having the courage to share this conversation.
I resonate with Steve Moran’s two questions which have profound importance. The anti-Christian tone in American academia has been powerful for many decades and may have also influenced Bart as it has me. Freud and the Freudians in my psychoanalytic training years influenced me towards an incompetent atheism which has since faltered in face of God’s grace in my life. Steve’s second point about what has become obvious dechurching and dechristianizing in America is a parallel process in influencing American youth for many decades. I also wonder what influence Bart’s ADHD has had on his position in this fascinating conversation with .
I thoroughly empathized with Brad. The process of leaving is long and often painful.
For me, James Carse’s, The Religious Case Against Belief is a seminal book. When I first read it, I knew that what I believed didn’t ring true. Coming to understand that beliefs are inherently anthropogenic systems trying to explain the inexplicable was a tipping point for me. I find myself, at the beginning of my ninth decade, having encountered the Mystery many call God. As the circumference of what I know expands, so does the beginning of what I do not. (This may be related to the post about spiral dynamics. I, too, will do some research.)
In reading the comments, I was struck by how connected people’s faith was to personal modeling, relationships, and the failings of organized religion, and not the truth of the Mystery. If, as Kant argued, the ultimate nature of the universe is finally inaccessible to the rational mind, how much more so is Mystery? So, I find myself having moved beyond religions but not rejecting the Mystery.
Your talks at SU Australia’s gathering, decades ago, on ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ helped shape my resilience through deconstruction. I have humility regarding my confidence,.. while trusting in Jesus & keeping on finding trust-worthy.
I am grateful for the care-full respect you offer Bart and he receives and offers in return.
Along with many Christians I have wide and varied problems with the Christian church… though Ive continued in one kind or another for 55 years …but when I read the gospels that give us the record of ‘God walking around on earth in a human body’ called Jesus I see the purity of His love for every person He met ( as well as His righteous anger at those ‘religious ‘ people around Him) and the grace He extended in each of their unique circumstances it gives me hope that if I act and speak more like Him there might be hope for this world . But I have learned its a one by one kind of thing … I have lived & travelled all over the world and always am amazed how I often have more affinity with people of other religions that someone with no religion.Those who have some faith all get thats there is more than just this life and that expanded belief of ‘something greater’ gives a wider perspective of life. Missionaries do good by going and living side by side and develop educational institutions and businesses to better enable people to survive or free them from entrapment prostitution. If they also inquire about the ‘good news of Christ’ in the process and choose to believe then through both processes they’ve been freed. I’ve found open dialogue is foundational to all our interactions and conversations.
Some of us do not remember CBC as you do. Yes, they had lots of rules. They also had amazing, brilliant teachers. Why do I believe in Christ? Evidence.
I suppose I am not so academic… mixed religious household… sort of religious Jewish mother…lapsed Catholic secular father…
Christmas trees, Passover Seders that were completely unserious…
I’ve read maybe half your books Philip…
You were my favorite author after C. S. Lewis….
Disappointment; Where is God; Rumors; The Jesus I Never Knew… put much of my Jewish objections to rest within the first chapter…
Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust…seeing the numbers tattooed on arms… I was very angry…SPECIFICALLY and ESPECIALLY at Jesus…
Why did the world and the Church hate Jews so much…heard my share of antisemitic comments from people I thought should’ve known better… evidently… They didn’t…
It seemed to get better in the 60s & 70s…But now I’m hearing even worse than I ever thought I would… Boycott Divest & Sanction haunt the headlines…The UN seems to have it in for Israel more than every other legitimate “terrorist” or Marxist state in world combined…
The “woke” ideologies invading the church is particularly disconcerting, worrisome and discouraging…
What’s So Amazing about Grace…. Turned out to be my favorite… read that one as well as The Jesus I Never Knew twice…
I don’t know if I’ve outgrown you Philip or maybe you’re just writing past me…
I cannot seem to connect with you anymore…
I don’t care for most contemporary Christian writers …with the exception of maybe C. S. Lewis…
In the end…it’s just the Scriptures; and the God of Scripture…
I am not jaded or cynical… Just weary, very weary…
There’s hope though… I like the title…Where the Light Fell… I just might give it a go…
Thank you, Bart, for allowing Phillip to share this dialogue with us. It is a great gift.
Why does God do what he does when he does and how he does?
Why was he silent the night I begged him through tears to speak or do something to encourage me?
Why did he choose to make such a dramatic appearance years later when I wasn’t asking?
Partly, I believe, because he wanted me to understand that he cannot be manipulated. I wouldn’t trade his choice of timing and manifestation for mine. His was and is far beyond what I could have imagined.
Be careful, Bart. This God of ours has quite the sense of humor mixed in that loving heart of his. 😉
Our daughter “worked hard” to deconstruct her faith, with a therapist in her early 30s. As I read Bart, his story reminds me of what the church became during what has been dubbed “A Cold Play concert, followed by a TED Talk.”
We “reconstructed” our faith over many years. Philip’s The Jesus I Never Knew played a great healing role during that time. Along with What’s So Amazing about Grace?
We’d left church, had been involved in ministry, and it’s only recently, after more than 6 years, we’ve found ourselves joyfully back in a small community with like-minded believers. (No concerts, no TED talks, so refreshing.)
But “coming to Christ” at 25 (I’m now 67) for me wasn’t about church; it was God intervening in my life, unmistakably. It was “I have everything, goals met. What now?” I did have a kind of Road to Damascus moment. A place of fellowship came later.
I always worried that our kids would not truly experience personal faith, having been raised in it. Two have continued, one not so orthodox, but clearly knows. The third, the oldest, I’d given the Jesus I Never Knew book to after my crisis of faith, in order to help open her eyes to faith outside of church. As a result “she sat with the sinners” in college because she heard her Christian classmates judging them. She’s the one who deconstructed. She says she still believes in God, but doesn’t know what that means. Only God knows who is truly “saved.” Sounds like Bart may still be on his own faith journey, as we believe our daughter is. We can only pray and watch.
I read the dialogue; to hear/read both (actually many) sides of the ‘story’ is really enlightening; to be able to voice different opinions/experiences are valuable, and to be able to read/listen to each is exciting. Hopefully we will all continue the dialogue and hopefully we will listen to each other’s version.
Bart and Phillip,
Thank you both for demonstrating what love and grace are all about, from both sides of the coin. Having survived my own journey through evangelical legalism which drove away most of my kids, I pray I can learn to thoughtfully and mercifully communicate what my faith has become in as winsome a way as you have demonstrated. I, too, must pray through and digest where ‘worldview humility’ must have its greater work in me. Thanks for the most thought-provoking blog I have read in quite some time. Blessings to you both!
Thank you for this. I have read Disappointment With God numerous times over the years, so obviously I have struggled with my faith off and on over the decades.
I believe I am involuntarily reconstructing my faith at the moment. Because difficult life circumstances are making me see things differently, and not just seeing blindly. If you get what I mean…
I’m having a crisis of faith, sort of. When something horrible is happening in the life of a loved one (or my life), what in the world do I make of “God is my refuge”, “God will protect me”, “God will keep me safe” type of verses, most of which are found in the Psalms and a few other OT books. Because God is not literally protecting my mom or keeping her safe. These verses are everywhere and quoted often by daily devotionals, so I see and hear them almost daily. Am I supposed to read all these many, many verses as hyperbole or allegory or are they meant for the Jewish people? Or is it talking about spiritual refuge? Or can I only receive comfort from these verses as they are referring to safety/refuge only in heaven?
I have been struggling with this for over a year. In my mind I finally settle on “embrace the mystery” but sometimes that feels hollow. Thank you for any insight you have. Stephanie Belden
Just today a friend sent me this:
In his new book of collected prayers, Walter Brueggemann discusses the virtues of Anne Lamott’s triad prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow. Then he suggests that the Hebrew Bible adds a fourth simple prayer:
“Lamott’s triad is hugely instructive. I suggest, however, that a fourth capacity belongs indispensably to faithful prayer: Rats! The faithful know that, many times, things do not work out, the center does not hold, and death crowds us. Such lived reality may be voiced in honest prayer to God concerning a variety of adversaries. . .
I hope that doesn’t sound trite. Brueggemann writes often about prayers of lament, perhaps the most common type of prayers in Psalms. They speak to me more authentically than the verses quoted to you.
The book, by the way, is Acting in the Wake: Prayers for Justice by Walter Brueggemann
I often think of Jesus, when he performed a miracle, it say, and many believed, but many did not. We always have a choice. Coming out of the church that I did, I had to sift and sort what made sense to me and what did not. I am glad that, after my many questions, I was able to not throw the baby (Jesus) out with the bath water (church). Your book on Grace was a major contribution to my Grace: A Workbook (Covenant Books). It is an “educational” book on Grace, but flows from my own journey to Grace. I think those journeys are the most important things we do.
I really enjoy your blogs!
This one is certainly different than many. Most of the people responding to your blog today are emphasizing the Grace of God which I agree. How can any person who accepts Christ as their savior and have an incredibly loving relationship with God then reject him. I will never understand that.
I have so enjoyed visiting with you and reading your books along with the word of God of course.
I will certainly pray for Bart as well.
Thanks, Philip and Bart. What a wonderful exchange of views which captures the challenges of finding a God of love in a fallen world. A book that has helped me immensely in trying to reconcile a god that needs to be appeased by the payment of his Son’s blood is written by Dr. Timothy R. Jennings, MD. “The God-Shaped Heart.” You might find this helpful as he shows the distinction and difference between a God of design and not imposed laws.
I actually chuckled when I got to the point where you had to look up “cat’s pajamas”! The fact that I knew what it meant when I read Bart’s email means I must still be “young enough” even at 44! I certainly have had the crises of faith at this time in my life somewhat akin to those of Bart, I suppose. At least I can say that my upbringing under a well-known and respected name in Bible college circles gives me a similar background. (The same college you attended, no less!) I should perhaps try to express a few thoughts to you in email form as well, though I don’t want to logjam your inbox!
All the best,
Well, this one got me to thinking.
When I read this blog today my first thought was of the astounding figure of Vietnam War vets who have committed suicide has exceeded the number killed in combat (58,000 KIA). Then I wondered how many followers of Jesus have committed physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual suicide.
I do not have a panacea. I would like to share a bit of my path.
This February will mark 47 years following Jesus. I am 72 years old. When I look back on those years I could become discouraged. After my first tour in the Army I came to Jesus by way of Campus Crusade at Kansas State. Back in the Army. Got married (now in our 45th year). Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Called out of the Army. Attended and finished seminary. Prison ministry. Pastored a small church in Wyoming for 11 years (and despaired deeply). Worked in law enforcement (bivocational). Left pastoring. Worked in the oil business. Worked with men God provided. Moved to Colorado. Continued to work with men. Ostracized by the churches I attended from the time I left pastoring till now.
Church life is tough. Overall it reflects corporate life in the west. It is results focused. (When was the last time you saw the main speaker at a conference leading a church of thirty?) So we pay the bills and do what it takes to keep the lights on while folks hurt, struggle, and eventually leave (suicide?).
13 years ago I began a different path. The search for life. I had to define it so I would know it when I saw it. First, I accepted that living makes me a “target of opportunity”. So be it. So began the Great Adventure into the reality of the Loving God and it continues. It has been fraught with failure, dead ends, and despair. It is the best time of my life. Daily I am practicing being loved by God and feebly loving Him back. Clearing away all the muck, it is the true foundation.
So what of this conversation? Here you can say a lot of stupid stuff. I will try to avoid that trap. If I do not I apologize now. I would say to anyone on Bart’s path and to Bart the following.. Do not pound the nails into the coffin of a loving God. Step back, disengage, remove the source of wounding, and get healed. Whatever time it takes is worth it.
How? Rediscover the foundation truth of a lovig God. Plant your feet there and begin. Associate with at least one other person humbly yet magnificently immersed in God’s love. I realize it is much more complex and longer process than I have stated here.
Thanks for the opportunity to share.
This kind of interchange is so refreshing. Friends with opposing views bonded by mutual respect and the civilized exchange of personal belief. A gift that should be carefully wrapped and delivered to congress and the church. I can’t wait to see you in a few days and share that gift together. However, on the golf course, the gloves come off and it’s every man for himself. BTW I have purchased a thesaurus so I can follow the conversations between you and my friend Bart. Ain’t that “the cat’s pajamas.”
Wonderful thoughtful dialogue! Thank you!
Philip, this bit from one of Bart’s letters practically leaped off the “page” of my phone:
“…you’re naturally gifted at the kind of theological gymnastics necessary to wrap that kind of goodness around a fairly bloody atonement story.”
That plenty bloody atonement idea is like a giant boulder sitting on my foot. I’m not strong enough to move it and I’m not yet willing to cut my leg off to “free” myself. I can’t get past the feeling that atonement is something we invented. Why? Perhaps to make us feel more important than a speck of cosmic dust in an infinite universe?
I read the story of your childhood. Your circumstances were vastly different even though my parents were professional Christians. I didn’t dabble in fundamentalism until I was a young man. I still remember how intoxicating it was to think I right about everything, not realizing I was dog-paddling in a toxic stew of exegetical nonsense. I eventually abandoned my evangelical arrogance and began re-reading sermons by men like Harry Emerson Fosdick. I became an Episcopalian, mostly because they didn’t define themselves by what they opposed but welcomed everyone (as long as you didn’t challenge their traditions and the centrality of their “fairly bloody atonement story”).
Which brings me back to the atonement… Is it man-made or as natural as gravity? If it’s something we humans invented then I think we need to revisit what Jesus is all about. I’m doing a lot of thinking these days…
I’ve asked your question many times and some thinkers (g.g. Brian McLaren) have written about it openly. A year or so ago, however, I read Crucifixion, by Fleming Rutledge. She presents views of the atonement that I had never considered.
I very much appreciated the dialogue between the two of you as one who was brought up the way you both were, then went off into my own wilderness, so to speak, and came back to a real faith in Jesus through his saving Grace.
As I read this blogalogue, I kept interrupting, “. Tell him,” Phillip, “ Tell him!” It’s Grace. The answer is grace. Until you’ve been given it and know it, you’ll talk, argue, opine, and interrupt yourself, to make everything else the point. The past, future, worldview, their view, war, peace, martyrdom, kingdom, you name it and you can’t name it unless, like it was given you you, Phillip, it’s Grace and it’s God’s gift of unmerited mercy. Tell him, Phil!
This made me read about Rashomon. The bottom line is not the relativism of each witness’s testimony. The absolute is truth… there was a single hand driving the weapon that killed the samurai.
The way I have experienced it, there is only one whose testimony is unimpeachable and Jesus is His incarnation. To believe otherwise would be to say that truth does not exist.
The weapon did not drive itself.
I so respect and appreciate dialogues like this. Dialogues that seem to put honesty above point scoring or trying to convince others. Ironically, I find those the most convincing dialogues of all!
I found “When the Light Fell” a book that was completely unsentimental and a book that scrubs out triumphalism from my position as a committed Christian who believes my faith is backed up with the ultimate non-negotiable facts and truths that are so messy God Himself had to come down to save me. All the systems and institutions together could not muster anything I could lean upon. Only Jesus. That’s how I read “When the Light Fell”. Somehow, only Jesus could sustain faith and beget faith after all that Phillip Yancey experienced.
I loved the interchange about discovering people like Paul Brand and Bryan Stephenson, who Jesus is the animating force for their benevolent work. I get that heroes like Nelson Mandela may not have the single focus to trace their heroic acts to faith in Jesus Christ, but I think it’s undeniable that Mandela’s inner circle knew of his ultimate faith, and of his request that his funeral follow Methodist liturgy. He had to have been disillusioned by the racism that submerged so much of the “christianity’ around him in South Africa, but my understanding is that he refused to let the hypocrisy submerge the irrepressible force of Jesus’ life.
Mandela attended three different mission schools. Those who were close to him say that he had a strong faith but chose not to talk about it–in part because of the racism in some of the white churches in S. Africa.
As always your blog gives me something to ponder. My own questions and doubts have made me feel “outside” the community of faith many times over the years. Your books have helped me with my own questions through the years. How grateful I am for someone to voice what is often unspeakable in church! My children are all in different struggles for their faith, and I love and support them as best I can…mostly by giving them space. I did not know about Bart and Tony’s book. I look forward to reading it. Thank you Phillip. (I actually met you walking across the bridge in Montreat, N.C. a good many years ago!)- Keep writing and speaking!!
Phillip, I truly believe that Grace is awakening in these days.
I am one of those angry , disillusioned
Christians that found pure Grace waiting for me at the end of myself.
I read all of your books on that path, and they ultimately made a difference.
I’m praying for Bart’s return.
Philip, thanks for presenting this authentic dialog. It reminds me of a conversation I had just several weeks ago with a friend. I suspect it is also similar to the multitudes of spoken and unspoken conversations between evangelicals deconstructing their faith and those like you for whom “the light fell.” We need such honest and public conversations for greater illumination on this spiritual battle. Thank you!
A helpful “dialogue”; thank you. All the exchanges remind me not to get so full of myself — I saw Rashomon –60+years ago in black and white TV on playhouse 90 I think — and understand the conundrum ( a little) unless there is One who sees all the ways we think things happen . . .“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.”― Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat
As i read the dialogue between Bart and yourself, like other readers, I couldn’t help but look at my past forty years as a believer in Jesus Christ. My answer to Bart’s primary question of faith is this: Jesus, through suffering and heartache, and sharing my own as well, created me to love on me eternally and to ultimately fill me with His Glory forever. Who else could ever offer and give such purpose and hope to one’s life!!
I believe I am so fortunate to have been blessed with the parents I had. They were the Lutneran Missouri Synod variety. I was not forced to be one. I was encouraged to be one with goals of perfect Sunday School attendance and was encouraged by my Dad to ask questions. I did. I had learned the Bible verse that God says “come let us reason together.” And the answers I was given did not seem reasonable to me, so I kept asking and searching. I became a member of The Church of Christ. I then joined the Jehovah’s Witness brand. By the grace of God, I was disfellowshipped by both, ostracized by all my church “friends”. I remained unchurched for 30 years. At age 81 I now fellowship with several varieties of believers. I feel fortunate that I did not have to endure the anxieties and agonies that some people do. I think it was the fact that I was encouraged to ask questions.
Thank you, Philip! What a gift. Honesty and genuine humility on both sides. And you’re so spot on: it’s all about grace. All else is one form or another of skubala and will end up on the ash heap of eternity. Again, thank you.
Really enjoyed reading this conversation. I’ve come to learn that being gracious and kind, enjoying affection and offering respect is available to us all. It may feel costly in the moment, but the benefits will always far outweigh. In a world where sorrow, loss, trauma, desperation and rage hold sway, every ray of grace and warmth of affection a person offers changes the balance in noticeable ways.
Thank you for your graciousness, and for sharing a glimpse of your friendship with someone who is other. May the grace you both have offered today bring warmth to your readers.
Thank you, Mr. Yancey for giving us an inside view to God who initiates our eternal relationship and gives faith to those who do not seek Him. The quote with which you concluded this amazing exchange is perfect.
A good example of honest, respectful, humble dialog between a Christian and one who has deconstructed his faith.
It’s so sad to me the trauma Evangelical Christianity (though I’d prefer to call it churchism) has caused. I’d say Bart”s description of conversion is more “coercion” (but “manipulation” is probably more accurate but didn’t sound as poetic). Are you familiar with spiral dynamics? It’s a bit weighty for me, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on it as it relates to our thoughts of God.
No, I’m not familiar, but I’ll try to research it.
Wow! What a great dialogue from opposite sides (perhaps) of a spiritual situation. And there was no yelling, no name-calling, no disrespect, no condemnation. Hmmm. Are you even real? Just kidding. We are not used to this kind of debate any more. Sad it doesn’t happen more frequently. Thanks to both of you for sharing your views.
Philip…like you, I had to “deconstruct” from toxic faith and like you, I “reconstructed” and still love Jesus with all my heart. Your books helped me do that. Thank you.
Being of ancient vintage, if I have learnt one thing its this: When all the discussions have finally been completed, some will believe and some will not. I cant explain the in-between bits!
Your books have given words to my doubts, questions and fears for many years and always ground me in the God Who Is. Where the Light Fell was one of the most important books I ever read. Thank you for never being afraid to wrestle with the tough questions.
How refreshing. A grace-filled conversation with the “enemy”. I see far too much from the evangelical church (including the one that I half-heartedly attend) where the topic of deconstruction is looked upon as just another battle of the culture wars to be won. Deconstruction is viewed as simply another evil that is a result of a sick, depraved, individualistic society, without considering that the reason so many (including myself) are deconstructing is because of the Church itself. I believe the Evangelical Church must first seriously consider their own engagement with culture that has included judgement, nationalism, and hypocritical engagement in politics, before looking outside of itself for reasons behind the deconstruction movement. How about a little more of that grace, and love that Jesus seemed to be obsessed with. Thanks for being a voice for those of us that feel like we don’t belong to this Christian faith.
Wow! Beautifully written. How does one “explain” conversion? Perhaps there is no explanation, only a result? The term “worldview humility” is something I’ll be pondering on. How to bear witness to Truth while retaining a genuine “worldview humility” is a tension I need to learn to better embrace.
Thank you for sharing this. So many in my orbit have taken the way of Bart (perhaps staying a little closer to Jesus, but idk.)
Old Church of Christ background hard to unclothe.
Still trusting Jesus to get me home.
Thank you Philip and Bart.
As I was reading your exchange I was led to think again of the Andrew Klaven memoir The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. I’ve read most of Klaven’s fiction (thrillers) and knew that somehow he had come to faith in God the Son. Why some people accept God’s grace and others reject it is a deep mystery. Philip and Andrew accept and Bart rejects. Is there any way to figure that out? I think not. The deepest mystery to me is, as the apostle wrote, not that we love God, but that he loves us and that of course includes Bart Compolo.
Thank you both for this honest discussion, for modeling dignity, humility, grace and love toward one another … to me there is no greater evidence of a loving God than this.
I heard Bart speak one time when he delivered a commencement address at a college in northern California. Loved, still love mission year concept. Tony was a huge influence on me as a young adult.
I find myself wondering two things about Barts conversion:
1. How much of that move was influenced by the academic distain for Christianity. We are all hugely influenced by society more than we care to admit.
2. In the United States we are well into this new dechurching decristianizing of society and accompanying this is increased, stress, violence and hate.
Are Athiests really happier than Christians? I am not so sure. I guess what is most puzzling is why an Athiest would see compassion as having any value at all? As long as I get what I want on this life I am good.
If the earth ends if humanity ends so what? It is just evolution.
And yet atheists have a new god which is the environment and they are willing to make housing harder for the homeless, commuting more expensive for the poor and on and on.
Deee-lighted (to echo Teddy R.) to read this. Absolutely wonderful. Having worked closely with Tony C. for a number of years and written a book with him, I see some of this from the architecture of the family dynamics of the Campolos. Coming from a family myself, most of whom never crossed the river from the non-religious side or lived in the just as messy world of nominal liberal Christianity (which is largely on that side of the river), I crossed in the opposite direction. The Christian humanism of Tony lives vividly in Barth (so it seems to me) without the Christian roots that developed that passionate desire to see goodness and justice for all. My experience in World Vision is that such a vision without religious roots eventually withers. Working with the margins of human devastation for years gradually evaporates the motivation and saps the emotional stamina necessary for the long haul. The unanswered question for humanists is why? What is the enduring and transcendent rationale for such self-sacrifice? Or for kindness toward others instead of the killing of a Mao or Stalin in the name of a secular eschatology? In my wager, believing that everyone who looks in a mirror sees something of God, makes a fundamental difference. If we are not made in the image of God and reflect that, we are no more than the image of a long evolution ending up as part of a family of primates, on a speck of dust we seek to dominate, within a third rate solar system which expresses an indifferent and brutally violent universe. And all of it goes away. We wind up as dust in a grave. Why care for anyone but myself?
Wow! Amazing correspondence. As I sit here at 6am reading this in the dark, I feel blessed to “know” you both. Thank you.
I loved this dialogue. I am a fellow CBCer and met you at ETS in Denver a few years back. Your blogs speak encouragement and hope to me. Thank you!