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‘Why I Left, Why I Stayed’

Bart Campolo’s story is well-known.

Confronted with his own mortality following a 2011 bike crash that left him with a severe concussion, Bart – the son of evangelical icon Tony Campolo – left behind his Christian faith and nearly three decades of frontline urban ministry to become a secular humanist.

Tony and Bart Campolo’s recent book, “Why I Left, Why I Stayed,” is a series of essays that grew out of the lengthy conversations between father and son in the months following Bart’s announcement of his departure from the faith.

The book begins with Tony recounting their 2014 Thanksgiving evening conversation in which Bart finally broke the news of his de-conversion.

From there, Bart and Tony alternate chapters, first sharing their own spiritual journeys and then addressing questions such as the meaning of life with or without God, problems with Jesus’ crucifixion, constructing morality without God, facing death and explaining transcendent experiences.

Finally, they wrap things up with a jointly written conclusion admonishing readers on both sides of the faith divide to continue loving and talking to their friends and loved ones on the other side, outlining strategies to help them do just that.

Neither Campolo speaks for all followers of his respective worldview but rather each speaks from personal experience.

Consequently, while the Campolos introduce readers to some of the common arguments for and against both Christianity and secular humanism, they are far from a detailed and comprehensive apologetic or critique of either worldview.

For example, when Bart suggests that “the notion that God requires a blood sacrifice to forgive the sins of humanity is easily the saddest, most hurtful and most discouraging doctrine ever invented,” Tony briefly mentions that the substitutionary atonement is just one of many explanations of Jesus’ work on the cross and that no doctrine of atonement tells the whole story.

Rather than offering his perspective on how some of those alternative atonement theories might alleviate Bart’s concerns, Tony instead elaborates in great detail on his own understanding of the penal substitutionary doctrine.

While Tony’s reflections are certainly informative, it feels like he has really just not-so-cleverly sidestepped Bart’s concern.

By the final chapter, it is clear that apologetics only takes us so far.

Believing in the worldviews of both Christianity and secular humanism ultimately requires a leap of faith, either to believe that there is a God who has designed and created the universe or, alternatively, that the universe and life as we know it are simply the product of “an incredibly long series of incredibly improbable accidents.”

The authors’ real objective is not to prove or disprove one worldview over the other, but rather to model having respectful conversations with friends and loved ones over “heartrending differences.”

In that regard, this book does quite well, with father and son consistently showing the utmost respect for the other’s viewpoints and seeking to identify and celebrate the core values they still share, despite having arrived at them via different worldviews.

Refusing to become an angry atheist, Bart repeatedly emphasizes his respect for Christianity, his gratitude for the role it has played in his life, and his desire to live out commitments to social justice and community building that were first modeled for him by Christian leaders and mentors, including his father.

While clearly unhappy about Bart’s departure from Christianity, Tony affirms his pride in Bart’s ongoing commitment to community building, the obvious similarity between Bart’s current work as a humanist chaplain and his previous work as an urban missionary, and Bart’s willingness to maintain positive relationships with his still-Christian friends and family members.

As Bart and Tony outline strategies for reaching across the faith divide in their final chapter, it is clear that this is not an attempt to end things on a warm, fuzzy note but, instead, evidence of the authors’ hard work and commitment to respectful dialogue, which they model so well, page after page, throughout the book.

“Why I Left, Why I Stayed” is a must read for those of any religious (or nonreligious) persuasion who seek to build bridges across whatever faith divides exist in their lives.

As a U.S. Christian living in an increasingly pluralistic society, I personally found the Campolos’ book to be immensely helpful in:

  1. Challenging many of my long-held misconceptions and stereotypes about atheists and secular humanists.
  2. Providing me with concrete strategies for reaching across the faith divide to secular humanists and, indeed, anyone who adheres to a worldview different than my own.
  3. Giving me a foundation for identifying shared values with adherents of different worldviews in order that we might work together for the common good of society.

I can only hope that other readers will be inspired to learn from and apply these same lessons to their own lives.

Daniel Schweissing, a former American Baptist missionary, currently teaches English as a second language at the Community College of Aurora near Denver, where, among other things, he actively promotes interfaith cooperation.