Reflections on Faith & Unbelief
Far from the Tree: A Review
Directed by John Wright
A sign in my local pub encourages the patrons to put down their mobile devices and actually converse face to face. There’s only one rule: “NO RELIGION!” It’s easy to see why there’s a perceived need for such a rule: religion is divisive. When religion rears its head the pinching and eye poking often swiftly follows. Religious-themed message boards and online discussion forums have become the Mos Eisley of the internet: you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Friends have parted over religious differences, and sometimes families have been torn asunder. Wright’s film thus fittingly asks: “Does a preacher lose his son when his son loses faith?” And it addresses it in the context of a wonderfully compelling personal story.
Tony Campolo – “one of the most important Christian evangelical preachers in the last 50 years,” according to the New York Times – is well-known, massively influential, and often controversial. His son Bart Campolo was for years a partner in his father’s ministry until announcing one Thanksgiving that he no longer believed. He’s now a Humanist chaplain. This film tells the story, doing what sadly is rare for movies these days: touching your heart and making you think. This engaging personal exchange raises questions of relationship, culture, sociology, philosophy, theology, and humanity. Wright – himself the son of a Presbyterian minister – has created space to allow all these issues to be addressed, but always in the context of this personal interaction that is funny, engaging, and deeply poignant. The audience in my screening laughed heartily and shed a few tears.
The film opens with a clever sequence showing a mash-up of the many occasions on which Tony told his famous “Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” story, giving a sense of just how massive this one time spiritual adviser to President Clinton is. We can only imagine what it must have been like for Bart to grow up in this world. In his own words, Bart tells us that even at the age of 52 “father looms large for me.” When we first see them side by side in conversation the rapport between them is fantastic. This is where the strength of this movie lies. Whilst many filmmakers would’ve found the temptation of turning the camera on themselves in a presenter role too much to resist, Wright has stayed largely out of the way, cleverly creating the impression that we’re eavesdropping on this moving and meaningful exchange between father and son, who might just be sitting next to us in our local pub, or at least one that doesn’t ban religious chat.
Many of us know the sad reality of how conversations between atheists and Christians often go: generating more heat than light, riddled with personal insults, and creating little to no real meeting of minds. That’s not the case here. Tony and Bart talk through their differences all the while smiling at fond reminiscences, sharing jokes, and even singing together! In asking Bart “do you think I’m stupid, lying or deluded?” Tony perhaps fears that Bart views him in a way that’s been quite typical of those inspired by the so-called “new atheists.” Bart assures him that he simply sees things differently and, interestingly, remarks that he and his Dad are still on the same team; not just that they are “two bald guys with bad posture,” but given the nature of the work they both have a heart for: helping people in the gritty reality of life. It’s a theme Tony will echo as the conversation progresses.
The centre of the story is, of course, Bart’s deconversion. As we listen to conversion and deconversion stories we quickly begin to see common themes, and Bart is no exception. His doubts are not spectacular or atypical: why doesn’t God, the omnipotent & omnibenevolent creator of the cosmos, do something to help impoverished kids? When we look at the world can we really say there’s such a being in charge of things? Can’t we just get the Bible to say what we want? And isn’t it just fundamentally a very human document? Are our gay friends really going to hell? Why does God never seem to intervene when we pray about important things? In a wonderful little touch Wright illustrates Bart’s faith as a Jenga tower: as each brick comes out the whole thing get more unstable, until…………
Crash. And that’s just what happened to Bart: he suffered a near fatal bicycle accident and in his recovery, he no longer felt the same. Bart seemed struck with a strong sense of mortality: feeling that had he died he would have ceased to exist. He found that he simply no longer believed and had better start living accordingly. I’ve read similar stories of people surviving such things to the opposite effect: believing they’ve been given a second chance, that Someone-Up-There still wants them around for some purpose, that they’ve been given a gift of life. Surprisingly, Bart tells us that he feels as if he has been given a gift: a gift of perspective. Whereas a popular apologetic argument tells us that life without God and immortality would be meaningless and purposeless, Bart will have none of it. He feels more awake to life given that it’s all we have. As he and Tony share a chorus of “This world is not my home,” Bart points out that he feels that this world matters – perhaps precisely because we’re doomed – and expresses the desire that, “I’d like to live until I die.”
Bart’s story illustrates beautifully the muddled reality of both faith and doubt. Neither is the purely intellectual exercise that certain philosophical rationalists would make out. Our life experiences are crucial. In fact, Tony appeals to sociological factors – rather than some of the more intellectual problems Bart points to – in explaining Bart’s loss of faith. Wright himself also enquires as to whether there might be deep psychological factors at play. Noticing that Bart moved to the other side of the country, Wright asks if perhaps Bart is trying to distance himself from his father, with one manifestation of this desire being his rejection of his father’s faith. Here’s the truth: they’re all hinting in the right direction. We simply aren’t the wholly rational agents we like to portray ourselves as. When we read The Gospel According to St Modern Atheist, to be religious is to be stupid or deluded. On the flip-side, St Big Bucks Christian Apologist’s Epistle to the faithful would have us believe that a fair hearing of the evidence should lead to conversion, and that arguments often don’t work because atheists deep down wickedly reject God. What this film does it force us to look at how all this plays out at a very human level far from the ivory tower. And we find that the reality is messier. It always is. Over 100 years ago the American Philosopher William James spoke of the importance of the will in belief formation. More recently we’ve come to appreciate the range of influences on our believing. Whilst we seek to rationally reflect on our beliefs and life experiences we must do so with emotional, psychological, sociological, and cultural baggage. We simply see things differently, as Bart says. That’s human. And it’s not due to deficiencies of intellect or to wickedness. Clearly Tony isn’t stupid, and Bart obviously isn’t just a bad guy.
As Bart and Tony recall that Thanksgiving Day when Bart first told his Dad of his deconversion the mood becomes more sombre immediately – the pain etched on Tony’s face lets us see that undoubtedly this still affects him deeply. There was real fear for their relationship. A lesser man might have rejected his son, but Tony sees a much bigger picture. Bart is still his beloved son; he’s still a good man. In fact, for Tony, Bart is “an anonymous Christian,” which I’m sure will be labelled by some evangelicals as nonsense, or at best a case of denial. But it gives us an insight into Tony’s faith. Tony Campolo was a trailblazer of the “evangelical left,” and helped to awaken a sense that the gospel of Christ is more than a preached messaged. There are social obligations too: to help the poor and oppressed. In his role as a Humanist chaplain, Bart fights for social justice and cares for the poor, and as Tony reminds us, “that’s Kingdom work.”
And with that Tony echoes Bart’s sentiments from earlier in the film and we end up marvelling at how different Tony’s and Bart’s worldviews are and yet how similar they remain. Bart is still Tony’s beloved son doing Kingdom business. Tony admits to having the occasional doubt. In this there is a real meeting of minds. Bart’s attitude is the foil to the kind of aggressive atheism that’s become all too familiar. Tony is the foil to an evangelical complacency about the social obligations of the gospel, as well as to a kind of dogmatic evangelical certainty.
The relationship between a father and a son is always a special one (just ask Jesus!). Our conversations with other people will rarely be as engaging and emotionally charged as this one. But whether you’re a Christian or an atheist and you’re looking for a primer as to how to conduct religious conversations, this is a great example to follow. Show it in your youth group. Take your humanist friends to see it. Better still – invite humanists to your church group and watch it together! Maybe some of the respectful honesty of this exchange will rub off and, who knows, maybe we might even convince my local pub finally to take down its prohibition.
Stephen J. Graham
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