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Reviewed by Christopher B. Enstad
The word "prophet" has come to be overused in our time and place. I'm watching two "prophets" on my local cable access channel as I write this review. Every generation or so, however, a figure comes into our lives from the desert of real life. Iconoclastic, not fitting any certain institutional mold, wise, trenchant, and speaking the Truth, in an undeniable way, into present reality. Will Campbell is just such a person.
Born in 1924, in southern Mississippi, Campbell came of age in one of the most racially divided parts of the most racially divided state in the Union. In 1925 the KKK donated a leather bound Bible to Campbell's church. The letters "KKK" were embossed on the cover. One day, Campbell would preach from that same Bible.
Campbell is an ordained Southern Baptist minister but, like most iconoclasts and prophets, no institution could find a good use for him, nor could he for them. At one time he was the campus pastor at Ole Miss and soon ran afoul of the Southeran taste and styles which, even during the heated debates surrounding integration, had no stomach for truth-telling. He served the newly formed National Council of Churches, which used him as a sort of mobile trouble-shooter for all things Southern and racial. He refused to demonized the "other" side in the race debates. He made the most of his newly formed, inchoately described, position to make himself present everywhere race matters were approaching the boiling point.
Campbell's undergraduate degree is from Wake Forest, he studied a further year at Tulane, and received the M.Div from Yale. He returned to the South, married, and proceeded to upturn the expectations on all sides of the racial debate.
The focus of Will Campbell's entire life and ministry has not been himself, or gathering power or prestige to himself in order to force change, but one of living and preaching that the world is *already reconciled* to God through Jesus Christ. Using 2 Corinthians 5 as a touchstone, Campbell's presence at the intersection of nearly every racial skirmish and battle of the 50's and 60's exasperated both sides. You see, Will preaches and teaches that one must be hospitable to both sides in that and nearly every debate. Campbell hung out with Klansmen and liberal theologians. He continues, to this day, to live a life of reconciliation. When the Church resorted to pointing at the recently passed laws regarding race to sort of force the issue of integration on churches around the South, it was Campbell who wrote a searingly accurate essay titled "Race and Renewal in the Church"... included in this volume one cannot help but flash forward to 2010 and the current debates regarding sexuality in how we are called to be present for and with each other to seek to understand each side in the debate clearly and then, regardless of personal opinions, live in a state of reconciliation with each other.
This book is amazing but I have to warn the reader: it may wreck your present vocation. Preachers and teachers are "kept" individuals... part of systems and institutions that don't have much time to give to someone asking the question, "Wait, are we going about this social justice thing all wrong?" Is it the church's job to enforce laws or preach the Gospel, which, in itself, does the transforming work of God?
Richard Goode compiled this volume, which includes a brief history of Campbell's life until now, the aforementioned essay by Campbell himself, and a third section on looking forward in consideration of Campbell's contributions, as a book that can be accessed by small groups and individuals as well. There are many questions for discussion and some good good pull-out quotes or questions for reflection. Campbell's challenge to the once and future church really is Paul's, and the Gospels as well for that matter. Do we create community by dividing using the law or, rather, do we set about cultivating community in recognition that the bigot and the pastor, the bishop and the schismatic congregation, are already living in the Good News of reconciliation?
A friend of mine made a pilgrimage to Tennessee to visit Campbell at his farm outside of Nashville. There he saw for himself the bathtub next to the wood cabin where Campbell has baptized Christian, Jew and heathen. He partook in the Eucharist using the most available substitute for wine, homemade whisky in a mason jar. He was reminded of why Campbell decided to name his theological journal _Katallagete_ or "Be Reconciled!" for that is the message Campbell preaches to this day, and perhaps should give us pause in our own preaching and teaching and living.