It’s been a while since I’ve posted an epic post of this length. So strap yourself in. I am reviewing both a book, and a 5,000 word review of the book, and trying to do so letting the words of the author and the reviewer speak for themselves. And I think this is important — because I believe that the national journal of my denomination, Australian Presbyterian, has published an article that breaks one of the ten commandments. It bears false witness against a brother in Christ, and it does so publicly in a way that will be damaging to his reputation for anybody who is convinced by the review not to engage with the author’s own words. This is a serious charge, and one I hope to demonstrate via a reasonably substantial engagement with the book in question, and through unpacking some (but not all) problematic aspects with the review.
Australian Presbyterian has published a
hit piece review hatchet job on Constantine Campbell’s recent book Jesus v Evangelicals. The review is by Mark Powell; Mark who wrote this piece for Caldron Pool about wolves in shepherd’s clothing in the Presbyterian Church which, by all appearances and reasonable reader responses was about me. I note this history because there are ways that, like any interesting book review that people might want to read in the modern era, this is personal. It’s fair to say that Mark and I have found ourselves on the opposite ends of almost every dispute within our denomination in the almost ten years I’ve been ordained.
This review is both a review of Con’s book, and of Mark’s review — I think it’s worth doing this because I don’t think Con should have to defend himself against this review, because I think this review, published in Australian Presbyterian, is actually part of an ongoing contest to define the essence of Presbyterianism (particularly by defining what and who we are against). I will say more about this below.
There’s a weird little piece of history in the mix for me as I do this. I’ve known both Mark and Con since my early teens; both came to our small country town, Maclean, where my dad was the Presbyterian minister, on mission trips as young adults. I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that both attribute that trip — and dad’s particular theological vision and ministry practice — as important milestones in their trajectory into ministry. Mark has certainly said this publicly at various occasions in the last decade.
I’ve had less face-to-face interactions with Con since childhood; at one point I was his airport transport for an evangelistic event he spoke at in Brisbane. I can’t claim to know either all that well. I will admit that Con left a lasting impression on me — he stayed in our house for that mission trip, I handpicked him from a pile of potential billets (preacher’s kid privilege) because he shared our surname, he shared a first name with a character from my favourite video game at the time (Spirit of Excalibur, they don’t make’em like they used to), and his get to know you profile said he liked playing Nintendo. I’ve followed the ups and downs of his career, and read lots of his work. I didn’t study at Moore, but I’m well aware of the mythos that built around him — the Greek-Adonis with the language skills of Sophocles to boot, who could also play professional level Jazz sax, and function on four hours sleep; the evangelical theological wunderkind of verbal aspect, who spoke without notes and was handpicked as the future of TEDS; home of Carson…
Many of the evangelical institutions in Australia that Con mentions in his book — from his independent evangelical church in Canberra, to AFES, to Moore, and Chappo have been part of my heritage too, and I confess I find myself drawing similar conclusions to Con — my kindle version of his book is full of highlights, and in his interviews around the book I’ve felt seen (if not heard) such is the overlap in diagnosis about our scene; what I don’t share is the trauma that seems to be part of the impetus for the book — the breakdown of a marriage as a prominent figure in evangelicalism and its institutions. I’m proximate enough to Con and his circles to have heard whispers and rumblings about this, but distant enough to be dangerous if I pretend I know anything of the proximity. I’m familiar enough to have seen first-hand some of the dynamic Con describes, and to be almost absolutely certain that nobody outside the marriage really has much idea at all, or much right to comment. This becomes difficult when it is clear that Con’s personal trauma is inextricably linked to this book — if you wanted to dismiss the rest of the book, this would be an easy lever to pull. I don’t think that’s sensitive to the dynamics of trauma, or the way traumatic experiences might actually expose fractures in a system not equipped to deal with difficult things because it’s all about face (saving face rather than saving faith has been a landmark feature of a certain sort of evangelicalism in recent times).
As best as possible I’m going to seek to articulate the argument of Con’s book in terms he would recognise as his own, before turning to Mark Powell’s review. I trust this is the case because, though I express some concerns about a section of Con’s book, I have invited him to read my review and check that I have represented him fairly; which any fair minded reviewer, especially one operating in the same networks, should be prepared to do…
Con has been, for better or worse, a (not the) public face of a segment of Australian evangelicalism (the Reformed, Sydney Anglican adjacent variety). He’d balk at this, no doubt, but he’s been a poster boy for a particular tribe; an Aussie success story breaking into the U.S market. His most recent book isn’t the book in question, but a Pillar commentary on Ephesians. He’s a prolific author able to wax lyrical on Jazz music (Outreach and the Artist) and verbal aspect (Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament), and Union with Christ (Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study); he’s presented documentaries (In Pursuit of Peter the Apostle), and published articles for prominent online outlets. It’s fair to say his publishing output has typically either been academic, or interfacing between the academy and the church; this book is more pop-level and more personal — it seeks to find a broader audience, both in the U.S and here in Australia.
Con opens his book describing the way the word evangelical has been co-opted in the public imagination, especially in the U.S, by its association with Donald Trump — a man who embodies the vice list of Colossians 3 rather than the new self. You would have to be living under a rock, or a committed supporter of this very impulse Con describes to not recognise this association and to see it as a problem.
Friends in the U.S church of my age and stage have written about their inability to reconcile the support even their parents have given to Trump — it’s like a spiritual possession — and many commentators, including conservatives like Rod Dreher have noted the causative link between support for Trump and a decline in participation in evangelical churches amongst many under 40 (those who grew up hearing their parents talk about Bill Clinton). Con has receipts. He draws on both primary sources, and commentators, noting the hypocritical difference between how evangelicals demonised Clinton but lauded (almost worshipped) Trump.
In the midst of these early chapters Con spells out the ways the label has become contested, such that even writing about evangelicalism runs the risk of being misunderstood. He notes scholarly definitions like the fairly well known Bebbington quadrilateral (which, in 1989, suggested the four common elements of evangelicalism by definition were a belief in the supremacy of Scripture as the word of God, crucicentricism (a belief in the centrality of the saving work of Jesus on the cross), conversionism (a belief that people needed to be converted via evangelism), and activism. Con notes, following work by scholars like Mark Noll, that it is no longer enough to simply talk about evangelicalism as a movement within the church in this way — that its use as a label has broadened to include social/cultural and political aspects.
Con is skeptical about its usefulness as a label as a result of this expansion, I think it’s fair to say he raises questions about the theological label as well, especially around the question of what exactly crucicentricism involves. As a reader Con’s chapters on the political use of the word evangelical and the theological definition were the strongest for me (by far the most highlighted). I had a minor quibble around his description of the pre-Constantinian church as ‘non-political’ — I think that involves a narrow definition of politics, where the very counter-imperial structures Con describes were ‘political,’ and where leaders of the church were actively writing apologia seeking the very legal change Constantine introduced, while also hoping the Gospel would transform the heart of the emperor and the empire.
The political obviously intersects and grows out of the cultural. The theological and the cultural intersect too — and in Con’s book this is evident in the chapter dealing with unspeakable sins in evangelicalism, and specifically divorce. These are confronting chapters for a reader, and engaging with them well — especially in the form of a review — requires an amount not just of comprehension of words, but of feelings and trauma — it’s a chapter that calls for pastoral sensitivity and simultaneously requires it of the reader as Con unpacks his experience of trauma surrounding his divorce, and seeks to chart an alternative way forward to the evangelical response he experienced.
One could easily dismiss these chapters for a host of reasons — some more valid than others, whether that’s a recognition that he has a platform to talk about the failure of his marriage, while his ex-wife does not, a recognition that trauma might help us see red flags but make it harder for us to describe or prescribe solutions, or simply a belief that for something to be truly useful it has to be dispassionate and objective (a decidedly non-pastoral approach).
I found the divorce chapters difficult to read because, as a pastor who comes face-to-face with complexity in my daily life — and as a pastor whose job and supportive community is in many ways inextricably linked to the success of my marriage — I just felt the weight of the set of experiences for all involved. It’s uncomfortable reading if you are capable of empathy, even more so if you’re attuned to the dynamics of trauma. I’m not sure if the proximity to these events was helpful — I wonder what a 6th edition of this book might look like with additional distance. There were ways the chapter convicted me as someone in the orbit who had speculated and even heard various rumours — and as someone who had intuitively ‘picked sides’ based on speculation, information, and observation from a distance. I suspect there’s some catharsis here for Con, but I also think, as an observer, that coming through the valley of the shadow of the death of his marriage, with Jesus still in the mix as his shepherd, has probably done some death and resurrection work on Con.
You don’t come through that sort of trauma unscathed, and I hope the degree to which he has learned dependence on God, and repented, and worked through this situation his reflections are useful. He is, in some sense, being generous with his experience of suffering (notwithstanding the questions I still have about the public nature of this generosity, and the size of his platform being used so vulnerably without the embodied community of relationships in the mix where Con can be known and loved and questioned). I finished that particular chapter committed to prayerfully recognising the complex dynamics at play in any situation like this, and to working out how to build bridges and be present in people’s pain, listening, without textbook answers and Bible verses, rather than leaving them isolated, so, to that end, it probably did the job.
The book neither lives, nor dies, on these particular chapters — which do highlight some dynamics in our churches around respectable and not respectable sins. You know, like we love to say gay kids can’t be school captains in our churches maybe, while not saying a greedy kid can’t captain an exorbitantly expensive church school, or we praise a Rugby player for bravely speaking against homosexuality while he shares a hate-speech meme created by a convicted financial fraudster in the U.S, whose meme drops greed from the list of sins).
His chapter expanding and challenging crucicentricism was one that deeply resonates with me — and it’s an area where his publication history means he’s actually an expert. His point that penal substitution is part of the Gospel, but to reduce the good news to ‘good news for me’ rather than ‘good news about Jesus’ is an individualistic distortion of the Gospel that is a fruit of the spirit of the age (and, so too, an evangelicalism that owns that distortion). Anyone committed to a richer articulation of the Gospel that includes (as the Apostles do) the pouring out of the Spirit and our union with Jesus (the end of exile from God), as we’re called into his kingdom together, and Jesus’ victory over the powers and principalities, and his example at the cross being the heart of our ethic, and the resurrection and new creation having something to say there too, will get a loud cheer from me. This chapter was a beautifully pop-level explanation of a richness I’ve been trying to articulate in my preaching for some time. It, alone, is enough for me to recommend it to others.
His chapter on the reduction of evangelical politics to opposition to homosexuality (Exclusion zones) also resonated deeply with me, but I’ll say more about that below. He actually lost points for me a little later — and revealed where he actually sits personally — by telling the story of Rosaria Butterfield, who, for those supportive of Side B “celibate gay Christians” is a massive red flag because she is a gatekeeper who invalidates the belonging such folks find in Christ. She says there’s no such thing as a celibate gay Christian or any sort of gay Christian, and that she isn’t in fellowship with those seeking a ‘vocation of yes’ (figuring out what sanctification looks like as a positive calling empowered by God’s Spirit, not just a ‘you can’t do this’ emphasis on mortification. If Con was truly a horrible liberal on this question he absolutely would not have celebrated Butterfield’s story.
I found his treatment of race, judgmentalism, tribalism, megachurches, and the celebration of the lunatic fringe compelling. I would have more to say about the megachurch section from my own traumatic experiences in that avenue of evangelicalism, but that would make this review more about me than it ought be. I perhaps have a distorted view of Con’s own ‘celebrity’ (he says his work has been ‘nerdy’ — but gee, he makes nerdy look good, and his uber-competence and genius has a certain street cred in our scene). I pressed him on Twitter on whether he might’ve included some self-reflection on his own pursuit of a platform on the other side of the trauma of losing significant momentum and status. I’m not sure at what point a celebrity realises they are — or at what point that’s built in the mind of an admirer — but some self-reflection on this point (a little after sharing about preaching at his friend Mark Dever’s church) would have made this section more compelling for me (as someone tempted by the lure of the platform as much as tempted to put people on it). The game has a price. In the words of Jesus, what good is it to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul.
I’m thankful my brother has not lost his soul, but perhaps continues to find healing and resurrection for his soul through leaning in to his union with Jesus, and experiencing the love of the Father, by the Spirit — not on the basis of his output (or his biceps), but as a free and liberating gift. I’m sorry some of this healing has come at such a price for him, and for his family.
Con finishes by drawing out specific fault lines in evangelicalism as a discrete movement (inasmuch as it is one). If you’re going to own the umbrella label, this’s the baggage. I’ll list these in full, because they become line by line, the basis of Mark Powell’s slanderous review.
He matches these fault lines with specific teachings of Jesus in ways that are compelling, and you should read the book.
- American evangelicalism has become politicized to the extent that its spiritual nature has been distorted, fueled by the assumption that political power will transform American culture.
- Evangelicals often uphold an “us versus them” mentality toward outsiders, shaped by a lack of self-sacrificial love and acceptance of others.
- Evangelicalism frequently suffers from the perception and reality of judgmentalism, forged by self-righteousness and a lack of humility.
- Evangelicals can be highly divisive, exacerbating theological and cultural divisions that create tribal boundaries established by tribal ways of reading the Bible.
- Evangelicals have an understood code of acceptable and unacceptable sins, created through tribal values rather than the priorities of the Bible.
- Evangelicals tend to shoot their wounded by the way they treat marriage failure, divorce, and remarriage.
- Evangelicals celebrate an unhealthy church model—the megachurch—which is the product of a cultural fascination with celebrity, size, consumerism, and entertainment.
- The popular face of evangelicalism has been overrun by fringe personalities peddling false gospels aimed at the manipulation of their followers to forge their own fortunes.
His conclusion is that there are three things we might do with the label; we might keep it, redefine it, or ditch it. He makes a case for and against each option.
Rather than self-defining as an ‘exvangelical’, he suggests if you were going to go that path the Greek roots of ‘exangelical’ make more sense (there’s a tricky lack of a v there that seems to have cofounded at least one less careful reviewer). So far as his self-description goes, he says: “I’m fortunate that I can simply call myself an Anglican. But many evangelicals do not belong to a denomination. Part of the popularity of the evangelical label was that it transcended denominational affiliations or substituted for them.”
This genuinely is a conundrum; it’s a conundrum too for those of us in a denomination like Presbyterian, where our national publication, under the hand of its culture warring editorial team, seem determined to make “Presbyterian” synonymous in the public eye with “homophobic, racist, right-wing crazy person.” I find myself searching for another description regularly.
He lands, much as he does on other issues, advocating a third way that avoids the contest our tribal world seems so keen to draw us into (exvangelical being another tribal marker). Those who only see tribes and goodies and baddies might find this difficult to wrap their heads around, saying:
“The popular Twitter handle #exvangelical seems to be used by people who are repulsed by the culture of evangelicalism, whether or not their theological convictions have shifted. (By the way, I think exangelical is better.) These labels seem to appeal to people who not only want to distance themselves from evangelicalism but want to be seen to distance themselves. Their former evangelical status is explicitly renounced.”
And his last words:
I benefit from attending a church that is not trying to coerce action in conformity to tribal expectations but allows Jesus to do his work in our hearts and minds. And people without a label fit in just fine.
Amen. More churches like this please.
Reviewing the review
And now. To reviewing the review. Mark Powell’s review in the Australian Presbyterian runs for close to 5,000 words, and he has already issued one correction and apology (while dogmatically claiming on social media all day up to that point that his review was bang on and sound).
From the opening line of this review (and in some of his commentary on Facebook about the review), Powell has misread Campbell and misrepresents him as a liberal apostate, a dreaded ‘deconstructing exvangelical.’ One wonders what the agenda is here — why it is so important for a national denomination to fight so hard against Con’s book — what agendas do Powell and the editorial committee have that this fits the bill for publication? Could it be that we’re all about equipping people for a culture war, and that Con has a degree of influence in our circles that might undermine the long march through our institutions these guys on the hard right are making. There’s been a concerted effort from Powell, and others, to turn this national journal into a sister publication to the Caldron Pool, and to bring the culture war into the courts of our church with the debate primed by articles like this (and Powell’s other work on issues like acknowledgment of country and the Voice referendum). Con’s book directly undermines much of the project this journal (and its authors) have been working towards, so it is important it be dismantled before it be allowed to take root in the minds an imaginations of a Presbyterian; better to make it a naughty book nobody should read, by a naughty boy, than something compelling.
The egregious misrepresentations of Con’s book, and Con himself, run from start to finish. Powell utterly fails to comprehend the black and white writing on the page (not just the subtext).
From start to finish he seems to deliberately use and redefine the word evangelical in slippery ways contrary to the demonstrated thesis of the book, grounded in discourse around the nature of evangelicalism (he, for eg, insists that Hillsong, Osteen, and various others “aren’t evangelicals” simply because he defines them as something else, when Con’s point is that as soon as other people co-opt the label, it’s time to get a new label), deliberately missing the entire point of a book in order to misrepresent it is next level bad faith engagement as a reviewer.
He is tilting at scarecrows tied to windmill blades and imagining himself a brave knight; he doesn’t even hit the straw men and he runs the risk of the windmill blade knocking him on his backside as he misses it too. I cannot find a metaphor for how badly he misses the mark. I’m sure there are valid critiques one could make of the book from an evangelical perspective, but these are not it — and it makes me embarrassed to be a Presbyterian that our national journal saw fit to publish this dumpster fire.
Powell consistently refers to ‘more credible sources’ Con should have consulted; but every one is from a hardline right-wing publication or voice committed to exactly the same position Powell holds; they are occasionally the product of shoddy scholarship or argumentation, and at times Powell suggests Con should’ve consulted experts when, indeed, Con is a leading expert in the field (and Powell is not).
Let me run, piece by piece, through three glaring misrepresentations, quoting Powell, and quoting Con. I will let you read for yourself. This is by no means an exhaustive list. One has now been corrected, but that it needed to be is evidence of the shoddiness of this piece.
Mark said Con identifies as an “exvangelical”; and despite a retraction this view permeates the entire review
In a now retracted sentence, Mark misquotes Con’s conclusion and self-description. His retraction attempts to remove that misunderstanding, but it’s the main thesis of the article, and it carries the whole way through. Mark believes Con has left the faith, and the article still opens with “Whenever something like this occurs, it is always a terrible tragedy. And it is something which causes great grief throughout the body of Christ.” The tragedy is now, given the apology, that Con identifies as Anglican. Bad news our English brethra.
This isn’t one of the five, but in the next couple of paragraphs Mark both proves Con’s point, by bending over backwards to justify Trump support, and suggests Con’s thesis closes itself off to good faith criticism because he predicts exactly Mark’s type of response.
Saying: “Any response to Campbell’s criticisms runs the risk then of only providing further evidence of the very things he rails against. Maybe that’s why there have been so few reviews of the book from the wider evangelical community? Much like trying to defend oneself today about not being racist, the mere objection signifies that the individual is quite the White Supremacist!
Campbell believes that most modern-day evangelicals are essentially “judgmental”, “self-righteous” and “unloving” hypocrites.”
This rhetorically serves to allow Powell to be all of those things while simultaneously claiming he isn’t — he throws around the word gaslighting later — I’m not sure he is self-conscious enough to recognise how close this strategy runs I think it’s worth having some of Con’s words in mind here. Powell employs a classic strategy when this sort of thing is called out online — I’ve seen it enough in my interactions with him. I’ll call out something like the wolf-hit piece on Caldron Pool (written soon after I published a piece critical of the moderator general’s response to conversion therapy laws, calling for a little more nuance), and he’ll flat out deny it is about me but then say “but hey, if the cap fits,” or in a social media interaction today I called out aspects of his review as being slanderous, and he flipped the accusation around on me and said he would ‘no longer engage’ — he’s a flat track bully who engages disingenuously. It’s worth having these words from Con in mind while reading Powell’s criticism.
“Counterintuitively, a lack of humility can be a sign of insecurity—another element that fuels judgmentalism. Judgmental people derive satisfaction from looking down on others because it props up their sense of superiority. Insecurity is a powerful driver of criticism, slander, jealousy, and judgment. Insecure people find it hard to affirm others, often interpreting such affirmation as a loss of power. But they can be quick to pounce on errors, weaknesses, and differences, as though doing so increases their own stock. In reality, they’re just being jerks.”
I don’t know. One might accuse Con of poisoning the well here, but it’s also possible his prediction is prophetic.
Rule 101 for reviewing books is ‘read on the writer’s terms’ — it’s just an act of love, or hospitality — a recognition that any book is an act of generosity and vulnerability, even if it has an agenda. Con is up front about his agenda, and how he hopes readers might engage:
“The first step toward epistemic confidence must be epistemic humility. If we are not first willing to question how we know what we know, and to consider challenges to the veracity of our truth claims, we will be doomed to our modes of thought with all of their mistakes, narrowness, and prejudices. So I humbly ask anyone reading this to take a deep breath and consider whether there’s some truth to the critiques to come.”
Mark is not so up front about his agenda. Leaving his readers to guess what’s going on under the hood.
Mark accuses Con of departing from the teaching of the Bible on issues of marriage and homosexuality
In his treatment of ‘fault line 2’ — the exclusionary posture evangelicals adopt towards those engaged in sexual sin — Powell is utterly unable to parse the nuance in Campbell’s position, but he also fails to read the very clear sentences Con uses in their plain meaning.
Con starts by canvasing various reasons for and against same sex marriage in the modern political sphere, and Christian and non Christian objections to various arguments. Powell reads each aspect of this description (including him citing the West Wing) as Con holding these positions, not simply describing them. He also misses (or dismisses) Con’s explicit point in the chapter — which is not to articulate or defend the position he holds, but to urge Christians to consider the way we turn our positions into a stance towards people whose lives fall outside those positions. He says:
Christians differ on the interpretation and application of the relevant texts, and this is not the place to weigh in on those discussions. Regardless of their theological position, there are aspects of how evangelicals communicate their message that they would do well to think more carefully about.
As a result Mark accuses Con of having no limits or particularly Christian understanding of marriage (ie of embracing the world’s definition, rather than ceding the right to define marriage to the government of our day, according to the kingdom of the world it governs), trotting out various specious strawmen (Con doesn’t speak against polygamy, for example, and his ethic doesn’t prevent that).
Furthermore, he accuses one of the leading NT Greek scholars in the world) of a novel interpretation of Romans 1, without understanding the actual argument he is making and the necessary conclusion of his argument — that to the extent that he is describing an argument it is that homosexual sex and marriage are a product of an idolatrous departure from the will of God, and a punishment from God for that departure that can only be overturned by an act of grace from God by his Spirit, through the Gospel.
Powell presents his position as the absolute reverse, assuming that Con’s writing represents a departure from the Biblical position that homosexual sex is sin (rather than it is one sin, and that our posture towards sinners should be an invitation to be transformed by Jesus). He writes:
“Not only does Campbell fail to interact with any conservative evangelical author on the subject of homosexuality, but he also fails to mention any of the other pertinent passages on this issue; i.e., Genesis 19:1-11; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10 or Jude 5-10, all of which would have directly refuted his thesis…”
Then he asks “Is Campbell really suggesting that the evangel is not powerful to save and transform a person’s soul? That is the opposite of what the apostle Paul teaches…”
This is the opposite of what Con says in his book about the nature of the Gospel.
Campbell highlights many of the same arguments (around, for example, opposition to same sex marriage being legislated in a secular parliament) that I have made here, and in the courts of the church over the years — and to this end, that Campbell, like this one, must be positioned as a wolf. The editor of the denominational magazine responded to a photo of a group of Side B Christians in my church eating rainbow cake circulating on social media with an email to every minister in the denomination declaring “heresy begins with rainbow cake.”
Con’s description of the Romans 1 account for same sex sex is straight forward, and straight out of Romans 1 — same sex sexual activity is a product of idolatrous hearts turning away from the creator, and being given over as judgment to this way of living in the world; the way back to God from this position is not achieved via political pressure or national laws, but through the Gospel, by the Spirit. He doesn’t stop at the Josiah Bartlett description and say “that’s it, case closed evangelicals,’ or even show his hand.
A careful reading of Con’s words on what the Gospel is, and his discussions about marriage where he does acknowledge his own beliefs, see him upholding a vision of sexual practice (and marriage) consistent with the historic understanding of the Bible and the teaching of the broader evangelical church. His issue is that the stance we embrace politically excludes a gay person from ever experiencing the transforming power of the Gospel within our communities because we put up the ‘you’re not welcome’ sign, and then we police any sin in this area incredibly inconsistently with the way we police other sins.
To clear up any confusion, Powell could simply have asked Con his position before hitting publish on his hit job. But he didn’t. I did. Mind you, I wasn’t confused, because Con’s position is the one that I’ve held and argued for even in the postal survey, when Mark and co wanted us to pull out of registering marriages because of how evil the government was becoming (while not, you know, wanting us to stop banking with banks making exorbitant profits through greed, or to shift our super defaults to ethical investment funds). And his position that our communities should be places of inclusion and transformation — where transformation happens through the Gospel — faithfully submitting to the Lordship of Jesus — by the Spirit — is the position I’ve been arguing for on our denomination’s treatment of LGBTIQA+ issues for over a decade.
Rather than not being convinced about Con’s arguments on gender; which are specifically about the emergence of the idea of gender in very modern history (as opposed to arguments about biological sex), it’s quite clearly the case that Powell does not have the capacity to understand them, these are just categories that do not compute.
Con is arguing for pastoral sensitivity with actual people because the lived experience and the solutions offered end up being barriers to a person finding the sort of security in Jesus that might allow them to ask deeper questions about the goodness or liveability of their existence in their body. He says:
“Many evangelical answers to these questions come across as simplistic and insufficient to address the complex and disorienting realities of gender dysphoria. They lack mercy and only increase a person’s sense of their brokenness and condemnation. Often it is best to begin by recognizing that those who experience gender dysphoria are not making a choice and that telling them to rectify something they have no control over does not help them. They might be able to resist cross-dressing to satisfy Deuteronomy 22:5 (and the Christian community), but that will do nothing to address their inner turmoil… In place of simplistic solutions, evangelicals need to be prepared to offer grace and understanding to those who need it.”
Powell calls Con a Democrat, strawmanning his ‘constant quotations’ of the West Wing as having shaped his theology
Here’s a paragraph from Powell.
“Campbell is himself a Democrat by conviction, and hence is effusive in his praise for—as well as strident defence of—the fictional TV drama, The West Wing. Indeed, he often references the words in the show of Catholic President Jed Bartlet to make an authoritative theological point on everything from homosexuality, headship and submission within marriage, asylum seekers and what is the evangelical gospel.”
At no point in the book does Con identify as a Democrat; for starters he’s an Australian. To do so would be strange. In fact, Con stridently argues against the tribalism and partisanship that reduces any Christian engagement with the political order to party politics.
He says, for example:
“Good deeds point others to God’s goodness. Political partisanship, often accompanied by hate-filled rhetoric, will never lead anyone to glorify God. Inciting violence, hatred, and division does not point others to God’s goodness. Rather, these activities lead others to despise Christians and the church.”
And that a Christian should embrace critical distance from all earthly powers, not partisanship, partnership, or surrender. To call Con a Democrat is to disregard the actual position he states in the book.
“Christian political activity should be marked by godly character and prophetic conviction, rather than partisan loyalty and the pursuit of power.”
Powell is unable to comprehend a political stance outside the binary options offered by the kingdom of this world (you’re either for Trump or for Biden, you can’t be against both — oddly in a system where voting isn’t compulsory, you’re Republican or Democrat… all odd positions for an Australian pastor to take).
The West Wing point is absolutely strange. Con refers to the West Wing in two passages in the book. The first is when he describes but doesn’t legitimise “the Josiah Bartlett position” on homosexuality (specifically his takedown of applying Leviticus to modern life, Con goes on to point out the evangelical position is more sophisticated, and that there are New Testament passages to consider as well, contra Bartlett). I’ll quote the latter passage in full, because I think just comparing Powell’s description of Con turning to the show to make “authoritative theological points” on “everything” Powell lists is clearly overblown, and a horrid misrepresentation of one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars as a bit of a putz.
“One of my favorite TV shows is The West Wing. I love the writing, the characters, and the optimistic vision of what great leadership can look like. It didn’t bother me that the president is a Democrat and a Catholic who occasionally rips into evangelical leaders. But years ago, I learned that not all evangelicals feel the same way about this high-caliber TV show. A well-known American biblical scholar once told a friend of mine that “The West Wing is not as bad as pornography, but it’s close.” At the time, I simply could not understand that comment, but now I think I do. The show’s idealization of Democratic Party values and its occasional demonization of the Republicans means that few right-leaning American evangelicals could watch it. It’s leftist utopian propaganda. It’s from the devil. But The West Wing is not from the devil. Just because it is pro-Democrat does not mean that it is opposed to God. American evangelicals’ problem with The West Wing is that they perceive it to be opposed to their tribe. In the first episode, President Bartlet tells three evangelical leaders to get their “fat asses” out of his White House.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many evangelicals didn’t watch past that. Certainly my American evangelical friend who watched it with me didn’t go any farther. In the fifth season, there’s also a Bartlet tirade against an antigay evangelical radio personality. So there are a couple of clear denunciations of some evangelical individuals. But it would be a mistake to believe that The West Wing is anti-God. To begin, the president is a devout Catholic believer. He regularly draws on his faith throughout his leadership. There’s a scene in which he and the First Lady briefly banter about Ephesians 5:21–26 after hearing it preached at church that morning. And there’s an episode in which several Chinese evangelicals seek asylum in the United States. In the Oval Office, President Bartlet discusses Christian faith with a leader of the asylum seekers, who perfectly articulates the evangelical gospel, which convinces Bartlet that their faith is genuine. It is a positive and moving portrayal of evangelicals escaping religious persecution. The West Wing is not anti-God. It is a bit anti-Republican. But because American evangelicals are so closely associated with the Republican Party, the show goes against the tribe. And because evangelicals often rely on tribal boundaries to determine right and wrong, The West Wing is demonized.”
I don’t think I need to do any more to demonstrate how badly Powell misreads Con; or ponder the damage that would be done to Con’s reputation if people believed Powell’s presentation of his work or character. But I wonder if the very next paragraph in Con’s book, after this description of the right ‘demonising’ the West Wing might speak to some of Powell’s intention here.
“If you challenge a cherished member of the tribe, you’ll be opposed whether you’re right or wrong. For many evangelicals, opposition to the tribe is the evidence that you’re wrong.”
I’ll let you, the reader, decide. But perhaps you should let Con speak for himself, read his book — certainly don’t read Powell’s review and think that he has adequately comprehended or represented any of its arguments.
15 thoughts on “Australian Presbyterian’s Con Job: a review, and review of a review of Con Campbell’s Jesus v Evangelicals”
Mark’s review illustrates another serious problem with the evangelical boys club in Sydney: a willingness to lie, misrepresent, and change the narrative. A lot of them do it and get away with it.
Just wanting to make clear, for anyone who wonders, that the Mark Powell discussed here is certainly NOT the American NT scholar Mark Allan Powell.
I note that you asked Constantine to read this to ensure that you had represented him fairly. Did you do the same for Mark?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure it’s an equivalent. I had a discussion with Mark on Facebook prior to posting and he refused to see that any of his review inaccurately represented Con’s views, I made a smaller version of the argument I made here in that discussion. Mark disagreed, continuing to believe his review was accurate in its engagement and representation of Con’s book.
So. I think what I had to do was demonstrate what Con’s views are and how Mark misrepresented them. I don’t think I need to ask Mark if I’ve adequately represented his representation of Con’s views when my point was to represent Con’s actual views and contrast them with Mark’s actual words.
Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this double review. The Presbyterian church needs a lot more thoughtful and courageous people of your caliber. Keep it up.
Why tar everyone with the same brush? Christians in their evangelical keenness can be led astray by wrong emphasis. Certainly we need the reminder of the truth as found in Romans 1:16. We can all fall into pride and judgmentalism – this is so evident in both of the Campbells. Yes let’s warn about actions and statements of Christians where the centrality of the Gospel is being lost, and let us gently encourage them in the right direction. And how about giving praise to God of the great work that Evangelical/Reformed people of God are doing. How lives and even towns have been transformed by men such as Tim Keller, John Piper, JC Sproul, John MacArthur etc etc. How about a book on how liberals have politicized the faith, how they have circumvented the teaching of the Bible to endorse abortion right up to birth, with no sign of the Gospel being preached or lived. Let us who believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and hold to the Reformed faith – not tearing down mercilessly – but be encouraging and helping one another to be faithful and true in walking with our mighty God, and in proclaiming and teaching His truth fearlessly and faithfully.
“We can all fall into pride and judgmentalism – this is so evident in both of the Campbells.”
Dare I say this statement is a double-edged sword.
I understand you’re on the national journal committee. Given that I hope I’ve demonstrated that Mark’s review actually misrepresents the black and white words in Con’s book, how do you feel as a committee member that your publication still carries a slanderous article?
It’s very clear to anyone who has read the book that:
a) Con does not say what Mark says he says about homosexuality, but rather, canvases various arguments people make on the issue (the same is true about many of the issues Mark raises; he has confused ‘describing a view’ with ‘holding a view’.
b) Con does not draw his theology from the West Wing. In fact, he critiques the West Wing’s position as simplistic (and suggests evangelicals are more sophisticated than the caricature). And later suggests that the West Wing functions as a bit of a litmus test for what tribe a person belongs to in a tribal context. Ironically, Mark falls into the trap of demonstrating what tribe he belongs to.
I fear a lot of people are criticising this book on the basis of Mark’s defamatory and false review (where the accusation that Con is an “exvangelical” might have been corrected in one sentence, but that interpretation colours the whole review.
I would suggest Mark’s review essentially tears Con down mercilessly in order to play a tribal game, and the danger is that you and others on the Committee, by not recognising this, are revealing that you are susceptible to this very same tribalism.
Mark’s review is unspeakably bad. That it is still published over a week after going to print, after the author has made it known to Mark that it misrepresents his argument and his theology horrifically, is an indictment on the whole publication and the committee who stand behind it.
“How about a book on how liberals have politicized the faith, how they have circumvented the teaching of the Bible to endorse abortion right up to birth, with no sign of the Gospel being preached or lived.”
This sounds like a fine proposal for a book. Why don’t you write it?
This is an unfair comment to a fellow brother in Christ. You’re playing the same game as Mark does in his review… Play the ball and not the person.
This is an appalling comment. Even putting aside the disgraceful, unsubstantiated slur on two Christian brothers (which I had to reread several times because at first I couldn’t believe what I was reading). The fact that “evangelical/reformed people of God” have been used wonderfully by God doesn’t mean we can’t also reflect on how we can be better.
Thanks Nathan for your double reviews.
I read Mark’s review online and thought the article was published by an ultra-conservative, hard Right Wing, conspiracy theory-touting website. How surprised was I that it was from the Presbyterian church?!? I couldn’t believe it. (I actually went through the list of authors thinking who are these crazies… until I saw a few names I recognised and was shocked that they were associated with Mark’s article!)
It’s sad that the Presbyterian church has agreed to publish this article. Thank you for speaking out publicly (and sadly having to take a hit for doing so…).
I’m going to read Con’s book for myself — he seems to have hit a nerve, generating a response which proves his argument.
I hate to say it… but Mark’s refusal to apologise to Con is classic Sydney Anglicanism. No-one apologises for anything. Makes you wonder.
Thanks for your courage to stand up to these people trying to co-opt us into a partisan politics.
Their lack of emphasis on greed is particularly telling. I’m coming to think that greed and usury is the blind sin of our time. This is a bit counterintuitive as most people are financially insecure, only a few missed payslips away from financial ruin. Our obsession with financial security is because it’s so hard to obtain.
The way we treat sin is also an impediment to addressing it. Making someone guilty of their $1,000,000 mortgage does nothing to help their debt slavery.
I think the problem is that modern money is debt: money is created when debt is issued.
For example, when someone wants to buy a house they get a loan from the bank. The bank doesn’t only loan out what it has in deposits, it creates new money. The seller has access to money, depositors still have access to their money, and the buyer has a house.
The newly created money dilutes the value of all other money causing inflation. Inflation means savings lose value, prompting investment in assets, driving up the price. Higher prices mean larger loans. To manage inflation, interest rates rise, generating more income for the banks. If the bubble bursts, large banks are bailed out by government debt. The end result is an exponential increase in debt – An instrument to harvest the wealth of everyone and concentrate it in a few large banks.
“The rich rules over the poor,
And the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” – Proverbs 22:7
Both Democrats and Republicans oversee this system.
Thanks Mark. I’ve bought the book.
Any comment pro or for Mark would be contentious and liable to get me assumed as being in a camp. But kudos for the article and the outcome.
I, too have bought the book. Sadly and tellingly, I couldn’t purchase it through “our” Reformers Bookshop, although several of Con’s other books are still on offer there. I wonder who decided it is on the Reformers banned books list, and how long before Con’s entire opus is purged from its stocks?