A Response to ‘Far From The Tree’ – Does a preacher lose his son when his son loses his faith?

Rick Johnston
Apr 27, 2017 · 7 min read
Photo Credit: www.campolofilm.com

According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said,

“I do not come to bring peace, but a sword. I will set a man against his father”.

What chokes me up the most about religion is that it divides. Not just humans historically, geographically and tribally but divides humans I know right now, in our closest relationships, in our families. The words of Jesus have been prophetic – religion has set fathers and sons, mothers and daughters against one another. And if not against, certainly into an awkward estrangement. As a former Presbyterian Ministry candidate in the religious heartland of Northern Ireland I witnessed my fair share.

I heard Tony Campolo speak in Belfast on a number of occasions. He reminded me of some of our best Irish preachers with a few notable differences. He had that admirable American ability to ‘go for it’, to be unashamed in his enthusiasms. Our preachers ‘went for it’ but the ‘it’ was usually drink, drugs or debauchery (“that means sex,” as one preacher helpfully clarified). I caricature of course, but not by much. We could preach fire and brimstone very well but Tony showed us how we might be just as enthusiastic about things like feeding the poor or befriending the prostitutes. He’d embarrass audiences into tears and laughter about what sounded more like a ‘party’ of kindness rather than a ‘march’ of moralising.

A friend introduced me to Bart Campolo by sending him some writing I was doing as a post-Christian. I had been trying to break apart Bible stories to show the victims that are (barely) hidden within the narratives. To endeavour to show in story form that I no longer ‘morally’ accepted the Bible or its god. Bart read them and called me ‘my kind of humanist’. For once, I thought, here was someone who ‘got’ the tone I wanted. Secular Humanist, yes. Militant Christian Basher? No. Not that this film ignores the differences or ever should. Quite the reverse. This is a film that seeks to face up to the differences. As they impact a real relationship, no less. The viewpoints of both are set out firmly and unapologetically in the film. But with a tone that stretches out a hand rather than a fist.

So don’t expect to hear a Dawkins; no Hitchens, no Angry Anglo Articulate Atheist (try that with your false teeth out). Don’t get me wrong, I love to hear a Hitchslap as much as the next man. They are as entertaining as a Shakespearean insult but for me exist in that realm of ‘Christian — Atheist debate entertainment’. When it comes to the realm of families and the awkward conversations many of us are reluctant to have over dinner tables — smug put-downs don’t bring us any closer. And the opposition are just as smug — the Lennoxes and the William Lane Craigs. They are the evangelical entertainers and they know it. This film wipes the smug grin off all their faces.

The audience, in the Director’s home turf of Belfast laughed (out loud) and if I was anything to go by, wiped tears at other points. Those present were like an awkward high school reunion of people who once knew each other in or outside the church. And this film was the right place to bridge the gaps. I was there with friends and family, believers and unbelievers, gay and straight and all the shades inbetween (“Lord I’m straight, help my unstraightness!”). From my perspective, as a former student pastor and near-minister, this film is a gift to the world. Both worlds.

For this is the human family finding a way of living and talking amidst one of the greatest divides the world has ever known. The extremities of belief faced up to, articulated and yet overcome in a family. On film.

What is evident in the film is the compassion of Tony, the father, that has been infused into Bart. Tony has clear universalist tendencies (the belief that all might be saved), an open acceptance of the gay community and belief in anonymous Christians (those that are Christian through their actions without knowing it). I hope I don’t get him into another heresy trial for saying that. These are all the traits of someone in which the message of ‘Love/love’ has had a noted impact, breaking open even the texts from which the message has sprung. Towards the end of the film is an interesting discussion about the German Theologian Karl Barth on the ‘spirit’ of reading the Bible. As a theology student at Queen’s University, Belfast I wrote a paper on Karl Barth due to a vicious argument in the 600 strong Christian Union. The not-to-overdramatise ‘schism’ was about whether merely quoting the words of the Bible alone had power to convince sinners to salvation versus the need to explain the message of the Bible in language they might understand. I was already on the ‘Sorry, what?’ end of the spectrum even then but this controversy led to some heated late night discussions and at least one known punch. After one of these discussions I stretched out my hand to shake what I thought was my fellow believer’s hand. He refused. He’d rather divide than come together. And that tone is something I have run from ever since.

The end of the German theologian section of the film is both illuminating and hilarious. I will not spoil it for the filmgoer. In Bart’s case this spirit of love has broken beyond the faith itself. His father even indicates that while he preached it, Bart did it. The liberating message double-backed and released itself from its own source material. Finding a way out from the drownings of Noah and the genocides of Joshua. To rise from the ashes of Sodom like the Phoenix, free from its religious cage. From Bart’s perspective this is because it was, and is, always a human thing — reflected from time to time, and often poorly, in religious texts.

As you watch this movie, Tony can still make you ‘feel’. When you hear him talk about a preacher preaching to a corpse at a funeral — as if merely saying ‘Goodnight, I’ll see you in the morning’ you can’t help be affected. He speaks of death and an afterlife so dramatically that I defy anyone to not have a flicker of ‘wonder’ about what might be beyond.

But then Bart speaks just as eloquently and passionately about this life being all there is and how more precious it is and what we do with it. And you are reminded that the magic is not in the supernatural but in the words themselves, the tone and compassion in the eyes of the speakers. The perspectives that lift us up and give meaning. This is human magic, holy human water for thirsty people. Drink Responsibly.

A friend noted in particular the tears in Tony’s eyes as he spoke about his son’s moving outside of Christianity. A symbolic Jenga game indicates Bart’s faith coming to a literal ‘crashing’ end. This was a father that loved his son (in whom he was well pleased!).

Some said “I would like to have heard more about Tony’s thoughts”… others, “I would like to know all that Bart believes now”. These inconsequential critiques cancel themselves out. Give the director, John Wright, a chance for a sequel — Far From The Tree 2: One Rotten Apple!

Speaking of the director, at the first screening in Belfast I accidentally met John’s father, a Presbyterian Minister no less. This stuff is always about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and what becomes of the next generation. This stuff is real. For me Tony is a generation behind where Bart is. That is not a criticism of that generation, simply a statement of the place and the trajectory. When much of atheistic energy is driven by polemics and religion-bashing we need voices to guide the new unbelieving generation out of the anger of the zealots and into the hopeful, life-affirming, inclusivity-affirming people like Bart and the like. We need lifeboats for the humans interested in purpose, community and compassion beyond the dogmas of religion.

My current favourite quotation is my own paraphrase of G K Chesterton:

“We are all in the same boat on a stormy sea and we owe each other an awful loyalty”.

You will notice that even my latent Northern Irish Evangelicalism chooses a quote that is a little on the ‘doom’ side of things. Bart’s American enthusiasm would put that far better. Like his dad, he’d make that more into a party than an obligation. I think at one point he said, “love life, love people, do good”. If he didn’t, I’ll give him that.

This piece started with the fear of division that religion causes. And I know the division that anti-religion causes also. Jesus may have said he came to bring a sword and to turn a son against his father, but, as I hope you will see for yourself in this film, the Campolos found a way to break open those words and turn the sword into a ploughshare.

www.campolofilm.com for more details on the release and availability of the film.

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