"For Grandma Bertha and Grandpa Bunt, who taught me about hard sayings."
So begins Will Campbells 17th book, Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg
Preacher, a collection of essays, some hard-hitting, others sentimental, but all of
them bearing the distinctive stamp of one of the most provocative writers of our time.
Campbell is a Mississippian by birth, a white Southern Baptist who became an activist
in the civil rights movement and ever since has taken his own particular delight in
scandalizing those more rigid in their faith. At age 75, he is still caught up in the
mystery of it all. He has little use for ideology or creed"the baggage,"
he says, of those apostles of certainty who proclaim to their own congregations and the
world: "God told me, and Im telling you, and if you dont believe as I do
youre doomed." There is a special corner of his contempt, it seems, for the
political preachings of the far Religious Right"those electronic soul-molesters
who hurl to hearth and household their political agenda, all disguised in a tidy and
palatable gospel of Take up your cross and relax. Take up your cross and get rich.
Take up your cross and send a hurricane scurrying up the coast to blow somebody
elses house to smithereens."
If Campbell has little use for that approach, its hard to say exactly where he
fits. His faith is rooted in part in his Mississippi boyhoodin his memories
especially of his Grandpa Bunt, to whom his current book is dedicated. As Campbell
remembers him, the old man stood gently against the racial attitudes of his time.
Motivated by his faith, he proclaimed to the children who were growing up around him that
God made no distinctions between people who were black and people who were white, and
eventually the world would come to understand. Will Campbell believed it, and a few years
later he found himself caught in the crusade for civil rights. He marveled at the courage
of the young black people who resisted the cattle prods and the mobs, marching for what
they knew to be the truth.
But Campbell has never turned his back on his own. He believes in grace, the undeserved
shower of divine forgiveness that rains upon us all, and he believes that
everyoneeven the members of the Ku Klux Klan, hidden away behind their hoods,
burning their crosses in the Mississippi nightare the children of God.
He also believes there is virtue in places you might not expect it. In Soul Among
Lions, he writes about Pebo, his Tennessee neighbor who seemed to work hard at being a
rube. He chewed tobacco and drank too much and used bad grammar even though he knew
betterand sometimes, purely for shock value, he used the n-word. Given that blemish,
there were people who argued that Campbell, who played with Pebo in a little country band,
ought to choose better friends. Campbell agreed that the word was offensive, a degrading
epithet that his friend shouldnt use. But he remembers the night when a violent
snowstorm had swept through the valley. Roads were blocked and power lines were down, and
most of the people in that part of Tennessee, including Campbell and his family, had spent
the night in blankets near the fire. Pebo, meanwhile, spent the night on his bulldozer out
in the cold, clearing the roads, delivering food and medicine, firewood and coal, to all
of his neighbors, without regard for who was black or who was white.
"Not those who say, Lord, Lord, but those who do the will of
God," writes Campbell, and that is the way he looks at the world. For a half century
or more, he roamed the South as a preacher at large, becoming more and more impatient over
time with all of the rationalizations and the lies, the attempts to trivialize the
Christian faith and bend it to the sinful will of human beings. The faith, he insists, was
never meant to be easy. It is, instead, a call to do betterto recognize our common
humanity and to resist the temptations of our selfishness and greed.
Soul Among Lions is an eloquent, deeply felt testimonial to the essence of the
faith as Campbell understands ita provocative collection of essays and parables,
even for those who might disagree. Frye Gaillard
FRYE GAILLARD is the author of 16 books, including The Dream Long Deferred and If
I Were A Carpenter: Twenty Years of Habitat for Humanity. He is currently at work on a
biography of Will Campbell.
Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher. Will Campbell. Estminster John Knox Press, 1/1/99.
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