With the death of Will Campbell I can only feel a little less hopeful about the prospects for Christianity (at least in North America). Yes, Southern Christianity somehow, miraculously–despite itself, even–produced this wonderful saint, so . . . there’s always hope. And, of course, we have the memory of Campbell, along with his writings and a solid record of his activities, but I just can’t help it–I liked it better when I knew he was around and capable of unleashing beautiful havoc on the unsuspecting righteous. The fact that Campbell had the theological sensibilities to be a Christian during the civil rights movement, while also remembering that Jesus died for the very people who constitute the KKK (much to the chagrin of many), is surely a significant achievement.
I think one of the most interesting things about Campbell is that he taught me that, despite everything going on around us, it was possible for Christians to be Christlike. He even taught me that we’re occasionally capable of producing good theologians. More importantly, he taught me that a good way to be a great theologian is through the wondrous aid of a nice glass of whiskey (for my Kentucky friends, and myself, make that a bourbon). I say that in all seriousness. The man loved it. He understood that it was God who causes such ‘spirits’ to “gladden the hearts” of its consumers (Psalm 104:14-15; Ecclesiastes 9:7). He also understood that this blended gift of the earth made it possible to take life less seriously, though still seriously enough to enjoy it, savor it, thrash it, stomp it, curse at it, laugh at it, and to release all sorts of holy madness on the unholy madness that surrounds us. And, yes, of course, whiskey can certainly take as much life as it can give (everything in moderation, my friends–especially food), but his love for it, I think, made it possible for him to approach life the way he approached it. It takes a certain kind of person, a certain kind of temperament, and a certain kind of insanity needed to do the things he did (like giving a funeral for a town that no longer existed). Here was a guy living in a time and place where Christians thought drinking was “of the devil” (while, interestingly enough, having little to no problem defending segregation or dropping nuclear weapons on entire cities), and yet, Campbell emptied the bottle, got his best ‘apocalyptic’ on, and showed the world that, sometimes, with the right amount of Jesus and the right amount of Jack, you can, on the most rare of occasions, nail what it means to be a Christian.
And for that, I say, “Cheers, Will. May your ability to introduce sacred disorder into the kind of piety masquerading as religious order be carried on by a multitude of others. Here’s hoping this glass of Woodford Reserve helps.”
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.