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Lee C. Camp | Opening the Door to Faith and Flourishing

Lee C. Camp recounts his journey from preaching against the theory of evolution to understanding that scientific knowledge is not a threat to his faith.


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Lee C. Camp recounts his journey from preaching against the theory of evolution to understanding that scientific knowledge is not a threat to his faith.

Description

As the host of his own podcast, No Small Endeavor, Lee C. Camp is well-practiced at conversations that explore what human flourishing could look like. In this conversation, he looks back to his own experiences in which doors were opened to him in his thinking about faith. He tells about his journey from preaching sermons against the theory of evolution to coming to understand that scientific knowledge about the world was not a threat to his faith, even when that knowledge presented new and challenging questions.

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  • Originally aired on September 14, 2023
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Camp:

To see someone who’s trying to practice Christian faith, who’s given their life to Christian scholarship and who just non-defensively says, “Well, this is what we know about this,” and then moves on to whatever the next thing is and is willing to discuss it if they want to discuss it, that opens people up to a sort of, If they’re coming from a young Earth creationist, apologetic, it allows them a space to say, “Oh, wait a minute. Maybe there are other options.”

I’m Lee C. Camp. I’m a professor of Theology and Ethics at Lipscomb University, and I’m also the host and creator of No Small Endeavor, which is a podcast and a public radio show and also stages live events and concerts.

Stump:

Hi, everybody. Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. Our guest today, Lee Camp, usually sits in my seat as the interviewer on his own podcast, No Small Endeavor. It deals with what leads to a good life and how we can flourish as human beings. That’s adjacent and relevant to our work at BioLogos as is his work as a theology professor and the live events he hosts that are described as theological variety shows, but he also has some pretty good stories that are more directly in line with our work on science and religion.

Lee grew up in the south in a faith tradition that was skeptical of science, and he even remembers giving his first sermon as just a kid preaching against the evils of evolution to his very proud congregation. He also talks about one of the early live shows he made about the Scopes Monkey trial, partially sponsored by BioLogos. We also talk about some of the very interesting people he has interviewed on his podcast, and now I count him as one of the very interesting people I’ve interviewed on this podcast. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Lee Camp, welcome to the podcast.

Camp:

Thank you, Jim. It’s good to be with you.

Stump:

Well, I’ve appreciated your work and see you as a trailblazer of sorts for podcasts. So it’s a real privilege for us to have you on our show. We’re glad you could be here and talk.

Camp:

Well, I was appreciative to see the invitation and really grateful to be here. I’ve been a huge admirer of the work of BioLogos for many years, and so it’s really nice to get to be with you.

Stump:

Good. Well, besides being a podcast host, you’re a theologian and an ethicist. Is that how you always thought your career was going to turn out?

Camp:

No, no. When I was a boy, I was very interested and still am in science and technology. When I went to, well, even before I went to college, I weaseled my way. For example, I had a family relation of someone who worked in Oak Ridge, and so as a senior in high school, I drove up from Talladega, Alabama where I grew up one day to go to Oak Ridge and got a physicist and someone with the Department of Energy to take me through the different installations at Oak Ridge, and I won’t remember so fondly being inside the reactor room at one of the reactor rooms in Oak Ridge seeing these glowing spent cores down in the water from the reactor, but because I was just so interested in physics and science, when I started college, started in engineering, and then I ended up switching over to computer science, but along the way, I kind of had a nagging sense of calling ever since I was probably 11 or 12 in terms of either pastoral work or teaching.

So I finally yielded to that between my junior and senior year in high school. So then subsequently ended up going to seminary. That got me fascinated in intellectual history and theology. So then I applied to get into a PhD program at Notre Dame and got in and did my PhD work, and I’ve been in academics. I’m starting my 25th academic year as a full-time teacher.

Stump:

You went straight to Lipscomb from Notre Dame, right?

Camp:

That’s correct, yes.

Stump:

Well, let’s go back to childhood here and this interest in science. Where’d that come from? Was it something you were encouraged in by others in your family or what was the draw?

Camp:

I don’t know that anybody’s ever asked me that question, and I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that.

Stump:

Well, let’s probe this a little deeper then, see what we can uncover here.

Camp:

I came from a family of accountants. So my father, my grandfather, my uncle, my brother, my cousin have all been accountants, but I don’t know. Math and science was something that resonated with me in school, and I had some pretty fascinating experiences with science teachers and loved what I learned. So for whatever reason, that just turned me on as I … Even still now, I play these brain training games on this app, Lumosity. So when I look at the Lumosity profile, it always tells me that I should be an engineer, which is a little discouraging because I’m not anywhere like an academic in the humanities. It’s an engineer I’m supposed to be, but anyway.

Stump:

So give us a little bit more of family background. So you’ve got a bunch of accountants, but I’m guessing Alabama, you come from a religious household as well. What was the faith tradition and that like growing up?

Camp:

So I was raised in Churches of Christ and I’m still in Churches of Christ.

Stump:

That’s what Lipscomb is, right? They’re founded by-

Camp:

That’s correct, yes, yup. Churches of Christ come out of the so-called American Restorationists movement or what some historians would call the Stone Campbell Restoration Movement, which was an effort in the early 19th century to be a church unity movement. So there was this quest to so-called restore New Testament Christianity to try to let go of some of what they would’ve called accretions of human tradition and instead go back to New Testament Christianity. The presumption was that that way of reading the New Testament could affect unity.

So some of the catchphrases and slogans were things like, “We’re not the only Christians, will you just seek to be Christians only” or “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” So that appeal, again, was presumed that it could affect unity and through unity of all Christians could be a witness to the world that could be more compelling than the divided sectarian realities that we saw with denominationalism. The irony, of course, is that the Stone Campbell tradition, which began to try to bring denominations together and affect unity, actually, unfortunately contributed to three more denominations to the American Christian scene.

Stump:

That’s usually the way it goes.

Camp:

Yes, yes.

Stump:

You and I are approximately the same age. I’m going to guess I might be a year or two younger than you are, but did you grow up then with the typical youth group experiences in church, and what was the development of your own understanding of Christianity like in that regard?

Camp:

There was definitely not the typical experience as far as what we see in more large well-funded churches like in Nashville, where you have a very professionally run youth ministry. We were a small church and didn’t have that access to resources, but there was definitely a lot of careful attention and intention by the adults in our church to be providing opportunities for whether it be social gatherings, Sunday school gatherings, whatever the case might be, to have a sense of clear community and identity among young people in the church. So that was very much a … Church was very much my life. It was very formative for me, and it was one of the most prominent realities of my life, and it was very deeply formative and in many of those ways wonderful and good in some of those ways not so much, which is I would imagine typically the way it is, a mix of both and, right?

Stump:

For sure. So bring these two strands together here now. So you’re this kid growing up in what sounds like a loving and serious church community. You’re also interested in science, and growing up in those days, those two things didn’t always go together so easily. What do you remember of the way science was viewed from your church community and how you were formed and shaped in that regard to think about science?

Camp:

When you asked that question, I think the first thing that popped in my head was I was a participant in and product of public schooling all of my K through—or first grade through 12th grade in Talladega. For a small town in Alabama, I think I got a decent education and some teachers was quite good, but with regard to holding together that church community and science, and I remember my seventh grade science teacher began in very small ways to begin to introduce us to the theory of evolution, but then it was especially in eighth grade where the science teacher had a unit on the theory of evolution, and this immediately began to raise concerns among my parents and my local church.

So clearly at that point as a seventh grade, eighth grader, you give me a choice between whatever my church was saying and my parents were saying versus what the public school was saying, then it was obviously I’m going to believe my parents and this church. And so I remember when we finally had the final exam for that unit test or whatever it was on the theory of evolution, I gave the answer the teacher wanted, and then I went on to write on the margin or on the back of the page a very literalist, young Earth creationist response. When I got my paper back, she had to give me credit, and she did, but she was clearly hot. So I remember the red ink and it was angled upward from left to right and a whole page worth of really just laying into me about not seeing what she thought I should clearly see. It’s interesting because what that began to foster in me was these steps into believing something different, trying to have the guts as a adolescent, pre-adolescent to say it, and then that began a long process of decades of trying to understand some of those questions that I thought were pretty simple as an eighth grader.

Stump:

So that’s really interesting to me because, again, growing up in about the same time, I’m up here in Indiana and Michigan, some of my schooling years were, and I don’t think I ever had had a class that addressed evolution—

Camp:

Really?

Stump:

—all the way through my own public school—

Camp:

Fascinating.

Stump:

—education the whole time. Now fast forward to my kids who went to Penn High School up here in Northern Indiana, big public school, they in junior high had biology teachers who said, “Well, I have to teach you this theory of evolution, but I don’t think it’s true.”

Camp:

That is fascinating.

Stump:

That’s the way public education went for my family. So you in Alabama are having a teacher. Did she ever address the theological side of these questions at all or was it just, “No, I’m just giving you the straight signs here without giving you any theological categories or handles to understand this through.”

Camp:

I don’t recollect. I think that there was so much. Who knows how accurate one’s memory of being an eighth grader, but my—

Stump:

Right. Tell us a good a story then.

Camp:

Right. That’s right, but my recollection is that she was an angry person and she didn’t put up … She didn’t suffer fools gladly. So there was this sort of “You’re crazy and I’m going to make it clear that I let you know you’re crazy.” So it was that attitude, which, of course, didn’t help me began to see things differently. It was just, “Well, clearly she’s got her issues,” and blah, blah, blah. But I also do remember as I did start studying this stuff. So I would start picking up, and you probably could tell me, but I can’t remember the name of the biblical scholar who wrote one of the books on young Earth creationism. So here I am as an eighth grader, ninth grader trying to read these books and reading word studies on the Hebrew word yam for day and blah, blah, blah.

Stump:

It was probably John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood.

Camp:

Yeah, Henry Morris. Yeah, exactly. So I was reading this stuff as an eighth and ninth grader trying to make sense of this stuff. So I would go on and actually as our church took seriously training young boys for service in the church, definitely a patriarchal setting, as I recollect, the first sermon I preached as I was probably 13, maybe 14, was on debunking the theory of evolution, where I’m quoting Henry Morris and I’m citing the second law of thermodynamics and principles of entropy to show how evolution couldn’t possibly be true and all this stuff.

Stump:

You must have made them proud.

Camp:

Oh, yes, yes, yes, but I remember the first time I began to have someone give some competing committed Christian response was one of my math teachers who was a good Methodist there in Talladega because I actually participated in a conversation. I think it was at their church with the youth group about this issue. So I was presenting some of the stuff that presented in the sermon as I recollect.

Stump:

This is still junior high.

Camp:

This is now in high school.

Stump:

High school, okay, but in high school, you’re on a panel to discuss these things at other churches.

Camp:

I think it was just a discussion. I think he knew I had presented on this stuff and he said, “You want to come talk about this with our youth group?” and I said, “Sure.” So I presented the stuff and I just remember him beginning to say, “Well, here’s another way you could think about this, that it could be X or it could be Y or it could be Z,” and him posing the question, “Can you really only see it in the way you’re describing and be a Christian or are there options?” So that was the first kindhearted, proffering of alternative ways of considering this that I was given in thinking about those things.

Stump:

Well, keep us going here on your journey. I’ll just note by saying, so you’re at Lipscomb now, and we have friends in the biology department there like John Lewis and my former colleague Brian Ellis who teaches there, and they’ve been very friendly to BioLogos on faith and science generally, and even about evolution in particular. I’ve been a guest speaker in one of your classes before talking about evolutionary creation. So we gather that you have eventually made it to this position that you’re comfortable, at least, with evolution in regard to your faith. So keep your transformation going here a little bit. What was some of the catalysts that provided some change for you in thinking about this? I’m interested in your continued relationship with that community that you came from and what they think of you now.

Camp:

Well, I think that it would be perhaps most accurate to describe the ongoing development as very slow because in my undergraduate institution at Lipscomb College, the Lipscomb University during those years, the change, I would presume that maybe most of the faculty at the time were probably young Earth Creationists. There was not much discussion of the possibilities of looking at things otherwise. Now, I don’t know what was happening in the biology department at the time. I know of at least one biology professor that was there through those years that I think would be very BioLogos friendly, but I think he probably had to keep his head down during those years, 30, 40 years ago.

Moreover, there was another school in our tradition out west, where a couple of the biologists had lost their jobs because they had spoken up about evolutionary theory and things of that sort. So that’s all during my undergraduate days. So even people who might question it, I think probably had to make a choice about whether or not they want to keep their job or not, and if they wanted to keep their job, then they had to keep some of that stuff to themselves. So who really knows what people were thinking?

Then I go on to seminary, and in seminary, of course, one of the riches of seminary, of a good seminary program is teaching us a lot about the Bible that I didn’t learn as a kid, including simple things like genre and—

Stump:

Where’d you go to seminary?

Camp:

Abilene Christian. So as you learn even simple things like genre, that all of a sudden opens up interpretive strategies or interpretive possibilities that are crucial. I want to quickly say that the notion there by thinking about interpretive strategies or interpretive possibilities is not thereby to make the text do whatever you want it to do, but is instead to ask what’s a reading of this text that’s truer to what this text seems to be as best we can tell trying to accomplish. So for me to read a parable as history doesn’t do justice to the parable, and it doesn’t respect the integrity of the parable. To read a letter or an epistle as a parable doesn’t do justice to the epistle. So to read the Psalms, to not read the Psalms as poetry doesn’t do justice to the Psalms.

So that then opens up the possibility of saying, “Okay. Are we reading given texts in a way that they’re best understood? What are the theological agendas or what are the theological import of given texts?” So that then obviously opens you up to all sorts of possibilities that for me, to that point I hadn’t had at hand to consider given things. So it at least opens up a door to say, “How might I think about these things differently?” I began to at least know some people who weren’t terrified of anyone who might be open to the theory of evolution.

Then as a graduate student, I remember one Catholic friend, a Dominican friend that I was in the program with there, and I would have, on occasion, conversations with him about this. He was just very nonplussed. He clearly believed in the theory of evolution and didn’t have any problem with it at all, which was at first curious to me and odd to me, but then as I would have these conversations, he didn’t see this as threatening to his faith at all. So that then began a more serious inquiry and more serious reconsideration of these things.

Then over the last twenty, thirty years as opportunity allows, and I don’t consider myself an expert on those things, but I’ve listened to enough scientists, I’ve read enough materials from BioLogos and lots of other folks to feel pretty confident these days that the ways I thought about that stuff as a kid just doesn’t work, and it doesn’t seem to be true to what we know about the world, and that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some challenging theological questions.

Stump:

I was going to ask that. So as a theologian then, are there still issues that give you pause at least or to say, “We still need people working to give a better explanation of this aspect of this conversation that’s going on”?

Camp:

Well, I guess, and I think there’s a lot of those and, of course, there are a lot of people doing interesting work on some of these days, but one would be the notion of death, how do we think about … If indeed the earth is very old and the history of life is much older than what we have in the biblical text, what do you do with the notions of death? What do you do with notions of sin? What do you do with the notions of the relationship between sin and death and all of that? So that’s one huge matter.

Pete Enns in one of his books on Adam, he talks about how he thinks that the apostle Paul’s vision of Adam is much more difficult theological problem than is Genesis 1 through 12 and that the way Paul understands the work of Christ as the second Adam is dependent upon, seems to be dependent upon a historical Adam. So what do you do with that? So he does some interesting work about how he thinks about that. Those would be the two that just immediately come to mind for me.

A third one that comes to mind that maybe even bothers me more is how one thinks about what it means to be human, especially given the day and age that we live in, and if what we’re obviously seeing among a lot of secular proponents of a hard secularism is that we have the capacity now, it’s presumed to have a much more intentional participation in the evolution of the Earth and its species, including the human species, and from a Christian perspective, to what degree is that legitimate? I think that’s a huge issue flaring at us, glaring at us.

Stump:

It only gets more difficult as technology advances.

Camp:

Yeah, that’s right.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Two

Stump:

So it’s no secret that there are still lots of people in the country who identify as Christians and oppose scientific theory of evolution. You’re a public theologian in many regards, and we’ll talk some more about some of your public work in a little bit. I know that science isn’t your main topic, but I wonder if you have any insights as one who has gone through this transformation. Any insights about talking to the public or ways that are helpful or ways that are maybe not as helpful, and what ought to be the goal here? Just in your own experience, the very first thing that opened your own eyes was to hear that there are options, right?

Camp:

Right.

Stump:

So what have you found or what do you suspect would be helpful and helpful ways of relating to the public or even to your students, what’s this like for your students right now? Do you still have these kinds of conversations or is this a non-issue for them now?

Camp:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ll start there with my students. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I think probably about 10 or 12 years ago, I remember in our graduate program, in our MDiv program, I teach Christian like a basic Intro to Christian Ethics course for our MDiv students. I had one particular lecturer that was working out of some of the early Genesis texts. I remember finally making a decision on this, whenever this was, that I was going to stop being defensive about believing in the theory of evolution. I was just going to very non-aggressively but non-defensively talk about this text in light of what we know about science and the history of the earth and history of the universe, and just not apologize for it and not defend it. Then if someone wants to ask questions about it, they can ask questions about it, then we’ll talk about it, but I was just simply not going to be defensive about it and not even assume that I had to defend it.

I think what that did, what I want to believe that that approach does is it allows people to see someone who has tried to give their lives to Christian scholarship and who still practices a Christian faith, whether I do it well or not, and I’ll leave that to others to decide, but my conscience is clean about that, but to see someone who’s trying to practice Christian faith, who’s given a life to Christian scholarship and who just non-defensively says, “Well, this is what we know about this,” and then moves on to whatever the next thing is and is willing to discuss it if they want to discuss it, that opens people up to—If they’re coming from a young Earth creationist apologetic, it allows them a space to say, “Oh, wait a minute, maybe there are other options for being a real Christian and not believing this other stuff.”

So it goes back to my high school math teacher who non-aggressively said, “Well, are there other options here?” So that’s been the stance that I’ve taken with students, and it seems to work pretty well. I don’t know that it’s as much an issue as it used to be twenty, thirty years ago, but I think it is still because I do know, for example, that there are some Young earth creationists even on my own campus still, and a few of them in the sciences. So it’s clearly still an issue, but the aggressive posture about it, I think, is not as great as it once was.

Stump:

Oh, good. Well, Lee, you first came onto my radar when I started working with BioLogos, which was right during this big program we had called Evolution in the Christian Faith, which was giving out small grants to a bunch of different groups working on various projects. One of those recipients was the Tokens Show, which you hosted, and it’s been described as a philosophical and theological variety show. What in the world is that? How did this get started, and then how did you get connected to BioLogos with it?

Camp:

Theological variety show sounds horrific, doesn’t it? So I guess I was maybe, I don’t know, seven, eight years into my teaching career, and I discovered and I paid attention to the fact that I’d do a lecture on war and peace or poverty or racial justice. A lot of times my students would say, “Hey, have you heard this Woody Guthrie song?” or, “Have you heard this Bob Dylan song?” or, “Have you heard the Switchfoot song?” It caught my attention that the students a lot of times could get enwrapped in some given question of pressing concern in a way that hooked them through music.

Stump:

It was the lyric.

Camp:

Right, with the lyric, and a three-minute lyric could do something that I might not could necessarily do in a 40-minute lecture. So that had really caught my attention. Then at the same time, I was also a big listener to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, and my wife and I had gone to see him. It was probably my second or third time to see Garrison, but we saw him on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2006 at the Ryman Auditorium, and the Ryman Auditorium is the historic beautiful theater in Nashville. That was actually where Garrison Keillor in 1974 had gone to see the last show of the Grand Ole Opry before they moved out to the new Grand Ole Opry House out in Donaldson, and seeing that show in 1974 was what gave him the idea for Prairie Home Companion. So here I was some years, two decades later seeing him at the Ryman, and it gave me the idea for this theological variety show.

So it sounded like a terrible idea, but it kept nagging at me. Finally, I went to see the only person I knew in the music industry at the time. He’s become a very good friend, but he was the only person I knew, and he was a big deal in the music world. So I just called him one day and I said, “Hey, I got this idea. Could I come talk to you?” and he said, “Yeah, come on.” So I pitched him on the idea. My plan had been if he says it’s a bad idea, I’m just going to drop it and move on, if he says it’s a good idea, then I’ll figure out what I’m going to do.

So I pitched it to him and I said, “What do you think?” and he said, “I think it’s a great idea, and I think you got to do it.” Then he actually went on to give us the money out of his own pocket, he and his wife out of their own pocket to do the first two shows that we did. So that got us up and running. So we’d do these quarterly shows starting in 2008, and by the end of 2010, we were doing our first show at the big Ryman Auditorium downtown. So it’s been a great fun.

So it’s a house band. We have vocalists, and we’ve been fortunate to have some of the best in Nashville. Then we do have interviews with people who have written things or thought a lot about whatever the topic is of the particular show, and then a little bit of comedic sketch to disarm people and let people laugh so they can think about serious stuff. So we weave it all together into coherent whole.

Stump:

So what was the connection then to that with this BioLogos grant?

Camp:

Early in, I think, in one of our brainstorming sessions before we even did our first show, I had a group of six or eight colleagues and friends that gave me a half a day to think with me and brainstorm about this. One person, and I don’t remember who it was in that setting, said, “If you ever had the chance, you should do a show on evolution and do it at the courthouse in Dayton where they did the Scopes trial.”

Stump:

Scopes, yeah.

Camp:

So I had just remembered that, and then when I saw the BioLogos grant program, that came up again. So I thought, “Well, let’s see what we can do and see if we can tape it for public television.” So that’s what we did. It was a wonderful … It was a challenging … It was hard to get to do a show in that courthouse, and we actually had to convince the city fathers, if you will, to let us do it because some of the folks in Dayton were so weary of being lampooned by a national media outlet.

Stump:

Monkey town, right?

Camp:

Yeah, that they didn’t want somebody coming in and making fun of them again. So I drove to Dayton and spent a half a day talking to respective parties to try to let them see who I was. So they didn’t trust big city people, and Nashville was big city people to them. So they wanted to know who I was and what I was wanting to do and convinced them that we would be good faith. So they said yes, and it’s a beautiful … It’s the second largest working courthouse in the state of Tennessee as far as seating area, and it’s a beautiful old building. So they let us come in and we set up a full television taping, big truck out in the yard and so forth. It was just a wonderful night and a lot of fun.

We had Ed Larson, who’s a Pulitzer Prize winning author on the Scopes trial, came in from California, and Rachel Held Evans, who was living there in time at Dayton, of course, grew up in Dayton, and she was living there in Dayton, came and was a guest, and we brought out a band and performers from Nashville. So yeah, it was wonderful.

Stump:

The reception of it then? Everybody in town was okay with the way it went?

Camp:

Yeah, I think so. I think so. We had a full house and everybody seemed happy and happy with the way it went. So yeah, it was quite successful, I think.

Stump:

So there’s been some transition here now too, as I understand it. the Tokens Show has somehow, at least the audio only side of the Tokens Show has become a different show. No Small Endeavor?

Camp:

No Small Endeavor, that’s right.

Stump:

What happened there with that transition?

Camp:

We actually have two podcast episodes that explore that question at length about why the name change. The very quick version of it is that we began to hear from friends, people of color that when they heard the word Tokens Show, it connoted tokenism.

Stump:

Gotcha.

Camp:

Then we finally started hearing that so much in 2020 that we just thought, well we’re—or 2020 and 2021, and about that time, we had started moving into public radio space and wanting to grow that nationally that we just thought, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot if a lot of people just are not going to listen to us because there’s this negative connotation. So it’s tough to rebrand, and it’s expensive, costly, both in terms of finance and effort, but we’ve been really super glad we did, and it allowed us to focus more on what we’re trying to do. And so we still do the live shows, but we definitely focus more now on podcast and public radio. We just got a deal with PRX, Public Radio Exchange—

Stump:

Nice.

Camp:

—this year for national distribution of the public radio broadcast. So that’s starting to grow. So yeah, it’s great fun.

Stump:

So talk a little bit about what it is that you are trying to do with this show because as I scroll through the episodes, I find topics on the Enneagram and politics and peace and climate change and guns and women and poetry and ice cream. What is it that exactly ties all of these together?

Camp:

So the tagline of our show is exploring what it means to live a good life.

Stump:

So obviously, the ice cream comes into that.

Camp:

The ice cream actually was not an episode of No Small Endeavor, but one of our subsidiaries that produced that.

Stump:

Gotcha.

Camp:

But the question there is, what does it mean to live a good life and what are the practices that help facilitate living a flourishing human life? So we will interview theologians, philosophers, social scientists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, occasionally, politicians, and looking at things that people are learning about what it means to live a good life. So it’s so much fascinating research these days in the science realm about human flourishing. That’s super fascinating. Then obviously, that relates to moral philosophy and theology. So we just get to have these wonderful conversations.

The reason I like—you know, my discipline, my PhD was in ethics, in Christian ethics, and the reason I love the discipline of ethics as an academic field is that you really can talk about anything, but you’re asking how do we practice this given area of life or this given pursuit in a way that contributes to human flourishing, that contributes to the common good, that contributes to the flourishing of an individual. So it’s those sorts of questions that we’re asking.

Stump:

From this work, do you have any reflections for us from these conversations that you’ve had on flourishing, but particularly from the Christian perspective and thinking about Christianity’s role in this discourse in … So I used the phrase earlier, public theology. Do you endorse that still or do you consider yourself a public theologian or what is this practice of trying to get your theology into more public spaces like this that’s not confined to churches but becomes relevant for the kinds of conversations that you’re having?

Camp:

I think that that label captures what I’m trying to do because I still— You know, on any given episode, I may or may not refer to the fact that I’m a theologian, and I may or may not refer to the fact that I’m a Christian, but I show up as myself and that is who I am. So I ask a lot of questions that I ask from that discipline and from that formation of my life and of my sense of self.

So depending on who’s defining the terms, public theologian or public theology means different things to different people, but for me, it points to, one, a commitment to have a conversation in public about matters that are of mutual concern, that are often matters that are pressing, and they may be pressing not necessarily in a current event sense or they may, but pressing at least in terms of helping inform what any life worth living means or looks like, so showing up in public, asking these kinds of questions.

Second, it’s a setting the table with these sorts of questions that tries to welcome all sorts of people of good faith or goodwill even if they don’t share your own set of convictions. So we interview Christians and we interview Muslims, and we interview person of Bahá’í faith, and we interview people that are agnostic and we interview people who are atheists. But we go into those conversations knowing that this person has something worthwhile and helpful to say about whatever the given topic at hand is.

So in that regard, public theology becomes this exercise in hospitality in which we make space for people with differing sets of ultimate convictions even to come together and see what that exchange and what that conversation can do for helping both people in the conversation and people listening in on the conversation expand their vision of what might be true and good and beautiful.

Stump:

Nice. Before I went down the rabbit trail of asking you about public theology, I was starting to ask about any insights you have of the ways that Christianity in particular is influencing or contributing to those conversations you’re having, what does it mean to be human, how do humans flourish, and I’m particularly looking for some signs of hope here for the Christianity that isn’t just wedded to politics, but is able to speak across those ideological divides that you were just mentioning there. Are you hopeful of the way that those conversations go, that the place that thoughtful Christians can have in that public space talking about human flourishing or have we become so weighed down by the public perception of Christianity as it comes filtered through politics these days that’s an uphill battle?

Camp:

Two-part answer to that, I think. One is that the partisan, unhelpful sorts of stuff that we see from some Christian quarters, I’m pretty confident it’s going to fail because it just ultimately will not be very compelling. So it’s going to fall away, and that then means where can the beauty and the truth of the Christian tradition, Christian practice and Christian confession, how will it emerge anew in some beautiful way? So I believe that’s the way it works in human history with Christian tradition. So that’s what I anticipate will happen.

The second part of the answer there is that I had an interesting experience just yesterday. I was on an interview with someone who has a pretty huge platform, and she’s interviewed a lot of the same people that we’ve interviewed. She likes talking about Christian flourishing, and she also is publicly not a person of faith. So I didn’t know where the conversation was going to go or where the interview was going to go, but what was so fascinating about it was that she said, “I’ve been having this wonderful conversation with a friend named Miroslav Volf at Yale Divinity School.”

Then so what she does is that her interview is informed by Miroslav’s latest book on human flourishing, asking me questions out of Miroslav’s book. So I just thought, “This is fascinating that someone who …” She’s not hostile to Christians, and she was raised in a devoted Catholic home, but that hasn’t been her thing, but here she is employing Christian theology as a person who doesn’t believe in Christian confession and faith to ask me the questions that are informed by that myself.

So I think that, at its best, when we show up offering what we think is most winsome and beautiful about the Christian faith and Christian tradition, a lot of people are going to be fascinated by it and are going to find it very compelling and helpful. So that’s what I want to be trying to do is to bring all of this stuff that’s helpful and beautiful that people say, “Oh, that’s what you’re talking about when you talk about the Christian tradition? Well, that’s pretty interesting.” That’s what I want to elicit in people, and that’s what we find.

It’s interesting that I’ll hear from people who will write in and will say forthrightly, “I’m an atheist, I’m not religious, but I love the questions that you ask, and I love the conversations that you’re having, and these are the kinds of things I care about.” They might even go in and say, “You should stop wasting your time on this faith stuff. There is no God, but let’s keep having this question.” So that’s what we’re trying to do is to show up, asking, making space for these important questions in a way that’s compelling and winsome, and that a lot of people want to get in then on those conversations.

Stump:

Well, good. Well, there’s a good deal of overlap of guests on your show with guests we’ve had here too. As you said, you pay attention to the sciences, so people like Alister McGrath and Katharine Hayhoe and Justin Barrett and others, but you’ve had some pretty interesting guests we’ll probably not ever have on this podcast like Martin Sheen. So I was driving home from Grand Rapids yesterday, and I listened to that episode and found it just so interesting, and it seemed to me that you found it so interesting and really fun.

My wife and I, like you and your wife, I guess, have been big fans of West Wing and President Bartlett. Hearing his story, Sheen’s story of his own personal faith was just really fun and interesting. So I have to ask, how did this come about that you ended up in his living room in Malibu recording an episode?

Camp:

It was a wonderful experience with him. I’m not sure if I mentioned this on what we edited out and published or not, but after I went to his house, he said, “Hey, you want to go to mass with me?” and I said, “Yeah, I want to go to mass with you.”

Stump:

“Uh, Yes!”

Camp:

After mass, he said, “Well, we’re going to watch a episode of The Chosen,” and he said, “a small group, so if you want to hang around and watch that, we’ll have popcorn. You want to do that?” “I said, “Yes?” So he was so nice and sweet, and he was very down to earth and very hospitable and kind. So it was delightful, but the way it worked out was that I had interviewed a documentary filmmaker named Martin Doblmeier, who’s done a lot of wonderful documentaries, and I’d interviewed him on his new documentary on Dorothy Day, and I knew that he knew Martin and had interviewed Martin for a number of things.

So I just said, “Hey, you think …” and I knew enough about Martin’s story to think that it would be a really great episode. So I said, “You think he would ever be open to me interviewing him?” and he said, “I think he would,” and he said, “Here’s his telephone number and here’s his address,” and he said, “You should just write him a letter, tell him what you want, and then call him and see if he’ll do it.” So I started doing that. It took probably a year and a half, maybe two years before it worked out, but it worked out and it was a delight.

Stump:

Well, nice. So for somebody new in our audience, new to you, and to No Small Endeavor, what would be maybe a good three episode set to start with if they wanted to check out your show?

Camp:

For your audience, there’s definitely quiet ones that we’ve done on science, but they may have that covered by listening to you, but as far as cultural stuff, I would suggest starting with that episode with Martin Sheen, which is one that I’m really proud of and grateful for. I just taped two weeks ago a really great interview with Amy Grant that’ll be coming out this fall, and it’s a really interesting interview. So she’s such a fascinating human being, but that’ll be one this fall that folks might find interesting.

Then for people who are not Christians, episodes that people might find really interesting, we did this episode with a man named Azim Khamisa, who’s a Sufi Muslim, who has just an incredible story. His son was murdered as a 20-year-old by a 14, he was murdered by a 14-year-old in a gang initiation. Azim, Mr. Khamisa then ends up befriending the grandfather of the murderer, and then in time befriending the murderer and starting a nonprofit to teach principles of non-violence and conflict resolution to school-aged children to help keep them out of gangs and teach them different ways to live. It’s just an overwhelmingly moving and powerful story.

Then another non-Christian that people might find interesting, I got to go out to California on another trip and interview Rainn Wilson, who’s Dwight Schrute on The Office. He’s Bahá’í, and we were talking about his new book, Soul Boom, that’s calling for a new spiritual reformation in American culture. So again, it’s one of those examples of someone who can have this wonderful conversation with a person of a different religious tradition and see the things, the ways that different sets of convictions can help inform and elucidate one another. So that was a really super fun conversation as well.

Stump:

Well, very good. We’re getting to the end of our time here. Any big new projects on the horizon for you?

Camp:

No. Currently, we’re just super busy trying to make the most, I think I mentioned a moment ago that we got this deal with PRX for public radio distribution, and so we’re trying to be really smart about making the most of this new opportunity. We’re just on the starting up edge of starting to get picked up at different public radio stations around the country. If people are interested in hearing No Small Endeavor on your local public radio station, you can let them know to reach out to PRX and ask them to consider airing us in your area, but we’re doing a lot of work trying to build that community and reach as many people as we can in the country with the work that we’re trying to do.

Stump:

Well, very good. Well, we appreciate talking to you.

Camp:

Thank you, Jim.

Stump:

We like to end of these things by asking our guests what they’re reading these days. Do you have any books on your nightstand or elsewhere that interests you?

Camp:

Yeah, I’ve always got too many on my nightstand. Right now, I’m reading a book by Jacques Lusseyran. I’m not sure how you pronounce his last name. He was struck blind with blindness as an eight-year-old. He’s a young Frenchman struck blind as an eight-year-old, and then the Nazi occupation of France began in 1939, and he as a teenager becomes a leader as a blind man, as a 16, 17-year-old, a French resistance to the Nazis. It’s just an amazing book. It’s just so fascinating. So that’s what I’m reading currently before bedtime.

Stump:

Well, very good. Lee Camp, thanks so much.

Camp:

Thank you, Jim. It was a delight to be with you and appreciate the work you all are doing and grateful for the opportunity for the conversation today.


Featured guest

Lee C. Camp

Lee C. Camp

Lee C. Camp is the creator and host of "No Small Endeavor", an acclaimed podcast series exploring what it means to live a good life. He is an award-winning teacher and Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. Following seminary (M.Div., Abilene Christian University), Lee completed a graduate degree in Moral Theology (Ph.D., University of Notre Dame). Lee is an Alabamian by birth, married to Laura with whom he shares three adult sons, and has happily made Nashville home for the last 25 years.