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Conversations with Will D. Campbell

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In a collection of interviews, Conversations with Will D. Campbell, University Press of Mississippi brings us one of the most irascible and irreverent characters saying what he thinks exactly like he thinks it in twelve interviews from 1971 to 2009. He denies, not all that forcibly it seems to me, that he is the model for Rev. Will B. Dunn in Kudzu, the daily comic strip by Doug Marlette. He proves his point by noting that Rev. Dunn whittles with a big barrow knife while he uses a penknife and chews Red Mad tobacco to his Beechnut. 

Consistently in the interviews, Will feels free to answer with “I don’t know,” and when asked if he would like to speculate, follows with “No.” That works out all right since there are plenty of points on which he has definite opinions. Often, he ends his comment to the interviewer with, 
“I forgot your question, but here is your answer.” He criticizes institutional churches, calling them “steeples” and stands for civil rights for blacks, whites, gays, women, and adamantly supports school desegregation. 

Will’s take in the aftermath of the Emmett Till trial concluded, “Those people were nobodies after that. They were disgraced, which is a strange conflict and dichotomy in southern society that while they were accused of this crime, we have to rally to their defense and take up money, and hire lawyers and all the rest. But then when it’s over, look, why did you have to disgrace us like that, now get out of town, we don’t really want to see you again.” In a different interview, he says, “You either believe all people are equal or you don’t. If you don’t, then you are racist.” 

As one would expect with the variety of interviews, he tells some stories more than once. The most personal and free-ranging interview is the last, maybe the most interesting as well. He talks with two friends who call their conversation a cross between an interview and an oral history. 

In the introduction to his interview, Bill McNabb says, “Will is weird – a good king of weird, but weird, nonetheless. He’s ornery.” Another description claims he is a guy who marches with the KKK and loves MLK. He denies working with the KKK, but says he does their weddings and funerals. 

Like Will himself, the book is interesting and will probably have you saying, “Amen” one minute and feeling the hackles rise on your neck the next.
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To recommend this book is to offer someone a difficult time. This is a series of interviews with the late Southern US Christian preacher Will. D. Campbell. The steadfast Christian theologian had ministered in the Southern US all his life and had encumbered much risk and hostility for his uncompromising stands on issues of war, racism and modern Christianity. 

The book goes deep into the enigmatic and divisive nature of what Christian theology meant to Campbell. He explains his life and faith with such intelligence, passion and humility that it will astound most readers,  as it did myself. As a self proclaimed anti-intellectual this Yale educated preacher took faith as a fundamental commandment to action.

This theology is deeply enriching and gives a view to a cultural and religious experience that is deeply engrained in the Southern USA. To say this is where we may find the good in a deeply divided society is not to say this is where we find comfort. Here in the ministry and faith of Campbell we find the passionate suffering and uncertainty one must embrace in fighting the social iniquity of racism, inequality and militarism of the USA. 

That nobody may separate himself from society in the struggle that faith engenders means that belief if it means anything can not be a safe haven. How in such a divided society one may seek his own salvation in Christianity is perhaps the essence of what Campbell speaks about. He never shies away from a society so terribly divided and that he was so deeply defined by. This preacher is an anathema to both conservative and liberal politics. 

If I had to put the matter into words from one who is not either an American or a Christian I would say that if you want to understand how strong American Christianity is read this book.
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