Ah yes, one more post to mark my appreciation for John Stott. Here I countdown the ‘top ten’ books (out of the 50+ he has written) that have shaped my life. No easy task – but here we go...
at number ten
‘The Bible speaks today’ not only names Stott’s deep conviction (“God still speaks through what he has spoken” – one of my favourite sentences), it also titles a commentary series edited by him and into which he contributed seven volumes. These books are the bread and butter of his influence on me. Don Carson would speak to us as students of how Stott could “tap, tap, tap away at a text and it would just break open so clearly”. It’s true. So it could be Ephesians or Thessalonians, Timothy or Romans – but I’ll start where I started as a young pastor: the Sermon on the Mount and Christian Counter-Culture and his desire “to let Christ speak it again” for today. (With one sadness being that so little of his work in the Gospels and the Old Testament has been published...)
at number nine
I have almost given up on the word ‘evangelical’ here in New Zealand – not because I don’t believe in what it represents (far from it), but I have grown weary of the caricatures which the word attracts. For example, the world of media and politics keeps dragging ‘evangelical’ back to the very fundamentalism from which it was separated fifty years ago. UGH! But then just when I am about to give up, I take up and read Evangelical Truth – and don’t miss the subtitle: “a personal plea for unity”. This is not the shallower ‘love-is-all-you-need’ brand of unity, this is the deeper unity which comes with having love and truth in common. As he explains this evangelicalism (and lives it), I really, really like it - goodness me, it even sounds like the fullness of the gospel. And so at times I turn Stott into an adjective and refer to myself as a Stottian evangelical (a phrase of which he’d disapprove, I'm sure).
at number eight
Maybe because conversion happened for me like the dawning of the day, rather than a lightning strike in my adult years, I have not been as impacted by Basic Christianity as the millions of others - although it is still a precious book. Rather it is one that follows on neatly from it, as a manual on discipleship, that influenced me: The Contemporary Christian, with the sub-title once again helpful: “an urgent plea for double listening”. He works his way through the gospel, the disciple, the Bible, the church, the world – and pleads with his readers to listen both to the ancient word and the modern world as this keeps us from unfaithfulness on the one hand, and irrelevance on the other. This is the book I have used to introduce more than one group of young adults to John Stott. They are not always as enamoured as I, it must be said - as the style is older and “he does quote an awful lot of dead Anglicans!”
at number seven
My copy of this next book was a gift from John Stott to my father-in-law (Charles Warren) with a little inscription. 'Charlie' (which suggests they knew each other pretty well) hosted John Stott on a visit to Mussoorie (India) in 1973. That visit is my first memory. I was 13 years of age. He spoke at an Assembly and classes were cancelled as a little revival broke out in the school. Anyhow - back to the book. Three quarters of Understanding the Bible is simple survey material and then he shifts gears to include two chapters that have shaped my own approach to the Bible - and the training we now do within Langham Preaching: 'the Authority of the Bible' and the Interpretation of the Bible'. Interestingly, this material (and much more) is included in a more recent DVD series with an elderly John Stott in full flight - but curiously it never seemed to receive the marketing that was warranted. Be in!
at number six
Having established himself as a teacher of the biblical text, his own 'double listening' with both ears open became so very credible when he delved into the cultural context with a book that has gone through four editions as the world around us grapples with new issues: Issues Facing Christians Today. Here Stott demonstrates just how ‘worldly’ the best in evangelicalism can be. It became the starting point for the discussion of numerous ethical issues for an entire generation. And don’t miss the bookends – oh, please don’t miss the bookends. That marvellous chapter on ‘thinking christianly’, where I first discovered the seed of ‘the good, the bad, the new, and the perfect’ near the beginning, and the equally marvellous ‘call for christian leadership’ at the end.
at number five
This one took some courage. Basically John Stott allows a “liberal” scholar to pull his writings apart, book by book, and then invites Stott to respond. He does so in letter form - each time with, “My dear David ... Yours as ever, John.” Off they went, back and forth, with the Bible, the cross, the miraculous, the moral, and the eschatological. And it was that final exchange which exploded a controversy around him, from all sides, because of a few paragraphs written right at the end about hell and eternity. It is a shame that Evangelical Essentials: a liberal:evangelical dialogue became stuck, in the eyes of so many, in those final paragraphs because for me the book is the model of how wisdom, clarity, depth, humility, respect, courage, and balance combines in the life of a saintly scholar. What he said in terms of content was terrific, but even that was trumped, again and again, by how he said it and the tone he demonstrated. While many regret the book being published (maybe even John Stott himself, I don't know), I am not counted among them. Now there is a great need for “a postmodern:evangelical dialogue” with similar content - and tone.
at number four
It is time for another ‘Bible speaks today’ and to a biblical book I found difficult to preach through as a pastor, paralysed (a bit) by the danger of turning description into prescription inappropriately. Pauline scholar though he may be, it is Stott’s commentary on the Message of Acts that I love the most. And it is not just the ‘tap, tap, tapping’ going on – it is this writing style of his that I have grown to love. He takes a passage. He develops the strands of teaching in the passage. Oh, the clarity of the explanation! And then towards the end something invariably happens. He takes those strands, the imaginative eye goes to work, and he weaves those strands into something fresh that is compelling which captures both the essence of the passage and its relevance for today. The Bible speaks today. Preaching as science and art. Go on - read his chapter on Acts 2 to see what I mean. I have force-fed it to a generation of students, pleading with them to aim at such faithful, and imaginative, clarity.
at number three
So many churches today have mission statements that are variations on the ‘creating lifelong followers of Jesus’ theme. True – but just not true enough. Following ‘after’ Jesus in order to be ‘like’ Jesus says a lot, but it does not say it all. This is where Focus on Christ (or, Understanding Jesus) – “an enquiry into the theology of prepositions” – has left its mark on me. Stott attaches ‘through’ and ‘on’ and ‘in’ and ‘under’ and ‘with’ and ‘unto’ and ‘for’ to Jesus to give a more complete picture of what it means to be a Christ-ian, uniting with Christ in all these diverse ways. I taught Spirituality only once, but this book was looming as required reading as a means of bringing biblical anchorage to a discipline that has a tendency to float a little free. It has even transformed my facebook identity (“horrors, let’s not get too carried away, Paul”) where I describe myself as wanting to be a ‘prepositional Christian’. But all the best in trying to track the book down as it has not seemed to grab a readership and so lingers 'out of print'.
at number two
It just has to reach this high in the list because Line #3 in Chapter #3 so arrested me as a theological student that it became a mantra for my life ever since. It is why I believe so deeply in the priority of both biblical preaching and theological training: "The essential secret is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions ... theology is more important than methodology". Yes, it was while I heard John Stott expound Romans 1-5 at Urbana '79, as a 19 year old, that I experienced God's call to Bible teaching and it was through reading Between Two Worlds (or, I Believe in Preaching) three years later that the call was cemented into place. With it being a little dated now, Langham Preaching Resources has revised and shortened this book as The Challenge of Preaching in the hope of lengthening its life and broadening its appeal still further around the world.
at number one
I once had a student who was not warming to his academic work. One summer, rather than be placed in a church to practise being a pastor, he was placed with the principal (me!) to practise being a student. I developed a reading list and we read a book each week and met to discuss it – all in an effort to jump start a love for study. Never, ever will I forget the conversation that followed his reading of The Cross of Christ - not an easy book for someone struggling to be a student. It was transformative for him - and for me. Years ago it was the chapter on 'Self-understanding' ("what has that got to do with the cross ... everything!") that God used to bring clarity into the muddied discussions on self-esteem - and healing as well. But the feature about the book which I love is how each chapter commences with a serious work-out for the mind (well, for me anyway) - but by chapter's close the heart was soaring in weepy worship of Jesus. I delight in people who keep my mind and heart together - just as it should be and just as John Stott does in this book. I once wrote to John Stott, thanking him for this book and he wrote back (as you do - far out!) and acknowledged that this was his most important book. That does not surprise because he gloried in the cross and urged others to cling to the cross.
Do continue to visit the Memorial Site. Do access his sermons - free of charge - on the All Souls website. Do buy a book from the list above, or from the comprehensive bibliography. If you 'know not John Stott', do browse the messages being left in the Remembrance Book, pushing on towards 1000 in number now - that is such a staggering number.
And do make it a priority to thank and respect the contribution which John Stott has made to the mission of God worldwide by attending a Memorial Service near you (a list is constantly being updated on the Memorial Site). The New Zealand one will be at 5pm on Sunday 4 September at the Cathedral in Parnell (Auckland).