Thursday, February 16, 2012

godly ambition

The value of Alister Chapman's new book on John Stott lies with the fact that he does not appear to be a fan. A different voice has joined the conversation. And one senses that this conversation on Stott's legacy is about to get thicker and deeper - and more intriguing (not the least because the final page-proofs were returned to the author on the very day which Stott died).

Chapman aims to analyse Stott's career 'more fully and with more distance' (6). The latter is so helpfully true, but I remain unconvinced of the former. The book is only 160 pages and it tends to fill gaps in a story already told, rather than telling the story itself 'more fully'. Chapman offers it as 'a critical, yet sympathetic account' (9). The former is so helpfully true, but I remain unconvinced of the latter. At times the tone nibbles at the edge of sarcasm which is a long way from sympathy. Having read the Dudley-Smith and Steer biographies (fans that they are), and having offered a review of the recent Portrait book, a 'Stottian top ten', and some personal reflections at the time of his 90th birthday (once again as a fan), I have asked myself how Chapman's book has added to my understanding of John Stott.

1. It surfaces Stott's ambition
This is 'a story of Stott's ambitions' (156). A lengthy quotation from Stott's Christian Counterculture to start the concluding chapter makes it clear that Stott believed that as long as the fundamental ambition is for the glory of God, then secondary, or subservient, ambitions are permissible. The primary focus of this book is on these secondary ambitions as Chapman recounts the story of a man who was 'extraordinarily driven ... (and who) remained unsatisfied' (156). For example, revival in England was an enduring ambition and a range of strategies were used to achieve it (student missions, parish work, involvement in the establishment, the London Institute etc). Or, consider the story of Stott assuming the senior leadership at All Souls, in his late 20s, when the rector died. When appointed to the role Stott wrote to the church, 'I never dared even to pray that I might be given the privilege of being your new Rector' (54), and yet Chapman wryly adds '...but he did not seem to have been particularly surprised' (55). Chapman considers that Stott held ambitions about becoming a bishop (see page 90, for example) and that as his career developed he gravitated to those places and people where he was considered to be a 'star', or a 'hero', and where his ambition could be achieved with less difficulty.

2. It places Stott in his context
Stott was so very English, so very upper-class, and so very Anglican. He was socialised on a hierarchial view of society and this inhibited his ability to engage the working classes in his parish, as a range of 'patronizing attitudes vitiated the church's attempts to reach (such) people' (68). He loved his England - 'however, that love was never fully requited' (133) and, according to Chapman, this is partly what drove him eventually overseas where the crowds were 'adoring' and where 'he was also feted in a way that he no longer was at home' (133). This aristocratic upper-class background explains why he was at his best when he was leading and in control. It even leads to some criticism of the Langham Partnership (founded by Stott) by Chapman where he wonders whether some cultures can still be 'dominant' while others are 'dependent' (151). [NB: As a newer staff member with Langham I see only a serious intent not to be like this, as it is the antithesis of 'partnership'].

3. It returns to Stott's failures
As a fan who did not know him well, I have not thought that much about Stott's failures. I valued the opportunity to engage with this quite different plotline in the familiar story. His successive strategies for the evangelisation of England failed. His efforts to bring cohesion to the evangelical movement in Britain through the Keele Congresses failed. At the time he gave up day-to-day responsibility at All Souls in 1970, it was 'shrinking - there were empty seats' (72) - and this could be seen as a failure. Through the 1960s he was 'drifting away from his church' (75), 'running out of ideas' (76) and becoming 'disappointed and distracted' (77). In his last student mission at Cambridge in 1977, 'he looked awkward ... . earnestness was still his modus operandi, but humour and irony now seemed to be the way to win skeptical students' attention' (49-50) and, compared with the 1950s, he was a failure. One peculiar comment asserts that 'he was not a great, original thinker' (158) which, while scarcely believable, is also its own statement of failure. There is talk of success (not very much, it must be said!), but it tends to be in the American context or overseas in the worlds of IFES or Lausanne. 'He was celebrated more in Time than The Times.' (157).

4. It focuses on how Stott changes 
Being able to change as new truth unfolds is a great strength for a Christian to possess. However Chapman is so relentless in demonstrating how Stott changes that I wonder if he thinks it is a strength. One section is entitled 'the principled floater' (121). It is a section in which Stott's views on homosexuality, abortion, gender and ecology are discussed. 'Stott started to drift left' (121), as seen in his use of Marxist language, for example. Most fascinating is the paragraph on gender which traces the changes in his thinking from 1963, to 1984, and on to 2006 (113-114). On issues like homosexuality and gender, he became less conservative over time, but with abortion he became more conservative. Oh, so many changes are noted... The way 'revival' drops out of his vocabulary (74). The way he becomes (too) scholarly over time, expressed in 'a growing love for hermeneutics' (104) and demonstrated in the massive increase in footnotes from his early volumes in the Bible Speaks Today series to the latter ones. There is the celebrated change to include a social conscience and activism in the conception of mission in the years before Lausanne. 'When the second edition of Basic Christianity appeared in 1971, it included an extra paragraph on the need for Christians to serve an unjust world.' (118-119).

5. It explains Stott's conflicts
Reading about conflict is always interesting. Conflict in a story works like a kind of horizontal gravity, pulling the reader through a story. In these pages there is a freshness in the discussion of Stott's conflicts with his Dad over pacifism and the call to the ministry; with Martyn Lloyd-Jones (93f) over a vision for 'evangelical supremacy in the established church' (94); with Billy Graham over the inclusion of social concern alongside evangelism in the conception of mission in the years following Lausanne (142f); and to a lesser extent with JI Packer after Keele. Then there is the conflict caused in his public school life, his Cambridge life, and in his relationship with the Anglican establishment because of his close relationship with Eric Nash who was so instrumental in his conversion, but who was himself deeply influenced by North American fundamentalism. There is even reference to conflict within the staff team at All Souls. 'In one sermon one of his assistant ministers gave a parable of the church as a garden that was prevented from flourishing because of the shadow cast by a great statue in the middle' (75) - alluding to Stott.

While this is a valuable book, it is not a convincing one - even though it is the fruit of PhD research, published by Oxford University Press with the endorsement of luminaries like Noll and Bebbington. Yes, Chapman is a good writer with a delightful penchant for commencing paragraphs with short sentences. Yes, he is a meticulous historian as 56 pages of notes suggests. But I do wonder how many of Stott's friends in the majority world have been interviewed. If they read this book they will wonder what happened to his friendship and his humility on which they so thrived. I do wonder how many of Stott's books were read as a means of getting to know the man living between their lines. I searched in vain for any reference to The Cross of Christ (that doesn't mean it isn't there!), the book which Stott considered to be his most important. And every now and then that hint of sarcasm - and maybe it is I who am being unfair here - in a book of this pedigree is disappointing. [As a more trivial example, consider the descriptions of Keswick (15, 114)...]

Chapman closes his book by asking a rather odd question: 'was there anything that made Stott special?' (159). He answers his own question in three ways:
1. His preaching - 'authoritative, erudite, and famously clear' (159).
2. His successful academic career at Cambridge helped make him 'convincing' as he was 'living proof that evangelicals could flourish at the culture's heights, emboldening others to scale them' (160).
3. His IFES connections provided the opportunity to tell thousands of students that their minds mattered (160) and this helped produced an 'intellectual stream within evangelicalism' around the world.

That's it?! It is all true - but is it true enough?

nice chatting



Scott Mackay said...

You might be interested in this interview of the author:

Paul said...

Actually it was that interview which made me aware of the book :) - thanks, Scott. Hope you are well.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Robinson said...

thanks Paul, a very helpful overview and interesting stuff. It seems to me anyone who acheives extraordinary things in life uses has a issues beneath the surface that drive them. being well rounded can be a hindrance to changing the world, so I thank God for Stott's flaws :)