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One of the benefits of having a son in seminary (who lives with you, and maybe I should blog about THAT soon…) is that really delicious looking books are lying around your house, and the stock rotates regularly.  Now for a bibliophile like me, this is sensory overload, and it is amazing I am getting anything done around here, but I am.  Kind of.

This particular title, Basic Christian (The Inside Story of John Stott), by Roger Steer, pulled me in with just one glance.  I flat out love the cover.  Uncle John looks so ready to engage you, as he always was.

I first encountered John Stott in 1982, the spring of my sophomore year, when I was doing a semester abroad in London.  All Souls was a few blocks from our student lodgings, and as there was not another church-goer in our group of 19, I walked those blocks alone every Sunday morning and evening, plus sometimes during the week if there was a lecture midweek.  John was then Rector Emeritus; Michael Baughen was rector (shortly to be moving to his new post as Bishop of Chester later that spring).  John preached maybe every fourth sermon or so, but when he did he packed the house.

What I most remember about his preaching was a wonderfully British, reasonable, gracious & winsome presentation of gospel truth that always made me think “how could anyone argue against that?  He’s just right.”  Professors could pooh-pooh my antiquated, ignorant religion; John Stott reminded me that yes, a thinking man can be a Christian.

What I most remember about John Stott the person is a wonderful, welcoming warmth.  I was an unknown (mostly) face in a big crowd at All Souls, but when exiting a Stott sermon, I always made a point of going through the line to greet Uncle John, because he would look me in the eyes, take my hand in both of his, and really see me and greet me.  He made me feel truly welcome.  Decades later during a visit to All Souls I encountered John at the church door again, and I told him how important his preaching and All Souls had been to me in the earliest days of my faith when I was so far from home.  He seemed to love hearing this, even humbled by it.  So not only can a thinking man be a Christian, he can be warm and wecoming too (even if British).

I have so many notes on this book that this entry would be way too long to post them all, but overall my impression of the book as a book was that it is almost encyclopedic in its coverage of John’s life from childhood to old age (it was published in 2009, just two years before he died) and a great way to learn about not only John Stott but also the development of the whole evangelical movement of the last century (lots of inside info here about Billy Graham as well).  Because the book includes memories from so many scores of people, the style of the telling is a bit episodic and thus jumpy at times.  But themes do emerge which I find priceless, so the style of telling is small potatoes.  The themes and realizations I treasure most from the book are these:  John’s role as a clarifier and unifier in the evangelical movement through much of the twentieth century; his truly gospel-centered, humble, generous heart; his extremely regular devotional disciplines; his ability to read and synthesize a vast array of material and write a cohesive summary statement (his work at Lausanne as a prime example); his deep concern and care for the church in developing nations; and his ability to hear and even to invite criticism as a way of checking himself for blind spots and effectiveness in his preaching.

The trait that most stands out to me at the moment is John’s ability to respond with grace to those within the church who disagreed with him, even when their criticism was unkind and came with personal loss for him.  The book chronicles a number of very sticky conflicts that arose during his lifetime, some of which I’m sure saddened him deeply, but he had a wonderful way of leaning in to listen and a willingness to find himself to be wrong on an issue and make that known, all of which led him to reflect and truly study and pray about an issue rather than give a canned response.  He wanted to know the truth, and when he had sought and felt satisfied with an answer, he stood on it and could tell you why, though he still acknowledged that it can scarcely be possible that one has all the correct answers on every issue that comes along.  He was amazingly comfortable with gray areas in the non-essentials, and this made him a lifelong listener and learner, as well as a remarkable teacher.

However, one area in which he did not budge once he found his footing was in the Christian’s approach to scriptural authority and interpretation.  Hermeneutics was a new-ish (or rediscovered) concern for evangelicals in the mid 20th century, and for John it became a central focus as debates with more left-leaning Christians on contemporary issues often exposed a very different view of scripture itself and often devolved into a debate on hermeneutics rather than a debate on the stated issue (how familiar does that sound?).

Stott’s insistence on approaching scripture with great care, submission, and scholarship served him well when, on issue after issue, evangelicals (and non-)  looked to John Stott to voice the evangelical view, and his speaking and teaching calendar and travels were non-stop, even in his older age.  (A New York Times columnist once wrote that “if evangelicals chose a pope, they would likely select John Stott.” – p. 267).  One such appearance late in life was a debate with Bishop Spong on Christian sexual ethics.  Toward the end, Spong stated, “A Bible that reflects tribal, racial, nationalistic, and sexual prejudices needs to be confronted.  I do not hesitate to say of part of Paul’s first letter to Timothy, ‘This is not the word of the Lord.  These are the words of a first century man locked inside the cultural definitions of his day, and trying to support his prejudices by an appeal to God…’ ” (p. 240).  Stott countered, “if we want to be submissive to our Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot treat his teaching in the cavalier way in which I fear that Bishop Spong has done,” and used much of his final five minutes communicating his anxiety about “what the audience had heard…of the treatment of scripture.”  He later urged that should there be another debate, it needed to be “on the authority and interpretation of Scripture.”  He saw little hope for progress toward any form of agreement without this “crux of the matter” being addressed.  (p. 241)

On the other hand, Stott was not one to say that even those who agree on their hermeneutic method and on the authority of scripture would necessarily see all issues the same, and he worried about factions in the evangelical church which were excessively dogmatic.  He worried that the divisiveness of such dismissive black-and-white thinking on some of the less explicit issues in scripture (the specific application of the role of women in the church, for example) would tend to divide and “weaken the evangelical cause” (p. 242).  He knew that this kind of mindset tended to push people to the opposite extreme of one’s own views, to polarize them, in other words.  “He believed that we should always beware of caricaturing our opponents’ positions–of building a straw man and then demolishing it.  We should always engage and answer their best arguments, not their worst ones” (p. 243).

I find John’s wisdom on this refreshing, and have spent so many words here because it was instructive to me as I was reading this book in the midst of engaging in some online debating on a liberal Christian blog that I visit from time to time (to widen my world just a bit).  Straw men everywhere, and such vitriol, not just in the comments area but from the blog writer herself, who is something of a champion among young Christians online.  And much to my dismay, the readers’ comments about her and her followers which appeared on a conservative blog (TGC) were every bit as nonsensical and mean-spirited–probably more so.  I doubt seriously that John would have dipped a toe in this shark tank we call online Christian debate (he developed personal principles about dealing with controversy that I’m sure would have kept him out of the comments area of blogs, had they been part of his world in the 20th century), but if he had, I would love to have read how he would respond, this master of returning a blessing for an insult, of overcoming evil with good, of speaking edifying words, of warning the brethren yet correcting gently.

For this and many other kinds of grace and wisdom, I would give my eye teeth to have been one of his study assistants (lucky dogs!) or just an office assistant or even the kitchen help.  The book teems with testimonials not only of John’s important ecclesiastical contributions, but also, and more strikingly, of John’s humility, grace, integrity, compassion and humor.  If heaven is a place where we will go looking for people we never got to spend time with on earth, Uncle John will be one of the first people I look up.

Below are some of my favorite quotes and discoveries from Basic Christian:

On language and precision:  “The greatest help in learning to use words with care and accuracy was writing essays in French and German.  There is a precise word which fits every situation, and the sort of education I had has been a great help to me in my preaching and writing ministry.” – p. 51

On compassion for the poor:  Early in his ministry, John spent several nights posing as a homeless beggar, sleeping under newspapers under Charing Cross Bridge and in a hostel for the homeless, in order to get a feel for their lives.  There were many nights when John slept on a cot in his study so that a homeless man could sleep in his bed.

In response to Martin Lloyd Jones‘ (and others’) urging in 1966 that “theologically orthodox Anglicans” should leave their denomination:  “I believe that Scripture is against him in that the remnant was within the Church and not outside it. … Some evangelicals, like myself, believe it is the will of God to remain in a church that is sometimes called a ‘mixed denomination.’  At least until it becomes apostate and ceases to be a church, we believe it is our duty to remain in it and bear witness to the truth as we have been given to understand it.”

An example of John’s ability to support those he disagreed with:  Desmond Tutu, at the 1975 World Council of Churches, spoke and included the following about the Apostle Paul: ” ‘[he] was confused’ and ‘a prisoner of his own culture’ who ‘sometimes didn’t know what he was talking about.’   John’s newly found diplomacy deserted him.  ‘If I had to choose between the blessed apostle and the Dean of Johannesburg,’ he said, ‘I would have no difficulty in deciding who to follow!’  Desmond Tutu didn’t seem to mind John’s outburst, and the two men became good friends.  John was an ardent supporter of Tutu’s struggle against apartheid.”

A telling episode about John’s personality:  At a study group which was considering John Fowles’ novel, The Magus, one member “expressed surprise that he had been asked to read the book.  ‘I found the book very unhelpful to me as a Christian,’ he said. ‘There’s far too much sex in it.  I am going to leave the meeting as I have nothing to contribute.’

With that, he got up and left the room.  John just sat there, let him leave, and then looked up over his glasses.

‘Oh I think that was most unfortunate,’ he said.  ‘I thought the book was erotic, not pornographic!’ ”

From the plaque on the new pulpit at All Souls in 1976 given in honor of John’s 25 years as All Souls Rector:  “He taught us to make God’s Word our rule, God’s Spirit our teacher and God’s Glory our supreme concern.”

From Frances Whitehead, his secretary for half a century: “He is thoroughly consistent.  He is what he professes.  He wants to please God and that’s all he cares about–doing God’s will, living for his glory, being faithful.”

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I have gracious friends, who graciously invited me to join a book discussion / accountability group centered (initially) around an old book on Christian living (for women) called Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman. My friends have been so gracious, in fact, that they have not kicked me out of this little group, even when my reactions to this book have been less than enthusiastic.

The book is just chock full of motherly advice about how to simplify and organize your life, from wardrobe to bedside table to daytimer. Sounds healthy, right? And of course, the task can be overwhelming, so here’s a sympathetic encouragement from the end of the book, where author Anne Ortlund imagines what her overwhelmed reader might be thinking about all the organization systems she has presented. Read it in your best Sue Ann Nivens voice:

“But here I sit,” you say, “with a girdle in the middle of the floor, dishes in the sink, and unanswered mail strewn on the bed. Where do I start?” (p. 123)

Did you catch that? There’s a girdle on this poor reader’s floor.

See now, I too would be truly bothered by the presence of a girdle on my floor, but not for the reasons Ortlund may be thinking.

Before I go off on why this book is not for me, let me recommend it to SOME of you. If you can get past the dated examples she gives (it was published in the 70’s, after all) and the privileged life she leads (at the time of writing, she had a housekeeper three days a week, and traveled all over the world sitting in hotel lobbies and on cruise ship decks writing books while her husband had speaking engagements), you might find the organization systems in this book useful. You will especially warm to it if:

  • you feel your home and your schedule is messy and out of control and this bothers you, because
  • you accept the premise that your outward self ought to be organized, neat, and attractive because this is becoming to a woman of God, and
  • you are the kind of woman who cares a great deal about appearance (of your outward self, of your home and “personal space”) and
  • you are looking for a some ways (and a pep talk) to simplify and organize your life so that you can devote yourself more fully to personal devotion and to discipling more women.

While I found some of the ideas in this book useful and have even implemented some of them (albeit in my own non-fussy, artsy style), I have to give this book only two stars because there is a tone and undercurrent to the book that disturbs me—so much so that while I wanted to learn from her ideas, reading the book was for me a prolonged exercise in eye-rolling and repeating to myself “it is for freedom that Christ has set you free … it is for freedom that…”.  There are an awful lot of “oughts” and “shoulds” in this book that don’t seem to have any basis in scripture.  Having been raised in churches with lots of oughts and shoulds, and having long since diligently and joyfully shed the underlying legalisms of all those voices in my head, I just balk at this kind of tone.  When someone writes that dirty laundry is “unworthy of lying around, untended to, in the life of a child of God!” (both quotes, p. 75), I have to ask the question, “why is this presented as a moral issue?”

So unless you’re up for being tisk-tisked into the virtues of tidiness, fastidious organization, and charm-school appearance and manners, you may, like me, take umbrage at the Sue Ann Nivens-ness of it all.

In the chapter on cleaning up and organizing your immediate surroundings, for example, she begins with the assertion that your closet, your bathroom counter, your bedside table “should reflect the order and peace of your inner life with God” (75).  It should?  Why?  Are people assessing my inner life by the orderliness of my bedside table?   And if it’s messy, just what are they assuming this announces about me and my God?  A cluttered table equals a cluttered soul?  How about I just don’t value tidy housekeeping as much as I value the books that are stacked on that table, and given a spare half hour I will almost always choose reading over dusting?  How about if my husband and my boys find me way more interesting that way?

In her defense, I have to say that the chapters on kingdom priorities and discipling show me that this woman’s heart is in the right place.  For her, the outward appearances are important, probably because of the way she was raised and the people she’s around, and I really believe that she devised her organizational systems and wardrobe planning (“eliminate and concentrate”) in an effort not to be bogged down by what she sees as the demands of good housekeeping and feminine grooming.  I just am glad that my in my generation, women don’t fuss over these outward things as much as hers apparently did – at least not the women I enjoy being around.

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