New York Times
November 30, 2004
Tim Russert is a great journalist, but he made a mistake last weekend. He included Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton in a discussion on religion and public life.
Inviting these two bozos onto "Meet the Press" to discuss that issue is like inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D. H. Lawrence. Naturally, they got into a demeaning food fight that would have lowered the intellectual discourse of your average nursery school.
This is why so many people are so misinformed about evangelical Christians. There is a world of difference between real-life people of faith and the made-for-TV, Elmer Gantry-style blowhards who are selected to represent them. Falwell and Pat Robertson are held up as spokesmen for evangelicals, which is ridiculous. Meanwhile people like John Stott, who are actually important, get ignored.
It could be that you have never heard of John Stott. I don't blame you. As far as I can tell, Stott has never appeared on an important American news program. A computer search suggests that Stott's name hasn't appeared in this newspaper since April 10, 1956, and it's never appeared in many other important publications.
Yet, as Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center notes, if evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose. He was the framer of the Lausanne Covenant, a crucial organizing document for modern evangelicalism. He is the author of more than 40 books, which have been translated into over 72 languages and have sold in the millions. Now rector emeritus at All Souls, Langham Place, in London, he has traveled the world preaching and teaching.
When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I've heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.
It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott's mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus' life and sacrifice.
There's been a lot of twaddle written recently about the supposed opposition between faith and reason. To read Stott is to see someone practicing "thoughtful allegiance" to scripture. For him, Christianity means probing the mysteries of Christ. He is always exploring paradoxes. Jesus teaches humility, so why does he talk about himself so much? What does it mean to gain power through weakness, or freedom through obedience? In many cases the truth is not found in the middle of apparent opposites, but on both extremes simultaneously.
Stott is so embracing it's always a bit of a shock - especially if you're a Jew like me - when you come across something on which he will not compromise. It's like being in "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among nonbelievers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.
Most important, he does not believe truth is plural. He does not believe in relativizing good and evil or that all faiths are independently valid, or that truth is something humans are working toward. Instead, Truth has been revealed. As he writes:
"It is not because we are ultra-conservative, or obscurantist, or reactionary or the other horrid things which we are sometimes said to be. It is rather because we love Jesus Christ, and because we are determined, God helping us, to bear witness to his unique glory and absolute sufficiency. In Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ God's revelation is complete; to add any words of our own to his finished work is derogatory to Christ."
Politicians, especially Democrats, are now trying harder to appeal to people of faith. But people of faith are not just another interest group, like gun owners. You have to begin by understanding the faith. And you can't understand this rising global movement if you don't meet its authentic representatives.
Not Falwell, but Stott.