Evangelist blowhards

So a man named John Stott died last week. Sure, he was no Amy Winehouse, but the English pastor, theologian, intellectual and author was kind of a big deal for global evangelicalism.

After Christianity Today (for disclosure, where I work full-time) posted the first obituary, the Associated Press quickly followed with a news story, and the New York Times and The Guardian eventually posted obituaries.

It wasn’t surprising that most reporters didn’t fall all over themselves to write about his death, but I would have expected a little more in the mainstream. For instance, its ironic that while Time magazine named Stott one of the most 100 influential people in 2005, they posted nothing about his death.

Sure, Stott didn’t pray with presidents, but he influenced a generation of evangelicals, especially its leaders. If reporters needed to connect it to public office, they could have pointed out that he was chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II. If they needed a little controversial hook, maybe they could have explored the annihilationism angle (becoming non-existent rather than tormented in hell) with the recent debates about Rob Bell and universalism. But these are only slices of Stott’s widespread influence, and we might grade the coverage with a “meh.”

What prompted a GetReligion post for me, though, was the Los Angeles Times obituary, posted Sunday with the headline “The Rev. John Stott dies at 90; influential Anglican evangelist.” Although Stott did lots of personal evangelism (encouraging conversion), I’m not sure “evangelist” is the right term, since he was not an itinerant preacher to the masses in the manner of Billy Graham. Then we have the deck, which draws directly from the text of the article.

Unassuming but erudite, the pastor was considered a mentor to Billy Graham and Rick Warren. He was a principal framer of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant that launched the global evangelical movement.

Stott definitely helped frame the modern, global evangelical movement, but he certainly did not launch it the same way you would launch a formal institution. Then there’s the framing of the lead.

The Rev. John Stott did not fill stadiums with the faithful like his longtime friend, Billy Graham, or give the invocation at a presidential inauguration, as megachurch pastor Rick Warren did for Barack Obama. Yet he was a giant of the evangelical world — perhaps the most influential evangelist most people have never heard of.

The Times probably wants to connect to its California audience with the Rick Warren reference, but it’s funny to me that the reporter thinks that Warren’s invocation prayer is his most influential moment (Purpose Driven Life anyone?). Like Billy Graham, politics has been part of Warren’s ministry but just one sliver of his influence. This illustrates a larger issue in journalism where reporters search so hard for the obvious story that they fail to see the big picture. Here’s how the piece ends:

He also was famous for his simple lifestyle. For three months every year for 50 years, when he wasn’t living in his spare London flat, he retreated to a tiny cottage in Wales where he wrote his books by lantern light. It was not until several years ago that, over his objections, electricity was finally installed.

Really? That’s how you end an obituary on someone who shaped a religious movement?

Separate from the newspaper’s fine obituary, the news of Stott’s death prompted The New York Times‘ columnist Nicholas Kristof to write about why Stott illustrates the kind of evangelical he loves, rather than those bigoted, homophobic, blowhards. We don’t usually discuss columns here, but since it was a newsier column, we’re bringing it into this roundup.

Those self-appointed evangelical leaders come across as hypocrites, monetizing Jesus rather than emulating him. Some seem homophobic, and many who claim to be “pro-life” seem little concerned with human life post-uterus. Those are the preachers who won headlines and disdain.

But in reporting on poverty, disease and oppression, I’ve seen so many others. Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.

I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.

It’s a tough life at those cocktail parties.

Don’t get me wrong: Kristof does some great reporting and I highly recommend his book Half the Sky, but he seems to pick and choose what he likes about a religious group. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that there are values intrinsic to a religious body that leaders don’t abandon because it’s viewed as backwards or less pragmatic (Catholics and contraceptives in Third World countries, for instance). There are these things called “doctrines,” in other words, that are rather important in most religious traditions.

Instead, we might consider David Brooks’s column from 2004, where the idea that Stott might be considered the “evangelical pope” first appeared.

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.

Brooks worked harder to understand Stott — beyond what he personally approved of — so that he could explain why Stott was so unique, both the obvious stances on policy and lifestyle and also the less visible theology and ideas that set Stott apart.

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  • Cassius Zedaker

    Maybe instead of “evangelist” the word “apologist” would fit better?

  • northcoast

    I think proper usage would be to refer to the Rev. Fr. John Stott.

  • Chris Jones

    the Rev. Fr. John Stott

    FWIW the title “Father” is optional among Anglican priests, and is not particularly favored by Anglican evangelicals like Stott. Anglican priests in the United States (i.e. Episcopalians) are much more likely to use the title “Father” than are their counterparts in the Church of England itself, where the use of the title is a definite marker for an Anglo-Catholic, rather than Evangelical, outlook.

    I have never heard John Stott referred to as “Father Stott,” and I should be very surprised if I did.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The usage in lower church circles is “The Reverend Dr. Stott”, or “Mr” in absence of an earned degree.

    The David Brooks column is good:

    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.

    He gets it.

    I only disagree in that Falwell was indeed a representative of a portion of evangelicalism. I happen to like Stott’s portion better, but that’s just me.

    And for my money, the LA Times obit ended well: in a culture of televangelists with their lavish lifestyles, it was a perfect closing statement.

  • Tyson K

    So I’m going back and forth in what the coverage was thinking in using the word “evangelist” to describe Stott. The more positive part of me thinks it’s grouping him with Graham et al. because of his influence on them. This is simplistic, but it has its roots in reality, even if he wasn’t someone who devoted most of his time to “evangelism” in the manner they did. But the more cynical part of me thinks it’s just the media assuming that “evangelical” and “evangelist” are the same thing as usual. (Not that “evangelical” is a very useful term anyway, as has been discussed on GetReligion ad nauseam.)

  • Suzanne

    Don’t get me wrong: Kristof does some great reporting and I highly recommend his book Half the Sky, but he seems to pick and choose what he likes about a religious group.

    It seems to me that you’re doing the same thing when it comes to Kristof. He’s a columnist, expressing what’s important to him. It isn’t what you think should be important to him, but he, like Stott, has the right to value what he values. You prefer Brooks’ approach because he focuses on what you think should be focused on. But that doesn’t make it a better column, it just makes it more in line with your thinking.

    Seems to me that Get Religion tends to run off the rails a bit when you guys delve into columns. You seem to recognize that; the writer always prefaces his or her comments with, “I know it’s a column, but…” But the purpose of a column, however newsy, is very different than the purpose of a news story.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Passing by, I didn’t think about the ending of the column that way, but maybe you’re right.
    Suzanne, yes, Kristof has a particular point of view, but he’s still very much grounded in reporting most of the time. Unfortunately, he sometimes just wishes away a theological tradition rather than try to understand where a religious group is coming from. I don’t necessarily agree with Brooks, but I think he does a better job of trying to understand the theology behind Stott. For me, it’s not really about the takeaway, it’s the reporting behind it.

  • Jon in the Nati

    So I’m going back and forth in what the coverage was thinking in using the word “evangelist” to describe Stott. [...] This is simplistic, but it has its roots in reality…

    I think you’re probably about right with that. If it were me, I would not use the word ‘evangelist’ because it (for me, at any rate) conjures up images of pulpit-pounding at tent revivals, or big-haired preachers in ugly suits on TV late at night. I suspect it does the same for many people. Yet those things are not what Stott was about, and to use a word with such connotations invites readers to mis-perceive the man.

    Incidentally, the bit about TIME failing to report on Stott’s death reminds me that, in the 1950s, three colossally influential theologians found their way onto TIME’s cover, in the persons of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich. Now, a man of similar influence (if not public stature) is dead and can’t even get a mention on TIME’s website.

  • http://twitter.com/calinvalean Calin

    You are right, it is very rare that a journalist covers the most important or sensitive aspects in a man’s faith. The reason is simple: it it also very rare that an active Christian writes for a secular newspaper so for a regular columnist (even an good one) is not so easy to notice the nuances between found in the huge umbrella called Christianity.

  • Joe

    The fact TIME missed it is rather telling. But otherwise I think you are nitpicking a bit. He was a Brit, after all, a relative stranger to folks here. An *Anglican* minister, fairly reticent. Coverage reflected that.