John Stott: Not an Evangelical Blowhard according to the Times

John Stott gets a thumbs-up from the New York Times. Specifically, Pulitizer-prize winning op-ed columnist for the Times, Nicholas Kristof, gives the late John Stott his stamp of approval, his imprimatur, if you will. (To be accurate, this is the second time, to my knowledge, that the Times has approved of Stott. The first came in a 2004 op-ed piece by David Brooks, “Who is John Stott?”)

In “Evangelicals without Blowhards,” Kristof admits that he is “not particularly religious.” Nevertheless, he honors Stott because of Stott’s wisdom, humble demeanor, and especially his concern for social justice.

Kristof wastes no time laying down the gauntlet: “In these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as ‘evangelical Christian.’” He lays the blame at the feet of evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson: “That’s partly because evangelicals came to be associated over the last 25 years with blowhard scolds. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discussed on television whether the 9/11 attacks were God’s punishment on feminists, gays and secularists, God should have sued them for defamation.”

Yet, according to Kristof, blanket condemnation of evangelicals is not fair:

Partly because of such self-righteousness, the entire evangelical movement often has been pilloried among progressives as reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral.

Yet that casual dismissal is profoundly unfair of the movement as a whole. It reflects a kind of reverse intolerance, sometimes a reverse bigotry, directed at tens of millions of people who have actually become increasingly engaged in issues of global poverty and justice.

This compassionate strain of evangelicalism was powerfully shaped by the Rev. John Stott, a gentle British scholar who had far more impact on Christianity than media stars like Mr. Robertson or Mr. Falwell.

Stott, Kristof observes, was not a fire-and-brimstone television evangelist, but rather a brilliant, careful scholar who “underscored that faith and intellect needn’t be at odds.” A couple of days ago I blogged on my own personal interaction with John Stott, which serves as an apt demonstration of this very point. On this theme, Kristof observes:

Centuries ago, serious religious study was extraordinarily demanding and rigorous; in contrast, anyone could declare himself a scientist and go in the business of, say, alchemy. These days, it’s the reverse. A Ph.D. in chemistry is a rigorous degree, while a preacher can explain the Bible on television without mastering Hebrew or Greek — or even showing interest in the nuances of the original texts.

I get what Kristof is trying to say here, but he bungles his argument. Serious religious study is still extraordinarily demanding and rigorous. Getting a Ph.D. in the study of religion is about as demanding as getting a Ph.D. in chemistry. In fact, in my grad school, it usually took longer to get a Ph.D. in religious studies than in science. Kritof’s language suggests the reverse, which is wrong. What is true, however, is that today anyone can go on TV or the Internet to make religious claims, without any training or disciplined knowledge of the subject. This is just as true, by the way, of critics of religion as it is of religious gurus. Most of the popular atheist critics of religion seem to know very little about that which they so vigorously condemn.

Kristof is impressed, not only by John Stott, but also by evangelicals who invest their lives in fighting poverty and injustice:

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.

My Response

As you might imagine, I’m thankful for Kristof’s column. It rightly honors John Stott and rightly observes that many evangelicals are nothing like the stereotype many “progressives” hold in their minds. I would like to suggest a few words of critique, however.

First, the prominence of people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson has to do, in part, with media outlets like the New York Times that give them so much attention. Why? Partly because these people fit and promote the stereotype of the religious person as a blowhard. Partly because people like Falwell and Robertson sell advertising. Making John Stott a spokesman for evangelical Christianity would have been wise and fair, but it wouldn’t have sold papers or motivated people to tune in to CNN. There will always be religious blowhards, just as there will always be irreligious blowhards. The media will need to choose who gets the attention. Unfortunately, they tend to choose the blowhards, especially when these blowhards represent positions contrary to the preferences of the media outlets.

Second, Kristof neglects that fact that there are millions of politically liberal or progressive evangelicals. He says things like: “few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as ‘evangelical Christian’” and “the entire evangelical movement often has been pilloried among progressives as reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral.” But there are many circles of liberal, political evangelicals. This became most apparent in the last presidential election, when millions of evangelicals voted for Barack Obama. (According to one survey, 21 percent of white evangelicals voted for Obama. The percentage is much higher if you consider non-white evangelicals.) Kristof seems to be unaware of this data. It would be much more accurate to speak of secular liberals and secular progressives as disrespecting evangelicals. In his effort to endorse the social concern of John Stott and those like him, Kristof perpetuates the very stereotype that obscures the reality of evangelical Christianity in America and promotes the very kind of prejudice that Kristof is fighting.

Third, Kristof runs the risk of missing what motivates evangelical social action. He labels the evangelicalism of Stott and others like him as the “compassionate strain of evangelicalism.” To be sure, evangelicals are motivated to reach out to the poor and oppressed because of their compassionate hearts. But, compassion was not the primary motivation of John Stott. Nor is it the primary motivation of those who follow his lead. Beneath compassion lies a foundation of biblical truth, a belief that the authoritative Scripture reveals a God who seeks to redeem the world, an observation that social justice and care for the poor are central to the Bible, a commitment to following Jesus in everyday life, and a profound concern for God’s glory. Stott would have been the first to say that we should reach out with the love, truth, and justice of God whether or not our hearts feel compassion. (In fact, I imagine he did say this in his many writings. I’m just not aware of where he did it.) We who seek to honor Stott’s memory must be more than people of tender hearts. We must also be people who stand upon God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Here we find, not only the imperative to seek first God’s reign and justice, but also the means to be transformed so as to be agents of transformation in the world.

Finally, I want to note that sometimes life is strangely ironic. As I read Kristof’s article online, I was startled to see the banner ad at the top of the page. Check it out:

Screenshot from the NY Times online, Sunday, July 31, 2011

Liberty University was founded by one of Kristof’s leading “blowhards,” Jerry Falwell. The current president of Liberty University in Falwell’s son. In the wonders of the Internet, an ad for Liberty University his helping to fund Kristof’s column at the Times.

  • TomB

    Good post about a surprisingly good column.  In my not so humble opinion, your praises and criticisms of the column are right on.

  • Pingback: Evangelical

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Tom.

  • Evan

    Mark,
    This is one of those areas in which the definitions of words have settled the debate before a word is spoken or written. And the higher up in the “intellectual food-chain” you get, the more ephemeral the language and definitions get. No wonder it takes so long to get a Ph.D. in Religion– reading some of the more high-falutin’ authors will put you straight to sleep!

    Now, like you, I will take whatever affirmation I can get, but the terms of the debate are set with Kristoff’s very title: “Evangelicals Without Blowhards”– a compliment wrapped around the brick of an insult to evangelicals. My first thought was to wonder about Kristoff’s reaction to an article titled something like “Progressives Without (Some Equally to More Insulting Term).” Well, he does rightly laud John Stott, and he appears to be TRYING to play nicely, so let us give the title some slack. Besides that, it would be the same offense coming back the other way; there are likely folks who consider themselves to be “progressives” when I would not, and my reposte would rather be insulting folks with whom I actually agree. So no “wicked clever” response, but the implications of the title are bothersome.

    This article really dovetails in with the link you posted to the article regarding Anders Breivik, and the implied definitions and their implications for “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” The former did not seem to be well-received overall, and the latter was openly disdained, and the comments section was a total warzone over it. This was a bit of a puzzle to me, since when one looks at the “fundamentals” of Jesus’ teachings, loving your enemy and your neighbor as yourself seem to be high on the list, leading to the motivation of the very ministries that Kristoff lauds. But I think my definitions differ from the assumed definitions in that venue.

    I think you make a fine point in that the Media take pains to present folks like Falwell and Robertson as the “norm” of evangelical circles, as opposed to folks like John Stott and indeed, yourself. I would note for the record that Robertson in particular has set in motion a number of ministries that help many, many people in great need, and that is all to the good. Where he and Falwell left themselves vulnerable to criticism, it seems to me, is that they got a tad fast and loose at times with “Thus saith the Lord.” In that realm, there are two things we must never do: 1) Reject a validly-spoken word from the Lord and 2) Speak when the Lord has not spoken. Whatever objectively good deeds their respective ministries may have done in the world have been compromised to a degree by some “loose lips” at times in the latter department. I would assert, however, that there are a number of “progressive” Christians who fall down in the first regard, and do terrific harm in their own right, but the Media is either in agreement with them in their errors or the results that flow from them, and they get a pass as far as being “blowhards.”

    I am not quite sure how all these various terms are being defined in the particular articles, etc., in which they appear, but the discussion proceeds from those assumptions. Thus I want to finally note a great quote from noted atheist Christopher Hitchens in the context of definitions. He was being interviewed (http://www.portlandmonthlymag.com/arts-and-entertainment/category/book-and-talks/articles/religion-god-0110/) by Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian minister:

    Sewell: I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

    Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

    Evan

  • Paula

    Doesn’t the ad: “Liberty University, the World’s Largest Christian University” contradict your point that the media incorrectly focuses on people like Falwell and Robertson. The media is interested in money and power. And it seems to me they put their finger on it.

    Goshen College has nothing of the resources of Liberty or Focus on the Family. Pat Robertson’s involvement in the diamond trade and dealings with Charles Taylor in Liberia, (a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands) should make them newsworthy. (Even more than they are, in my opinion.)  We may not want these people to stand as Christian leaders, but they have ammassed money and power — and that is what the media is primarily interested in.

  • Anonymous

    Evan: Great comment, as always. Thanks. You’re right about the messiness of words.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, that was my point, in a way. The media focus on Falwell and Robertson is, in part, a reflection of the media’s desire for money. Blowhards sell. The point isn’t that the media focused on Robertson for its stories. It’s that they put him in a position of speaking for conservative Christians, rather than choosing someone like John Stott. I’m not just blaming the media here, of course. But they have contributed greatly to the stereotyping of conservative Christians because it suits their agendas (selling ads, showing Christians to be foolish, etc.).

  • Paula

    I actually wasn’t talking about the media’s desire for money (self-aggrandizement) but of their interest in the way money and power work. I don’t know how we’d do a study, but the question is, who has had a recognizable influence on the world? Judging by politics, commerce — they really do have to pay attention to the Falwells and Robertsons. But I follow your point. There is some chicken and egg at work —

  • Paula

    It is a small point in your story, but once again, I return to the great (and relatively undiscussed) sin in Robertson’s life. His involvement in the diamond trade and the connections with brutal dectators responsible for the chaos and violence in the Congo. Here’s an article from Time magazine. The money quote: “Makau Mutua, projects director of the Human Rights Program at the Harvard Law School, says that currently “Robertson is Mobutu’s biggest American catch.”Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,133802,00.html#ixzz1TorU1o47

    Across Africa, people know the evil this man has countenanced and benefitted from. I will never be able to speak casually about “the good he has done.”

  • Pingback: Francisco Aponte jr

  • Pingback: Francisco Aponte jr

  • Pingback: Francisco Aponte jr

  • Pingback: markdroberts

  • Anonymous

    Yes, you’re right.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you that this is a sad situation. One more reason why Robertson should not have been a spokesperson for people of conservative Christian faith. What you describe is much worse than being simply a blowhard.

  • Madsat

    Money and power attract attention, which attracts even more money and power.  We all see examples of this every day, Paris Hilton being the current one most like to point at – though I always add that she’s got to be smarter than they like to claim, or she’d have already lost it all. 

    Thus, attention is lavished on the people who seek the spotlight, trumpet how they are better than you, and attract the least desirable elements to build monster churches that don’t do anything but add to wealth and power.  I’ve personally known people who were damaged when one of these icons fell, and it was obvious they were going to fall – to everyone except the ones blinded by the spotlight.

    And that’s how the modern age works.  Scholarship is not honored, showmanship is.  And that’s life.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, too bad, though.

  • Dbizza2000

    Toward the end of this article, you talk about being “….agents of transformation in this word.”  This seems to imply an underlying motive in what it is you seek to do. An agent is defined as “A person or thing that brings about a certain result.” This to me means that even though someone might be doing something positive, like feeding the hungry, the primary objective is to try persuading the people you help to accept your beliefs.

    Are good deeds used to be cunning so as to ease possible tensions between parties, or, are they to earn points with a higher power like “look at me! I am doing good in your name!”

    Kristof mentions at the beginning of his article that these are polarized times. Indeed they are. All one needs to do is take a look at the news! But, will it not be even more polarizing if people keep trying to convert other people? What happens when half the worlds believers are Christians and the other half are Muslim? It is going to be a war of a magnitude the world has never seen.

    Now put yourself in my shoes. As a non-believer, I am seeing people, even now, killing for what they believe in. Imagine what it will be like in the future.  I envision this battle playing out time and again. Who’s to say it hasn’t happened a thousand times before?  It kills me to think that people are willing to go to these lengths to perpetuate their beliefs. 

    Now I know that since this is all circumstantial to perspective, a lot of Christians would tend to think that their belief is the correct one because it isn’t violent like Islam is, but , I would counter that the Christian tradition has at least an equal amount of blood on its hands. Look to the Bush administration and how they used religion to gain backing for the war in Iraq. People are eager to take up arms if they feel like their foundation is being threatened.

    In summary, I guess what I am trying to say is that we are ALL in this thing called life together. It’s the human struggle, not a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, gay, black or any individual/minorities struggle.

    A personal relationship with “God” is perfectly fine but please stop trying to convert people. Stop being a good “Christian” and start being a good person. A good human being.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your post. Ironically, you are trying to “convert” me in that you’d like me to change my understanding of what it means to be a faithful Christian. In fact, you seem to want me to stop being a good “Christian.” I don’t have a problem with that. You have every right to get me to change my mind about my religion. We all try to persuade others of what we believe to be important, whether in matters of faith or good movies or whatever. It seems to me that we need to do our persuasion in ways that are respectful of others and our differences.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X