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.
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:
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.