Profile, Report

John Stott, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien: Why American Evangelicals Love the British

By | May 1, 2012

THE AFFINITY FOR BRITAIN among American evangelicals has a long history. This attachment is difficult to disentangle from the colonial roots of many evangelical denominations in English and Scottish churches, as well as the transatlantic careers of the greatest American and British revivalists throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But in the decades after the Civil War, American evangelicals began to diverge from their brethren across the pond. Thanks to social and theological dynamics peculiar to the United States, evangelicals here rebelled more sharply against modern intellectual trends, particularly the theory of evolution and the audacious decision of scholars to study the Bible as they would any other historical document. By the time of World War I, conservative American Protestantism was riven by fundamentalism—a movement of Christians who militantly opposed liberal trends in culture and thought, whom H.L. Mencken mocked as uncultured bumpkins who spent their time “denouncing the reading of books.”

Ever since then, evangelicals have been struggling to overcome an intellectual inferiority complex, to convince the wider world that confidence in the Bible’s authority is compatible with scholarly achievement. For decades evangelical colleges and seminaries have sent many of their most promising students to the United Kingdom to pursue advanced degrees—to work with particular scholars known for evangelical sympathies, or simply to receive that imprimatur of intellectual gravitas, the PhD from Cambridge or DPhil from Oxford. (New St. Andrews College, an upstart evangelical school in Idaho, has attempted to import that Oxbridge aura to America by requiring Latin and Greek and dressing students in black academic gowns for each week’s disputatio.) A degree from a British university impresses Americans—and evangelicals long ago figured out that escaping to foreign universities allowed them to avoid many of the prejudices and difficult questions they sometimes encounter at American schools, where faculty tend to associate evangelicalism with wacky Young Earth science and a right-wing political agenda.

Even America’s most ardent fundamentalists have always been keen to dispel the popular stereotype of fundamentalists as yokels with “greasy noses, dirty fingernails, baggy pants and who never shined their shoes,” as Bob Jones once put it. (While Bob Jones University remained a bastion of creationist science and dismissed faculty at the slightest sign of freethinking, “Dr. Bob” enlisted his Alabama socialite mother-in-law to tutor students in etiquette and opera. His son, Bob Jones, Jr., toured Europe each summer with an allowance from the Board of Trustees to purchase fine works by Renaissance and Baroque masters for the university’s growing collection.) In recent decades, evangelicals have transformed some of their most conservative colleges into serious academic institutions and racked up accolades in mainstream academia. Yet the most accomplished evangelical scholars still think that the movement has a long way to go: in his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

American evangelicals find intellectual and cultural validation in Oxbridge Christians like Tolkien, Lewis and Stott. If these Oxford and Cambridge-trained gentlemen with plummy accents believed that God spoke from a burning bush and Jesus truly rose from the grave, that is proof that one can be an intellectual, a sophisticate, and a Bible-believer too, no matter what the snide mainstream media says. Britain represents high culture and class—but which Britain? Many evangelicals seem to idealize a long lost arcadia where professor-clergymen praise theology as queen of the sciences and manly Livingstonian missionaries conquer Africa in the name of Christendom—rather than Britannia as she truly is, secularist, multi-cultural warts and all.

This is Anglophilia’s dark side. When it drives evangelicals to study in a grey Oxford tower because there no professor will force them to read books that challenge their preexisting ideas, or when it fetishizes sherry and tweed jackets as a highbrow varnish on small-minded prejudices, it becomes mere pretense. “I tend to be suspicious of American evangelical Anglophilia,” said Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, a Baptist from California who worked as Stott’s research assistant in 2006 and now runs the Two Futures Project, a non-profit devoted to the abolition of nuclear weapons. “My fear is that it looks like cosmopolitanism, but it masks provincialism.”

 

MORE RECENTLY, THE BOOKS and sermons of British Christians have offered American evangelicals a respite from the polarized and politicized world of red states and blue states. In Britain, fundamentalism was a marginal phenomenon that did not spawn an American-style Religious Right, and most theological conservatives like Stott have kept out of politics and enjoy mainstream respect. In America, evangelicals are suffering from culture wars fatigue—especially younger Christians who grew up in the shadow of Jerry Falwell and James Dobson and are eager to decouple their faith from a political platform. “British evangelicals believe the gospel transcends traditional political categories … The Evangelical Alliance seeks to be a prophetic witness for the gospel from outside the political order,” wrote one admirer in a Christianity Today article titled “What British Evangelicals Do Right. “Since it seeks to define its position from Scripture and conscience rather than from political ideology, it is respected on both sides of the political aisle in Parliament.”

John Stott represented British evangelical moderation at its very best. He spent much of his career advocating dialogue among evangelicals, Catholics, liberals and charismatic Christians. He recognized early on that the center of gravity in global Christianity had shifted to the developing world, and worked to break down the ethnocentric mindset of evangelicals in Europe and North America and convince them that preaching the Word and fighting for social justice were two sides of the same coin. “He was utterly convinced that Christians should engage with everything that happens, and doing so didn’t threaten orthodox belief,” Wigg-Stevenson said. When asked to rebut the latest atheist tract or defend a traditional view of Scripture, Stott was willing to do so, and proudly called himself a “radical conservative Evangelical.” At the same time, he stressed that “if ‘liberal’ means respect for the scientific enterprise, the development of a critical judgment, an emphasis on the importance of reason and conscience, freedom to make up our minds in the light of Scripture, and belief in the mercy of God, whose light shines on all humankind, then emphatically I too could be called a liberal.”

Stottophilia is the best sort of evangelical Anglophilia. It draws evangelicals out of narrow domestic debates in which the only options seem to be Christian dominionism or quietism; it encourages a broader view of a Christian’s obligations in the world, informed by a sense of history and the needs of the less fortunate. Just as Tolkien and Lewis baptized the world of myth, magic and fantasy for evangelicals whose churches had long proscribed such things as demonic, John Stott helped evangelicals recover a capacity for compassion and civil conversation that was lost in the fog of the culture wars.

Molly Worthen teaches religious history at the University of Toronto.

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