John Stott, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien: Why American Evangelicals Love the British
By Molly Worthen | May 1, 2012
John R. W. Stott’s death last July, at the age of 90, prompted an outpouring of grief and fond memories all over the Christian world. But nowhere were there more panegyrics than among American evangelicals. In a community infamous for squabbles and schisms, polarized by politics and endless theological feuds, here was an unusual moment of unanimity: everyone from fundamentalists to left-wing peace activists adored this self-effacing Anglican preacher.
“You cannot explain English-speaking evangelicalism in the 20th century without crucial reference to the massive influence of John Stott,” Albert Mohler, the conservative president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Christianity Today. “Both his keen intellect and his deeply authentic spirit made a powerful impact on me,” wrote Jim Wallis, a progressive activist and spiritual adviser to President Obama, who ranked Stott second only to Billy Graham in his influence over global Christianity. Rick Warren called him “one of my closest mentors.” He followed up with ten Tweets about what he learned from Stott, the longtime rector of a traditional London parish and a chaplain to the Queen with a degree from Cambridge—at first glance, an odd role model for Warren, a megachurch pastor known for preaching in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt.
Stott was the only person whose words could hush the bickering evangelical horde. Upon his death, he has been beatified by Christians on both sides of the culture wars who say he was just the man of faith they aspire to be—whether their aspirations include campaigning against global warming or razing abortion clinics (and despite the fact that Stott did neither of these things himself). A closer look at Stott’s popularity and influence reveals a great deal about American evangelicalism’s aspirations and ambiguities. Stott shared his American fans’ most basic beliefs, but they loved him so much because he was so wholly unlike them.
JOHN STOTT WAS BORN in 1921 to an upper-middle class London family. His father was a doctor who had little patience for religion and disapproved when Stott informed the family—before he was yet out of high school—that he would not sign up to fight the Germans, but would instead devote himself to the “spiritual battle” at home. After studying modern languages at Cambridge (his father clung to the hope that Stott might become a diplomat), he came home to serve at his childhood parish, All Souls Church at Langham Place.
Stott owed his conversion to the influence of a charismatic Bible teacher who mentored him as a teenager. From the earliest years of his ministry Stott too had a heart for students, traveling all over the world to speak to them, preaching sermons that would become the basis for his most influential book, a slim volume called Basic Christianity (1958), which has sold 2.5 million copies in 54 languages. He helped organize Billy Graham’s 1954 London crusade and worked closely with the leaders of American evangelicalism from then on, visiting the United States frequently to speak at missionary conventions and teach at Christian colleges. His collaboration with Graham culminated at a mammoth 1974 congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, the apogee of efforts by evangelicals to assemble co-believers from every inhabited continent in a “Spirit-filled” push to defend Biblical authority, while acknowledging Western evangelicals’ longstanding neglect of social justice. More than 2,300 evangelical leaders from 150 nations and dependencies spent ten days drafting the Lausanne Covenant, in which they emphasized that “reconciliation with man is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation.” Stott agreed, but he stressed in his own commentary that “it is our duty to be involved in socio-political action; that is, both in social action (caring for society’s casualties) and in political action (concerned for the structures of society itself).” Throughout his career he called upon evangelicals to decry inequity and cruelty wherever they found it, just as the prophets of ancient Israel did: “apathy is the acceptance of the unacceptable,” he wrote.
During all of this globetrotting, Stott was always writing. (He remained celibate his whole life: the church was his bride.) He wrote over fifty books ranging from Scripture studies to autobiographies explaining how he came by his beliefs, all in a simple, unassuming voice that resonated with American readers. Some loved Basic Christianity most for its straightforward explanation of the faith. He promised that “there is evidence for the deity of Jesus—good, strong, historical, cumulative evidence; evidence to which an honest person can subscribe without committing intellectual suicide.” More theologically minded readers adored The Cross of Christ for its unflinching defense of a traditional understanding of the atonement: “the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.” Countless American pastors found inspiration in his collections of sermons and reflections on ministry. “Suddenly the meaning of Bible sentences became treasure chests to be opened …Yes! This is what I was starving for and didn’t even know it,” wrote the conservative Minnesota pastor John Piper.
In the lively spiritual marketplace that is American evangelicalism, traditional church authorities have always had to compete with solitary sages, preachers and writers who win followings through their charisma and clever answers to the era’s problems. From Anne Hutchinson, bête noire of the Massachusetts Bay Puritan establishment, to the healing huckster Benny Hinn, American evangelicals love a guru. Indeed, they turned John Stott into a guru despite his strenuous objections. He declined to found an eponymous empire of the sort preferred by most American evangelists, and gave his ministry the innocuous name Langham Partnership International. However, when Stott missed a meeting of the American branch’s board of directors, they quickly voted to change their name to John Stott Ministries. They knew their constituents’ taste for Christian celebrity.
AMERICAN EVANGELICALS’ FONDNESS for Stott is part of a larger pattern, a special affection for Christian gurus of British extraction. Droves of American evangelicals stock their shelves with books by British Christian scholars such as N.T. Wright, a professor of New Testament and the former bishop of Durham, and J.I. Packer, a British-born theologian at Regent College in Vancouver. Despite ancient hostility toward Roman Catholicism, American evangelicals lionize the British Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton and raise their children on Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since the mid-1960s—when the release of Tolkien’s books in U.S. paperback edition infected America with Frodo fever—evangelicals have enthusiastically joined in Middle Earth-inspired role-playing festivals and Tolkien appreciation societies, publishing books with titles like Finding God in the Lord of the Rings and Walking With Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through Lord of the Rings. I once attended an evangelical conference panel devoted to parsing Tolkien’s veiled Christian allegories. One speaker expounded at length on the Christology of Tom Bombadil—uncovering hidden religious symbols that might have surprised Tolkien himself.
And then there is the one British guru to rule them all: C.S. Lewis. Converted by fellow medievalist Tolkien on a famous midnight walk in Oxford in 1929, Lewis could not have been more different from the average American evangelical: a pipe-smoking, claret-drinking Anglican don with a taste for pagan myth and no patience for Biblical literalism. Yet, like so many evangelicals, Lewis found himself at “cross-purposes with the modern world.” He devoted much of his career to defending traditional doctrine against its cultured despisers. Between his conversion and his death in 1963, Lewis published more than a dozen works of Christian apologetics and 14 volumes of fiction, including The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the best-loved fantasy series in the English language—enjoyed by Christian and non-Christian readers alike, despite its heavy-handed religious allegory. Mere Christianity, based on radio talks that Lewis delivered during World War II and published in 1952, provided a simple defense for the divinity of Christ that evangelicals repeat to this day.
If John Stott was American evangelicals’ “pope”—as one evangelical observer told New York Times columnist David Brooks—then C.S. Lewis is their patron saint. His estate, The Kilns, and the Eagle & Child, the Oxford pub where he and Tolkien gathered with their fellow “Inklings,” are popular evangelical pilgrimage destinations. In the United States, rival Lewis shrines vie for devotees. The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, an evangelical school near Chicago, houses the largest trove of Lewis’ papers outside the Bodleian Library at Oxford (along with collections representing the other Inklings and British Christian mystery writer Dorothy Sayers). It also boasts a small museum displaying Lewis’ pipe, teapot, desk, ale tankard, and other holy artifacts. In 1973 Wheaton purchased a wardrobe from Lewis’ estate that his brother Warren said inspired the magical entryway into Narnia featured in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe—for Lewis fans, the equivalent of the True Cross. Shortly thereafter, Westmont College, an evangelical school in southern California, acquired a different wardrobe from the current owners of the Lewis home and proclaimed theirs the authentic model. The controversy of rival relics continued for years. With the help of a local businessman who made a hobby out of collecting British pub paraphernalia, Taylor University in Upland, Indiana has constructed a replica of the Eagle & Child in the basement of the university library. The beer pulls at the bar, of course, are just for show: Taylor is a dry campus.
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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