Two new books on John Stott

Thanks to the Lexham Press, I have on my shelves two new books, both relating to the late John Stott. In 2005 Stott was named as one of only three religious leaders in Time magazine’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. And since his death in 2011, the reputation that Stott has enjoyed among evangelicals has, if anything, increased. His worldwide fame, which dates from the 1970s and in particular the 1980s, was but an early example of a kind of religious celebrity within worldwide evangelicalism that calls out to be understood better. (Alister Chapman’s essential biography tells us a great deal about this aspect of Stott’s career.)

This kind of religious celebrity often seems to be followed by a posthumous search to recover more of their voice, that it might continue to sound after their death, and perhaps even more clearly. (See, on the case of C.S. Lewis, the recent book by Stephanie L. Derrick). And the two books I want to discuss here are both attempts to recover and present afresh aspects of Stott’s work that are either unpublished or hard now to get hold of.

Christ the Cornerstone: Collected essays of John Stott (2019) forms part of a Lexham Press series based on the archive of Christianity Today, set up by Billy Graham in 1956. Stott was an early contributor to Christianity Today – the first essay here dates from 1959, an impeccably conservative exposition of the authority of the Bible. However, the bulk of the essays here appeared as Stott’s ‘Cornerstone’ column, published monthly between 1977 and 1981. Taken as a whole, they show us what an English evangelical leader thought worth saying to a predominantly American readership, but also the worldwide concerns that Stott now had, having left stipendiary parish ministry in London. There are essays on church and state in England, and the key National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Nottingham in 1977; on James Barr’s 1977 book Fundamentalism; on the churches in Norway, Australia and Burma; on race relations in the UK, nuclear arms, abortion. Although presented without any critical apparatus and only a short introduction, it is a volume which scholars of evangelical history will want to have to hand.

Published just this month is Pages from a Preacher’s Notebook. The title is slightly misleading, in that the source is in fact a body of thousands of index cards, compiled over a period of sixty or more years, on which Stott recorded facts, quotations and other things of interest, arranged by subject. It was on this modern commonplace book that Stott drew extensively for his writing and his preaching. It is the fruit of a volunteer transcription project at Stott’s church of All Souls’ Langham Place in London, and is edited by Mark Meynell, himself a former member of the All Souls’ staff and co-worker with Stott in his later years. (A larger selection is available as an ebook).

Historians have not paid a great deal of attention to preaching in the latter half of the twentieth century. Rare was the preacher who found a publisher for his collected sermons, as had been the case with figures such as Hensley Henson in earlier years. Rarer still is the preacher for whom such a source as this survives, which gives it an absorbing interest. I would suspect (although could not prove) that Stott was unusual among the clergy in having adopted a method such as this and in having sustained it over such a long period. (It was more common among academics, such as the historians Keith Thomas and Christopher Hill, both of a similar age to Stott.) From whom, perhaps at Rugby school or Cambridge, Stott learned the method is tantalisingly unclear.

But as a resource for historians, this particular selection will remain of limited use, a pointer towards the full body of notes (if and when they are made available for research) rather than a reference source itself. To begin with, there is no attempt to infer the date at which a note was made, leaving the reader to guess from the subject matter; as such, we are missing a crucial piece of context for understanding not only what Stott was reading but under which circumstances. For example: the notes in which Stott engaged with the English Reformation are based largely on the books of Marcus Loane, archbishop of Sydney from 1958 and former principal of the evangelical Moore College. This would be common enough for an evangelical reader in (say) 1960, but one would want to ask questions if this was all Stott was reading in the 1990s, by which time Reformation scholarship had changed beyond all recognition.

Although the editor discloses a certain amount about which cards were selected and which omitted, it is not enough to form a view on how representative the sample is, and of what. The church in which Stott worked was convulsed in the Sixties and Seventies by theological controversy that seemed to touch the very essence of Christian orthodoxy. And the editor tells us that Stott made notes on John Robinson’s famous book Honest to God (1963) and the later The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick. (Three of the Stott columns in Christianity Today are on the latter and its repercussions). Yet the selection here includes almost nothing on this ferment, from American and European theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Bultmann or Tillich, or Englishmen such as Robinson, Hick, Maurice Wiles, Geoffrey Lampe, David Jenkins (Don Cupitt cuts a lonely figure on page 259, and at second-hand). It may be that these disputes are now purely of historic interest, and it is certainly true that Stott is still read while Robinson and Tillich are not. But a selection based on an idea of enduring value will not satisfy the historian reader.

So if this selection is not aimed at historians – as we are forced to conclude – for whom is it intended? The back cover suggests a ‘preacher or writer looking for a good idea, or an admirer of Stott’. The editor is surely right to say that Stott’s notes illuminate his practice of “double listening’, of attending both to the Bible and to contemporary culture; the signal contribution of this little book is to show what such double listening meant in practice. But one might hope that modern-day preachers would adopt the method itself, rather than mining this selection for nuggets of wisdom to drop into a sermon. Surely the task is to listen to culture today, rather than to listen to Stott listening to his.

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