Where has critical appreciation gone?

Article by   November 2011
The death of John Stott has led to a veritable flood of accolades and uncritical adulation over the last few months. A recent example was the memorial service for him at Wheaton College which raised a number of questions in my mind. One was the issue of what Stott himself would have thought of it. I never met him but he seems to have been a modest and unassuming man by all accounts; it was thus probably a relief to him not to have to be there and listen to the hyperbolic claims being made for him and his ministry by others.  We can presumably assume that one who did not live for the praise of men during his lifetime is probably not too bothered about it afterwards either. 

The second question, or perhaps better, observation, was why the art of critical appreciation seems to have disappeared from the culture of the modern world, especially the modern evangelical (for want of a better term) world.

Even as I write, I have just been passed an article from USA Today in which Stott is described as one of the Christian church's `most universally beloved figures.'  Only an American could have written that.  Back home in Britain, Stott was a more ambiguous figure, great man though he undoubtedly was.  Like all great men, his faults were as dramatic as his virtues, from his conscientious objection to war service in World War II to aspects of his theology to his ecclesiastical strategy.

Death is, of course, the great atonement.  I have commented before on how you only have to die these days in order to have all of your sins, both great and small, cast as far from you as the east is from the West.  The late Ted Kennedy is a good example. So is Michael Jackson.  Jackson, in fact, is an even more dramatic example of how death - particularly death in absurd circumstances at a comparatively early age - not only washes away one's sins in the public eye but also lifts one's modest talent to the level of that of the Olympian gods. Watching Gene Kelly in the wonderful film An American in Paris recently, I commented to my wife that Kelly could dance, he could really dance. In comparison, Michael Jackson was able to do what?  Walk backwards with a certain amount of style? There is no comparison; yet Jackson is a god; Kelly is all but forgotten.

To return to Stott, the problems with him were threefold: his protology; his eschatology; and his ecclesiology. I do not want to dwell on any of these things here; and I would also agree with any who might say that it would be somewhat distasteful to mention these at a memorial service; but to present him as a normative ideal for Christians would seem to involve quite a selective reading of his life and theology, as indeed it would for the life of anyone else being presented as such. As one friend once said to me: if you see that someone is wrong about the beginning and the end, you might want to think twice about what they say about the middle as well. Yet I have looked in vain in the various laudatory obituaries and appreciations for any hint that there may have been any significant theological drawbacks with John Stott.

The problem with that fact is twofold: first, it fosters a nostalgic view of the past which can itself hinder action in the present, on the grounds that `we will not see his/her like again'; and second it precludes any truly critical appreciation of a man's legacy.  As to the first point, the title of the article on my desk says it all; `Will evangelicals ever fill John Stott's shoes?'  Again, only an American - or at least, somebody totally unfamiliar with the British scene - could have written such a headline. More unfortunate still, however, is the signal it sends: a unique giant has gone who can never be replaced and the church is changed, changed utterly, and that for the worse. 

Actually, of course, God has a remarkably strong track record of replacing giants: the deaths of Stephen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Simeon, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones do not seem to have stalled the spread of the gospel in any significant way.  So why pretend otherwise, and in a manner designed only to cause despondency of the `we can never measure up' variety rather than that of `let us seize the initiative and move forward'?

As to the second, critical appreciation seems to be a lost art these days. My suspicion is that this derives from the rather effeminate nature of modern culture where we regard any criticism as deeply personal and a fundamental attack on character. Add to this the American cultural proclivity of investing unreasonably huge amounts of hope and expectation in single individuals and you have a powerful sedative which will dull the senses to matters of real concern.

Stott was assuredly a force for good in personal evangelism, in his thinking about preaching and in the way he inspired a generation of men to go in to the ministry. Few if any of us can boast his record in these areas. But there was another side to the story. On ecclesiology, he was arguably an utter disaster and he must take his fair share of the blame for weakening the overall strength of the English church. He put his Anglicanism before his evangelicalism and thereby led his followers up a dead end from which they have only recently returned.   Protology and eschatology were not strong points either. These were mistakes from which future generations might profitably learn.

But the Stott who was `the Pope-like figure of the [evangelical] movement [who] was a unifying voice who put Christianity's best foot forward' (to quote USA Today) is a Stott from whose mistakes we cannot learn for the simple reason that we are not even being informed of the existence of such. It is striking in the accounts of the Wheaton service that nobody seems to have expressed how much they learned from his errors of judgment and theology.  Perhaps that would not have been appropriate for such an occasion, but we must surely hope that the ethos of the memorial service does not become the default mode for his reception in the wider Christian world.  He was a great man with a great mind; and he made some great mistakes, from which the rest of us can learn - but only if we first acknowledge that they are in fact mistakes.

It is surely ironic that Christianity, a religion committed to the notions of universal sinfulness and of undeserved salvation only in Christ, apparently has such difficulty with the idea that our heroes are flawed.  Yes, we all pay lip-service to the idea; but it seems to make no practical difference. 

The problem with such failure to engage in critical appreciation is evident all around: we seem incapable of learning from those whom we cannot shoe-horn into our own parties.   Think of Bonhoeffer and C S Lewis: their makeover as evangelicals, a label which both men would presumably have repudiated, actually does them little service.  And who could forget Richard John Neuhaus being named as one of the most influential evangelical leaders in America by Time magazine?  If we can only learn from those we first remake in our own image, then we can never really learn from that which is different. Indeed, learning becomes little more than the reinforcement or clarification of what we know or believe already.

That Stott was important and influential is beyond dispute; but we should not sentimentalise him because of that or ignore his faults or, worst of all, so praise him that those very faults might ultimately be baptized as virtues and continue to do damage long after his departure to glory.  Our brains must be kept switched on; we must give credit where credit is due; but we must also remember that sometimes we learn most from great men when we look at the great mistakes they made.

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