Monday, May 17, 2010

Roger Steer Interview: The Inside Story of John Stott

CPYU is a big fan of John Stott. His theology continues to undergird much of our approach to issues of faith and culture. British biographer, Roger Steer, has recently written an engaging and inspiring biography of Dr. Stott. Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott (IVP) takes readers on an adventure into the life of one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century. What follows is an interview with Mr. Steer (RS) about his new book:

CPYU: What motivated you to write a biography of John Stott? Were you friends with him before you began the project?

RS: I first got to know John when he spent just one afternoon in the mid 1990s helping me with my book about evangelicalism which was published in the USA by Baker Book House under the title Guarding the Holy Fire (1998). Previously I had heard him preach at All Souls in the 1960s but not known him as a friend.

CPYU: Our hope is that this interview leads people to read the book for themselves, but, if you would, briefly explain who Dr. Stott is and how he has so profoundly influenced the church, especially evangelicals.

RS: John Stott became Rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London in 1950 at the age of twenty-nine and Chaplain to the Queen in 1959. He chaired the British National Evangelical Anglican Congresses in 1967 and 1977, shaped the Lausanne Covenant in 1974 (advocating a new balance between evangelism and social action), founded both the Langham Partnership (to equip Christian leaders and pastors throughout the world) and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (encouraging Christians to listen both to the Word and the world – “double listening”). He is known for his writing (51 books translated into nearly 70 languages), preaching and bird-watching. He led fifty university missions worldwide. My book attempts to reveal the man behind John’s public persona, and weave his timeless insights into the story of his remarkable life.

CPYU: What surprised you the most as you dug deeper into Dr. Stott’s story?

RS: The roundedness of his personality: his gift for friendship, his sense of humor, his stamina, his humility, the absence of a ‘dark side’ and his total, selfless commitment to Christ. That is not to say that John has no faults: and honoring his instruction to tell his story ‘warts and all’ I have allowed both his friends to make their intimate comments and his critics to have their say.

CPYU: Many of our readers are young youth pastors. What do you think they would gain from reading your biography of Dr. Stott?

RS: They should read about John’s relationship with a succession of young men (and they were only men I’m afraid!), mostly Americans, who worked for him as study assistants. They will discover what John taught his young study assistants and what they taught John! They will read about what John said in personal interviews with university and college students in missions throughout the world. They should note the comments of those who have known John for many years and who think of him more as a gentle pastor and friend than as a famous preacher and writer.

CPYU: For people new to the writing of Dr. Stott, where do you suggest they begin reading? Do you have a favorite Stott book?

RS: An immediate answer would be John’s The Cross of Christ (first published 1986) about which he told me, “More of my own heart and mind went into it than into anything else I have written”. But, less predictably perhaps, I am especially interested in a little book he wrote which arose out of the Presidential address he gave in 1972 to the annual conference of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship at Swanwick, Britain, on the place of the mind in the Christian life. “Nobody wants a cold, joyless, intellectual Christianity,” he said. “But does that mean we should avoid ‘intellectualism’ at all costs? Is it experience, rather than doctrine, that really matters? Many students close their minds with their textbooks, satisfied that the intellect should play little, if any, part in the Christian life. How far are they right? For the Christian, enlightened by the Spirit, just what is the place of the mind?”

He made no secret of the fact that partly in his sights were “Pentecostal Christians, many of whom make experience the major criterion of truth”. His argument was that the great doctrines of creation, revelation, redemption and judgment all imply that we have an inescapable duty both to think and act upon what we think and know. We are created to think. The fact that humanity’s mind is fallen is no excuse to retreat from thought into emotion, for the emotional side of our nature is equally fallen. In spite of the fallenness of our minds, commands to think, to use the mind, are still addressed to us as human beings. God invited rebellious Israel, “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).

John insisted that the fact that God is a self-revealing God and has revealed himself to humanity indicates the importance of our minds. Redemption carries with it the renewal of the divine image in us, which was distorted by the fall. This includes the mind. Paul described converts from paganism as having “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10) and as being “made new in the attitude of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23).

What is faith? John asked. It is neither credulity nor optimism but reasoning trust. Faith and thought go together, and believing is impossible without thinking. He argued that the battle for holiness is nearly always won in the mind. It is by the renewal of our mind that our character and behaviour are transformed (Romans 12:2). “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). We certainly shouldn’t think of the mind as being against the things of the Spirit: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:5–6). In order to combat the risk of the use of the mind resulting in a barren intellectualism, he concluded his talk with a powerful section showing how knowledge should lead to worship, faith, holiness and love. The text of the lecture was published by IVP as an influential booklet, Your Mind Matters.

If they could get hold of it, I think your readers would love this booklet. If not, of course, The Cross of Christ, Basic Christianity and I Believe in Preaching are all classics which have become international bestsellers.


Click here to visit Roger Steer’s website

Click here to purchase The Contemporary Christian by John Stott (named as one of Walt Mueller’s “Top Ten Most Influential Books”)

Click here to read Derek Melleby’s review of Stott’s The Living Church

Click here to learn more about Stott’s latest (and final) book The Radical Disciple (IVP)

1 comment:

Bill MacPhee said...

The Biblical preaching and theology of John Stott has guided my thinking since I first heard John speak at the Urbana Missions conference in the early 1970s.

At Urbana, he made a case for God as a missionary God, and accelerated our understanding of what it means to be "missional." The college students in attendance resonated with his words so deeply that we kept standing in applause during his message. John finally rebuked us for clapping and cheering so much since he only had a limited time to speak.

John has always cared more about clear proclamation than applause or adoration. I can hardly wait to read Basic Christian.