Who is John Stott? He is probably England's best known and most published evangelical Christian. So I read with a bit of nostalgia a recent notice that floated across the wire services announcing that this 79-year-old single man had finally decided to retire.
John Stott struggled all his life to make his dated version of Christianity relevant to the modern world. That is not easy since he, like all evangelicals, starts with the assumption that the Bible is "revealed truth." For John Stott, the proper method for settling questions for Christians is to search the Bible's pages for answers. Revealed truth for him is timeless, and thus Holy Scripture provides eternal solutions for all contemporary issues--an argument made by fundamentalist Christians.
John Stott would not be happy being tightly linked with fundamentalists. They are too strident, too unlearned to suit him!
Hubert Humphrey once called Ronald Reagan "George Wallace with perfume." In a similar fashion, John Stott might be called "Jerry Falwell with perfume." Stott is sophisticated enough to know the literal Bible is filled with land mines, so he steps delicately around those places in Scripture where women are defined as the property of men, where polygamy is affirmed, where menstruation is regarded as a source of uncleanness, where slavery is viewed as an acceptable social institution, and where capital punishment is prescribed for such offences as being disobedient to one's parents, worshiping a false god, or being a homosexual.
Yet all of these things are present in the Bible Stott calls "the revealed truth of God." One wonders what he means by the use of both of those words "revealed" and "truth."
When challenged, Stott's pious smile disappears and his soft voice becomes edgy and rejecting. He suggests that anyone who disagrees with him disagrees with the revealed will of God. He seems never to have heard of Bible 101.
The Bible was written between 1000 B.C.E. and 135 C.E. It makes assumptions that modern men and women cannot make unless we turn off our minds to the expansion of knowledge over the last 400 years. The Bible reflects the three-tiered universe of the pre-Copernican world. It defines God as a supernatural being, living above the sky, capable of invading this planet earth in miraculous and not always moral ways to accomplish what is called his divine will.
This God strikes the Egyptians with a series of devastating plagues, which include murdering the firstborn son of every family of that nation. Is that moral behavior? This God then opens the Red Sea for the Jewish people to escape and closes the Red Sea to drown the Egyptian pursuers. It is not a very pleasant view of God if you happen to be Egyptian.
John Stott and the evangelicals base their understanding that the male is to be the head of the family on the words of a patriarchal social order written 2,000 years ago when women were not educated and not regarded as equal in the sight of God. Might we ask whether they have confused "revealed truth" with "prejudiced sin"?
Evangelicals like John Stott oppose divorce based on what they call "clear biblical teaching." Yet that clear teaching is predicated on the inferiority of the woman. It was not until the 20th century that women won the legal right to leave abusive marriages. Does "revealed truth" compel a woman to place herself in harm's way, or, if she manages to escape, does it then condemn her to a life of loneliness when she finds the courage to walk away from an abusive husband? I do not think so, and I would not care to worship a God who was presumed to suggest that such was "revealed truth."
John Stott and his evangelical friends are vehemently opposed to any acceptance of homosexuals because they are condemned, or at least their behavior is, in the revealed truth of Holy Scripture. That is nothing but a claim of uninformed ignorance. There is almost no scientist today who thinks sexual orientation is either chosen or changeable behavior. Is it appropriate for anyone to make judgments on sexual orientation today based on the ancient book of Leviticus, or the story of Sodom from Genesis, both of which were written more than 2,500 years ago?
The writers of the Bible thought God brought rain, floods, drought, and heat waves as punishment for sin. Only television evangelist Pat Robertson still seems to think that way, for he not only was said to have prayed a hurricane away from his Virginia television empire, but to have warned the people of Orlando, Florida, that they were at risk of a hurricane for passing a gay-friendly city ordinance. Does John Stott think "revealed truth" is found in that mentality?
When fundamentalists and evangelicals come to the Christ story, the stakes go up dramatically, and the claims for the "revealed truth" of the Bible become excessive. But biblical scholars note the disparities in both the story of Jesus' birth and of his resurrection. They also note that both the virgin birth and the resurrection, understood as physical resuscitation, do not even enter the Christian story until the ninth decade of the Christian era. But John Stott does not face these insights, for they would contradict his "revealed truth" theory.
John Stott tells the story of the crucifixion of Jesus in terms of God demanding the sacrifice of his son. He will wax eloquent about the sin of human life, its fall from grace, its need for rescue and restoration to a pre-fallen status. It will all be so clear. Yet post-Darwinian thinking suggests there never was a fall into sin because there never was a righteous pre-fallen human status, either in history or in mythology.
Rather, evolution teaches us that life has emerged and evolved over billions of years. Human beings are incomplete creatures who need to be empowered. We are not fallen creatures, lost in sin, who need the bloodshed of a human sacrifice of the son of God in order to have the price of our sins paid to a judging deity. What a grotesque idea this "revealed truth" is. I am repelled by those images.
John Stott is quoted as saying that "the great tragedy of the Church today is that evangelicals are biblical, but not contemporary, while liberals are contemporary, but not biblical." It is a nice try, a clever, evenhanded approach, but it does not work. It is not biblical to read the Bible in a superstitious, ill-informed manner. It is not biblical for John Stott to justify every prejudice, to whitewash chauvinism, racism, homophobia, and a not-so-subtle hatred for everyone who does not affirm the evangelical value system.
"Revealed truth" turns out to be evangelical propaganda. John Stott surely must know that the claim of "revealed truth" is sustained only where critical biblical scholarship is denied. The value of the Bible is not found in its supernatural claims, but in its story of people walking through history and seeing that every life, not just the members of their tribe, bears the image of the Holy God.
The Bible tells us that in the life of Jesus, who is perceived as a God presence, every life is loved, even those who reject, betray, deny, and kill the God-bearer. Finally, the Bible suggests that every life is called into the fullness of his or her humanity by the life of the Spirit. That is our destiny--to be our deepest, fullest, most complete selves in all of our wondrous diversity. That is the truth that keeps breaking through the barriers of Scripture, that the John Stotts of this world continue to confuse with the revealed will of God.
John Stott's Christianity and the fundamentalist, evangelical tradition he espouses will finally do nothing except justify the human divisions between the saved and the unsaved. That religious stance will ultimately victimize every person who does not reside inside the definition of the Bible as "revealed truth," as Stott interprets it.
So John Stott has decided to retire. What he needs to recognize is that all of his major ideas have also retired long before him. Perhaps they will now be happy together.