Friday, February 24, 2012

colonising continues

It seems that someone has clicked 'refresh' on colonialism.

As I walked down Nathan Rd in Kowloon (Hong Kong) I lifted my eyes to the billboards ('where does my help come from?', I am tempted to add) filling the horizon and reckoned that 19 out of 20 were adorned with white and western images of beauty.

As I worshiped in a Dutch Reformed Church in Colombo (Sri Lanka) we sang the hymns and continued the liturgy handed down by missionaries decades earlier. Not just Sri Lanka. This is so common. And whether it be this old liturgy, or the new liturgy of Hillsong - it is still an imported liturgy.

As I wandered through transit in Abu Dhabi, at the geographical heart of the Arab world, everything that surrounded me was the very stuff they are known to despise in the way the other half lives: alcohol and beauty products and movies and...and... [OK, so they are trying to fleece European tourists on their way home, but really, the oddity of it all being there was just so striking].

As I open the newspapers in any and every country, and as I feel my flicking fingers instinctively find the sports pages, the headlines are the same. Everywhere. Always. English Premier League football. Oh yes, local sport is here and there - but the multi-inch headlines have a common focus.

As I surf in these countries the only way I know how - with the TV - the music videos are desperately seeking the old MTV and the game shows are obsessed with surviving and becoming millionaires and talent-seeking.

Sure, this is not all there is - but it is a lot of what there is.
Is it not a colonialism recast in twenty-first century attire?

It may be more subtle today. It may be pulled by people towards them, rather than pushed upon people from afar. It may look like a global culture seeping like a tide into every local bay - but maybe, just maybe, it is the same old colonising of minds and behaviour. Some cultures do seem to be dominant and others do seem to be dependent.

'Not so with you' was the phrase of Jesus that comes readily to mind.

nice chatting


Thursday, February 16, 2012

godly ambition

The value of Alister Chapman's new book on John Stott lies with the fact that he does not appear to be a fan. A different voice has joined the conversation. And one senses that this conversation on Stott's legacy is about to get thicker and deeper - and more intriguing (not the least because the final page-proofs were returned to the author on the very day which Stott died).

Chapman aims to analyse Stott's career 'more fully and with more distance' (6). The latter is so helpfully true, but I remain unconvinced of the former. The book is only 160 pages and it tends to fill gaps in a story already told, rather than telling the story itself 'more fully'. Chapman offers it as 'a critical, yet sympathetic account' (9). The former is so helpfully true, but I remain unconvinced of the latter. At times the tone nibbles at the edge of sarcasm which is a long way from sympathy. Having read the Dudley-Smith and Steer biographies (fans that they are), and having offered a review of the recent Portrait book, a 'Stottian top ten', and some personal reflections at the time of his 90th birthday (once again as a fan), I have asked myself how Chapman's book has added to my understanding of John Stott.

1. It surfaces Stott's ambition
This is 'a story of Stott's ambitions' (156). A lengthy quotation from Stott's Christian Counterculture to start the concluding chapter makes it clear that Stott believed that as long as the fundamental ambition is for the glory of God, then secondary, or subservient, ambitions are permissible. The primary focus of this book is on these secondary ambitions as Chapman recounts the story of a man who was 'extraordinarily driven ... (and who) remained unsatisfied' (156). For example, revival in England was an enduring ambition and a range of strategies were used to achieve it (student missions, parish work, involvement in the establishment, the London Institute etc). Or, consider the story of Stott assuming the senior leadership at All Souls, in his late 20s, when the rector died. When appointed to the role Stott wrote to the church, 'I never dared even to pray that I might be given the privilege of being your new Rector' (54), and yet Chapman wryly adds '...but he did not seem to have been particularly surprised' (55). Chapman considers that Stott held ambitions about becoming a bishop (see page 90, for example) and that as his career developed he gravitated to those places and people where he was considered to be a 'star', or a 'hero', and where his ambition could be achieved with less difficulty.

2. It places Stott in his context
Stott was so very English, so very upper-class, and so very Anglican. He was socialised on a hierarchial view of society and this inhibited his ability to engage the working classes in his parish, as a range of 'patronizing attitudes vitiated the church's attempts to reach (such) people' (68). He loved his England - 'however, that love was never fully requited' (133) and, according to Chapman, this is partly what drove him eventually overseas where the crowds were 'adoring' and where 'he was also feted in a way that he no longer was at home' (133). This aristocratic upper-class background explains why he was at his best when he was leading and in control. It even leads to some criticism of the Langham Partnership (founded by Stott) by Chapman where he wonders whether some cultures can still be 'dominant' while others are 'dependent' (151). [NB: As a newer staff member with Langham I see only a serious intent not to be like this, as it is the antithesis of 'partnership'].

3. It returns to Stott's failures
As a fan who did not know him well, I have not thought that much about Stott's failures. I valued the opportunity to engage with this quite different plotline in the familiar story. His successive strategies for the evangelisation of England failed. His efforts to bring cohesion to the evangelical movement in Britain through the Keele Congresses failed. At the time he gave up day-to-day responsibility at All Souls in 1970, it was 'shrinking - there were empty seats' (72) - and this could be seen as a failure. Through the 1960s he was 'drifting away from his church' (75), 'running out of ideas' (76) and becoming 'disappointed and distracted' (77). In his last student mission at Cambridge in 1977, 'he looked awkward ... . earnestness was still his modus operandi, but humour and irony now seemed to be the way to win skeptical students' attention' (49-50) and, compared with the 1950s, he was a failure. One peculiar comment asserts that 'he was not a great, original thinker' (158) which, while scarcely believable, is also its own statement of failure. There is talk of success (not very much, it must be said!), but it tends to be in the American context or overseas in the worlds of IFES or Lausanne. 'He was celebrated more in Time than The Times.' (157).

4. It focuses on how Stott changes 
Being able to change as new truth unfolds is a great strength for a Christian to possess. However Chapman is so relentless in demonstrating how Stott changes that I wonder if he thinks it is a strength. One section is entitled 'the principled floater' (121). It is a section in which Stott's views on homosexuality, abortion, gender and ecology are discussed. 'Stott started to drift left' (121), as seen in his use of Marxist language, for example. Most fascinating is the paragraph on gender which traces the changes in his thinking from 1963, to 1984, and on to 2006 (113-114). On issues like homosexuality and gender, he became less conservative over time, but with abortion he became more conservative. Oh, so many changes are noted... The way 'revival' drops out of his vocabulary (74). The way he becomes (too) scholarly over time, expressed in 'a growing love for hermeneutics' (104) and demonstrated in the massive increase in footnotes from his early volumes in the Bible Speaks Today series to the latter ones. There is the celebrated change to include a social conscience and activism in the conception of mission in the years before Lausanne. 'When the second edition of Basic Christianity appeared in 1971, it included an extra paragraph on the need for Christians to serve an unjust world.' (118-119).

5. It explains Stott's conflicts
Reading about conflict is always interesting. Conflict in a story works like a kind of horizontal gravity, pulling the reader through a story. In these pages there is a freshness in the discussion of Stott's conflicts with his Dad over pacifism and the call to the ministry; with Martyn Lloyd-Jones (93f) over a vision for 'evangelical supremacy in the established church' (94); with Billy Graham over the inclusion of social concern alongside evangelism in the conception of mission in the years following Lausanne (142f); and to a lesser extent with JI Packer after Keele. Then there is the conflict caused in his public school life, his Cambridge life, and in his relationship with the Anglican establishment because of his close relationship with Eric Nash who was so instrumental in his conversion, but who was himself deeply influenced by North American fundamentalism. There is even reference to conflict within the staff team at All Souls. 'In one sermon one of his assistant ministers gave a parable of the church as a garden that was prevented from flourishing because of the shadow cast by a great statue in the middle' (75) - alluding to Stott.

While this is a valuable book, it is not a convincing one - even though it is the fruit of PhD research, published by Oxford University Press with the endorsement of luminaries like Noll and Bebbington. Yes, Chapman is a good writer with a delightful penchant for commencing paragraphs with short sentences. Yes, he is a meticulous historian as 56 pages of notes suggests. But I do wonder how many of Stott's friends in the majority world have been interviewed. If they read this book they will wonder what happened to his friendship and his humility on which they so thrived. I do wonder how many of Stott's books were read as a means of getting to know the man living between their lines. I searched in vain for any reference to The Cross of Christ (that doesn't mean it isn't there!), the book which Stott considered to be his most important. And every now and then that hint of sarcasm - and maybe it is I who am being unfair here - in a book of this pedigree is disappointing. [As a more trivial example, consider the descriptions of Keswick (15, 114)...]

Chapman closes his book by asking a rather odd question: 'was there anything that made Stott special?' (159). He answers his own question in three ways:
1. His preaching - 'authoritative, erudite, and famously clear' (159).
2. His successful academic career at Cambridge helped make him 'convincing' as he was 'living proof that evangelicals could flourish at the culture's heights, emboldening others to scale them' (160).
3. His IFES connections provided the opportunity to tell thousands of students that their minds mattered (160) and this helped produced an 'intellectual stream within evangelicalism' around the world.

That's it?! It is all true - but is it true enough?

nice chatting


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

leading and creating

Many years ago I was arrested by a sentence about leadership at the start of a book from Kouzes & Posner:
We treat leadership as a learnable set of practices ... we hope to demystify it and show how each of us has the capacity to lead. (The Leadership Challenge, xxiv).
Then along came Simon Walker saying similar things in his 'undefended leader' trilogy, reviewed here, here, and here. A recent digestion of JD Hunter's To Change the World finds him affirming that 'everyone exercises leadership to varying degrees' (256). I now believe this with all that I am. Much damage has been done by considering leadership to be the domain of a favoured few, mystically appointed and genetically enhanced to deliver the goods. It is usually a power play - and an abusive one at that. Far better to move in among a group of people and be committed to providing a context which enhances the leadership potential - the ability to exert influence on others - of each person. That has gotta be good for everyone.

In recent weeks I have noticed writers saying similar things about creativity. The assumption is easily made that some people are creative, while others are not. It is that mystical thing going on again. It is not long before talk shifts towards 'creatives' who seem to be a font of ideas, all random and fluid, coming alive in the brainstorms. And just as with leadership, an exclusive club of creativity emerges.

Theologically, this must be challenged. Every human being is made in the image of God and one of the first things we learn about that God is that he is relational ('let us...') and that he is creative ('let us make...'). So, as with leadership, it is far better to move in among a people and be committed to providing a context which draws out each person's creativity because it is there, by definition of who they are. Maybe, just maybe, creativity emerges best - as it does with God - in the context of relational teamwork.

Quite apart from theology the experts on creativity are saying similar things. I have been surprised by how much they emphasise the role which the mundane and the methodical play in the development of creativity. America's leading political cartoonist acknowledged that 'the actual work process is more methodical than inspirational'. Over a series of books - Visual CreativityCreative Strategies, and Creative Advertising - Mario Pricken virtually crusades for a creativity that is accessible to everyone. Academic definitions of creativity relate not only to originality, but to appropriateness; not only to novelty and innovation, but to relevance and occasion; and not only to divergent right-brain thinking, but to convergent left-brain thinking. The river of ideas does need to flow, but not to flood. It needs to be constrained and channelled if it is to be of any usefulness.

In my own journey, I rate the discovery in my twenties that I could be creative (after spending my teens thinking I was not) to be one of the most healing and liberating experiences of my life.

Imagine, just imagine, what church would be like and how the mission of God would be advanced if this were the prevailing view of leadership and creativity. I find myself thinking about this a lot. It is not to affirm that there are not people especially suitable, even gifted, for leadership and creativity. But it is to affirm that both leadership and creativity need to be demystified and made accessible to all.

nice chatting