Sunday, June 17, 2012

Trueman reviews Chapman on Stott

There you go, that's about as inviting a title as oatmeal baked and presented with no ornamentation, eh?  Well, I found the review Trueman wrote of Chapman's biography of Stott interesting.

This brings me to my final point: Chapman tries to put this as delicately as he can but it is clear from his narrative that Stott was very ambitious. One might even say he was ruthlessly ambitious at times. Chapman indicates that Stott saw a tension here: godly ambition is of course good ambition; but sinful human nature means that such is also at the same time ungodly. This is where the historian too faces a dilemma: to place an historical agent's own self-understanding at the centre of the narrative is good and proper. For example, how could one write a biography of, say, Winston Churchill without giving a central place to the fact he was a self-conscious politician? But when it comes to ambition, the problem of self-deception is real and pressing. Post-structuralist history, taking its cue from Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, raised spotting self-deception to an art form. In the process, it made self-understanding a meaningless category, at best a pious mask for the agent's hidden, darker and even unconscious motives and intentions.

In a strange, almost counter-intuitive way, the Christian who understands depravity must stand shoulder to shoulder with these Masters of Suspicion. Thus, Chapman does a great job of demonstrating that Stott was ambitious; but it would have been interesting, both in terms of the narrative and for the insights it would have given into historical method, to have had a little more exploration of the ungodliness of this godly ambition. This book is no hagiography but I doubt that a little more time spent on his ungodly ambition would have reduced Stott: after all, as Alexander Pope tells us, ambition is the glorious fault of angels and of gods.

It does seem to be a cottage industry among some brands of Reformed and new Calvinists to rescue ambition. Ambition can be good   While ambition can be good and sacrifice can be admirable a Christian should bear in mind that considering others better than yourselves means that if someone is going to consider sacrifice it should be you considering what you can sacrifice to serve others before you tell them that Jesus expects them to bite the bullet and sacrifice for Jesus.  

I have written elsewhere about how conquerors these days are not necessarily shedding blood as directly as they once did in battle.  Yet it is not a foregone conclusion that today's conquerors thereby destroy fewer lives. It is also not really a given that we have all cast off a theology that could be summed up as the divine right of kings. 

Having made that little aside Stott's ambition in the wake of a failure (which Trueman discusses a bit) reminds me more than a little bit of Conan O'Brien's address to Dartmouth College graduates from 2011-Let the reader understand. 

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