May

07

2012

Joe Carter|1:34 AM CT

60 Second Summary: Why American Evangelicals Love the British

Articles you need to know about, summarized in 60 seconds (or less).


The Article:
John Stott, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien: Why American Evangelicals Love the British

The Source: Religion & Politics

The Author: Molly Worthen

The Gist: Worthen, a professor of religious history at the University of Toronto, considers why American Evangelicals have such an affinity for Christian thinkers, writers, and theologians who hail from Britain.

The Excerpt:

American Evangelicals' fondness for Stott is part of a larger pattern, a special affection for Christian gurus of British extraction. Droves of American evangelicals stock their shelves with books by British Christian scholars such as N.T. Wright, a professor of New Testament and the former bishop of Durham, and J.I. Packer, a British-born theologian at Regent College in Vancouver. Despite ancient hostility toward Roman Catholicism, American evangelicals lionize the British Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton and raise their children on Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since the mid-1960s---when the release of Tolkien's books in U.S. paperback edition infected America with Frodo fever---evangelicals have enthusiastically joined in Middle Earth-inspired role-playing festivals and Tolkien appreciation societies, publishing books with titles like Finding God in the Lord of the Rings and Walking With Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through Lord of the Rings. I once attended an evangelical conference panel devoted to parsing Tolkien's veiled Christian allegories. One speaker expounded at length on the Christology of Tom Bombadil---uncovering hidden religious symbols that might have surprised Tolkien himself.

The Bottom Line: Worthen raises an intriguing question---why do we American Evangelicals have such a fondness for the British?---but provides an unsatisfactory answer. Her claim that American Evangelicals have an "intellectual inferiority complex" isn't completely unwarranted, but it's a dated and clichéd critique. (Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published 17 years ago. A lot has changed since then.)

I suspect a more likely explanation for why American Evangelicals love the Brits is related to the reason we love the Jews: We believe that we share with these groups a historical and theological imagination. Modern Jews might sneer at the presumptuous nature of the connection, but it is a truism that we Evangelicals consider ourselves to be the other "People of the Book." Because our theological history is traced back to the Old Testament, we view ourselves as the intellectual descendants of the Hebrew people. Similarly, to a lesser extent, our shared English language leads us to make a connection with the British that they might view as peculiar.

Few British Evangelicals would consider themselves to be Americans, but many English-speaking American Evangelicals think that we are, in an intellectual sense, from the U.K. This is likely not limited to the British, of course. I suspect that Evangelicals of Dutch ancestry have a simliar affinity for thinkers like Abraham Kuyper, German-American Evangelicals for Martin Luther, etc., because of the Old World connection. Because our country---and our brand of evangelicalism---is relatively young, we American Evangelicals must look to our cousins across the sea to help us find deeper soil for our religious roots.

YSK Rating: Despite offering an unsatisfactory response to the titular question, Worthen's article is worth reading and pondering.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • Gareth

    What is quite funny about this is how UK Evangelicalism often feels like it's living in the shadow of the US. We're very well versed in John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll et al.

    In fact - I'm reading this blog - because the UK is so versed in what's happening in the States!

    • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

      Thanks, Gareth!

  • http://Www.hobotheology.com Derek Griz

    I just posted an article on my blog commending John Stott, but for me, I revere not only his intellect but his superior writing style. I think this is the appeal of the Brittish--they are great writers. American Evangelicalism has its own set of profound and deep thinkers, but the Brittish combine this intellectualism with clear, refreshing prose. David Wells, J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, John Stott...they can all write sentences.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      Exactly. There's no replacement for being skilled at wielding the language. Since it is their language, they seem to know it best.

    • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

      I believe Wells is South African, no?

      • http://www.hobotheology.com Derek Griz

        Ha! I almost put that in parenthesis. He is South African. But I count that. :)

      • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

        If I recall, Stott took Wells under his wing for a few years while Wells was living in London.

  • http://fullyman.blogspot.com Kirk Fatool

    Chalk it up to ignorance but what is a "YSK Rating"?

    • Joe Carter

      "YSK" is short for "You Should Know," the name of this section of the website. The YSK rating is just my opinion of whether the article is worth more attention that what you can get from this summary.

  • Keaton Brownstead

    It is not so much the fact that these people are British, but more of the cult of personality that permeates American culture. We love celebrity - in movies, music, sports, and even the church. It would be short-sighted to look at these remarkable men and say the common demoninator of their nation of origin is the sole function of their current renown. I enjoy reading Aristotle and Aristophanes, but not because I love Greece or all Greek authors - I just have a regard for their thoughts and themes. We cannot look at a few snowflakes and start shouting blizzard. There is a bigger picture here, and that is the fact that Americans love to put people on the pedestal. Israel wants a king. It is a double edged sword toward our benefit and out detriment.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      Perhaps true but it doesn't explain why we often choose British people. The common thread of these British people is that they are writers, so that's probably the place to look for why we have a disproportionate number of British writers in American evangelicalism.

      • Keaton Brownstead

        I would not go as far to say the numbers are disproportionate. There are plenty of prolific authors and scholars from our side of the pond. The few great British writers simply stand out more because everyone else is lumped into the American group. Even more, there is no intrinsic British-ness about their work that makes it 'more appealing.' That would be nearly impossible to qualify, let alone quantify. To say their common thread of being writers does nothing for the hypothesis. Nobody could read them if they had not written.

        • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

          I happen to think contemporary American evangelicalism has a lot of literary talent. For example, Steve Hays deserves far more attention in this regard (let alone in his apologetics and many other contributions to the kingdom). I hope more people read Musica Mundana (pdf) as well as his fiction available online.

          Screenwriter Brian Godawa has been making some waves. As have Doug Wilson and his son N.D.

          Kevin DeYoung writes well.

          I don't know if she's an evangelical, per se, but I believe Marilynne Robinson sees herself as a Christian and likewise she has said she's been tremendously influenced by John Calvin's writings. Of course, Robinson has received many accolades including the Pulitzer for her novel Gilead.

          I'm sure there are a lot more, but this is just off the top of my head.

  • Melody

    I think it's their accents. It just makes them sound smarter. ;-)

  • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

    Historically, America's "first faith" was Puritanism, which originated as an English reform movement and gave us the New England states, much early American literature, and a large part of the American Revolution.

    But, practically as a pastor, today, I often consult John Stott commentaries (and those he edited) because he combines interesting writing, sound exegetical scholarship and reasoning, orthodoxy and piety. His commentaries are generally the best for sermon preparation.

  • Dean P

    Yeah I think the author is in denial and Worthen's original explanation still holds the most water.Only a segment of American evangelicalism has really changed that much since Noll's book and the ones that are different are surrounded by their peers so much all the time that they are insulated by just how bad Evangelicalism has gotten. If you disagree check out Ross Douthat's new book "Bad Religion".

  • Kate Wallace

    As an American student in the British educational system, I do not think it is completely off base to assume that Americans have an "intellectual inferiority complex" when faced with British academics. I see this all the time in my studies. Americans, along with the rest of the world, come to Britain to learn from the great minds at Oxford, Cambridge, and The London School of Economics for a reason. I would have to agree with Molly Worthen on this one, although Joe brings up an excellent secondary example in his argument of a shared history.

    • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

      1. Of course, what you say is anecdotal.

      2. As such, if I could be permitted to share my anecdotal experience as well. As an American who likewise studied abroad in an English university, while I do appreciate the educational system in the U.K., I didn't find myself or other Americans who studied abroad with me necessarily think we were intellectually inferior to our British (and other European) counterparts. Actually, I thought we were more or less on equal footing. We thought we were "intellectually inferior" in this or that, but we also thought we were "intellectually superior" in that or this. I suppose most of the local students I met were further along in their subject of study than we were in terms of knowledge-base. But again in my experience we certainly had a wider and broader knowledge-base than most of them did. Again, I'm probably generalizing a bit much, but anyway that was my experience.

      3. Not that I'm suggesting American academics are without hubris, but again speaking anecdotally I found a lot of British lecturers and professors a bit more hubristic and also elitist on the whole than American profs. So in this sense maybe British academics are helping to perpetuate this notion as well?

      4. Once again, it's hard to generalize, and certainly it would depend in large part on the field, but I don't think Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, and several other American universities are too far behind Oxford or Cambridge!

  • http://sendthemarlins.com Joe

    Could it also be the way the british are connected to the worldwide church in a different way through the legacy of the british empire? Stott in particular?

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  • Sally

    And we Brits love your preachers...

    • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

      Maybe someone might consider writing a post titled, "Why British Evangelicals Love the Americans"? Just kidding. ;-)

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/wfbrown1234?feature=mh william brown

    1. The intellectual quality...and let's not forget George MacDonald (Scot), Dorothy Sayers, Ronald Knox, JH Newman. I think these folks represent an incredibly deep intellectual tradition, building on Shakespeare, Spencer, Milton; a level of erudition and artistic talent that no other place in history has seen.
    The best talent was almost all Catholic, BTW.

    2. The writing style is both more enjoyable and more articulate than ours.

    3. The 'inferiority complex' idea does have merit, I believe.

    4. We were British first - I think this is relevant. Our roots are largely British. Russell Kirk has a smart little book about this.

    5. Yes, the accents, at least the pre-WW II Brits (think "All Creatures Great and Small"), do sound more intelligent :)

    --Bill

    Forest, VA, USA

  • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

    As far as accents are concerned, while I too enjoy listening to the variety of British accents (particularly the various Scottish and Irish dialects), I'm actually more fond of our own diverse American accents. I think we tend to have a more rugged, rough hewn manliness in our speech, which I find refreshing in light of the rather effete Queen's English (RP).

    Besides, the modern (rhotic) American accent (excepting NYC and Boston) is arguably closer to what spoken English was like c. 1776 when our two nations divided by a common language parted ways. See here for example.

    On a related note, since modern Irish and Scottish accents are still rhotic, this may explain in part my own appreciation of them above and beyond other British accents.

  • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

    By the way, we have our share of literary giants. For example, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Harper Lee, T.S. Eliot (well, he was an expat).

    In fact I sometimes wonder if the best isn't still yet to come. Certainly we're doing quite well today. Cormac McCarthy writes beautifully, for instance. Moreover, I think much of the best writing talent we have ends up working in the entertainment industry. Check out the top screenwriters of the last and current centuries.

    Much more could be said.

  • http://rockingwithhawking.blogspot.com rockingwithhawking

    Incidentally, while I've read and enjoyed various works in Tolkien's corpus including The Hobbit, LotR, and The Silmarillion, I think stylistically reading his writing is like trying to wade through molasses. It's heavy, ponderous, soul-wearying stuff.

    C.S. Lewis was far more light and agile, not to mention he could be by turns witty and clever, deep and profound, as well as sublime. He could evoke in his readers that sense of joy and longing, Sehnsucht, which he himself found elsewhere. In fact, when he was at his best, I think Lewis had a superb style.

  • Ivan Lambert

    I've read many of Packer's and Stott's books.
    Why?
    Packer's Knowing God was my first. It was great!!
    Next I tried Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Concise Theology etc.

    Stott?
    First it was Basic Christianity and Understanding the Bible then commentaries on Ephesians, Galatians and additional books the Cross of Christ and Between Two Worlds.

    Why did I continue coming back to Packer and Stott?
    I found Worthen's presupposition quite inadequate.
    Frankly, for me, it was nothing to do with their being British.
    Plain and simple, Packer and Stott knew God in ways I did not.

  • Jason

    Specifically concerning Lewis and Tolkien: I think it's because we'd rather live in Middle-Earth than Mississippi, Narnia than New York. For us, these writers are nearly as mythical and heroic as their own characters, and their country as ancient and mysterious as their own created worlds. Lewis becomes not only a great thinker, but an Aslan conquering the White Witch of atheism; Tolkien an Elrond telling lost stories of the land across the western sea. These men taught us the relationship between Christianity and fantasy and we in turn have made them fantastical Christians.

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/wfbrown1234/featured william brown

      Jason,

      That's it. I think what you said so well is key..............

      "I think it's because we'd rather live in Middle-Earth than Mississippi, Narnia than New York. For us, these writers are nearly as mythical and heroic as their own characters, and their country as ancient and mysterious as their own created worlds."

      I mentioned in my post above the historical memory of these great British writers; an endlessly deep and fertile creative imagination based on the ancient Christian land and heritage that is Britain ( I can hear the Cambridge choir singing Sir Hubert Parry's "Jerusalem"!).

      As I look over the various authors that folks have listed in support of their argument for American literature, I can't help but feel that they are making my point for me: British Lit. is superior to American in quantity and quality (OK, they've had a few more years to work on it than we have, but I'd say even per capita the Brits win hands down :)

      Nothing against Hemingway, Faulkner, Lee, and Steinbeck, but these are second or third rate compared to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, and Swift.
      Well, maybe Hawthorne and Melville would approach, say a Conrad, G. Eliot, or Hardy.

      --Bill

      Disclaimer: I was a Yorkshire country vet, ca. 1935, in my former incarnation.

      PS: This is all meant to be a bit tongue and cheek in case anyone hasn't noticed.

      PSS: They're still singing.........

      "And did those feet in ancient time.
      Walk upon England's mountains green:
      And was the holy Lamb of God,
      On England's pleasant pastures seen!"

  • David Burkhardt

    John Stott and Packer were very helpful in my early Christian years in 1979-1981. Very disappointed in Stott's denial of hell, and Packer's involvement with ECT. Guess that happens with the Anglican downgrade?? Should have migrated to Ian Hamilton's Presbyterian church in Cambridge!! CS Lewis has written several profound and insightful things, but as Derek Thomas notes; has doctrinal problems with the atonement and other issues! Wasn't Tolkien Roman Catholic??
    I am not real positive about using "fantasy" to depict the Gospel story?? Maybe some have come eventually to saving faith after exploring the Bible, via their hazy allegorical writings.
    Bunyan's Analogy (not Allegory) "Pilgrim's Progress" is a much, much better display of Biblical Truth! I have several British heroes, among them Carl Trueman, Derek Thomas, Peter Masters of London's Metropolitan Tabernacle. Believe we should focus on the best not just the half decent!!! David Burkhardt

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  • http://highplainsparson.wordpress.com Riley

    The affinity goes both ways. If American evangelicals are the cousin of British evangelicals, though we may be the younger cousin, yet we are the larger cousin. British Christians often look up to America as a place which is not quite as post-Christian as the modern UK. From their perspective the influence we have is almost idyllic. And it's common for them to send their candidates to American seminaries, etc. I guarantee that any British Christian versed in theology will be reading a lot of American authors. And they will probably be using an American-done Bible translation (even if it's the "Anglicized edition.")

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