Book Review: John Stott’s Basic Christianity, and Where Was I When This Was Being Passed Out?

This book review is a little different than some of the other’s I’ve done lately. Not only is Basic Christianity well known (it was first published in 1958, I read the 50th anniversary edition) but reading it brought up some thoughts and emotions that I’d like to spend time on.

But first the book itself: it’s basically an extended presentation of the Gospel in book form. The concept itself will evince scorn from many soulwinners. Who gets saved reading a book anyway? But many of these same soulwinners have poured their efforts into cultures where literacy is either not honoured or not widespread or both, so their scepticism is understandable. But for those who aim at a more literate audience, it turns the concept of salvation through reading into a compelling journey, as we will see.

The first part of the book is “Who Christ Is.” That too goes contrary to many ways of presenting the Gospel. But—as I discussed in my review of Packer’s Affirming the Apostles’ Creed—many of these presentations assume a Christian culture. Starting with outlining the person of Christ comes across better than one might think.

From there he proceeds in a more conventional fashion through “What We Need” (a remedy to our sin problem) and “What Christ Has Done.” Although he covers territory familiar to many who present the Gospel (in ways such as this) he does so engagingly. From the very start of the book he invites his readers on a search, and that sets the tone for the book, which is almost conversational and relational. Doing that can be tricky in book format, but Stott pulls it off with many examples, background materials, and of course his use of the Scriptures.

Finally he gets to “How to Respond,” which includes a direct challenge to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour (he’s insistent on both.) He also goes through what a Christian must do after he or she makes that decision (and he’s emphatic on becoming a Christian being a decision.) There are two particular points, however, that this section brings out that deserve attention.

The first is that he is very clear that just “going through the process” doesn’t make you a Christian:

You can believe in Christ intellectually and admire him; you can say your prayers to him through the keyhole (I did for many years); you can push coins at him under the door to keep him quiet; you can be moral, decent, upright and good; you can be religious; you can have been baptised and confirmed; you can be deeply versed in the philosophy of religion; you can be a theological student and even an ordained minister—and still not have opened the door to Christ. There is no substitute for this. (p. 152)

That flies in the face of much of the “Affirming Catholicism” (and Roman Catholicism to boot) that we see in the CoE and TEC today, and is a more important point of distinction than many—even in the Anglican/Episcopal world—realise.

The second is that he spends an entire chapter on “Counting the Cost.” There’s no doubt that Jesus set forth the costs of following him in clear terms; however, many churches duck that, either explicitly or implicitly. This illustrates an important difference between the way the Gospel is looked at in, say, serious Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox circles and the way we see it presented in many Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

In the latter, we’ve seen a drift towards the Gospel being presented in a transactional fashion. We come to Christ, we give up many of our destructive behaviours (drugs, alcohol, uncontrolled and unlawful sex, wastage of money, etc.) and then we receive the “hundredfold” reward of wealth and happiness. In the former, the emphasis is on giving up the temporal rewards of the world and inheriting the spiritual rewards of following God, in addition to being mobilised for service. For the Evangelical and Pentecostal church, appealing to people whose godless behaviour is destroying both this life and the life to come in one blow, the transactional approach has a powerful appeal. On the other hand, it explains why Anglican and Episcopal churches primarily have appealed to the economic elites of the past and the noblesse de robe of today. Each of these privileged groups implicitly understand that their way of life, although materially rewarding, is unsatisfying, and giving up themselves for following Jesus has consequences that, although eternally identical to other Christians, take a different form in this life.

And that leads me to the personalisation. One of the endorsements of Basic Christianity states that it “has introduced more people to Christ than any book I know other than the Bible.” Although such claims must be taken with reserve, the fact is that Basic Christianity, written by an Anglican, has had significant impact in the half century it’s been published. Which leads me to the next question: where was I when this was passed out?

From the time I became a Christian in Palm Beach and first read the Bible for myself, it was obvious that I was being challenged to give up a lot for the sake of the Cross and my own eternal destiny. That concept was reinforced (on a formal basis at least) by the church I grew up in. Had I gotten a hold of Basic Christianity at the time, many of its concepts would have resonated with me, and the fact that it was written by an Anglican would have increased the credibility of the Anglican/Episcopal concept. Instead the voices of challenge were coming from elsewhere, which ultimately led to my “swimming the Tiber” during prep school and ultimately to where I’m at now. So why didn’t this take place, if not with this book in another way?

It’s tempting to place most of the blame for this on the “socialite” church I grew up in. And that’s certainly part of it. I always got the impression that the dramatic life change the Stott (and the New Testament) describe were considered in “bad taste,” something that Episcopalians didn’t really need. The idea was that, as an Episcopalian, one didn’t have to worry about such things as long as one followed the BCP in worship. One would think that such an idea wouldn’t have much appeal, but the statistics from the time tell another story.

The rapid growth of TEC from World War II until the late 1960’s is one of the unheralded stories of church growth. But did it happen for the “wrong” reason? My experience notwithstanding, that’s not an easy question to answer, but my guess is that it was facilitated by a basically religious society, and that most of the converts came from other “traditions” (in addition to a high birth rate at the time.) Much of that growth was lost in the 1970’s, but the rebound in the 1980’s and 1990’s is testament to the basic strength of the Anglican concept, in spite of the efforts of many to undermine that concept.

And that leads me to the second point. What finally broke me from TEC was my experience at my Episcopal prep school. Its chaplains were more interested in advancing higher criticism, social action and situational ethics than the faith which Stott described in Basic Christianity. Their idea was, and is, pointless. It simply did not make sense to commit one’s life to it. And I didn’t.

Today we have two divergent views of where the Anglican/Episcopal world should go. The first is that of the “reappraisers.” Their hope is that the third time is a charm, that the growth they experienced (and then fumbled) will happen again when their churches are inclusive of those who are mainly concentrated in the upper reaches of society. But those upper reaches aren’t as religious as they used to be; there are easier ways to express one’s liberal life than a church. As things stand now, we’re looking more at “three strike and you’re out” than the third time being a charm.

On the other side are the “reasserters.” They’re trying (the Evangelicals at least) to present the kind of faith that Stott elaborates so eloquently in Basic Christianity. Their danger is that they, once having won autonomy from TEC (with or without the property,) will drift into an upper-class repository of everyone who is dissatisfied with the rest of American Christianity. If that happens, they will end up no better off than than TEC did in the 1960’s, and that would be a tragedy.

But that, technically, is beyond the scope of Basic Christianity. Stott’s engaging literary conversation with unbeliever and believer alike stands as a testament to what Anglican Christianity—and Christians—can do and be when they follow the path set forth in the New Testament. And that’s a good thing for all of us.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: John Stott’s Basic Christianity, and Where Was I When This Was Being Passed Out?”

  1. Altho I have been a Christian for many years, having been converted from paganism,in the past year I have been struggling with doubts particularly associated with unanswered prayer. This little book that had been given years ago by my youngest son to another family member, came to my hand. It has been very helpful to me in reviewing what Christ is all about. Who He is and the glory of His grace. I now begin a revised journey to the Celestial City. Bill.

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