Tuesday, November 30, 2004

David Brooks on John Stott

David Brooks in the NYT has written a column about, of all people, John Stott. I'm not sure what the occasion is; Brooks mentions reading, but not speaking to, Stott, so it's not a book tour or a public address of any kind. Brooks thinks that people like Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton, who appeared together on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, come off poorly in comparison to Stott, as well they might. I think that most of us would.

Brooks's main point seems to be that people who want to understand evangelicals should become acquainted with the best of them, not the worst, and I won't argue with that. Especially when Brooks says things like the following:

There's been a lot of twaddle written recently about the supposed opposition between faith and reason. To read Stott is to see someone practicing "thoughtful allegiance" to scripture. For him, Christianity means probing the mysteries of Christ. He is always exploring paradoxes. Jesus teaches humility, so why does he talk about himself so much? What does it mean to gain power through weakness, or freedom through obedience? In many cases the truth is not found in the middle of apparent opposites, but on both extremes simultaneously.

Stott is so embracing it's always a bit of a shock - especially if you're a Jew like me - when you come across something on which he will not compromise. It's like being in "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among nonbelievers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Most important, he does not believe truth is plural. He does not believe in relativizing good and evil or that all faiths are independently valid, or that truth is something humans are working toward. Instead, Truth has been revealed.

That's as accurate and as positive an assessment as you are likely to get of any evangelical leader in the New York Times, even though plenty of its readers will not agree that "truth is revealed." I still wonder, How did Brooks encounter the writings of John Stott? Is there a religious mole at the Times?

I am reminded of the one time I met John Stott. It was at Fuller Seminary, the fall of 1975, when Stott came to speak and lecture. The chapel service -- then held at Pasadena Presbyterian Church -- was full almost to standing room in anticipation, so, with a buddy of mine, I went to the side door, still hoping to snag a good seat. And there, himself waiting to enter, was John Stott. "Hello," he said. "My name is John Stott." Not, "I'm John Stott" -- which would imply "and you're not." But "My name is John Stott," as if we really might not know who he was. "Are you students from Fuller?" I don't remember the rest of the conversation -- I was struck dumb, no doubt -- but I will always remember his humility and (yes) his sanctity.

Is God's Spirit Female?

A correspondent in the letters section of the new New Yorker (Nov. 29, 2004) responds to John Updike's review of Robert Alter's new translation of the Torah. The letter reads in part:

"In the second verse of Genesis, the word "ruach," in the phrase "ruach elohim" (translated as "Spirit of God" in the old version), is a feminine word. Thus the spirit of the Lord is, in name at least, a female spirit."

It doesn't surprise me that someone might think that, but it does surprise me that the New Yorker thought it worthy of publication. Doesn't anyone on their staff know that the gender of a word and the sex of a person are not the same thing? The word "stone" in Hebrew ('eben) is also feminine; does that mean that rocks in Israel are female?

Two further points could be made. (1) The word ruach in Genesis 1:2 is not necessarily best translated "Spirit." Alter translates it "breath" (the fact that troubled the writer). The NRSV has "wind," as do the NEB and the NJPS. (2) Ruach is not always feminine in gender in the Hebrew Bible; for instance, in Numbers 11:31, it is masculine (as elsewhere, e.g., Isaiah 57:16). No one knows, as far as I know, why the gender shifts; but it has nothing to do with a sex-change.

Welcome to Ralph the Sacred River

This blog is currently in the experimental stage; but I hope it expands. Any suggestions are welcome. I hope in the next post to discuss a point of grammar in Robert Alter's new bible translation. Exciting, huh?