Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Paul Simon's 'Christian' Interests?

Paul Simon

As someone who hangs around with the evangelical crowd, though mainly on the sidelines, I've often encountered references to the late British evangelical John Stott, so I was curious to read that one of my favorite musicians, Paul Simon, had liked the man. We learn this from Kim Lawton, of the PBS program Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly´╗┐, who has written on the point in "Paul Simon: 'God Comes Up a Lot in My Songs'" for Christianity Today (January 9, 2012), which tells of Simon's "memorable conversation with John Stott":
Simon said he was recording in England when he saw a 2004 New York Times column by David Brooks, which described Stott's approach to faith.

"The piece was about how embarrassed some Christians were by the televangelists, and (it) said, no one ever talks about this guy, but he's a really good thinker," Simon said.

Paul Simon reads David Brooks? David Brooks reads John Stott? Maybe we should take a look at that column, which asks, "Who is John Stott?" (New York Times, November 30, 2004), and then offers an answer:
[I]f evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose. He was the framer of the Lausanne Covenant, a crucial organizing document for modern evangelicalism. He is the author of more than 40 books, which have been translated into over 72 languages and have sold in the millions. Now rector emeritus at All Souls, Langham Place, in London, he has traveled the world preaching and teaching.

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice . . . . It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott's mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus' life and sacrifice.

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 . . . . 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. As he writes:

"It is not because we are ultra-conservative, or obscurantist, or reactionary or the other horrid things which we are sometimes said to be. It is rather because we love Jesus Christ, and because we are determined, God helping us, to bear witness to his unique glory and absolute sufficiency. In Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ God's revelation is complete; to add any words of our own to his finished work is derogatory to Christ."

Yeah, that's pretty uncompromising. I wonder why Paul Simon, who is also Jewish, expressed a wish to meet the man, though he apparently did, as Lawton tells us:
He decided he wanted to meet Stott, and a friend helped connect them. Simon called the theologian and offered to take him out for dinner. He said Stott told him he didn't go out much anymore and instead invited the musician to his flat for tea and biscuits.

"I'd say we spent two or three hours there," Simon recalled. "I talked about everything that was on my mind about things that seemed illogical, and he talked about why he had come to his conclusions."

Simon was very impressed by Stott. "I liked him immensely," he told me. "I left there feeling that I had a greater understanding of where belief comes from when it doesn't have an agenda."

"It didn't change my way of thinking," he added, "but what I liked about it was that we were able to talk and have a dialogue."

I guess Simon just wanted to understand evangelicals and have some of his questions answered by a thoughtful evangelical leader who is also a well-informed intellectual.

You can watch Kim Lawton's interview, "Paul Simon" (January 6, 2012), on her Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly program for PBS. He says less there than Lawton provides for us on the Christianity Today site, but there are other interesting things, such as the character of his most recent album, So Beautiful or So What, which the evangelical Irish blogger Cathleen Falsani, "who writes frequently about religion and pop culture," praised as "one of the most memorable collections of spiritual musical musings in recent memory." In citing Falsani, Lawton is quoting from an article that Falsani wrote for The Huffington Post, "So Beautiful or So What So Christian?" (June 30, 2011). In that article, Falsani also cites Steve Stockman, "a Protestant clergyman and music critic from Northern Ireland," who says that Simon's album is perhaps "the best Christian album of the year."

As a follow-up to that piece and the Lawton interview, Falsani tells in "God, PBS and Paul Simon, The 'God Chronicler By Accident'" (Sojourners, January 6, 2012) of a burgeoning friendship with Simon, who had read her article. Of Simon, she writes:
Simon is the real deal. He is thoughtful, kind and intellectually curious. He pulls no punches, digs deeper, seeking the truth -- whatever it may be.

He sounds like an interesting man, as I would have expected from his music -- which I started listening to when I was about 10 -- and today's blog post has been interesting for me to write, for it was unplanned and has taken me places that I didn't expect to go.

I hope that readers have enjoyed the journey . . .

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At 11:43 AM, Blogger Roy Lofquist said...

Dear Mr. Hodges,

I think this is my first comment here, which surprises me because I am somewhat outspoken on the intertubes. No particular comment on this post except that I agree with you that Mr. Simon has made some beautiful music.

I guess I just wanted to say that I come 'round here most every day and look forward to it. You get me thinking instead of reacting. Quite refreshing, that.



At 1:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Lofquist. I know I have a few regulars who've never left a comment. I appreciate all readers who find what I write worth reading, for the entertainment value of my entries, if nothing else.

But if people get more than that, all the better.

Jeffery Hodges

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