Clarity and Connection
SIX QUESTIONS . . . I hope people come away from my work thinking, "Okay, I've got that clearer now and I'm enthusiastic about responding creatively and courageously to that challenge."
John G. Stackhouse, Jr. is an award-winning historian, theologian, philosopher, and public communicator. He teaches theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.
In your work, what are you creating, and what are you cultivating? (In Andy Crouch's vernacular, what new culture are you making, and what good culture are you conserving and nurturing?)
John Stackhouse: I am an evangelical Christian, I am glad to be an evangelical Christian, and I work in the world as an evangelical Christian. The kind of piety, the kind of doctrine, the kind of liturgy, the kind of ecclesiology, the kind of mission, the kind of worldview, even the kind of aesthetic that most characterizes me is in the zone marked out by John Wesley, Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, James Orr, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity Press, Fuller Theological Seminary, Edward John Carnell, Francis Schaeffer, Ron Sider, Alvera and Berkeley Mickelsen, John White, John Stott, J. N. D. Anderson, Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill, The Wittenburg Door, Richard Foster, Mark Noll, Luci Shaw, Nick Wolterstorff and Al Plantinga, Rich Mouw, Miroslav Volf, Alister McGrath, and Regent College. My evangelicalism has been deeply influenced as well by a few non-evangelicals, a trait typical indeed of the evangelicals I have just mentioned (!): C. S. Lewis above all, but very close to "Uncle Jack" in my pantheon would be G. K. Chesterton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Marty, and David Martin.
I want to follow in their train: to be blessed by the Great Tradition, yes, but to enjoy unapologetically working and finding company in this particular version of it, this evangelicalism that has blessed the whole world in its sometimes thoughtful, usually pious, and almost always energetic service. So I have contributed what I could to the understanding of the history of evangelicalism, particularly in North America, to the clarification and perhaps slight advancement of evangelical theology, to the equipment of evangelicals for public engagement, and to the improvement, I trust, of evangelical church life.
Who is the "public" for your work—who is it for, and how does it affect the lives of those who engage with it?
I enjoy connecting. I connect North American evangelicalism with certain aspects of its tradition through the historical, theological, and ethical work I do. I connect evangelicals, and Christians more broadly, with certain trends and challenges in contemporary society through the cultural analysis and recommendations I offer. I connect North American society with evangelicalism, the Church, the gospel and, I hope, Jesus Christ through the public theology and apologetics I do.
Along another axis, I connect descriptive disciplines, particularly history and sociology, with prescriptive disciplines, particularly theology, philosophy, and ethics—hence a lot of my work is interdisciplinary problem-solving . . . or, at least, problem-responding-to. And on yet another, I connect academy, church, and middlebrow culture—hence my writing and speaking, from blog posts to conference papers to refereed scholarship, is generally accessible to most university graduates and I impress no one with the mysterious profundities of my prose.
I hope my work helps people better understand and respond to God, to each other, to Christianity and the Christian Church, and to the rest of the world. I hope people come away from my work thinking, "Okay, I've got that clearer now and I'm enthusiastic about responding creatively and courageously to that challenge."
Why do you do what you do?
I am deeply annoyed by confusion—almost viscerally upset by the experience. I am sometimes an impatient conversationalist, alas, since when I get confused I tend immediately to insist that my companions answer questions—and answer them quickly and clearly!—so as to allay my distress. Family life has been of considerable therapeutic efficacy in that regard, I am glad to report.
Generally, nonetheless, when I set to finding out about something, I fasten on it, terrier-like, until I gain a measure of satisfaction and, frankly, relief. Then I enjoy sharing what I've found with other people—who, I used to assume, were bothered by the problem just as intensely as I was. I have found to my disappointment that not everyone has reacted to these problems as I have nor do as many people delight in my findings as I expected would. But since apparently some people do find what I discover helpful, I am grateful to make a living out of discovery and dissemination.
What skills, proficiencies, and virtues does this work develop in you?
I was trained first by historians, notably Mark Noll at Wheaton and Martin Marty at Chicago. Historians are trained to say nothing without immediately producible evidence and lucidly rendered argumentation. A historical argument cannot just seem right, cannot appeal to intuition or to "what all right-thinking people know"—as theological argument very, very frequently does. No, you have to actually build an argument from elements each of which can be spoken for somehow as credible and do so in a step-by-step fashion, "showing your work," as the math teachers say.
And because history is this sort of plain argument-building, its prose is generally plain as well. Sometimes, of course, historical writing is boring. But historians can never trade in mystagogy, never hope to dazzle with grand, suggestive phrases for readers to fill in as they choose. So I write plainly, and take my lumps from people who generally do understand what I'm saying and don't like it. I don't have to spend a lot of time explaining to any but hostile or lazy interpreters what I meant and didn't mean.
This trait also means, of course, that there will never be a session of an academic conference devoted to my work. My work might well not merit such attention because of its own paltriness, of course. But I certainly cannot imagine any younger scholar devoting a paper to interpreting what I meant in this or that work the way, for instance, the Paul Tillich or Michel Foucault industries continue apace.
I am also learning—much more belatedly than I should have—just how hard it is for us to truly understand an idea that is significantly different from what we currently think. Having just congratulated myself shamelessly for being so plain in my writing, the fact remains that lots of people—and not just hostile or lazy people—do have trouble understanding me at first blush, and I have trouble understanding them. The potential slippage between what I think is a message both clear and cogent and what you understand me to be saying is much greater than I have truly internalized—even though I have been a preacher since I was 16, a published writer since my early twenties, and a university lecturer since I was twenty-four. I'm currently writing a book on epistemology and I want to make this point as clearly (!) as I can: It is often hard work, and humble work, to submit oneself attentively to an unfamiliar message, to let it keep its shape in my mind, rather than my immediately pressing it into my own categories. And we very, very often don't get it all right—as everyone who has been married more than two weeks knows.
What five books would you recommend to someone interested in understanding or pursuing the sort of work you do?
C. S. Lewis, Miracles: Uncle Jack doesn't "finish off" every idea in this book, not by a long shot, but there is a simply amazing number of insightful theological judgments in this often-overlooked book.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics + Letters and Papers from Prison: These more mature works are the most realistic, suggestive, provocative, and sensible things Bonhoeffer wrote.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: This study of almost 100 creative people gives one dozens of aphorisms, examples, principles, and encouragements to be who and what you need to be to follow your vocation.
Sanford Kaye, Writing Under Pressure: I discovered this book after sheer hard experience and a lot of faithful tutoring by my betters taught me most of its ruthlessly wise principles. I now recommend it constantly.
Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on the Religious Affections + David Jeffrey, ed., English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley: I want to be a Christian the way these evangelical saints called us to be Christians.
What do you do for fun?
I have an overbearing superego that bullies me into working more than I should. My faithful spouse and offspring do their best to help me with my addiction. We ski, hike, and snowshoe our mountain. We watch movies (all three of our sons are pursuing careers in the film-making world). We make music—I used to play ten instruments and I still play piano, bass, and guitar in a way that won't drive you out of the room. We blast around on the motorcycle I inherited from my dad. And we play games—one "games night" a week, fuelled by bowls of what we call "high-quality crap" rich in life-giving sugars and fats. Oh, and I also write the occasional incendiary blog post.