Julia Cameron. John Stott: The Humble Leader. CF4K, 2012. 160 pages. $8.99.
Many thanks to Christian Focus Publications, who generously gave a group of bloggers the opportunity to read and review they’re brand new young adult biography on John Stott.
A few other biographies have been written about the life and work of John Stott, but this one stands out in that it’s geared toward a young audience. I was extra excited for the chance to read and review it because of this, since I have two small kids and a third on the way. I feel, as a reader myself, that I’m frequently on the lookout for good books to read to and with my kids in the next few years. And this biography does well at making the life of Stott accessible to kids, and drawing out the significance of what God did through Stott for the good of the Church. However, I also only gave The Humble Leader 3 out of 5 stars on my Goodreads account; so I’ll try both to explain the great value in this small volume, as well as the weak points.
The biography starts with the story of Stott’s early life, and is both informative, and just plain fun. I learned much about Stott I did not know before: that his nanny often took him and his sister on walks through Regent’s Park, home of the London Zoo, where they would sometimes see the future queen Elizabeth II (who was 5 years younger than Stott) and her sister Margaret. This is the time that Stott grew up in – very formative times for our modern world and culture. Stott was also arrogant and rebellious as a youth, and that he was an unlikely conversion to Christ, humanly-speaking. In the first chapter, Cameron paints a picture of Stott’s life with family and at school that helps the reader see even stalwart shepherds in the faith like John Stott are saved from the darkness of sin and blindness to the Gospel. He was by no means an angelic youth, destined for a life of faithfulness to God. None of us are, apart from God’s sovereign, gracious call, and preserving power.
Before I continue to even more of the biography’s good points, I do want to point out the couple of its drawbacks. These are worth mentioning, though they do not take much away from the value of this volume, especially for young readers.
1. Choppy Narrative
First, after about the first half of the book’s chapters, the narrative becomes very choppy and disjointed in places. I found myself, as an adult reader, lost as a result of the choppiness. What happens is this: the author is narrating Stott’s life, but breaks to develop an aspect of Stott’s character further, often referring to events from another period in his life. These breaks in narrative take up some space in places, and it takes a little bit figure out where the story left off.
Also, there are “Fact File” blurbs at the ends of the chapters that add interesting thoughts about a particular aspect of culture connecting to Stott’s story, or other isolated anecdotes from his life. These are often very interesting and fun to read, but they’re also disjointed back and forth across the chronology of Stott’s life that the chapters try to follow. Again, lots of good information that could be better organized.
2. Generational Pigeonholing
This point has pros and cons. The author gears the biography toward the current generation of young readers, by mentioning iPhones, emailing, etc. This happens several times throughout the book. For this reason it’s a very relevant treatment of John Stott for today’s segment of young readers, but, in many ways, only them. This biography pigeonholes itself into a brief window of cultural relevancy, and will very likely be dated in a few years, in how it relates to its readers. Again, it’s perhaps a sacrifice of timelessness, for the sake of relevancy.
More Great Things
Here’s why I really enjoyed this biography, and would absolutely read it with my kids in a few years when they’re old enough to appreciate it (they’re 4 and 2 at present). We live in a culture of sensationalism – lots of folks have written about this elsewhere, but basically, our attention is usually drawn to the extraordinary, the unusual, or the shocking. We tend to value celebrities and model ourselves after them, rather than after faithful “everyday people.” John Stott became a “celebrity” of sorts a little way into his life, but he became so because he was a faithful shepherd, teacher, writer, and preacher of the Word of God, for the sake of God’s Church. Cameron’s biography showcases this – nothing “sensational” is really discussed in this short story of Stott’s life; but his story really is made interesting, and great value is placed on his faithfulness as a humble servant of Christ.
Young readers would do well to read a biography like this, or have it read to them, hopefully to take some of the focus off of the empty value our culture gives to sensational celebrities. This type of biography can work alongside the more “unusual” stories from Church history, to provide a picture of what it means to thoroughly love God in thankfulness, to be a disciplined, diligent student of God’s Word, and to faithfully shepherd the Church and proclaim the message of Christ crucified.
Here is an example of the book’s emphasis on Stott’s radical faithfulness and discipline:
“Each day began with Bible reading, following the McCheyne reading plan. John wanted to master the whole Bible. Or rather, he wanted the whole Bible to master him.”
“John Stott was truly radical. He worked from the roots, and he himself was firmly rooted. His days were rooted in Christ from the moment he got out of bed, and said ‘Good morning’ to the Holy Trinity. This was the secret of his effectiveness.”
What the book really does end up showing in places like these is that spiritual discipline and faithfulness make one truly radical, in a world that constantly shifts and changes, abandoning old truths for the next new thing. John Stott made some phenomenal contributions to the Church, that aren’t things our culture would necessarily find exciting. He was one of the main writers of the Lausanne Covenant, and was appointed chaplain to Elizabeth II – just a couple of many outstanding achievements for the sake of the Gospel. All in all, even in spite of some drawbacks, this little biography is a great volume to read as an adult, and/or to add to the repertoire of your young reader.