If you are a Christian you might think it an odd question to ask what John Stott
and Paul Simon
have in common. After all John Stott was the most prominent Anglican evangelical minister who passed away last year. David Brooks is the popular editorial writer for the New York Times who (depending on your point of view) is either slightly liberal or slightly conservative. He also happens to be Jewish. Paul Simon, also Jewish, is one of the best known singer-song writers of the past 40 years.
Well some may recall that back in November of 2004, Brooks published an article in The New York Times taking Tim Russert to task becasuse, as host NBC’s Meet the Press, he had invited Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton on the show to discuss religion and public life. Brooks said “inviting these two bozos onto ‘Meet the Press’ to discuss that issue is like inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D. H. Lawrence. Naturally, they got into a demeaning food fight that would have lowered the intellectual discourse of your average nursery school”. As I said Brooks is hard to classify. He is critical of the right’s “religious man” and the left’s “religious man” Brooks goes on to say the press would do well to look to people like John Stott as a spokesperson for Evangelical Christianity. He does note, however, “A computer search suggests that Stott’s name hasn’t appeared in this newspaper since April 10, 1956, and it’s never appeared in many other important publications”. He suggests that Stott is busy doing what ministers should be doing and that is why so little notice is given to him but that he is a much better person to tell non-evangelicals what evangelicals really believer. You can read the entire article still on line.
So that is the link between Stott and Brooks but where does that leave Paul Simon in the question. Simon, who is also from a Jewish background describes himself as “a non-religious person” but over the years there have been various mentions of God, faith and even the Christian faith in his songs. Simon himself acknowledged “For somebody who’s not a religious person, God comes up a lot in my songs”.This is especially true of his latest (and in my opinion best since Graceland ) album,
So Beautiful So What. The first song, Waiting on Christmas Day, includes the sampling parts of a sermon preached in 1941 by a prominent African-American pastor, J.M. Gates. Simon heard the sermon on a set of old recordings and decided to include it on the album. The second song, The Afterlife, records a persons experience in arriving in heaven and being told:
“You got to fill out a form first
And then you wait in the line
You got to fill out a form first
And then you wait in the line
God and his Son visiting the earth is the beginning of the song Love in Hard Times.
So where does John Stott come into Simon’s story? Well in 2004, Simon was recording in England and read David Brooks’ article on Stott. He decided he wanted to meet Stott and an article in Christianity Today records Simon’s word about the events:
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. 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.I liked him immensely. 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, but what I liked about it was that we were able to talk and have a dialogue.”
Simon said the conversation was meaningful to him because he was “disheartened” by so much divisive rhetoric in American culture, particularly when it comes to religion.
“I was interested in speaking to the John Stotts of the world and other evangelicals because my instinct was that the animosity is not as deep as being depicted in the media, and anecdotally speaking, I have found that that’s the truth.”
Folks who do not hold to the Christian faith might find this just an interesting story but for me, a man who has wrestled with faith and doubt, belief and questions for almost 40 years now it is a whisper from my heavenly Father, see I really am in control. See I really do surprising things, I can use the article of a Jewish editorial writer to be the means by which a self described “non-religious” singer-songwriter of international reputation would see out wisdom from one of the world’s greatest ambassadors for Jesus. Or as another Anglican writer once put it “Aslan is on the move”
To quote Paul Simon: “I’m going to Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland