When Paul Simon met John Stott (and what we can learn from it today)

I recently came across the following account of when the singer, Paul Simon, met the one-time leader of Anglican evangelicalism, John Stott. Here is what he said:

[Paul Simon] 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.”

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,” he said.

We are often quick to talk about interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, thinking there is fruit to be had in such discussions. But we are often a little scared to engage with white liberals on these terms. We just assume there will be no value in it.

What I found fascinating about this excerpt is it bucks that assumption. People may not come away from such dialogue with changed minds, but we might just find they are more open to discussion than we give them credit. We may find they are moved in their thinking more than we might reckon. And who knows what might happen and what the Lord might do if we keep the door open long enough to have not just one but multiple such conversations?

My friend, Jeremy Marshall, was always keen to encourage us that white middle class people are actually far more open to talking about Christ and faith than we assume. We think they are dead against it, but his experience was that most people had never heard anything about it. They had never actually sat down with a genuine believer and discussed what they think honestly. Nobody has actually offered to do this and they don’t know anybody to ask. He was adamant that offering to read the Bible with people and answer their questions about our faith – being sure to speak of how great Jesus really is – will take you an awful long way, even with white middle class liberals.

We are often in danger of boxing God in on these things at any rate. We assume that some people are just too far gone for Christ. They are too far away from biblical norms for the Lord to save them. None of us believe this theologically, but we do believe it in practice. But since when was anything too hard for the Lord?

Not only is the excerpt fascinating, I think it should encourage us to make more effort to engage our white liberal friends and neighbours again. Not through clubs and activities necessarily, just as friends armed with the Bible and a willingness to talk about the greatness of Jesus and entertain any questions they may have. We might be surprised what the Lord will do.