Many of the people who have most influenced me I have never met face to face. What's more, encountering them has often occurred as someone has given me a book they've written.
So it was with E. Stanley Jones, who became a spiritual mentor to me in my early adult years and whose perspective on Christianity, the world and the church continues to influence me today.
In 1977, R. B. Acheson, Senior Pastor at Westside Church of the Nazarene in Indianapolis, gave graduating high school seniors a copy of A Song of Ascents, the Methodist missionary to India's spiritual autobiography. Not a typical graduation book to give.
I can't remember exactly what the Rev. Acheson said about the book at the time, but it was enough to cause me to crack it open and take a look.
What I discovered was someone on an honest spiritual quest who opened the highs and lows, questions and challenges of his personal journey and Christianity in a rather transparent way. The older man was looking back with gratitude and confidence as he wrote, to be sure, but it was different than most triumphalist religious propaganda I'd been exposed to to that point.
Who was E. Stanley Jones? He was a graduate of Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, who was sent by the Methodist Church in 1907 as a missionary to India. There, early on, he invested his time and energy among the lowest castes, including Dalits. Jones quickly grasped and responded creatively to the Indian cultural, political and religious context throughout the first half of the 20th century. He empathized with Indians' frustration with England's coercive, rapacious ways. He became close friends with the leaders of India's freedom movement, including Gandhi and Neru.
Jones grasped the implications for Christianity in the midst of this milieu. Christianity was a minority faith (less than 10% of Indians were and are Christian) in the most religiously diverse place in the world. Closely associated with the English Raj's resented coercion, Christianity had had all the laws and props in its favor in India for a long time. But, with the freedom movement, those laws and props were being challenged, undercut and dismantled. Many Indians displayed open hostility toward Christianity and Christians. Could Christianity survive in that context, what seemed to Jones to be similar to the church in pre-Constantinian Rome?
Jones decided not to wait to see if Christianity would survive without props. Personally convinced that his Christian faith would thrive simply based on its Biblical tenets in an pluralistic, unfavorable and even hostile religious, intellectual, social and political environment, Jones decided to call the question. He joined Indians in rejecting the privileges and advantages of "Christian" laws. He embraced Indian culture and its right to seek its freedoms. And he opened retreat centers (ashrams) with specific intent of inviting all comers into extended dialogues about religion, faith, politics, health, relationships, and life.
In these dialogues and through his writings, Jones laid bare the basic claims of the Bible and his Christian faith. What was falsely claimed, he rejected. What legitimate complaints that Hindus, Muslims and others had about their treatment by Christians, he accepted. Jones rejected provincialism, legalism, and self-defensive expressions of Christianity. Jones was carefully clearing away the dross in order to position himself and his faith for fair footing and consideration in this robust pluralism. From this place and position, Jones was able to articulate with clarity and compassion some of the most profound insights of Christian faith.
The balance of Jones' life was invested in rich dialogue with the intelligentsia and social shapers of India. His encounters and creative responses are embedded in more than 25 books, mostly formatted in readily-accessible daily devotional formats (examples Abundant Living, The Word Became Flesh, etc.). Jones did not write academically or for academics, but for all people trying to make sense of life at its many crossroads. Jones wrote a reflection on Gandhi's life and work that Martin Luther King, Jr. would read and use as a catalyst to explore nonviolent civil disobedience as the means to achieve civil rights for blacks in America. Jones' direct negotiations for peace with Japan on the brink of World War II was undercut by the Japanese military's attack on Pearl Harbor.
As as young adult reading E. Stanley Jones, it dawned on me that he was way ahead of his time. I realized even then that Jones' perspective is valid and particularly useful for contemporary American culture. Instead of complaining that our culture is becoming too pluralistic (as if it hadn't been until recently), that laws favoring Christian teachings are being challenged and discarded, and that Christianity is, in some places, being regarded with disdain or hostility, like Jones, we might do better to agree with what is shallow, distracting, undercutting, and crutch-like regarding Christian faith in our culture. It seems to me that evangelicals in America, in particular, are fighting the wrong front for the sake of preserving or advancing their understanding of Christian faith. They--we all--would do better to take Jones' approach if we are to have integrity and win hearts and minds in the long run.
Perhaps this gives some insight into my spiritual, social and political understandings and actions. Christian faith is not threatened by the loss of so-called Christian laws or political influence. Christianity was never intended to be political power broker and, historically, the faith has been critically compromised in that role. But "as one without power," it can be positioned to be more influential within a culture in non-coercive, non-preferential ways. Only as resentment is reduced, privilege rejected, and authentic, relational faith incarnated, will Christianity find renewed vitality and sought-after influence in American and world cultures.
Over the years, I have thanked R. B. Acheson repeatedly for giving me that book by E. Stanley Jones. In turn, I've given out more than a few free copies of it, too.
So, give someone a book that's made an impact on you. You never know what will come of it.