By John Wilson
Last week, Beeson Divinity School hosted a conference entitled "J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future." I'm wondering how many of the people who've pontificated about evangelicals in the past year—the ones who have patiently explained the dire influence of Reconstructionism and other mysterious matters to a largely secular audience—were in attendance.
Alas, I could not be there myself. On the other hand, Books & Culture's office is on the same hallway as the editorial offices of Christianity Today magazine, which means that over the last twelve years I too have been able to benefit from Jim Packer's frequent visits to that celebrated nonplace, Carol Stream, one of the nerve-centers of the evangelical conspiracy. And late last week I could walk down the hall to the office of CT's editor, David Neff, who was one of the speakers at the Beeson conference, for a firsthand report.
Among the distinguished speakers gathered to pay tribute and speak to subjects of common concern were Mark Dever (who respectfully explained his dissent from Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a project in which Packer has played a crucial role), Chuck Colson, Bruce Hindmarsh, Edith Humphrey, Richard John Neuhaus, James Earl Massey, and Beeson's own Timothy George—a wonderfully eclectic group. (Alister McGrath was also on the program but was prevented from attending by a family illness; he delivered a greeting from across the Atlantic and contributed a paper to the proceedings.)
David Neff's paper was devoted to an aspect of Jim Packer's work that is not sufficiently appreciated but that is particularly close to my heart—Packer's commitment to first-rate journalism, both as a writer and as one of the presiding spirits of Christianity Today. In "Pumping Truth: Journalism, Theology, and the Thirst for Truth," David shows how Packer's very first article for CT—a piece from 1958 entitled "Fundamentalism: The British Scene"—diagnosed the "flabby pietism" of British evangelicals of that era in terms that are, alas, all too applicable to American evangelicals in 2006, though there are encouraging signs of change. Consider, for example, Packer's 1958 diagnosis of a "sublime insensitiveness to the implications of the Gospel for social, political, economic, and cultural life, and shirking the responsibility of bearing constructive Christian witness in these fields." That could have served as a manifesto when the first issue of Books & Culture appeared in September 1995.
In his own life and work, Packer has always been the antithesis of such a cramped conception of the Christian life. An enthusiast of early jazz and of the Furtwangler recordings of Wagner's Ring Cycle, a student of the Puritans and of the great tradition of the detective story, he exemplifies the "consuming concern for the glory of God in all things" that he commends to us in Richard Baxter and Jonathan Edwards. May his tribe increase.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
A Canonization of Subjectivity | Andrew Sullivan's catechism. Mark Gauvreau Judge reviews The Conservative Soul (Oct. 3, 2006)
Letter to a Tenured Professor | Andy Crouch writes back to Edward O. Wilson. (Sept. 26, 2006)
It Wasn't Really About Whiskey | A compelling and entertaining but also deeply flawed account of an episode in early American history. Al Zambone reviews The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hogeland (Sept. 5, 2006)
The Ties That Bind | Anne Tyler's new novel centers on two very different families brought together when they both adopt Korean girls (Aug. 22, 2006)
Live Like You Are Dying | Finding wisdom in wilderness. (Aug. 15, 2006)
Alchemy in Philadelphia | Revising the history of the "Scientific Revolution." (Aug. 1, 2006)
Not the Wheel Thing | A history of the Tour de France. (Aug. 1, 2006)
Welcoming Resurrection | A volume of new poems from Luci Shaw. July 18, 2006)
Truth, Justice, and … | Some critics of Superman Returns are more blinkered than Lex Luthor. (July 11, 2006)
Dining Dilemmas | How shall we then eat? (June 27, 2006)
Incorrigibly Bookish | Michael Dirda on reading and life. (June 20, 2006)
The Not-So-Evil Empire | A report on The Historical Society's conference earlier this month. (June 13, 2006)
Very Important Fiction | The Gospel according to The New York Times Book Review. (May 23, 2006)
Back to the Garden | Digging in the dirt as spiritual formation. (May 16, 2006)
Words Made Flesh | Calvin College's 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing. (April 25, 2006)
Betrayed Again | The Gospel of Judas Roadshow. (April 18, 2006)
For book lovers, our 2006 CT book awards are available online, along with our book awards for 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century. For other coverage or reviews, see our Books archive and the weekly Books & Culture Corner.
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