The Little-Known Packer
Much can be said about J. I. Packer that, while personal to Packer, is nonetheless generally known, or at least not unexpected to someone who knew him as a public figure. But everyone has a dimension of personality and life that is hidden from public view and known mainly by family members and close acquaintances. I have collected data that belongs to this lesser-known side of J. I. Packer.
1. He was an early riser.
Packer was known by his acquaintances as a morning person. A typical day began at four or five in the morning with a cup of tea. Packer’s Regent College colleague Loren Wilkinson theorized that early rising, combined with an exemplary work ethic, is what enabled Packer to be such a prolific author.
The counterpart of rising early is that Packer faded in the evening, something that he knew and to which he accommodated himself. When author Mike Mason was Packer’s student at Regent, he was once invited to Packer’s home for dinner. He recalls that at ten o’clock, Packer rose and announced: “You’re all wonderful people and you’re welcome to stay and visit, but the hour has come at which I tend to turn into a large orange vegetable of the squash family. So I’m going to bed.” Mason was given to understand that this was Packer’s regular practice on social occasions.
2. He was passionate about jazz music.
We would expect a cultured person such as J. I. Packer to be a lover of classical music. What we would not guess is that jazz was a passion of Packer since his childhood. The taste was first awakened at the age of thirteen. One evening when Packer was listening to the radio while doing his homework, the announcer decided to play jazz music to fill an interval between two programs. The record that was broadcast was Steamboat Stomp by Jelly Roll Morton. It was an electrifying and life-changing moment for Packer. Sixty-five years later, he recalled the event in full detail: “I remember getting up and going over to the radio and putting my ear against the speaker and just drinking it in. I was left gasping. My breath was literally taken away.”
Packer’s interest in jazz grew to the point that when he arrived at Oxford University, he became clarinetist for a jazz band called the Bandits. By his thirties, Packer was “ready to shout from the housetops . . . that by Christian standards of judgment, early jazz was among the twentieth century’s most valuable cultural products.”
3. He began to be called by his initials early in life.
Why did Packer choose to be called by the imposing initials “J. I.”? I had always assumed that it was a pen name, perhaps chosen for its impressive ring. The reason is actually prosaic in the extreme: in the circles in which Packer moved as a youngster, it was simply the custom to go by one’s initials instead of one’s first name. Packer claimed that it never occurred to him not to go by his initials.
4. He was a nature lover.
Packer did not possess a specialist’s knowledge of plants like his wife, Kit, but nature was nonetheless important to him. There are references to hiking in his writing. He visited the botanical garden in Vancouver with Kit and visitors. He climbed Ben Nevis, the tallest point in the British Isles, in a mist. Jeffrey Greenman recalls that when he was a student and member of Packer’s social-pastoral care group at Regent College, he not only listened to jazz records in the Packer home, but also went bird watching with Packer.
Additionally, there is the passage in his introduction to the Puritans in which Packer lists the experiences in life that evoke his longing for and sense of the transcendent. The list includes “the sight of trees, waterfalls, and steam locomotives.”
5. He was a train enthusiast.
The son of a railroad employee, Packer had an extensive collection of books about trains.
6. He was a walker and a stair climber.
Packer was a walker throughout his life, reaching back at least as far as his Oxford University days. For Packer, walking was not an amble but a gallop. His walk was nearly a run. Others walking with him would have settled for a slower pace, but that usually proved impossible because Packer was typically in the front of the pack.
When he taught in Bristol, he was known to go up or down stairs two steps at a time. He never lost the ability to do it until he was in his eighties. David Jones, a former editor for Crossway, remembers that the first time the ESV Translation Committee met in Cambridge, he twisted his ankle on the cobblestone road and had difficulty walking up the stairs at Tyndale House. Packer saw Jones laden with his computer, notebook, and collection of books, and offered to help. Jones resisted, whereupon Packer replied with mild indignation, “Do you think that because I am seventy-three years old I am too old to help you up the stairs?” He then grabbed Jones’s computer and books and bounded up the stairs two steps at a time.
7. He liked reading detective stories.
“There are plenty of activities that operate as refreshers for the serious work of life,” Packer said during an interview that turned to the topic of what he does for recreation. Packer then added, “For me, classic jazz and classic detective stories help do the trick.”
J. I. Packer the theologian a reader of murder mysteries? Yes, and his writings contain numerous references to them. Exactly who made up the regular fare of mystery writers for the famous theologian? In the interview noted above, Packer provided the following list: Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr (also known by the name Carter Dickson), Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, “and other such authors.” Packer then commented that he reads such authors “as recreational resources, just as I listen to music as a recreational resource.”
In the same interview, Packer theorized about why and how detective stories work their magic on him. For him, “puzzle stories about crime calm my mind, as crossword puzzles do for others.” At bedtime, Packer’s mind was “often full of theological and personal problems that would keep me awake.” So when he would read “a detective story for five or ten minutes,” he knew that it “is of no great importance and it pushes out of my mind all these anxious cares.” The result is that “when I switch out the light my mind is blank, and I go right to sleep. This is a good gift of God to me.”
8. He was very fond of The Lord of the Rings.
When Christianity Today conducted a poll of Christian leaders to name the best religious books of the twentieth century, Packer nominated Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and commented: “A classic for children from 9 to 90. Bears constant re-reading.”
When Packer was honored on his eightieth birthday (July 22, 2006) in his home church of St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church in Vancouver, several speakers, in paying tribute to Packer as their mentor, called him their Gandalf, the wise wizard in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. When it came time for Packer to respond, he protested that he was no Gandalf, but “much closer to the lowly Sam,” referring to the Hobbit gardener in the trilogy.
9. Packer’s favorite book in the Bible was Ecclesiastes.
What the Preacher “says about life’s best being an enjoyment of the basics—one’s work, meals, marriage” made Packer “want to laugh and cheer” because this is what he had felt all his adult life. The text “that runs most constantly around [his] heart is Ecclesiastes’s exit line—‘Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,’ meaning everybody.”
What the Preacher “says about life’s best being an enjoyment of the basics—one’s work, meals, marriage” made Packer “want to laugh and cheer” because this is what he had felt all his adult life.
10. Packer loved spicy food.
Former Christianity Today editor David Neff had taken Packer to restaurants on numerous occasions, and he attests that a really good meal for Packer was one in which the food was so hot that Packer had to take out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face. In Packer’s list of experiences that awakened transcendence in him (see references above), one item on the list was curry!
11. He took breakfast seriously.
Another detail related to eating is that Harold Myra of Christianity Today remembers Packer as “a big breakfast person.” When the editorial staff met with Packer, the person making the arrangements always made sure that breakfast was a full meal instead of coffee and pastries.
12. He liked cricket and table tennis.
In regard to sports, Packer was an enthusiast for the English game of cricket and enjoyed talking about it, but he had never actually been a cricket player. A photograph in Alister McGrath’s biography of Packer shows him playing table tennis (American Ping Pong) in the common room at Wycliffe Hall, and during his time as a student there Packer served as captain of the college’s table tennis team.
13. Packer was a plainspoken man who “tells it like it is.”
In an autobiographical passage in one of his books, Packer confesses that once, when attending a theological conference in New York City, he “played hooky for two evenings” and went to a jazz club one night and the Metropolitan Opera the next. Why did he play hooky? Because the conference “was boring [him] stiff.”
14. Packer knew how he wanted to be remembered.
Packer’s answers to the question of how he would like to be remembered included the following: “an encourager”; “as a voice that called people back to old paths of truth and wisdom”; and as someone who called into question two deficiencies of contemporary evangelicalism—the personality cult and the short-memory syndrome that privileges the contemporary and forgets the Christian past (as represented by such giants as Augustine, John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon).
Knowing J. I. Packer
One way to think of J. I. Packer is the paradigm of a major theme and a minor theme. The major theme is the public figure known especially through his writing and public speaking. The minor theme is the man who certainly did not deliberately keep his life secret, but who can be known only through personal acquaintance or research into less familiar sources than Packer’s books and public lectures.
This article is adapted from J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken.
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