Wednesday, July 23, 2008

C3PO-JI-Packero


"Sin is irrational and idiotic, being both self-destructive and self-excusing. . . . [In the end] we are guilty of our own sin, and it is pathetic, tragic, and obscene just because it is good gone wrong." ~ J. I. Packer


In late fall of 2000 the chapel committee at Regent College asked me to come up with a fresh way to explain Advent to the student body. I'd graduated earlier in the Spring but had stuck around as a teaching associate, which was a fancy title for someone who graded all the bible and theology courses for Regent's extension program. I'd done a few skits here and there--in chapel, at the annual all-school retreat. I was one of the dramatic ones on campus (though, I'm afraid, at times distressingly melodramatic).

Star Wars: Phantom Menace had been released a year prior. I was an unashamed Star Wars fan. Costume parties, plays, sermons, class assignments--I enlisted the movies as often as possible. I had also done a number of impersonations of our faculty over the years: Gordon Fee with his helicopter-flailing arms, Eugene Peterson and his gravely voice, Loren Wilkinson's trollish, subterranean manners.
One person I'd yet to parody: the venerable J. I. Packer. I'd TA'd for him for three years so had had plenty opportunity to observe him.

Packer is a lanky, loopy-limbed Englishman with a mild goofy streak. He climbs stairs two at a time. His walk is determined, mechanical-like. When He teaches, his shoulders are almost exaggeratedly hunched over. He's particular about everything, especially clear-headed thinking and hot sauce. I recently sent him a bottle of "Scorned Woman Hot Sauce" (heat level: 8 out of 10). He told me he'd added it to his vast collection in the refrigerator door. As with any theologian worth his salt, he has an opinion about everything under the sun.

Then it struck me. J.I. is a latter day C3PO. Awkward and endearing simultaneously, he's smart and he knows he is, but he has a disarming way about him, and at the core he's tender-hearted.

I picked out my outfit carefully. Grey polyester pants sinched five inches above the waistline. A blue, short-sleeved Oxford shirt. A thin, straight tie. Brown wing-tipped shoes. And a clear-colored swim cap for my head to approximate the near baldness.

I recruited another student to play a whiny Luke Skywalker, and we acted our way through the Advent-themed skit with great fun. Here is a sample of one of our exchanges.

My speech is staccato, my accent as British as I could muster, and I've just explained to young Skywalker that Advent reminds us what time it is for us as Christians.

Luke: “Ok, I get it, C3PO-JI-Packero, the force really is with me! It’s like the calendar helps me not forget who I am or where I am AT.”

C3PO: “No dangling prepositions, master Luke, but yes, you are learning quickly. So to my third point. What is advent anyway, besides a season of catastrophic stress for most students, forcing them to think of Hebrew verbs?--and what is community?--and are evangelicals actually gnostic? Well, then, Advent consists of four Sundays, each of which looks forward to Christmas in anticipation. It is a form of anti-instant coffee: it’s a slow-drip coffee that makes you wait for something better to come."

Packer was present at our performance. I think it he quite relished the caricature of himself.

This past weekend Phaedra was able to meet him at the Laity Lodge where Packer was giving the retreat talks. I had been afraid that I would find him frail. Yesterday, July 22, he turned 82. With John Stott retired and Billy Graham ailing, I've begun mourning early the passing of a great generation, the grandfathers and mothers of neo-evangelicalism.

But Packer was far from giving up the ghost. He still walked as if every destination -- the meal hall, the restroom, the water fountain, the ping pong table -- had great purpose, with a brisk, marching gait. He told his usual stories: of the hole in his head; of the time his parents gave him a typewriter as a gift on his birthday instead of the bicycle he'd always wanted. Because of that disappointing gift, he not only became a gifted writer, instead of Tour de France rider, he also committed himself to a lifetime relationship with the typewriter. He's never once owned a computer, he reminds us proudly.

I can honestly say that J.I. Packer is the theologian who has influenced me the most. I've read only a handful of his books. I'm not crazy about his preaching style. My "prophetic" approach to teaching contrasts sharply with his "catechetical." But I respect him deeply. I respect his character. I am drawn by his pastoral heart. I admire his decision to spend his life writing books for what he calls the "thoughtful lay person." He is a churchman who greatly loves the church, the ordinary people who wander in and out trying to make sense of their lives. His work with Evangelicals and Catholics Together inspires me.

I'll never be a Karl Barth or Wolfhart Pannenberg or Alister McGrath or even, honestly, a James Innell Packer. But I'll be more like a Packer than the rest. I'm grateful for his friendship. He's always been very kind to me. My poor memory notwithstanding, some things Packer has said in class will stick with me for the rest of my life.

"The quality of your relationship with people is an index of the quality of your relationship with God."

"The integration of theology and live (i.e. living that is illumined by theology and theology that is earthed in living) must be a constant goal."

As we were saying goodbye to Dr. Packer on Sunday afternoon, he addressed Phaedra. Speaking in his most gentlemanly, slightly goofy but very precise, C3PO way, he said, "Well, Phaedra. I can say that it has been my very great pleasure to meet you!" With that he gave her a little hug. He cocked his wild-haired eyebrows, smiled, then turned around and marched away to the suburban standing by to take him to the airport.

3 comments:

David said...

Hear, hear, a fine tribute David. Who would've thunk you could bring Star Wars and theology together in one reflection. Glad to hear Jim hasn't lost the spring in his step. Something about walking with God keeps you young!

Rosie Perera said...

Aha! I remember that Packer C-3P0 routine you did. It was hysterical.

Click here to see a picture I did of you with your mentor.

w. david o. taylor said...

Thanks, David!

And Rosie, that pictures cracks me up. I don't know whether to be embarrassed or flattered. :)

In what ways am I R2-D2 . . . . Hm.