Do You Read Books as a Christian Traveler or Onlooker?

J. I. PackerI recently bought a copy of J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, and in the little spare time I have I’ve been reading bits of it. One thing has caught my attention in the opening sentences of the book. In the 1973 Preface to the book, Packer steals imagery from John Mackay to describe two different ways of being interested in Christian things.

First, there is the traveler on the Christian journey. This person is interested in the things of Christianity in a personal, practical sense. Even if the matters are abstract, the person is interested in them because they bear upon their journey. There is little or no interest in Christian things merely because they are interesting in and of themselves.

Second, there is the onlooker upon the travelers, and this onlooker is interested in Christian things. But his interest is merely theoretical. He is not on a journey. He is not needing information about God because it bears directly upon the journey. He is just plain ol’ interested in these things. He might consume of facts about Christianity in greater amounts than the average Christian traveler, but the onlooker’s interest is only theoretical.

By the grace of God, I am a Christian traveler. I have a deep interest in things of God as they help me on my journey. For example, when I listen to sermons, the main thing I am looking for is whether I am being helped in my travels.

As I meditated upon this distinction, though, I was convicted that I choose books and read them as if I were an onlooker. That is, the main criterion for choosing a book is whether it seems interesting. But just because a book is interesting doesn’t mean it is helpful.

I am choosing theology books in the same way I would if I were an onlooker. I do not ask: which books are most likely to help me on my journey? I ask: which books will help me win arguments, or seem to be the most interesting books, or are currently the most popular books?

The latter is the wrong question. I should be asking the former. (Or better yet, I should be asking a wise Christian mentor what books he would recommend that I read.)

The sad thing is that so many ministers I know choose their books using the criteria that they would use if they were onlookers. This seems deadly. Perhaps this accounts for the loss of power in the pulpits today. So many ministers feel the need to read the latest Rob Bell book or the latest systematic theology book. They don’t read well-tested classics like William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Maybe we could be more use to our congregations if we spent more time reading classics that have been proven over the centuries to help Christian travelers on their journey.

Packer later provides a helpful piece of advice that I think can be turned into a test for how you are choosing your reading. He says:

How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into a matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God. (Chapter 2; emphasis mine)

Here’s how this can be used as a test to see if you are are choosing a book as an onlooker or as a traveler: are you choosing this book because you want to turn each truth you learn from it about God into a “matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God”?

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