Not So with the Onlookers

A Word in Praise of Ordinary Discipleship

by Mike Brooks June 26, 2019

Recently, during one of our weekly Community Group discussions, a friend's comment brought to mind the travelers/"balconeers" analogy written first by John Mackay and used by J.I. Packer in his introduction to Knowing God. In the bit, Mackay envisions two types of people, those who happen in on a particular experience and those who are actually involved in the experience itself. 

Here's Packer recounting Mackay's illustration:

In A Preface to Christian Theology, John Mackay illustrated two kinds of interest in Christian things by picturing persons sitting on the high front balcony of a Spanish house watching travelers go by on the road below. The “balconeers” can overhear the travelers’ talk and chat with them; they may comment critically on the way that the travelers walk; or they may discuss questions about the road, how it can exist at all or lead anywhere, what might be seen from different points along it, and so forth; but they are onlookers, and their problems are theoretical only. The travelers, by contrast, face problems which, though they have their theoretical angle, are essentially practical—problems of the “which-way-to-go” and “how-to-make-it” type, problems which call not merely for comprehension but for decision and action too.

Packer goes on to give several theological examples of the tension that exists between the traveler and the “balconeer.” The former, in Packer’s view, is given more to the question of how to obey in light of theological truths, while the latter digs his heels in, persistently asking, “What is truth, anyway?” Travelers want to know which way to go; the onlookers wonder if there is such thing as a way at all. Knowing God, Packer writes, “is a book for travelers…”

I’ve been a Christian for over fifteen years now, the first four of which I spent as a traveler listening to onlookers. I was attending a small Baptist church and loved the people there. Thanks to the growing popularity of internet message boards, I was also privy to a much larger conversation going on within and on the fringes of evangelicalism. I was mostly unaware of the term “postmodernism,” but a glance at my meager bookshelf would’ve convinced you I was an expert. I had all the right authors and was asking the kinds of questions that, by design, didn’t have answers. It was a formative time to be sure, but exactly what was being formed in me ultimately gave me pause. The effort to become more settled was altogether unsettling.

At the height of my foray into theological worlds unknown, I met a traveler. Her name was Mrs. Billie Jo. She and her husband were volunteer youth group leaders at our little Baptist church. She had us over to their home, was a chaperone at our youth camps, and even braved a lock-in or two if my memory serves me correctly. I caught her ire on at least one occasion, but what I remember most was her steadiness and her conviction. Mrs. Billie Jo was dealing from a different hand than the authors I was caught up with. She had learned from years of following Christ what it meant to ask questions, but not for the sake of asking them; she inquired in order to know. She asked about God and she asked of God in order to know God. And this, more than anything else, has affected the way I ask theological questions myself. The things post-modernist thinking taught me to reject were things my small-church Sunday School teacher refused to apologize for. There was surety giving life to her bones; not so with the onlooker.

  • Where postmodernism suggested we leave our presuppositions at the door, she practically beckoned, “Bring them with you and don’t leave one part of your spiritual life untouched by them.” 
     
  • Where postmodernism suggested strong conviction would lead to absolutist, intolerant thinking, she reminded us that what serves others most is our strong commitment to seeing, living, and loving as Christ sees, lives, and loves.
     
  • Where postmodernism posited faith as categorically absurd, she counted it as pure confidence and blessed assurance we could not live without.

Over time, my gnawing skepticism was slowly but surely redirected. The very thing that urged me to “doubt everything” and “trust no one” had, in a moment of sweet irony, become the object of doubt and lost my trust completely. I had found the “faith once-for-all delivered to the saints” to be sure-footing for my weary eyes and wandering heart. 

A few years ago, I learned that Mrs. Billie Jo had passed away. I was sad at the thought and wished I could have spoken with her once more. I wished I could have understood her rootedness better from my improved perspective. I wish that now even more so. But I, like others around me, have learned to grieve as one with right perspective – to be sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. What confidence we have! This is what presuppositions, conviction, and faith do – they keep our feet on the ground, for deaths like ours are traveler’s deaths. And these lives we’ve lived are the lives travelers live. We face eternity as we have faced this life – with certainty that God will keep his promises – and we count it all joy to walk in the way of people like Mrs. Billie Jo.