James Sire was a keystone in the intellectual renewal of evangelicalism in the 1960s and 70s, championing the work of Francis Schaeffer and contributing his own landmark books on world views. Joe Bayly, publisher at David C. Cook, once called Sire “the Maxwell Perkins of contemporary Christian publishing.”
was first to publish a number of influential figures. In 1971 he took a chance and published the first book (Despair: A Moment or a Way of Life) by the recent college graduate, C. Stephen Evans. That book on existentialism was the start of an illustrious career for Evans, now professor at Baylor Univeristy, who became a leading expert on Søren Kierkegaard and the philosophy of religion. Sire then traveled to Switzerland in 1972 to work with Os Guinness in developing his major cultural critique, The Dust of Death.
But Sire’s finely tuned radar for quality was not limited to the academy. He had a major influence on the church when he saw the potential in the poetry of Calvin Miller’s The Singer, published in 1975. Cautiously IVP printed five thousand copies for its first printing. But the book exploded on the scene and eventually sold over 300,000 copies.
I also remember the confidence Jim had in the work of Rebecca Manley Pippert, an unpublished evangelist with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. As the three of us talked at lunch in 1978 about her project (to be published in 1979 and which became Out of the Saltshaker), Becky asked how much Jim thought the book would sell. He said he thought it could do 20,000 copies. I thought he was very imprudent to put a hefty number like that in front of a new author. And of course, Jim was wrong. The book did not sell 20,000 but hundreds of thousands.
When Schaeffer started publishing elsewhere besides IVP, he requested that Sire, and Jim got permission to, continue as the editor for Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? In these and other books, Jim would often edit from transcripts of talks Schaeffer had given, reworking mightily the spoken word into publishable form.
Sire is probably best known for his book on worldviews, The Universe Next Door, now a staple of the classroom in its fifth edition. The origins of that book are told this way in Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength., the history of InterVarsity Press.
drew his first diagram of worldviews in the early 1960s while teaching college students to distinguish Milton’s theism from Hardy’s naturalism and Wordsworth’s quasi-pantheism. Tom Trevethan and Steve Board (both on IV campus staff in Illinois) invited Sire to give a lecture on the topic at the two-week Christian Study Project at InterVarsity’s training facility, Cedar Campus, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The next year Steve asked him to expand it to six lectures. Then he suggested that Sire write a book, which became The Universe Next Door.
Given his experience with Papers on Literature [his first book], Sire did not expect the book to sell well and never expected it to be adopted as a text (which it was immediately). Because he didn’t expect classroom use, he intentionally avoided an academic tone and wrote it at an accessible level, which possibly is the reason it was so well received at hundreds of universities and colleges around the country. (p. 76)
I have many memories of learning from and working alongside Sire for over twenty years. When I was a new editor he taught me about the importance of ideas, the importance of integrity in relationships with authors, the importance of staying true to yourself and not just trying to copy the success of others.
But I will end with one final memory. The two of us were at a large dinner held in honor of John W. Alexander, the recently retired president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. At the dinner, probably held in 1985, Dr. Alexander exhorted the group to not become too enamored with ideas about Christianity, its philosophical underpinnings, its intellectual implications. Yes, they had their place in apologetics and so forth, but these ideas were not the center of Christianity. Christ was. We should always and ever focus on Jesus. The person of Jesus is and should be our center.
As I sat next to Jim, I wondered what he would think of this as someone who had spent a career focused on the very kinds of ideas Alexander was saying were of secondary importance. After it was over, Jim turned to me and said, “You know, he’s right. Jesus is the center.”
I was surprised if not stunned. And from that point on I noticed a marked shift in Jim’s own writing and his own spiritual life. In retrospect I see the humility of someone with substantial intellectual accomplishments, someone who was willing to remain open to the Spirit and to grow throughout life. That is perhaps the most important lesson he taught.