(Photo: Randal Olsson)
Philip Yancey grew up in a strict, fundamentalist church in the Deep South.
He spent most of his early life in a bubble, attending a Bible college that in hindsight seems like "an island fortress against the outside world, one with its own private culture." Even the Sixties' sexual revolution did not penetrate the college's sealed environment, he says.
The school's list of forbidden activities included dancing, playing cards, skating at public rinks and movies, among others. Students could only play music "consistent with a Christian testimony;" women's skirts were measured; and men could not grow a beard or moustache.
He went through a period of reacting against everything he was taught and later realized that "God had been misrepresented" to him.
Since then Yancey has explored some of the most basic questions of the Christian faith with a worldwide audience. His popular books include Disappointment with God and Where is God When it Hurts. His newest book explores the question "What good is God?"
The bestselling author spoke to The Christian Post this week on his new book and about the less than vibrant Christianity we find in the United States today.
CP: You just took a trip to South America where you basically saw a vibrant and growing Christianity. Can you tell me about that and did that create a grim picture for you of U.S. Christianity?
Yancey: We travel … about four international trips a year and it’s funny, when I go around the world I kind of divide the church up into three stages: the honeymoon, the divorce stage, and the 25-year marriage stage. So you go to Europe and they’re pretty much in the divorce stage. Now there’s still the shell of churches but tourists, not worshippers. You go to a place like Brazil, where we were, or the Philippines, China and you see the church in the honeymoon stage – It’s all new, they’re excited, it’s thrilling, it sounds like good news.
The United States I put more in the 25-year anniversary stage where we’ve been here, few people get all that excited about going to church. It operates more like a corporation, an institution than a live vibrant movement. Lots of exceptions of course to each of those, but that’s kind of the general feeling that I get. It’s fun for me, actually, to go into places like Brazil and Argentina and in this case where there’s a lot of evident life and partly because of the Latin personality you get strong feedback. It’s a joyous place to visit.
CP: So you wouldn’t say the U.S. is in the divorce stage?
Yancey: No, not at all. In fact, the rest of the world still looks to the U.S. for leadership and … like in publishing, media, I’m sure Internet, relief and development mission work and all those things they still look to the U.S. And when I visit countries …
But if I just think of the churches in my little town here because I’ve been to every one of them, there are 27, there aren’t that many where you walk in and say wow, people are excited about their faith. A lot of them, it’s just what you do on Sunday at 10:00 or 11:00 and that’s not true in other countries. In some other countries, it’s still a very lively, vibrant experience.
CP: So people are keeping their faith but it’s just become more stale?
Yancey: (pause) Yeah, I think that’s probably accurate, with a lot of exceptions of course.
CP: You have said that you write books about questions skeptics raise and ones you don’t know the answer to. Usually Christians and authors in general write to educate us on what they know. Do you do this for the sake of your own personal search, spiritual journey, or to empathize with the public who have so many questions themselves?
Yancey: I think the difference in approach is that I approach any topic as a journalist. Whereas a lot of the Christian books you would see in a bookstore are written by authority figures of some sort, like maybe a pastor like a Rick Warren, or a personality like Chuck Colson or a theologian like a John Stott – people who do have a platform of authority and they are educating the rest of us. I have some theological training but whenever I approach any topic, I approach it as a journalist. What a journalist does, as you well know, is you put yourself in the stance of the reader – where is the reader in terms of their understanding of this issue and how can we explore this issue together. So for instance, if I was writing an article about nuclear power stations, I don’t know anything about nuclear power stations. So I’m very much like my readers, most of them don’t know anything about it either. I keep them in mind and say how does this work … I interview the experts, then gradually, hopefully I come away with some helpful picture.
And that is frankly how I approach issues of faith too. For instance, one of the last books I did was a book on prayer and I did go to the library, I went to the experts, then I interviewed a lot of ordinary people about their experience with prayer and then I went to the Bible and sorted all of that out for myself. But that’s my stance. But this book is a little bit different because I do play the journalist role in each of these 10 places I talk about but then I have to stand up in front of these people and kind of declare myself. So I go to Virginia Tech, and I can tell the story of all the questions and everything going on but at a certain point I have to step out of that, stand in front of them and say this is what I believe, this is the message that may give you hope in these hard times. So it’s a different kind of book for me because it does combine those two different roles – the journalist, which is the seeker and that’s who I am and that’s who I try to protect my identity for the sake of my readers, but a little bit different in this case, I do have to stand in front of them and declare here are the conclusions that I come up with.
CP: So how long does it take to write a book, addressing a question that you don’t know the answer to?
Yancey: If I did nothing but write it would take about a year, but because I do travel and I’ve got a lot of books out there, it usually takes between a year and half and two years.
CP: So it took you that amount of time to write this book?
Yancey: Yeah, it did. Of course, part of that is because the experiences themselves were spread out over a long period of time. I think the oldest experience in there was from 2004. So you’ve got five or six years of encounters going on and some of those trips took three weeks to a month. But often it’s the last day of the trip, like in Mumbai, India, …that the thing happens that you end up writing about.
CP: You mention the origin of this book is your search for a faith that matters. Can you elaborate on that phrase – a faith that matters – and can you measure that in the context of U.S. Christianity?
Yancey: Early in the book I talk about a friend of mine who is a strong Christian but was going through a lot of hard times. He said my trouble is not that I don’t believe in God, but my question is “what is God good for? What can we count on God for?” And I think that’s probably what … root of that phrase a faith that matters. It doesn’t mean, for sure that your faith will make sure that you don’t run into problems. Jesus was quite clear about that. Look at Paul, he had one problem after another. So what difference does it make whether you believe or not? What difference does it make to your life and especially what difference does it make at a time of testing and challenge? In the book I talk about the tabletop test of faith … will your faith survive something like Mumbai, or your struggle with addiction, or in the case of the prostitutes, this whole lifelong shaming and abuse, how does faith really affect that? Can we expect God to really transform us when we’re put into those kind of tests?
And so I’m aware that the average reader hasn’t had the kind of experiences that I describe in the book, thankfully, but those really show principles that I hope the average reader can apply to their lives, whether it’s a teenager who’s in trouble with the law or someone who made a mistake … smaller challenges to face that we all go through. And I think by looking at the big challenges we can learn some things that can encourage us and give us some principles to hang on to when we face our own challenges.
CP: You said you wish skeptics like Dawkins and Hitchens could hear stories of transformation from social outcasts like sex slaves. At first, you’d think it’s harder to find an answer to “what good is God?” in places like southeast Asia where there’s so much suffering and persecution but what I got from your book is that it’s actually harder to find the answer in the west where there’s a higher level of comfort and prosperity.
Yancey: Yes. Go back to the beatitudes where Jesus says blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted. And I have found that lived out, the hardest place to be a Christian is to be in a nice prosperous country with a lot of entertainment options because there’s so many distractions and there’s not that sense of need. I wrote a book on grace and grace is a free gift but to receive the gift you have to have your hands open. And a lot of people don’t have their hands open, there’s something they’re grasping because there’s a lot of things to grasp in a prosperous country.
For sure, the people who inspire my faith most are those who are put in places like India and China, who live under real danger and with the true human needs around them. They have no problem crying out for help because they need help for sure. I think I mention in there, there’s a chapter on C.S. Lewis, and his environment of the sophisticated University of Cambridge is probably the hardest place to live out your faith of any of … harder than communist China, harder than multi-faith India, just because there’s such an inbuilt agnosticism – “I can’t believe you believe these old fairy tales” – it’s very hard to stand up in the midst of that.
CP: This question you pose in your book seems timely for Christopher Hitchens who has cancer. He’s holding fast to his atheism. If you were addressing Hitchens, how would you answer the question?
Yancey: I saw an interview with Christopher Hitchens after his diagnosis and he talked about various Christians who say they pray for him and some say we pray that you will be punished for the troubling things that you’ve done and others say we pray for your healing, we pray for comfort, we pray that somehow you will find peace in the midst of this time. I think that’s what I would want for Christopher Hitchens. Let me add one more thing, I would say you get a lot of attack and abuse from Christians that frankly you wouldn’t get that from the Bible and one of the things that impresses me most about the Bible I can’t find a single argument in Christopher Hitchens, or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris that isn’t already included somewhere in the Bible – arguments against God – in the book of Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, …there’s nothing new under the sun, Ecclesiastes.
You are free to reject God. Make sure that you’re really rejecting God not some caricature of God that the church has shown you. But I, one, respect a God who not only allows us to reject Him but includes the arguments we can use against Him in the Bible. I respect that. A lot of people are jumping on Christopher Hitchens ... "how dare you question." I would just say, these are valid questions. they’re already included in the Bible. You certainly have a right to ask them. I hope that you follow your own beliefs all the way to their logical conclusions, which he seems to do. And I also hope that when you make your choice against God you make your choice against the true God and not just some caricature that the church has presented to you.
CP: You suggest that the answer to what good is God can be found in Christ’s followers, Christians. So how are we doing on that?
Yancey: It’s really hard to generalize. I do throughout the book tell stories for instance in South Africa, I talk about three ministries – one to AIDS victims, one to prisoners, and several other. In those places, in a lot of the world, if you say what is a Christian, they would say well, I’m not sure but there’s this hospital van that comes here once a month and has a cross on it and they treat our wounds. Well, I’m not sure but there are these folks called World Vision; they dug a well for my village and now we have something to drink. And then others will tell about churches that come in and help transform a society by speaking against drunkenness and corruption and some of these things. International Justice Mission moves in and releases people involved in sexual trafficking.
As a journalist, I like to find those stories and shine light on them just because you don’t see those on CNN and even Fox News. But I also know that in the United States, that if you say what is an evangelical Christian, most people think in political terms. Well they’re the people who are anti-gay marriage or anti-abortion. That is also a caricature. There are many good things being done by the church. They’re the ones who went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and they’re still there building houses and working. They’re the ones who are staffing the homeless shelters in the cities and the food banks. So I don’t spend a lot of time on the bad face of the church because I think the news media does a fine job of that. I try to find the other side, the less obvious side of people who are indeed living out according to what Christ asked us to.
CP: The Pew Forum just released a survey about how knowledgeable Americans are when it comes to religion. You talk about going to school in the south and bible college and how strict they were with rules and how they created bubble environments while the inner life wasn’t being cultivated. With that, would you say biblical literacy is your main concern in America or should Christian leaders be paying attention to a deeper problem?
Yancey: I’m not sure how to answer that. We need to be fully engaged with the world. In that chapter on the Bible college, I make the comment that best I can tell, you can collect Jesus’ complaints about the Pharisees and say that their real problem was that they were hanging around other Pharisees all day. And I think in a country like the United States where maybe half of the people will identify themselves as Christians, you can have a subculture. There are cities where you can get Christian yellowpages so you can have a Christian plumber and a Christian electrician and a Christian carpenter and never run into a non-Christian.
But that’s the opposite of what Jesus meant to say … because he talked about small things like salt, like yeast that affect the broader culture. You don’t affect the broader culture by being shut up in a little container. You can only preserve meat if the salt is sprinkled on the meat, not in the salt shaker. So I think that’s part of our obligation to go beyond our own little culture and encounter the broader culture. The apostle Paul was a great example of that because he would flip from one culture to another whether it was the sophisticated Greeks in Athens or the … orthodox Jews, the Romans. He would present the message of the gospel in words that they could understand and comprehend and I believe that’s what we’re required to do and the only way to do that is to know about the culture you’re speaking to and to address issues that it’s already concerned about. The broader culture doesn’t care about my issues, they care about their issues. So I have to somehow find out what those issues … and interact with them.
CP: You mentioned that after writing this book, you’ve found that faith really does matter and make a difference. Can you tell me more about how your perspective has changed or how your faith as evolved as you were trying to answer this question when you were writing the book?
Yancey: I would say I am aware of how counter the American culture authentic faith is. We’re in a celebrity culture and when I turn on the news today I hear about Lindsay Lohan, Tiger Woods and Paris Hilton and the Kardashian sisters and Dancing with the Stars, one thing after another, Kate Gosselin’s new body. When I travel overseas and I’m with these people who live much closer to the edge where their concern is how do I feed my family, how do I love, and how do I care for those around me? That’s essentially what life is mostly about. I tell of having this automobile accident and when I talked to the students at Virginia Tech, I said, I’m laying there, could be my last day on earth because the doctor said it could. It boiled down to three things: who do I love, how have I spent my life and am I ready for what’s next. I truly believe that.
But I’m also aware that everyday the broader culture is tempting me to think about, am I driving the right car, do I have the right haircut, do I have enough money, am I wearing the right clothes, how am I coming across? Really, we should be asking ourselves how are we coming across to God? And so when I travel, in the process of writing this book, I find my faith encouraged because I find that if you get out of that barrage of the celebrity culture and the media, what it constantly throws at us, you can see that on the ground, Christian faith is …basically about love and being loved and reconciliation. These things are so important, they’re foundational and they can transform individuals, families. So I hear these stories of the prostitutes, for example, and the incredible abuse and degradation that they go through and yet some of them I met were these shining examples of redeemed people. It makes our normal culture look so shallow, … so irrelevant and yet you turn on television and gradually it kind of sucks you in and start thinking that’s important again.
CP: Do you have questions brewing in your mind right now for a future book?
Yancey: I hope to do something quite different and that’s a form of memoir. I collected a lot of memories and data already. I would like to go back and kind of put together my life. That’s a different kind of book than I’ve done, it’s not really about an issue. But it’s going to take a long time. I’ll have to figure how to do it and get to work.