Philip Yancey is one of Evangelical Christianity’s most popular authors. With more than 13 million copies of his books having been sold worldwide and an award winning career in journalism, Yancey has obviously achieved a high level of literary success. However, rather than deal in abstractions from some lofty intellectual perch, Yancey has chosen to write from the humble position of his own life experiences. From The Jesus I Never Knew, a long look into the personhood of Jesus, to his Gold Medallion Winning What’s So Amazing About Grace?, a personal look at Christian doctrine, Yancey has been able to consistently write in a fresh, timely and honest manner.
Recently, Philip Yancey took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for RelevantMagazine.com, in which he provided some provocative insights into his writing, the church, and the real relevancy of Christianity
RelevantMagazine.com: In the first chapter of What’s So Amazing About Grace? you say, “As a writer, I play with words all day long. I toy with them, listen for their overtones, crack them open, and try to stuff my thoughts inside.” You seem to be a communicator who takes single words and adds depth, larger concepts and complexity to them.
Philip Yancey: Writers have a very strange existence. We sit alone in rooms and stare at scratchings on paper or electrons on a computer screen. Like theoretical physicists or pure mathematicians, we live inside our own heads. Most writers are introverts—you’d have to be to do that all day. And our business is words, so we pick a word and turn it around and take it apart and mull it over, and who knows what will happen. I did that with the word grace. I started noticing forms of the word appearing in all sorts of places: the sports pages (graceful athlete), parking lots (grace period), music scores (grace note). That took me on a journey, because all these uses of the word are positive and appealing, and yet Christians often have a bad reputation. People think of Christians as uptight and judgmental. Odd, I thought, that grace has come to convey the opposite of God’s intent, as it’s lived out through us. From there, the book took shape.
Right now I’m doing a book on prayer. The same process occurs. I look at the word, turn it over, think of my own halting prayers, ask others, research the masters, and somehow out of it all will emerge a book.
The best answer to your question about relating concepts and words would be Walker Percy’s fine book The Message in the Bottle. I’ll happily defer to him.
RM.com: You mentioned in an interview with Sojourners from October of 2003 that you tend to push the envelope: you are surprised at what you get away with and you push the edges with some of your articles for Christianity Today. Do you see yourself as a person who consciously and intentionally pushes the envelope, or do you just find that what you’re processing and communicating ends up being a bit “envelope pushing.”
PY: I often write about the “toxic church” I grew up in: a legalistic, angry, racist church in the South. I joke about being “in recovery” from that church. I took away from my childhood a distrust of propaganda. I learned that much of what was presented to me as absolute truth was, in fact, wrong. As a result, when I began writing I did see myself as someone on the edge, more comfortable asking questions than proposing answer. I had a great place to work that dynamic out, as editor of Campus Life magazine, which was quite edgy in those days. You can tell from my early book titles (Where Is God When It Hurts? Disappointment with God) what I struggled with, how I positioned myself.
Over time, that changed. I see my writing as spiraling in from the margins of faith toward its center. Look at the topics of my recent books: Jesus, grace, prayer. Those are pretty central, wouldn’t you say? If anyone sees me pushing the envelope in those books, I’d tell them I’m not the pusher, the content is. I’m not radical, Jesus is. I try to take an honest, authentic look at our faith and, frankly, it’s radical stuff. It’s an all-consuming life, not something you can get away with in an hour on Sunday.
I would say this, however. A lot of Christian book-buyers look for books so that they can nod their heads and say, “Yes, Amen,” as they read. What’s the point? Why read something you already agree with? I’d much rather have a reader of one of my books scratch his or her head and say, “Hmm, not sure, I’ve never thought about that.”
RM.com: You seem to have written some “timely” works, what do you see as the most pressing thing needing to be communicated to the church, and do you see the church responding to what has been communicated?
PY: The most pressing need to be communicated, I’d say, is that the gospel really is good news. I believe that, and it’s taken me a long time to reach that place. It’s Good News! The world needs to hear that. They hear that message in Brazil, in the Philippines, in China. But in the tired, warmed-over West, the gospel often sounds like bad news, at least our expression of it sounds bad. We need to recover the excitement that you see in the book of Acts, where people flock to the Way not because someone is browbeating them but because there’s nothing else even comparable.
Is the church responding? Well, maybe. I see signs of life. In the U.S., we’re light on our feet, and every few years, some new trend leaps up: the Jesus movement, the charismatic movement, the Willow Creek phenomenon, the emergent church. Meanwhile, the broader church lumbers on, learning from the young radicals, trying to retain the best of the past. As long as we don’t become a corporation, an institution, I have hope. We’ve got to keep listening go the Spirit.
We have so many advantages now: global communication is creating a true body of Christ from around the world. Let’s not treat our international members as the U.S. government tends to do, bullying them. Let’s learn from them, give to them, unify with them.
RM.com: Politics and faith have been a hot topic lately. What are your thoughts on the tension between politics, humanity and faith?
PY: Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that you can pass laws to keep whites from lynching black people, or require them to open up their restaurants, but you can’t pass a law requiring one race to love another. That pretty well defines the tension. It took laws and Supreme Court decisions and federal marshals to overturn legalized racism in the South. But have we achieved King’s dream of a “beloved community”? I’m afraid we have a long way to go.
We can pass laws against abortion—but will we be willing to step forward with compassion toward the woman who delivers her child, as well as the child? We can define marriage as between a man and a woman, as many states have, but no law can address the spirit of judgment and exclusion that so many churches project toward gay people.
A fine example of this is the twenty-five million people who are already suffering from AIDS in Africa: “innocent” women, promiscuous individuals, orphans, children infected from birth. Laws that dispense funding for treatment will certainly help, but the church needs to step up with an outpouring of human compassion. I’ve been in some of those clinics, with volunteer “mothers” who come in from churches every day and hold babies. That’s not a legal issue, that’s pure compassion. If the church responds consistently with compassion toward the marginalized and disenfranchised, then we’ll simply be following in the steps of Jesus. And, I might add, that’s not the reputation of the modern church.
RM.com: In Reaching for the Invisible God you write, “Words used in church tend to confuse people.” Can you talk a bit about relevancy, how you would define it and its measure of importance to the church?
PY: The church is a closed society. When I buy a computer, I have to learn things like RAM and Megahertz and flash memory and Mean-Time-Between-Failure. What a learning curve! I pursue the task because I believe the computer will ultimately better equip me for writing and my other tasks. Something similar is at work in the church. The Trinity, justification, sanctification, baptism, Eucharist—these are all strange and intimidating terms to someone coming in. Over time the church has worked hard to define these terms, and I would never diminish their importance. I would just add that, in John’s words, Jesus came “in grace and truth.” The church has worked very hard to define truth, hence the creeds and church councils. But do churches compete in dispensing God’s grace? That may be the more urgent question today. I haven’t met anyone who says, “I became a Christian one night because I lost an argument.” I’ve met many who say, “I became a Christian because someone loved me.” That’s the real relevancy issue.