How Philip Yancey Left Toxic Religion Without Losing His Faith

“I was raised in a church environment that is not healthy,” says Phillip Yancey. “And it gave me a lot of reasons to disbelieve.”

It’s interesting to hear Yancey talk like this. He’s one of the best-known Christian writers of his generation, a man whose books have sold over 15 million copies. Books like The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? are in the canon as modern classics of Christian thought, largely because they deal honestly and authentically with spiritual realities. To simplify it a little, Yancey writes books about the things Christians actually think about. That’s rarer than it should be. 

So it’s not necessarily surprising to hear him speak honestly about his own church upbringing. It is a little surprising to hear how difficult it was. “I realized at one point I was both cursed and blessed with an extreme upbringing, both in family and in church,” he says. “And it did suspend my appreciation of that for a time and suspended my faith for a time. But as I look back, it all served a good purpose. There was a redemptive thread all the way through there.”

Now, Yancey is telling the story of his own upbringing in more detail than he ever has. He survived a difficult early experience with the Church, learning how to take what was true and beautiful about Christianity while rejecting its toxic cultural elements. And he believes that path is open to others with their own negative experiences. 

“There have been a lot of people who grew up in similar surroundings and for good reasons ditched the faith completely,” he says. “Maybe because of evangelicals being anti-race or anti-science or anti-gay, or anti-anything. And when I’ve talked to some of these people, they describe their church experience and I kind of sit back and laugh and say, ‘Oh, mine was a lot worse than that.’ And they say, ‘Well, why are you a Christian writer now?’” 

He stops for a second, and shrugs. 

“That’s the question.” 

The Philip We Never Knew

Yancey was born in 1949 and grew up in the outskirts of Atlanta, the younger of two boys. When Yancey was just a baby, some church members convinced his polio-stricken father to remove himself from an iron lung in faith that God would heal him. He died shortly after. 

“That put a huge scar on my mother that she never recovered from,” Yancey says. “She tried to address it by hoping that [her sons] would replace him. And of course, that was impossible. And we did not.” 

Yancey grew up deeply Christian, going to church “four or five times a week,” attending church summer camps and going to Youth for Christ rallies. He almost literally grew up in the church, since his family’s small trailer home sat on church property. But he describes the church itself as a hyper-fundamentalist affair. “We thought there may be 120 people in Heaven,” he says. “And we were the 120.”

A few things started changing. For one thing, his home life deteriorated as family dynamics grew unhealthy. For another, Yancey started reading more, and his mind started expanding beyond the confines of his church environment. He started to distance himself from the Christian subculture, no longer sure he wanted any part of it. 

There were other reasons, too. “The God I was taught growing up was this scowling policeman just looking for people He could squash,” Yancey says. His church was strict, creating what he describes as an “umbrella of fear” that members lived under. Anything fun was viewed with suspicion. Bowling and skating were against the rules. Swimming with girls was “questionable.” Yancey had had enough. 

“I had been churched up to here,” he says. “There is no way a Billy Graham track or somebody speaking at a revival service could get to me. I’d heard it all. I had done it myself. And I just didn’t believe in it anymore.” 

He describes it as trying to look at the sun. He’d been scorched by the sunlight, his eyes burned, and he didn’t want to look anymore. 

So why did he stay? 

When asked, he turns the question over in his mind for a few moments. “Why did I stay,” he repeats. “OK.” 

Why He Stayed

First off, he returns to the sun analogy, using a quote from St. Augustine. “I couldn’t look at the sun directly,” Augustine said. “But I could look on the places where the light fell.” 

Yancey found a few places where the light fell. The first was nature. He spent a lot of time in the Georgia woods, which were far more plentiful at the time. He was taken with the bugs that’d creep in the logs, and the birdsong that drifted from the trees. “It was a place of worship, although I wouldn’t have used that word,” he said. “What should’ve happened in church, that’s the only place it happened for me.”

Around the same time, he discovered classical music, and this was another place where the light fell. He was a good pianist, though his brother was better, and the music they made started to call Yancey’s soul. “That would be a way of finding order in my world,” he said. “Everything was disordered, but if I did it right, even I could create something of beauty.”

The final thing was romance, which he’d started to doubt the very existence of before it happened to him. “It kind of swept me off my feet,” he chuckles. 

All of this worked together to counterbalance the difficult early days of his childhood and his experience with religion.

“I had had a good dose of the badness of the world,” he said. “But now, the goodness. Where did that come from?”

To answer that question, he turned back to the faith he grew up with. Yancey says he was reminded that Christianity “promises a connection with the creator of the universe and it promises that our decisions matter. And our life has meaning and our choices matter and that we’re free. There is a path to forgiveness when we screw up.”

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These are good words that we want to be true,” he says. “And I believe they are true.”

Why We Leave

Yancey’s aware that his experience is different from other people’s. He likes to use the word “graced” to describe God’s work in his own life. “I’m a firm believer that God can use anything, even the bad things in your life.”

But he knows why people leave. He gets it. He talks to these people, and their frustrations make sense. He feels like a lot of people want to believe but “what often happens is that something else gets in the way,” he says. “Maybe it’s the self-righteousness, or the bad churches or the ungraceful way churches treat divorced people or gay people or whatever.”

Yancey also believes that a culture of fear has become deeply associated with American Christianity — a fear that may be pushing people away. “When I grew up, it was fear of the world, fear of communism, fear of the battle of Armageddon,” he says. “And then fear of a Catholic president and then fear of secular humanism. It just kept going and we kept plugging things in.”

These days, Yancey believes Christians are afraid of things like vaccines, liberals and Critical Race Theory. “Here we are, a group almost defined by fear, which is very sad. It shows our lack of confidence in God,” he says. “If we really believe that God is in ultimate control of history, then we don’t have to be afraid of these things. We can trust God.”

He sounds exasperated as he says this, which goes to show, again, that Yancey does get it. He knows why people leave. But he knows why he stayed and it’s at least possible that his story will convince others that staying is worth it. As he has it, “God is the father seeking any one of His prodigals to come home.”

Why We Stay

“The Church told me what to believe and how to act, and it was very prescribed for me,” Yancey says. “And then I went through a period of saying, ‘Wait a minute. They were wrong. They lied to me about race, they lied to me about other things and how can I trust what they say about Jesus and the Bible.’ And I started distancing myself and not praying and really being a functional atheist. And ever since, I’ve been in the process of reordering.”

Yancey uses the word “reordering,” though he speaks intelligently on the subject of “deconstruction.” For him, faith is often a cyclical process of order, disorder and reorder. 

For Yancey, reordering has looked like writing, as he insists that his dozens of books are really just his attempt to rediscover a more honest faith. His most recent is his memoir, which he named Where the Light Fell after that Augustine quote. He encourages others to engage in the process of reordering their faith in the same way that he’s engaged in the process of reordering his own. 

And as he’s reordered his understanding of the Gospel, one thing has become clear. “The Gospel means good news,” he says. “And if it doesn’t sound like good news, it’s not the Gospel.” 

This can be the key to a healthy, new understanding of faith — one in which the the disorder is replaced by a reordering around goodness, light and grace. 

“It takes going through painful reconciliation processes sometimes,” he says. “It’s not an easy thing to do. But it is part of the redemption process. It’s part of allowing a new start. That’s what redemption does.

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