He lost his faith in a racist church and made a living out of being a doubter and a sceptic, but when he faced death in 2007 he did so with the knowledge that God is a God of love after all. So where will Philip Yancey go from here?
Philip Yancey rattles off anecdotes in the sort of polished way you’d expect from a seasoned pro on the Christian circuit. His ease is surprising only when you know that he started out – and indeed still thinks of himself – as a journalist, not a ‘Christian speaker’ or ‘expert’.
“I feel much more comfortable asking the questions than answering the questions actually,” he says, though you wouldn’t guess.
He is at pains to emphasise that he’s not an expert on any of the subjects he has written about. His method has never been to sermonise on a subject, rather to ask questions and look for answers.
“When you go into a Christian bookstore, a lot of books are written by experts. They are people who are professors or ministers or John Stott or those kinds of people. They start from a position of knowledge: ‘We have this knowledge base and we’re going to dispense this knowledge: to you who don’t have this knowledge.’ Well, that’s not my stance.”
Yancey’s approach has proved immensely popular – he has sold 14 million books to date including What’s so amazing about grace? and The Jesus I never knew.
He was brought up in a racist church in the deep south of America, where the deacons stood guard at the door to keep away anybody of another colour. It was an experience so damaging that it almost led him to abandon Christianity for good. But gradually he came back to it, and has made a living from writing books about his faith journey, starting out “circling the edges” as he puts it – addressing questions such as fear, doubt, suffering, and gradually “moving inwards” to look at topics such as grace, Jesus, and most recently, prayer.
This progression, together with phenomenal commercial success, and wholehearted endorsement from the great and the good (Billy Graham says there is no writer in the evangelical world whom he admires more) has ensured that Yancey is now right at the heart of evangelical life. But just how comfortable is he there?
Q: You are called the most significant spiritual writer of our day by your own publicist, but do you ever think, “Actually I don’t want that? I don’t want to do that anymore?”
A: I do, I guess I would express it a little differently. I went through a pretty major identity crisis five or six years ago because I had always perceived myself as the person standing on the side with a sceptical eye, but by doing that long enough, suddenly people were treating me like a guru.
That was very hard because if you make that leap and start thinking of yourself as the guru it destroys everything, so how do you maintain a true and core identity when the world is trying to thrust another identity on you?
I have just had to come to terms with that by kind of splitting my life up. When I am back home in Colorado I try to keep it pretty simple by living an anonymous life so that I do very little in my church. I attend but I don’t have a persona, I am just a person in a pew. But when I travel I accept this mantle. When you are writing it’s just you and the computer screen or pad of paper, and whatever the public is trying to do to you doesn’t really help, in fact you have to get away. When I am actually putting the words on paper I am pretty good at remembering that my core identity is not a guru dispensing wisdom, it’s a pilgrim searching for answers.
Are there problems with being a Christian in the public eye?
I remember once interviewing Billy Graham and I realised that if I said, “This is completely off the record, but between you and me what do you really think about abortion? Do you think it’s as bad as other Christians think it is?” He couldn’t answer that question, he couldn’t think those thoughts, because he has learned over time: “This is my box and if I ever step out of it I am dead,” like a politician. There are some things that he just can’t say or think. I felt kind of sad and I never want to be in that position, I want to be in a position where if I seriously question something I could just toss it out.
Part of the reason you positioned yourself on the margins of the Christian faith in the first place is because of your experience in the racist church of your youth, which you have called toxic church. What effect did that have on your faith?
They did a lot of things wrong. It was an angry, judgemental, very legalistic church. When you’re a child, you think, “This is the way it is and everyone else is wrong.” Then later I found out, “No, some of these things are flat-out wrong.” The racism, for example. The things they taught were not just wrong, but heretical and unbiblical.
The image of God I came away with was of this frowning policeman in the sky. I went through a period of throwing it all out: “If they’re wrong about that then maybe they’re wrong about this.” It took me a while to go back and start rediscovering, reexploring that territory. I think my process as a writer has been to go back and pick up those stones I was given, scrub the dirt off and find what is worth saving.
People ask me, “Why did you come back to faith?” and I say, “Well, it wasn’t through the Bible – I was up to here with the Bible.” It was three things really: The beauties of nature, classical music and romantic love. Suddenly I was experiencing the beauties of the world and I wanted to know the one behind all of these, I wanted to know the artist who thought them up and turned them loose. So that sent me on a quest to find the real God, not the God that I grew up with, but the real God. I found that that is a God who is happy when we are happy and who gave us the world to enjoy and is not a frowning policeman, but a loving father.
You’ve been criticised though for painting God as too much a loving Daddy who just wants you to climb into his lap and not focusing enough on sin and judgement. How would you respond to that?
I do agree with the criticism. I just go back to Jesus’ stories, the prodigal son, what more scandalous image of God could you give?
There was a missionary in Lebanon who went around and found that the people in Lebanon didn’t know of the parables. He read them the parable of the prodigal son. They were very impressed and he said, “Well, what do you think?” and they said, “It’s a very good story but it’s not a realistic story. In the first place the son said to his father, ‘Give me my inheritance now,’ but what he was really saying was ‘I wish you were dead, old man,’ and no respectable father would take that from his son. No one would do that. That would be dishonourable, we’re an honour culture.”
“OK,” said the missionary, “What else?”
“Well the other thing is that is says that when the son appeared he lifted up his skirts and ran to meet the son. You are known in this culture by how slowly you walk. It’s the lackeys, the working guys who have to run around and an honourable, dignified landowner like this father would walk very slowly. To pick up your skirts and run? This would never happen.”
Probably Jesus’ audience who heard that story for the first time were thinking the same things. They were thinking, “This is impossible, that’s crazy, no father would take that.” And that was Jesus’ point, “Yeah, you’re right. No human father would. But this is the image of God, this is my father that I’d like to introduce you to.”
So, yeah, I am unbalanced in the picture of God that I present because that’s the picture of God I see.
You say your picture of God changed after the accident. [Yancey was involved in a near-fatal car crash in 2007 in which he broke his neck.] What happened?
I had just been speaking in New Mexico. I was alone driving back on a Sunday morning trying to get back in time to attend a friend’s wedding. It had snowed a couple of days before, I was a little bored on the highway so I chose a little tiny road that’s not very well travelled. I was going downhill – Colorado, where I live, is a very mountainous state, a lot of turns and curves. I missed one of those curves, I probably hit some ice and the car overturned about five times. Fortunately it landed right side up.
In the movies when something like that happens, the car immediately explodes so [I thought] “I gotta get out of this thing”. [So I was] walking around looking for my laptop computer, I had skis, I had everything strewn all over the ground and to my great surprise a car came shortly afterwards. It was a Mormon going to a mission church, and this person happened to be out of the Ambulance Corp. As it turned out I had a broken neck and I spent the next seven hours strapped in, unable to move, my head trapped down with duct tape.
At one point the doctor said to me, “There are several breaks and they’re right by major arteries. You’re not in imminent danger of paralysis but you could die. Here’s a cellphone, call the people you love and tell them what you want to tell them before you go.”
Normally people either go through the death process over a long agonising period of time or [die instantly]… but there I was, strapped up with seven hours to do nothing but think about my life, how I had spent it, regrets I had, what was next.
I guess I had always thought that when I faced that moment of death some of those fears of God from the hellfire and brimstone church, the image of God as this wrathful, judgemental God, would come surging back. I was pleased to find that as I was right up against the possibility of death that what I have written about and believe about a gracious, loving and forgiving God, was true. I learned that that was a trustworthy God and I didn’t have those fears.
So it had a significant impact...
Yes and not just on the way I see God but on [the way I see] life itself. So many of the things that we spend our time worrying about – how do we look? How much money do we have set aside for retirement? – mean nothing when you’re hours away from possible death.
I decided that there are really only three things that matter in life: Who do I love and who would I call in those few hours I had? What have I done with my life? And am I ready for whatever is next? That is it. There’s this phrase ‘living with eternity’s values and view’ and of course we don’t do that every day, we can’t all day, but when you’re faced with an experience like that you really do. You’re pushed against the extremes.
You tell part of that story in the introduction to Prayer: does it make any difference? The rest of the book is an exploration of prayer. What did you learn? How do you think we can get away from treating prayer as sort of to-do list for God?
That was probably the biggest revolution in my own thinking and my own understanding of prayer as I wrote the book. I did see prayer as first trying to get God’s attention.
I now see it more as: what role do I play in what God wants done in the earth? I had a pastor in Chicago whose first prayer every day was “God, tell me what you’re doing today in Chicago and how can I be a part of it?” I’ve found that that’s a very helpful prayer.
God – for whatever reason – has chosen us, we who follow him, as partners in the kingdom, as the tools he is using to get across justice and compassion and righteousness and his care for the planet and the poor and all of these things. We’re the ones who are expressing what God is like to a watching world. God seems to prefer doing it through us rather than spectacular displays that he could do himself. I know what God wants to be done in the world.
I know what God is like, God is compassionate and merciful and just. So how can I be part of expressing what God wants done in the world?
I don’t have to spend my time thinking, “God, please care about the people who have AIDS in Africa, please care about those in the slums in London,” because I know that God already cares.
Of course there are times when our prayers turn very selfish, when we have needs and that’s nothing to feel bad about but I really think prayer is as much about attending to God as it is about trying to get God to attend to me.
You’ve mentioned the slums in London and AIDS in Africa. You could argue that for those people their prayers are not answered. How do we reconcile that with a God who does answer prayer?
I would say that’s the challenge to us. So often our questions of God, God tosses back to us,
“God, don’t you care about poor people?”
“Well, Yes I do.”
A good illustration of that is your outstanding neighbour here Bono. Bono went to Ethiopia with his wife and worked in an orphanage for six weeks. Not just a few days but six weeks. He came back deeply affected and change and I talked with him about that and he said, “My prayers changed from ‘God, don’t you care about those orphans in Africa? There could be 13 million orphans.’” And one day Bono heard very clearly the message “Yes, I care and I’ve chosen you to lead my campaign.” And Bono’s first response was, “Hey, I’m not a social worker, I’m not a preacher, I’m a rock star.” It’s true, that’s what he is but he also has an impressive Rolodex. He knows he can call Tony Blair or George Bush and get something done and he did. He took that seriously and went out and raised, last I heard, ten billion US dollars for AIDS in Africa.
I think that’s the pattern. We can sit around and blame God about this or that but then there are some people who say, “Instead of blaming God, instead of tossing those unanswerable questions to God I’m going to be part of the answer. Part of God’s answer.”
So am I right in saying that we should try to see prayer as seeking God’s will for us rather than the other way around?
Yes. There’s a prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane I keep going back to because a lot of my prayers aren’t answered. As I read the Bible I find I’m in good company. Jesus had a very important prayer. He said “Father, if there’s any other way, take this cup from me, let this cup pass” and there was no other way. In that night, that night of travail and suffering, throwing himself in the ground, really pushed to the edge of endurance his prayer changed from “let this cup pass” to “not my will, but yours, be done”. But even Jesus had to struggle all night to get to this point.
So, I don’t go up to a person and say “stop praying about this, pray about this”. We have to go through that process and there are some people are still [not there yet] and let’s be kind and understand that.
The ultimate goal is to trust in God’s will and to understand what God’s will is in the world which is often very different from my will.