Thinking Out Loud

November 6, 2014

Philip Yancey on the Twilight of Grace

Changing societyIn my single digit years, I collected a box filled with low-tech, low-cost “magic” tricks, one of which consisted of two large die-cut pieces of cardboard in the shape of the letter ‘C.” One was red and one was blue, and as you held them side-by-side, if the red one was on the right it always appeared to be larger; but when you switched them, the blue one then appeared to be larger. The cutout pieces are identical in size, but the mind views the second one as larger when contrasted to the inside curve of the one before.

I always have this picture in my mind whenever I read something that purports to state that society is categorically getting worse. Haven’t people said that in past centuries also? Is the trajectory of society really in what pilots call a “graveyard spiral” or is redemption possible? Or perhaps do things simply go in cycles?

Philip Yancey’s book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? (Zondervan) is in many ways a state-of-the-union address on the moral, ethical and spiritual condition of our world in general and the Church of Jesus Christ in particular. Ever the journalist, Yancey tracks down every lead while at the same time maintaining a subjectivity common to most of his other writings. So it’s our world and his pilgrimage; one man’s effort to document where the human race is heading and how it impacts on one writer in the Colorado mountains.

Vanishing GraceYou could easily read Vanishing Grace and conclude that these are the rantings of a writer who has finally reached his curmudgeon years. ‘Back in my day…’ you expect to hear him say; but Yancey is on to you and instead each section is scented with the slight aroma of the hope that no matter how dark, there are still lights and there is still The Light.

The subjectivity means that the book is rooted in an American perspective, but Yancey’s travels have made him very much a citizen of the world, and so the book is one part personal reflection, one part ripped from the pages of the newspaper and its online equivalent, and one part history lesson, borrowing from the best of both actual events and what has been expressed by poets, playwrights and novelists.

Some will find the book a little disjointed. In the introduction he states that he set out to write a book, but really wrote four books. In the afterword, he acknowledges that parts of the book previously appeared in print and online in a variety of forums. This is not a problem, as Vanishing Grace is intended for the thinking Christian who ought to be able to navigate the manner in which the material has been arranged.

Yancey writes,

The church works best as a separate force, a conscience to society that keeps itself at arms length from the state. The closer it gets, the less effectively it can challenge the surrounding culture and the more perilously it risks losing its central message. Jesus left his followers the command to make disciples from all nations. We have no charge to “Christianize” the United States or any other country — an impossible goal in any case.  (p. 253)

Just a few pages later he adds,

Several years ago a Muslim man said to me, “I have read the entire Koran and find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.” He pointed out that Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics. The courts enforce religious (sharia) law, and in a nation like Iran the mullahs, not the politicians, hold the real power. (p. 258)

Both the first and second halves of that excerpt are packed with food for thought, typical of what one finds in the pages of this book.

Is Vanishing Grace truly a sequel to What’s So Amazing About Grace? written nearly two decades earlier? The new book certainly brings a maturity to the subject, but I would contend that the earlier title is well-suited to new believers and house study groups, while this 2014 is more profitable for pastors, leaders, mature Christ-followers or anyone interested in how one Christian views the state of our changing world. One thing that both share however — and this is common to much of Yancey’s writing — is their acceptability to giving to someone outside your faith circle.

An advance copy of the book was provided by the Canadian marketing department of HarperCollins Christian Publishing.


Here’s a longer book excerpt that ran at Christianity 201 a few days ago:

Jesus “came from the Father, full of grace and truth,” wrote John in the preface to his gospel.  The church has worked tirelessly on the truth part of that formula:  witness the church councils, creeds, volumes of theology, and denominational splits over minor points of doctrine.  I yearn for the church to compete just as hard in conveying what Paul calls the “incomparable riches” of God’s grace.  Often, it seems, we’re perceived more as guilt-dispensers than as grace-dispensers.

John records one close-up encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman.  Knowing well the antipathy between the two groups, she marveled that a Jewish rabbi would even speak to her.  At one point she brought up one of the disputed points of doctrine:  Who had the proper place of worship, the Jews or the Samaritans?  Jesus deftly sidestepped the question and bore in on a far more important issue:  her unquenched thirst.  He offered her not judgment but a lasting solution to her guilt over an unsettled life.  To her and her alone he openly identified himself as Messiah and chose her as a grace-dispenser.  Her transformation captured the attention of the whole town, and Jesus stayed for two days among the “heretics,” attracting many converts.

That scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman came up during a day I spent with the author Henri Nouwen at his home in Toronto.  He had just returned from San Francisco, where he spent a week in an AIDS clinic visiting patients who, in the days before antiretroviral drugs, faced a certain and agonizing death.  “I’m a priest, and as part of my job I listen to people’s stories,”  he told me.  “So I went up and down the ward asking the patients, most of them young men, if they wanted to talk.”

Nouwen went on to say that his prayers changed after that week.  As he listened to accounts of promiscuity and addiction and self-destructive behavior, he heard hints of a thirst for love that had never been quenched.  From then on he prayed, “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people.  And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.”

That day with the gentle priest has stayed with me.  Now, whenever I encounter strident skeptics who mock my beliefs or people whose behavior I find offensive, I remind myself of Henri Nouwen’s prayer.  I ask God to keep me from rushing to judgment or bristling with self-defense.  Let me see them as thirsty people, I pray,  and teach me how best to present the Living Water.

(pp 27-29)


For an interview with the author, check out all six pages at this link to Leadership Journal

1 Comment »

  1. While I’m not doubting that a Muslim man said that to Mr. Yancey, it is a curious statement. The portion of the Quran that was written during the Mecca period (that is before the Muslims fled and set up their stronghold in Medina) was written while they were a persecuted minority and speaks directly to how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. Not meaning to quibble, I just wouldn’t want readers to assume that the man’s statement was objectively true.

    Enjoyed the review. His The Jesus I Never Knew had a profound influence on me.

    Comment by Bill — November 7, 2014 @ 6:55 am


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