Thinking Out Loud

December 29, 2021

The Philip Yancey I Never Knew

This was not the book I was expecting. It was also the book I almost set aside without finishing. Where the Light Fell: A Memoir (Convergent Books, 2021) is the sometimes gut-wrenching story of the early life of one of today’s most popular Christian authors. It is not a pretty story.

Raised in an ultra-conservative Bible Belt family by a single mother, it’s a story of hardship on every level. Having read nearly half of Yancey’s two dozen books, I thought I knew some of the backstory, but nothing prepared for me for these revelations.

After reading the first forty pages just before turning out the lights for the evening, I set the book down and that night, sleep just didn’t come. It would be a week before I would pick up my copy and continue, and with some of the worst of the timeline behind me, I more eagerly continued to the end.

But the end was not what I expected. I knew of Yancey’s work with Campus Life magazine and co-editing The Student Bible, and co-authoring three books with leprosy doctor Paul Brand. But only two of those three surface for a fleeting mention toward the end. The focus here is on earlier times; younger days.

I’m sure he would agree with me that the memoir is a story of family dynamics, and from the outset it appears that the mother-son relationship will dominate. However, in later chapters — and this isn’t really a spoiler — it becomes more about the relationship with his brother Marshall Yancey, and the contrast between two boys who share so many things in common at the beginning, and then arriving at entirely opposite places. In a different world, it might be Marshall’s autobiography people were reading.

Over the years I’ve introduced dozens of people to the writing of Philip Yancey. If pressed, I often say that the draw for me is that as journalist and not a pastor, I am struck by the way he wrestles with scripture and theology.

Now I understand why. I understand why it’s necessary, why it’s imperative for him to fully work out anything he’s going espouse in print. He places a high value on raw honesty and transparency. He’s not always interested in providing the right answers as he is in the process it takes to arrive there. Only then will the answers suffice.

Living one country removed from the U.S., there’s so much of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s America that never touched my own experience. Still, our family’s yearly car trips to Florida meant driving through the southern states, and particularly in the years before the interstate highway system was completed, there were snapshots in the book — especially those portraying extreme poverty — that brought flashbacks to things I’d seen from the backseat of my parents’ car.

The guest speakers at Yancey’s summer camp were not entirely unfamiliar names, and the names of the Christian magazines his mother subscribed to also resonated. But my contact was fleeting whereas he was immersed in that milieu, and it had repercussions on every choice with which he was confronted and how he and his brother saw the world.

For those for whom this is a foreign experience, the book is a necessary tool for processing Evangelical history in the post-war, mid-20th century. No wonder that on book tours, he had said, “I truly believe this is the one book I was put on earth to write.”

It was on such a book tour years ago that I got to meet my favorite writer. I shook his hand and thanked him for all that his books have meant. He had just released What Good Is God? and the publicist had handed me a complimentary copy and I waited until all the purchasers of the book had left and then asked him if he would autograph mine. Being last in line, if I had known things about him that I now know, I might have extended our conversation by a few extra minutes discussing the Christian world which I got to see from a bit of a distance, and that he lived in every waking moment.

I also find now, I’m longing for a part two. How that upbringing shaped those experiences working for a mainstream Evangelical magazine like Campus Life or a publisher like Zondervan, with whom his books were released. Perhaps part two consists of re-reading some of those classics — What’s So Amazing About Grace, or The Jesus I Never Knew or even Soul Survivor — through the lens of what’s been revealed here in Where the Light Fell.

For those familiar with Philip Yancey’s previous works, this is a must-read. For those who have completed other recent books which deal with the history of Evangelical Protestantism in the United States in the past century, again a must-read.

Just be prepared to recognize this as the story not just of one person, but of a mother and two sons, because that’s the essence of what you’ll find.


Thanks to Martin Smith of Parasource, Canadian distributor for Convergent for providing a chance to read this when I’d given up hope of getting a review copy!

August 9, 2018

Reflections on Bible Reading is Truly Inspired

A Review of Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans (Thomas Nelson)

Sometimes you find a term online which helps you describe something for which you didn’t know there was a word. In this case, the word is memoirist. A quick check this morning revealed that I’ve actually read all of Rachel Held Evans’ output, and I can’t help but notice in this personal, subjective approach to the Bible there is a striking similarity to the writing of Philip Yancey. If you know how I feel about Yancey, you know this is high praise indeed.

Inspired is, at least ostensibly, a look at the different genres in our scriptures. Anyone familiar with The Bible Project videos is aware that we need to read each of these genres differently and interpret them — both in terms of original meaning and present-day application — in terms of the rules for that type of literature.

Or maybe not. In Inspired, Rachel Held Evans suggests that they are all narrative, even to the point of labeling the poetic books as “wisdom stories,” existing alongside “war stories,” “deliverance stories,” “gospel stories,” “origin stories,” and yes, in a category by themselves, “fish stories.”

A gifted writer who grew up in church and researches well, she doesn’t begin to annotate all the background material which went into each chapter. If you did grow up in church, as with her other works, there is a sense in which her story is your story. I found that many of her own experiences resonated with my own.

But there’s also a sense in which this book is aimed at potentially new Bible readers; seekers and recent converts alike who are trying to find the common threads which knit the 66 books in the Protestant canon into a unified, single story. A strength of her classification methodology is that it allows her to blend First Testament and Second Testament material seamlessly.

In between chapters there are some almost whimsical narratives of her own. One places Job in a modern context with his ‘friends’ discussing his recent hardships in a cafeteria. This one deserves becoming a short film.

Rachel Held Evans is viewed as a progressive, and there are certainly some indications of this at a few junctures in her book, but for the most part, it’s about her conservative roots and the reading perspective on the Bible those roots handed her.

I invite you to see for yourself, there are excerpts from the book here (resistance stories, including their similarity to American’s Civil Rights Movement) and here (war stories, including the so-called ‘texts of terror.’)

 

Blog at WordPress.com.