Best-Selling Author Philip Yancey Exclusive Interview
Philip Yancey: The Grace Gap
Written by Vicki Hesterman
Best-selling author Philip Yancey writes his many books not as an expert but as a seeker of answers to core questions such as, “Does God really care about me?” His books cover topics from the relevance of the Old Testament (The Bible That Jesus Read) to an urgent call for Christians to reclaim their reputation as helpers known for their love (Vanishing Grace). A quiet sense of humor and quick smile show a joyful side to this writer known for thought-provoking books on suffering, pain, and issues of faith. His books have won 13 Gold-Medallion awards and two Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) Book of the Year Awards. Four have sold over a million copies, and 15 million books of his various titles are now in print.
An engaging speaker, Yancey captivates his audience with fascinating anecdotes, energetic gestures, warmth and wit. “Words have a certain power and a certain weakness,” he said. “What I learned early on was that the reader is boss.” The best way to get the attention of a hostile, hurting world in need of good news is through grace. “I am convinced that we are in the middle of a grace crisis—what I call a grace gap,” he explained. Stunned at how far the positive reputation of Christians had fallen in the opinion of America’s “nones” (those who claim no religion) in the years since he wrote the book Amazing Grace, Yancey decided to find out why.
“We are not here to win a popularity contest, but we are here to give the Good News. But we are not doing a good job of it because people don’t think good news when they think of us, they think bad news,” he related. “How did this happen? I didn’t know and when I don’t know something I write a book about it.”
This question resulted in Yancey’s latest book, Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News? Yancey compared someone with no religious convictions to one who is lost on a journey, rather than lost and condemned. “We all get lost sometimes,” he said while explaining his relief when, lost on a mountain trail, someone showed him a map and he found the right path. “We are called to dispense God’s grace. People aren’t always open to what we have to offer, but there are hinge moments when they are more open, a time when they are ready for grace.”
His new book includes convincing examples of the significant grace-filled impact Christians have had on the world. Churchgoers donate four times as much to charity and volunteer with the poor and elderly twice as much as do secular Americans. Faith-based programs have a much higher success rate than secular ones in dealing with crime, alcoholism and drug addiction. A sociological study documents that missionaries have made a huge positive impact that continues today in such areas as literacy, women’s rights, and physical and economic health in those countries where they had a significant presence in the past.
Yet despite all the good Christians do, and have done, Yancey concludes that their reputation – especially of evangelicals – does not reflect that fact. The Good News does not sound like good news to the unchurched. His interviews convinced him that what was needed was more grace and less judgment. Once grace is shown, he writes in his new book, the Gospel can be shared. Grace, Yancey believes, can bridge the enormous gap that divides Christians from those who claim no religion.
The book also describes examples of Christians around the world that show grace and share the Gospel effectively. One way people can do this is by creating powerful art and literature reflecting spiritual truths. “Whenever I need a good model, I pick up the Bible. God must love art because most of the Bible is expressed in the form of story or poetry,” Yancey writes.
His own favorite Bible reference is not just a verse or two, but an entire chapter: Romans 8. Every morning he refreshes his spirit by spending about an hour praying, reading and meditating. On his personal side, Yancey and his wife, Janet, are avid mountain climbers, and have conquered all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 feet and higher peaks. They travel often, both internationally and domestically. He likes every food he has ever tasted, except tomatoes – which he abhors. Although a child of the sixties and a personal admirer of Bono’s activism, he listens only to classical music.
Yancey approaches subjects he wants to learn about with the thoroughness of a journalist and the curiosity of an avid reader. He plans to write a memoir next year, focusing on his difficult fatherless childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, his fundamentalist, racist childhood church, and how he threw his faith aside and later embraced it again.
Born and raised near Atlanta, Yancey, 65, has worked more than 40 years with words: as editor of Campus Life, an editor at Christianity Today and writer for for Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, Publishers Weekly, Chicago Tribune Magazine, and Eternity, among others. He now lives in Colorado working as an editor-at-large for Christianity Today and travels around the world speaking and doing research for his books. Risen got a chance to sit down with him to learn more about his upbringing, marriage and displaying God’s grace.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: What sparked your love for writing?
Philip Yancey: I needed a job! I was studying at the graduate school at Wheaton, a community where many Christian organizations had their headquarters. The publisher of Campus Life hired me as a campus reporter and I learned to write on the job. I had always worked on the school paper or yearbook, and my introverted personality fit the writer’s profile, but frankly I learned most of what I know by doing it, under wise supervision.
Risen Magazine: When did you know God was going to use you to connect with others spiritually?
Philip Yancey: I’m still rather flabbergasted by that connection. I write my books for myself, exploring the questions I need answers to in my own faith. When I get out in the public, I’m amazed to hear how my own struggles have resonated with readers. Writing is a lonely act. You only hear about the results long after the fact.
I write my books for myself, exploring the questions I need answers to in my own faith.
Risen Magazine: You had a fatherless, poverty-stricken childhood, and were raised in a church you have described as toxic. When and why did you break away and what caused you to embrace Christianity again?
Philip Yancey: God “graced” me – that’s all I can say. I had a dramatic conversion experience when I least expected it. I was attending a Bible College, though unhappily, the administration was regularly debating whether I should be asked to leave. Raised in a toxic church, I braced myself, waiting for God to smash my defenses. Instead God romanced me, using such things as the beauties of nature, classical music, and romantic love. Then at an unexpected time I received a kind of revelation and everything changed from that moment on.
Risen Magazine: Describe meeting your wife. How has that partnership helped you as a writer?
Philip Yancey: We met at the Bible college I mentioned. Neither of us was what you’d call a “happy” student. Two misfits came together. Later I learned that she adopted me as kind of a social work project, which became her profession, by the way. I was one messed-up kid, only 17 when we first met, and not many students at that school knew how to relate to me. She took me on, and helped civilize me.
Risen Magazine: Your latest book, Vanishing Grace, was just released. How do you define grace, and why do you say it is vanishing?
Philip Yancey: I try to avoid defining grace, as it’s slippery and is best expressed through stories as Jesus did; the story of the prodigal son, the lost coin, the overpaid workers. The classic definition is “God’s unmerited favor.” We get not what we deserve but the opposite; God’s love instead of wrath, God’s forgiveness instead of punishment.
God’s grace is not vanishing, of course, yet we Christians are not doing a good job of conveying that amazing grace. Recent polls show a dramatic decline in how the uncommitted view Christians. They view us as bearers of bad news, not good news.
Risen Magazine: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God,” [Hebrews 12:15] is a theme of your book. How do we start?
Philip Yancey: Ooh, where do I start?! Not wanting to write a scolding book, I filled the pages with stories of ordinary Christians who find ways to dispense God’s grace. Francis Collins gives a dramatic example in the gracious way he treated the atheist Christopher Hitchens, his bitter opponent in debates. Another woman in Toronto feels called to minister to telephone solicitors, those annoying marketers who call just as you’re taking the first bite of dinner.
I identify three kinds of people who are especially good at dispensing grace to an increasingly hostile culture; activists, artists, and pilgrims. All of us can be activists, if only by supporting ministries of mercy. All of us are pilgrims and need to communicate that we’re on the same road, not a superior class of beings. The main difference is we know the destination and what we were created for. As for artists—well, they’re a special kind of breed and yet they find a way to communicate the message that is less threatening, more provocative, and often more effective.
Risen Magazine: Using the three categories you cited above, which one do you identify with most?
Philip Yancey: I approach my writing as an ordinary pilgrim in the pew, not an authority figure or expert. I try to represent the issues that all of us struggle with at times. I make mistakes, choose the wrong path, get lost – but at least I know the destination.
Risen Magazine: Christians all over the world do mission and volunteer work caring for the poor and sick. Yet when many hear the word Christian, they react negatively. What is driving this reaction? What can we do to change it?
Philip Yancey: Books like unChristian and The Next Christians spell out Barna Research that shows why people react negatively. They see us as anti. Anti-science, anti-gay, anti-liberal, anti-sex. The stereotype portrays Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, self-righteous, a kind of morals police who try to impose our beliefs on others. The media fuels this stereotype, of course. We have a major challenge in reversing that negative image, and I wrote the book to explore the last half of your question – how to change it.
Risen Magazine: What is the place of the Christian in today’s political arena?
Philip Yancey: No answer applies to everyone. Some feel called to protest. Some run for office. Some tackle the legal issues. And some simply vote. Each of us will answer that question in different ways. It’s important to remember though, that politics is an adversary sport. Think of recent elections and the hostility and slander involved. Christians are commanded to be grace-full towards adversaries. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said. “Pray for those who persecute you.” Christians who choose to be involved in politics have to walk a fine line, not adopting the weapons of electoral warfare but using what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the weapons of grace.” That principle applies to everyone, regardless of their particular role.
Risen Magazine: You wrote the book, Where is God When it Hurts? What is something in your life that hurt and how did you find God in the midst of it?
Philip Yancey: In 2007. I had an auto accident in which I broke my neck. My car rolled off a cliff in Colorado, tumbling over and over five times. For seven hours I lay strapped to a body board as doctors tried to determine if the broken bone had pierced a major artery. If so, I could die at any moment. That became a defining experience for me.
Seven hours is a long time to think about imminent death. I could only find three questions worth considering: Who do I love? What have I done with my life? and Am I ready for whatever is next? I realized how easy it is to get distracted by other matters, such as books sold, money in the bank, marriage problems, etc. That brush with death was a loud wake up call.
I see suffering as a kind of hearing aid. We can turn up the volume and attend to what matters most. People grow most spiritually during hard times because they turn to God in desperation. On the other hand, some people turn off the hearing aid and give up on God at such a time.
Risen Magazine: Your books, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, In His Image, and The Gift of Pain, with Dr. Paul Brand, the British doctor who treated leprosy patients in India, had a huge impact on your life. How and why?
Philip Yancey: For one thing, I had no father figure. My own father died of polio when I was only a year old. More importantly though, Dr. Brand entered my life at a time when I was circling warily around faith trying to determine what I could believe. He showed me that God enlarges and fulfills life; so many Christians I knew seemed shrunken and unfulfilled. It only takes one person who is truly living a Godly life to silence skepticism and doubts. “So that’s what God had in mind,” I said again and again as I got to know Paul Brand. He spent his life in service to some of the most neglected people on the planet, low-caste leprosy patients in India, and yet emerged with a spirit of joyful thanksgiving, all the while being fully engaged as a scientist with the natural world.
It only takes one person who is truly living a Godly life to silence skepticism and doubts.
Risen Magazine: You were asked to help comfort the Sandy Hook school community after the tragic shootings. How did you handle this and what do you think helped them the most?
Philip Yancey: I was terrified when I got the call to speak there. What could I possibly say to bring comfort to those grieving families? As I prepared though, I realized that we do indeed have words of comfort and hope. I could assure those parents that I knew where their children were – in the loving arms of God. Jesus said, “I am going away to prepare a place for you,” and also, “suffer the little children to come unto me.” At the time I was researching an article on the New Atheists, and I saw a stark contrast with those who have no hope, no comfort. We have a resurrection faith, and when you’ve lost a six- or seven-year-old child, you cling to that faith.
Risen Magazine: How often are you and Janet generally on the road?
Philip Yancey: We spend about a third of our time on the road, giving priority to international travel. My books are published in several dozen languages and we enjoy going to other countries in order to meet readers, speak to Christian groups, and collect experiences to inform my writing. In addition, I usually have at least one speaking trip a month here in the U.S. The last ten years Janet has been traveling with me on most trips. She’s bicultural, a missionaries’ kid, and a natural extrovert. At a book signing, she’s the perfect partner.
Risen Magazine: Do you write every day even if you are not working on a book?
Philip Yancey: I work on a book every day. Normally I spend about forty percent of my time getting ready to write – research, interviews, etc. – twenty percent composing, and forty percent cleaning up what I wrote in the editing process. I’m always working on one of those stages unless I’ve just returned from a trip, then I’m occupied paying bills and catching up on mail.
Risen Magazine: What are several recent books you have read that surprised, inspired or delighted you?
Philip Yancey: My Bright Abyss by the poet Christian Wiman was outstanding, rich, and poignant. Charles Marsh’s biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, was full of surprises. Country Driving in China shed some, not too much, light on that mysterious country.
Risen Magazine: What has been the most personally life-changing book you have read, and why?
Philip Yancey: G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I had read the rational British apologists, such as C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Chesterton showed another approach, the romance of orthodoxy. Faith, like life, is an adventure to be lived, not a mathematical puzzle to be solved. When I read that book, walls fell down.
Risen Magazine: Recently in San Diego, you spoke four times in less than 24 hours. How do you stay in shape physically and spiritually? What do you do to relax and recharge?
Philip Yancey: Oh, I relax and recharge in all sorts of ways. In the summer in Colorado I mountain bike and climb mountains; in the winter I downhill and cross-country ski, ice skate and snowshoe. All these are great ways to avoid writing – and also to connect my body with the planet after a day of work inside my head. While traveling I exercise every other day, either by power-walking, I had to stop running after some knee issues, or in the fitness center. As for jet lag, well, I’m something of an insomniac anyway. So I’m used to sleep deprivation.
Risen Magazine: How do you stay connected to a spiritual community when you travel so much?
Philip Yancey: Janet and I have a group of close friends who pray for us, specifically our marriage, as we travel. We report to them in the process, and of course we connect with the group we’re ministering among. We attend a low-key, small church, and many of them faithfully pray for us too. And I keep a regular quiet-time regimen in the mornings no matter where I am.
Risen Magazine: Sometimes we have brief encounters – on planes, in waiting rooms – with people who are hostile towards or hurt by a church. How can a Christian best show grace and share faith in such a short time?
Philip Yancey: Just listen. As I’ve written, I grew up in a very unhealthy church. When someone starts to tell me their story, I think they expect me to defend the church. I’ll say something like, “Oh, don’t I know it. My church was even worse than what you describe.” Often they act surprised and want to know what kept me in the fold despite such a background. By squelching that defensive reflex, I actually open up a chance for real dialogue.
Risen Magazine: Does God love art?
Philip Yancey: Theology books usually begin their description of God with qualities like omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. To me the most obvious quality is God’s artistic sense. The patterns on tropical fish on a coral reef, or even on the backs of beetles, exceed in beauty anything you can find in the world’s great art museums. I go hiking in the Rocky Mountains and turn a corner of a remote area only to find the ground covered with a carpet of spectacularly varied wild flowers. Any art that human beings create is only a pale reflection of the Master Artist.
Risen Magazine: What brings you joy?
Philip Yancey: For me, joy often comes as a companion to risk, such as heading down a cliff face on skis, or up the same cliff on a summer hike. But I like simpler joys too such as golfing on a beautiful course with good friends. Or finishing a book I’ve been working on for many months, or a mocha chocolate chip Frappuccino on a hot day.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2014