Philip Yancey: Amazed by Grace | Interview

I first heard of Philip Yancey when his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? came out in 1997. Even though many people whom I respected raved about the book, I was not interested in reading the book. Why would I? It was written by a man who regularly wrote for Christianity Today – a magazine that was less than gay friendly. I’m not one to spend my precious reading time on authors who bash gays and lesbians – or authors that I perceive might do that. I know their positions and their arguments. Reading their books seemed like a waste of time.

I must now confess that I unfairly judged Yancey. I let a silly “guilt-by-association” taint my opinion of him even before giving his books a chance. I regret that, but perhaps God knows best. If I had read Yancey in 1997 I might not have appreciated his gentleness, his grace or his mercy quite as much as I do now.

I finally gave in and read Yancey’s work only after I had subscribed to the audio book service Audible. Because the drive to and from my job takes two hours of my day, I thought books on CD would be a good use of my time. Audible has a great selection of Christian and spiritual books and I’ve consumed most of their catalogue. It was during a dry spell, when I had exhausted much of the collection that interested me that I turned to Yancey’s new book, Rumors of Another World. I had been in spiritual crisis and was looking for someone to explain to me how to reach that supernatural world that we know exists, but somehow cannot relate to or forget about in our daily rush. The description of the book sounded intriguing so I put my preconceived notions of Yancey aside and downloaded the book.

What a blessing! The book was just what I needed. I did, however, cringe through the chapter on “Designer Sex,” waiting for that bash against gays and lesbians. It never came. I was deeply shocked – an evangelical who didn’t use a chapter on sex to take a pot shot at homosexuals? It was hard to imagine.

The tone of the book led me to make another selection by Yancey. Reaching for the Invisible God was another book I listened to with an eager hunger. Finally, an author offered an intelligent treatment of faith, doubt and how we relate to a God we cannot see. I was beginning to see why so many people loved Yancey – and why others would not like him at all – especially if they clung to a fundamentalist, black and white faith.

Finally, I decided to read Grace. This book left me speechless and utterly blessed. I want to start a church based solely on the teachings of this book – of God’s “grace on tap” for every person who walks through the door. I think it should be required reading for every single church member on the face of the earth. It’s far superior to the other pap churches read today like Rick Warren’s potentially damaging theology in A Purpose Driven Life.

It was Yancey’s description of his friendship with Mel White in Grace that touched me most deeply. White’s story, documented in his own book Stranger at the Gate, has been well documented in the gay and lesbian community. White was a ghostwriter for such right-wing leaders as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell until he came out. Shunned by his former employees, White went on to found Soulforce, a social action group dedicated to the spiritual equality of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender believers.

Yancey’s steadfast support for his friend Mel, and his own struggle with the sinfulness of homosexuality is documented in the book and is one of the most honest accounts of grace in the face of struggle that I believe I have ever read. It was this chapter that led me to write to Yancey and tell him how much his books had moved me.

He was kind enough to send me a reply that emboldened me to ask for an interview. He agreed to an email interview, given his busy schedule. I was amazed that he would lend his name to a publication like Whosoever – and eternally grateful.

I cannot recommend his work strongly enough. If you thirst for grace, peace and joy, read Yancey’s works. You will not be disappointed.

You have a new book out, Rumors of Another World, that is really quite extraordinary. What is the main thrust of this book and why did you feel led to write it?

I wrote it for people in the “borderlands of faith,” people who have a spiritual sense but who, for a variety of reasons, have not found a home in the church. I try to speak their language, not preaching to them about the things they ought to believe but rather starting with that spiritual sense — these are the “rumors of another world” — and trying to track some of those rumors back to the source. OK, I admit that although I had this audience in mind, in truth I write all my books for myself. I started asking myself, “Philip, can you explain your faith in a way that makes sense to someone who sees the world very differently than you do?”

In your book What’s So Amazing About Grace? you tell about your friendship with Soulforce leader Mel White and your support of him at the March on Washington in 1987. Your description of your friendship with him and your feelings toward the gays and lesbians you met at the march was probably the most grace-filled writing I’ve ever read from an evangelical Christian. What is your position on gays and lesbians in the church?

You don’t beat around the bush, do you? Mel was one of my closest friends for years before he revealed to me his sexual orientation. (He still is, by the way.) He had repressed and hidden his homosexuality, and in fact was married and was making a fine career in Christian publishing and ministry. Mel became a window to me into a world I knew nothing about. He tells his own story in the book Stranger at the Gate. Readers of your magazine know well how explosive this issue can be. I get hate letters full of equal venom from both sides: from conservative Christians appalled that I would maintain a friendship with Mel and write compassionately about gays and lesbians, and from the other side wishing I would go further with a full endorsement.

On an issue like that, I try to start with what I’m absolutely sure of, and work outwards. I’m sure of what my own attitude should be toward gays and lesbians: I should show love and grace. As one person told me, “Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.” When people ask me how I can possibly stay friends with a sinner like Mel, I respond by asking how Mel can possibly stay friends with a sinner like me. Even if I conclude that all homosexual behavior is wrong, as many conservative Christians do, I’m still compelled to respond with love.

As I’ve attended gay and lesbian churches, I’m also saddened that the evangelical church by and large finds no place for homosexuals. I’ve met wonderful, committed Christians who attend MCC churches, and I wish that the larger church had the benefit of their faith. And at the same time, I think it’s unhealthy to have an entire denomination formed around this one particular issue — those people need exposure to and inclusion in the wider Body of Christ.

When it gets to particular matters of policy, like ordaining gay and lesbian ministers, I’m confused, like a lot of people. There are a few — not many, but a few — passages of Scripture that give me pause. Frankly, I don’t know the answer to those questions. I’m a freelancer, not an official church representative, and I have the luxury of saying simply, “Here’s what I think, but I really don’t know,” rather than trying to set church policy.

The polarization makes me very sad. My church in Chicago spent a couple of years carefully studying the issue. The church had openly gay members, but did not allow practicing homosexuals in leadership positions (as they did not allow unmarried “practicing heterosexuals,” whatever that means). The committee studying the issue looked at the biblical and theological and social aspects and finally came down in the same place: welcoming but not affirming homosexuals in leadership roles. Conservatives got mad and left. Many gays and lesbians also left, hurt that the church reinforced their “second-class citizen” status.

I don’t have a magic answer, and I can’t see one on the near horizon. Whole denominations are struggling with the very same issue, as you know.

How can other evangelical Christians develop an attitude of grace (if not acceptance) toward gay and lesbian Christians?

The only way is through personal exposure. It’s amazing how feelings change when suddenly it’s your daughter or your brother who comes out of the closet. In my case, it was my friend Mel. The issues I had read about suddenly had a face, a person with a story. When that happened, everything changed. That’s one reason why I think it’s sad that the churches have so little contact. I have attended gay and lesbian churches whose fervency and commitment would put most evangelical churches to shame. Disapproving conservatives should have contact with those people, and vice versa.

Many gays and lesbians have been harmed by the church’s attitude toward them, so much so that they will never set foot in one again. What do you say to these people who have been ostracized from the church and who have perhaps lost their faith?

They may need a time away from the church. I am convinced, however, that the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone, in isolation. If a person can’t see fit to enter into an institutional church, at least they should look for a small group or Bible study or some gathering of live human beings struggling along on the same pilgrimage. I also find it helpful for a wounded person to look for a radically different kind of worship experience than the one that wounded them. If they came from an Assemblies of God or Brethren church, try an Orthodox or Episcopal church, which approaches worship very differently and may not trigger the defense mechanisms from the past.

I could tell you stories — and in my books I do tell stories — about the church I grew up in. For sheer meanness and closed-mindedness, it rivals any church I’ve seen. And yet if I simply gave up on all faith because of my past church experience, I would be the one who loses most.

When my partner and I moved to a new state, we began searching for a church home. I wrote a letter to the local Episcopal rector explaining who we were and asked if we would be welcome in his church. His response, in a nutshell, was that we would be very welcome, if only we gave up our “sinful lifestyle” and sought out good, Christian (presumably Episcopalian) men to marry. This is the reaction of many Christian churches to gays and lesbians. We must give up our sexual orientation to be accepted. What do you say to churches like this?

I’m probably not the best person to address a church like that — you are. Obviously, if a church is saying you need to give up sexual orientation, that church needs some education. I know of some ministries who try to change sexual behavior, but none that try to change sexual orientation — all admit that any change involves a lifelong struggle. I would hope a minister or rector is open to dialogue, and I would hope you have the strength and confidence to sit down with him and discuss your own story as well as the biblical objections he has.

I’m not gay or lesbian, so I would probably approach that rector differently. I would point to how Jesus dealt with people who were moral failures — I’m starting where the rector is, who sees you as a moral failure. Jesus chose one such woman, a woman who had had five failed marriages, as his first missionary. I would also ask if he requires all who attend his church to leave their “sins” at the door. Does he interview each person about their sexual activity? Does he exclude people who show pride, hypocrisy, or legalism, which are the sins that seemed to upset Jesus? Does he see the church as a place only for people who see things alike, and for people who have arrived rather than people who are on the way? I’d ask questions like that.

Your book Reaching for the Invisible God came to me just as I was struggling with how God’s will gets worked out not only in my life but in the world at large. What led you to write this book?

It’s a book about faith, really. All my books circle around the same theme of why this world is the way it is if indeed we have a loving, sovereign God who fix its problems. I began years ago with the question Where Is God When It Hurts, followed by Disappointment with God. If you attend an evangelical church and listen to the praise songs, you’d get the sense that God is intimately available at all times, the Lover who satisfies our every need. Yet my own experience, and I don’t think I’m alone here, is quite different. I go through long, dry stretches. I live in a materialistic world that rarely takes God’s existence into account. And I live in a world that must bring great displeasure to God. Why doesn’t God act? And how can I relate to a God I cannot see or touch? These are some of my questions, and when I have questions I write about them.

Reaching makes the case for letting much of God’s ways in the world and in our lives remain a deep mystery, yet more fundamentalist strains of Christianity seem to purport a very black and white religion with easy answers and clear rules. How can we let the mystery of God back into our lives?

Why don’t we start with the Bible, especially the Old Testament. When I speak to college students, I challenge the philosophy students to find a single argument against God in the writings of the great agnostics, such as David Hume, Voltaire, and Bertrand Russell, that is not already included in the Bible. I admire a God who so respects human freedom that God gives us arguments to use in opposition. Read Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Psalms, Job — the mystery is all there. I also find a lot of spiritual nourishment in Catholic writers across the centuries. They understand the mystery, and many of them spent their entire lives exploring that mystery.

How do we incorporate a healthy sense of doubt in our lives?

I’m a great advocate of doubt, because it’s what drew me back to faith: I began doubting some of the crazy things my church told me! I don’t think the difficulty is incorporating doubt in our lives; doubt is going to come whether or not we desire it. Responses of other Christians may well determine whether that doubt stays “healthy.” In my book I offer these practical suggestions. 1) Question your doubts as much as you question your faith; 2) Sometimes you have to “act as if” it’s true for a season, whether or not your emotions follow; 3) Find a trustworthy “doubt companion” who rewards, not punishes you, for honesty. And to the church I say that churches should be a haven for people in need of further revelation. Think of Thomas after the Resurrection: he doubted the other disciples’ accounts, yet they still found room for him. It’s a good thing, because Jesus only appeared to groups of his followers, and if the disciples had excluded Thomas for his doubts, he never would have received that further revelation.

Your books convey an obvious intelligence and depth about your faith. You incorporate the thoughts of many serious theologians including Soren Kirkegaard, Simone Weil and Thomas Merton. How can more Christians be encouraged to give intelligent and serious thought to their faith instead of adhering to the oft quoted, “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it”?

I meet a lot of those “that settles it…” types on the other side of faith, after they’ve ditched it. Jeremiah uses the image of a bush planted alongside a river. As long as there’s water flowing in the river, the bush blooms. If the water dries up, the bush dies. Then he speaks of desert plants that send roots down deep. We need to develop that kind of faith. I think of all the seminars people go to in order to improve their careers, or the energy people put into following sports teams or popular music. My goodness, shouldn’t we devote the same energy to the most important issues of life? The resources are out there; we simply need the discipline to use them wisely.

Why do you think so many Christians avoid a serious inquiry into their faith, preferring instead to simply accept the church’s teachings without question?

Laziness may play a factor. Fear does too. Many Christians are afraid to look too closely at their faith. Like Peter, they’re afraid to step out of the boat. And some churches encourage that kind of “I’ll do your thinking for you” as a kind of control. That’s always dangerous. I read the other day that 153 times someone came up to Jesus with a question, and 147 of those times he responded with another question. A good model, wouldn’t you say?

In your books you talk about all the mail you get, some of it particularly stinging from fellow evangelical Christians. As you can imagine, I get a lot of stinging email as well. How do you respond to these types of mail and why do you think supposedly “loving” Christians are compelled to react so harshly to words of grace?

I began my writing career as a magazine editor (Campus Life) so I quickly became inured to such mail. I remind myself that magazines about politics or the environment or animal rights or any such cause attract the same vehemence. The more issues matter, the more emotions they stir up in people. And I also have seen change in some of those readers. As I respond with compassion to people who write me in anger, often they write back with a softer tone, and occasionally even apologize. I have to remind myself that those people are my true test of grace. I find it much harder to show grace to people on the conservative, judgmental side than on the inclusive, liberal side. I have seen much change, though, a proof of God’s grace in itself.

What’s next on your agenda — a new book or speaking engagements?

I’m actually writing answers to your questions in the midst of a 14-hour plane ride to New Zealand. For the first time in 25 years, I’m not starting a new book right away. I’ve had trips to South Africa, Nepal, and China, and now New Zealand. I’m speaking to a wide variety of groups, learning a lot, trying to listen before diving into another writing project.