Philip Yancey is one of the best-selling evangelical Christian authors in recent history, selling over 15 million books worldwide that have been translated into 35 languages. Part of the beauty of his story is that God was able to make him an influential voice in the Christian community despite the fact that he actually abandoned his faith as a young adult. Philip says it was largely a reaction to his early, toxic church experience in which he says God was presented as “a scowling Supercop, searching for anyone who might be having a good time—in order to squash them.”
Philip cautiously returned to his faith, and by age 27, had written his first book, Where is God When It Hurts? He then continued asking the hard questions that had gone unanswered in his early church experience, writing subsequent titles that included The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? As Philip explains, “I’m a pilgrim, recovering from a bad church upbringing, searching for a faith that makes its followers larger and not smaller…. My books are a process of exploration and investigation of things I wonder about and worry about.”
Philip’s latest book, Vanishing Grace, explores how he believes the church is failing to communicate the love of Christ to an increasingly irreligious world, and he proposes ways the church can influence culture by drawing people to Christ. In our interview, we asked him some questions to flesh that out a little bit and also explored the topics of singleness, social media, and whether he reads his own books.
1. Let’s pretend you’re talking to an agnostic, gay college professor who says, “You can say all you want about being a compassionate evangelical, but you think it’s a sin for me to engage in homosexual behavior. How do you ever expect me to want to be a part of a church that rejects one of the core elements of my identity?”
I doubt I would try to answer if I didn’t know the person well. Instead, I would work on accepting and loving that person. Starbucks might be a better meeting place than church. If the question is serious, though, coming from someone I had a relationship with, I’d say something like the following:
“Christianity is a revealed faith. We believe that the same God who created humans has revealed important principles about how to live. When we break those principles, we are the ones who suffer. One of the core elements of my identity is lust. Another is greed or self-indulgence. Another is pride. I’ve had to come to terms with each one of these and realize that if I follow those instincts I’ll not only displease God. I’ll also damage myself.
“All of us who follow Jesus have to discern what changes are needed in our lives. I can’t walk in your moccasins. I hope you realize, though, that Christians who judge you as a worse ‘sinner’ than they are have simply missed the message of the Gospel. We’re all broken, in need of transformation.”
2. In Vanishing Grace, you say that “the creative arts may be the most compelling path to faith” for skeptics. It seems like believers can’t make movies about the “path to faith” without either (a) having a plot that revolves around an unnatural, awkward altar call or (b) making things so opaque that any theology in the film is on par with something you’d find at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Where’s the balance?
Now you know why I don’t write movie scripts. It’s incredibly hard to find that balance! I’m watching a debate right now about the movie Unbroken. Did Angelina Jolie downplay the conversion story of Louis Zamperini? I can point to a few movies that find that balance, such as Chariots of Fire or Les Miserables, but I could point to dozens that tilt to one side or the other. Martin Scorsese is currently filming an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s deeply Christian book Silence, and a committed group of Christians is working hard to encourage him to find that proper balance. They only have influence, though, because they’ve put up millions of dollars for the project. Movies are expensive, and most billionaires aren’t known for their religious commitment and artistic sensibilities.
In my book, I quote Walker Percy who said, “Art doesn’t tell you something you don’t know; it tells you something you know but don’t know that you know.” It works at a different, more subtle level, summoning up hidden longings. Movies can do that with great power, so I wouldn’t discount the “opaque” aspect of cinema art. If you can get the average person to borrow a couple of steps from AA — admitting helplessness and a need for a Higher Power — that’s a radical move toward transformation.
3. You don’t have a Twitter account that I can find, and the only official-looking one appears to be a Portuguese-speaking individual that uses your likeness for promotional purposes. Do you lose sleep over the opportunities you’re missing to promote your work on Twitter while someone spams over 7,000 people in your name?
Twitter is my last redoubt. I gave in to the 21st century and got a website; then I got a Facebook account (taking it over from a Spanish-speaking surrogate). Each of these takes valuable hours away from the reading and writing that I used to do full time. Now, when people ask me what I do for a living I tell them, “I answer emails.” That’s almost true.
Do I lose sleep? Not a nanosecond. I would, however, lose sleep if I lay there thinking about how to tweet something substantive in 140 characters or less. The more time I spend “promoting my work,” the less time I spend doing it.
4. Is there a particular chapter of any of your books that you wish you could go back and rewrite or altogether delete?
Funny thing, I never read my books once they’re published — with one exception. I wrote my first real book, Where Is God When It Hurts? at the age of 27. Twenty-five years later, the publisher asked for an updated edition. Frankly, the whole thing needed rewriting! I added about a hundred pages and changed so many words and sentence structures. It was a humiliating experience, and that may explain why I don’t go back to other books.
5. We’ve got a number of single readers. If you could go back in time, talk with your single self, and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
I’ll probably get in trouble for repeating this, but I once heard someone say, “A man marries a woman thinking she’ll never change. A woman marries a man confident she’ll change him. They’re both completely wrong.” There’s some truth there, and I could tell you stories.