Last week I was privileged to have a long phone conversation with one of my favorite contemporary writers, Philip Yancey. Interviewing authors each Wednesday is easily my favorite part of blogging, and this opportunity was a real highlight. Philip Yancey’s is a wise and compassionate voice in the Christian world.
I’ve divided our conversation into two parts: this week’s discussion will focus on the themes raised in Yancey’s new book, What Good Is God?, which travels the globe to see whether Christianity makes a difference in improving nations and transforming lives. Next week’s Q&A will look more generally at his career and habits as a writer.
Flunking Sainthood: First, is there a statute of limitations on get well wishes? I read in the book about the serious car accident you were in three years ago. I’m so sorry.
Philip Yancey: I’m fine now. I do wake up sore sometimes, especially when I’m traveling because I can’t control the pillow height. But it doesn’t keep me from doing anything. I still go mountain biking. My vertebrae are not completely lined up, but for now I am fine.
FS: Well, as a Mormon, I was thrilled to see that it was a Mormon who came to your rescue.
Yancey: They were angels. The accident happened on such a remote road [in Colorado]. I was thinking it could be an hour before someone came. The first to come by was a Mormon on his way to church. And the fact that this person was the head of EMT for the entire county was just amazing. What are the odds?
FS: Thanks for your new book, What Good Is God? I hope you will take it as a compliment when I say that I typically leave one of your books with more questions than answers–but always I am full of new hope. Many of your books, in fact, use questions as book titles. Why?
Yancey: I think it probably traces back to my days as a magazine editor. There, you always start with the stance of the reader. Does the reader have a pre-existing interest in this topic? A lot of books, particularly Christian books, tend to come from authority sources. The author has a degree or some expertise to dispense. But my own background is as a journalist, so I start in reverse: does the reader care about this? I’m not an expert. I’m not a theologian. I’m not a pastor.
Usually when I start a book, I write down a list of questions to begin my search and use those questions as the underlying outline. This book is a little different because it came from some experiences I had. I stepped back from them and asked, “What did these push me toward? Unlike my other books, it speaks to my split identity as a writer and a speaker. Usually I’m just the journalist, asking the question. But here I have to pose the question and then stand up and say, “Here is what I say about that.” I have to step into a different voice in which I am less comfortable.
FS: In the book, you note that we live in a culture in which religious disaffiliation is at an all-time high; in the 1950s, 2.7 percent of people reported that they were “no religion,” while now it is 16 percent. Are more people asking the question, “What good is God?”
Yancey: I think God offers a lot of good. There are three levels to this – national, community, and individual.
All you have to do is go to societies that have the Christian heritage and compare them to the ones that don’t. In the chapter on China, I look at the top 15 countries that are most free of corruption, where people enjoy the most freedom. 14 of the 15 are Christian-heritage countries. There’s a basic sociological fact that Christianity does change society for the better. There’s less bribery and corruption. Even people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who want to do a screed against God, are able to do that because they live in countries that have valued freedom.
Second is the community level. There’s a goodness that our faith provides. From a community perspective, like in the chapter on Mumbai or at Virginia Tech, there’s a very strong solidarity, comfort and also activism that is fueled by faith. People recovering from Hurricane Katrina say that government help has run out but the churches in Houston still come down every weekend and help them with their houses. Those church people choose to help others because of their faith.
The third level would be the individual level. In the book I look at alcoholics and prostitutes and ask whether faith can have a transformative effect on individuals. This is the evangelical tradition, telling the story of changed lives. But when you meet these people, and hear their stories, it’s hard to argue with that. It’s God working in them.
For me, as a journalist, I would have to say the goodness is apparent.
FS: Throughout all your journeys you keep coming back to the immanence of God and the idea that Jesus is always present with people who are in pain–at Virginia Tech after the shootings, or with prostitutes who have been abused. Then you make a startling observation that God is “moving” not just spiritually but geographically, concluding that:
Jesus’ teaching [is] that the kingdom of God grows from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down. I’ve concluded that God goes where he’s wanted….[When a] society achieves a level of comfort and prosperity, its citizens feel less need for religious faith. They live off the moral capital of the past.
Is that where America is today, living off the moral capital of the past?
Yancey: I think America is kind of hanging on a precipice on that very issue. When you go to Europe, that story’s over; religion is not on the radar screen for most Europeans except as this kind of vague cultural hangover. In the U.S., it’s unclear which direction we’ll go. We’re an anomaly among prosperous, technologically advanced countries in this way. But from the very beginning, the Founding Fathers recognized the truth of what I’m saying. Most of them came from a heritage of a state-church that imposed religion on the people, and they knew to avoid it.
The danger is that we are prosperous; we’re a celebrity culture; we’re all about entertainment. We’re a media-driven culture pulling strongly in one direction. It’s easy for the gospel either to start reflecting those same values, which dilute or even destroy the gospel, or for people to start forsaking the Christian faith and going the European way. Those are the dangers. I’m not making any prognostications about America.
FS: Your book describes many powerful moments of God at work. Which were the most compelling or personally transformative encounters in your travels?
Yancey: I would give two answers. Mumbai, which is the last chapter, brings together the themes of the book, and the themes of my life, in an intense way. I’m speaking on grace to a society that is primarily organized by the caste system and by karma. Karma is the exact opposite of grace, because you get exactly what you deserve. And the caste system is just a regimented way of describing what we humans always do to each other, whether that’s by race or economic class or even by spirituality. India is a society structured around un-grace, yet at the same time it mixes together every class, every race, and definitely every religion. They’re all there, right in front of you all the time. That’s the theme of grace. And there’s also the theme of suffering, which I dealt with from my very first book, because while I was speaking, the terrorist attacks were actually still going on and bodies were being uncovered. There was talk of imminent war with Pakistan. That’s really where this book began, as I wondered what to say to these people who were grieving, shocked, and scared. What would I say to them? The smoke of the city was rising in the background while I was speaking.
And on an individual level, the meeting with the prostitutes would be another intense moment. These are human beings who are pushed to the wall on these two themes, grace and suffering. One told me, “No parent ever says to their little girl, ‘I want you to grow up and be a prostitute.'” There’s shame. And great suffering.