If Philip Yancey could give his 10-year-old self some advice, it would be this: “You are in an unusual, airtight cocoon,” he said of the Southern fundamentalist Christian church he was raised in. “But you won’t always be in that cocoon. You have to find a way to survive and break through.”
How Yancey, now 71, overcame his strict Christian Fundamentalist upbringing to become a best-selling Christian author is the subject of Where the Light Fell (Penguin Random House, Oct.), his 25th book and his first memoir. It is a gripping, often harrowing account of the failed faith healing that led to his father’s death from polio at age 24, his grief-stricken mother’s turn to a harsh and judging form of faith, his older brother’s dangerous rebellion and how books became a lifeline to a kid just trying to make sense of it all.
“When you are in these little churches where they preach fire and brimstone you can’t get out, they lock the doors,” he told PW from the Denver area home he shares with his wife of 50 years, Janet, and the 5,000-plus books that fill his study. “But books allowed me to discover do I believe this or do I not? I learned to trust books more than people.”
He also learned how to write. After graduating from a fundamentalist bible college, Yancey went on to Wheaton College, the so-called “Harvard of evangelicalism.” At 21, he landed a job at Campus Life magazine. “I look back on that with great gratitude because I learned a very important lesson,” he said. “The reader is in charge, not the writer. Unless you give them a satisfying experience you are not going to make it. First, you have to make people want to read the next paragraph. You start there.”
Seeking a 'Healthy' Faith
After Wheaton, Yancey wanted to be an investigative reporter. “I wanted to expose people, especially the people that I came out of, so I did some articles on Jim Bakker and PTL,” the disgraced televangelist and his popular Praise the Lord television show. “I found (investigations) very messy. You have to spend a lot of time around jerks and I decided early on I did not want to spend a lot of time around jerks.” Instead, he sought out people he could learn from, like writer Annie Dillard, theologian Frederich Buechner, former surgeon general C. Everett Koop and the Christian physician Dr. Paul Brand, with whom Yancey co-authored several books. “That was another kind of cocoon, of people with a healthy faith who were not trying to impose that faith on me.”
It was a good choice for a young author. Writing for Zondervan, he scaled the Christian bestseller list with Where is God When It Hurts?” (1977), Disappointment With God (1988), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995) and What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997). He has racked up 13 Gold Medallion Awards from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and twice won its Christian Book of the Year award. He was editor at large at Christianity Today when he retired six years ago. President Jimmy Carter calls him “My favorite modern author.”
Still, in the world of Christian publishing, Yancey has always been a bit of a different duck. Unlike other Christian heavy-hitters such as T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren, he has never pastored a church and is not ordained. Nor is he an academic, like the authors N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, though he often speaks at colleges and universities. And evading those pigeonholes, he said, has freed his writing.
“Those guys are experts,” he said. “You assume they know something you don’t know and I don’t start there. I start with the pilgrim in the pew. I start with lots of questions and some skepticism. I want to understand why bad things happen, what God is really like — the questions we all have—and the process of writing allows me the chance to struggle openly and honestly with those questions.”
But choosing to publicly struggle with his own life history has its perils. First, there is the portrayal of his mother, now 97, who pulled his father out of a polio ward only to watch him die nine days later. For the rest of his childhood, she often blamed Philip and his older brother, Marshall, for the difficulty of their lives. Then there is Marshall, who ran away from home and into drug and sex addictions before being diagnosed as schizophrenic.
The Story's Not Over
Recently, Yancey arranged a phone call between his mother and brother. “It was the first time they heard each other’s voices in 51 years,” he said. “It didn’t go particularly well.” But he still has hope. “They had one more call and she said, ‘I am sorry,’ and he said, ‘Too late.’ But who knows? The story is not completely over yet.”
Yancey knows Where the Light Fell is not like his other books. He is worried some of his readers may be shocked or disappointed by what he calls its “verbal selfie” of him as a young man. “It is always a risk writing so personally and vulnerably,” he said. “I guess I would just say to people, ‘This is who I was. This is the group I came out of. And this is the God I found despite that group.’ And those who are in that same world now, I hope they find some hope.”
Today, 50 years after he left fundamentalism behind, Yancey identifies as an evangelical — a word he knows has become fraught due to its association with science denialism, conspiracy theories, and a single political party, but that he says he will still cling to it as long as he can. “I know that words change over time and words that used to be positive are now disgusting and ‘evangelical’ is on that slope,” he said. “But the label ‘evangelical’ gives me a chance to say the word means ‘good news.’ And, yes, I know there is a bad news side of it and I am very concerned about that.”