Prolific author and Homecoming friend Philip Yancey is back with yet another provocative, thoughtful book exploring thorny issues within our faith and the church. His latest work, Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News?, tackles the diminishing popularity of Christianity in postmodern America over the past several decades and suggests ways that believers (especially evangelicals) can cut through today’s rampant cynicism to proclaim the gospel in word and — much more important — deed. As if penning 20 books — including 13 Gold Medallion Award winners and two ECPA “Book of the Year” honors for What’s So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew — isn’t enough to keep him hopping, Yancey also serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He’s one of the most-read Christian thinkers of our time; four of his books have sold more than one million copies. Yancey lives with his wife in Colorado, where he loves to climb 14,000-foot mountains and view the world from a bit closer to heaven.
GLORIA: Philip, I am glad we could connect. How are you today?
PHILIP YANCEY: I’m fine, Gloria, it’s good to hear your voice!
GLORIA: I love your new book, and I wish I could pick 10 or 20 of my favorite Christian thinkers of all time and stick them all around a table and discuss everything you bring up in this book. There are so many questions raised here — maybe the first one I’d love to deal with is back to the insider’s view of the church. All too often, we take the Great Commission as a “bossing mandate” — “Go into all the world and tell...” But, actually Jesus said, “Go into all the world and teach what I have taught you,” and He taught very little by talking.
PHILIP: Yeah, there’s that old line from St. Francis, who said, “Preach at all times, and when necessary, use words.”
GLORIA: I think we’re better at doing than we are at being…
PHILIP: We are, and I use this line in there from Miroslav Volf … He says in the old days, in a kind of a pre-Christian environment, where there is a Christian consensus, people are open to a direct proclamation. So, in 1950, Billy Graham could go into any city in the United States, fill the largest stadium, and floods of people would come forward. He would just stand up, straightforward, and say, “The Bible says…” and people would say, “Oh, if the Bible says it, it must be true.”
You try that in an increasingly post- Christian environment, and for one thing, you’re going to have a hard time filling a stadium, and then if you say, “The Bible says…” people will say, “Well, so what? I don’t believe your Bible. The Quran says…” You know, they’ve got these alternatives. Volf says in the kind of environment we’re in now, the most effective way is hand to heart to head. Reaching out with your hands — acts of mercy — that affects people’s hearts. They want to know why you did that, and then they’re open to the message.
We got back recently from India, and I saw the effect of missionaries who are out there building clinics and hospitals. They started working with the Dalits, the lower class, and now they have schools, they have hospitals. Tens of millions of Dalits are very interested in Christianity now, who weren’t before, because they understand that we believe that even they were made in God’s image. They’re not being punished for something they did in a previous life. They want to know, “Why would you care? Why would you build a clinic for me? Why would you educate me? My own religion won’t even let me go to the temple, because I’m an outcast; I’m not allowed in the temple. But you care.” And then, they’re open to the message. That’s been repeated throughout missionary history in so many places around the world. Even after the missionaries were kicked out, their good deeds lived on, and the church exploded.
GLORIA: I think the metaphor Jesus used is pertinent right now, in this postmodern world, when He said, “Here’s how I want you to be. Like yeast in the dough, like salt in the food.” Some of the things you said in the book about the Great Commission, particularly, I really loved because it was Jesus’ directive, but it was not a “go, hit people on the head and talk down to them.” It’s like we’re conquerors taking over, rather than walking into the circumstances people live in and being Christ’s compassion in that place.
PHILIP: Yes, all of the images that I remember that Jesus uses of the kingdom are small things. They are, like you said, salt, or the smallest seed in the garden that falls to the ground and dies. It grows into a great bush, and the birds of the air can come and nest.
When I go to a country where the church used to be very strong and now it’s not, it’s easy for Christians to be discouraged. And I tell them, no, you’re actually back where the whole thing started. If you think of Jesus in that tiny little corner of the Roman empire … there were these terrible things going on in Rome. We have national football, where they smash into each other; they had gladiators, who would actually kill each other for entertainment every Sunday afternoon. They wouldn’t have abortion; they would let the babies be born and just abandon them by the side of the road for wild animals. There were these terrible social things going on, and how much attention did Jesus give to them? Not very much, if any. He didn’t believe that you change society from the top down, governing and passing laws. That’s more the Muslim way, frankly, where you combine Sharia law with the kingdom, the earthly kingdom.
Jesus gave us a commission that could operate in every society, and it does, in communist China today, as well as in democracies. I call it a pioneer settlement that shows people a different way to be human, a different way to live. That’s what we’re called to do, and that is exactly what the early Christians did. They were living in the Roman empire, and they started living differently. They didn’t abandon their babies; in fact, they brought in the babies that other Romans abandoned and raised and nurtured them. They didn’t flee when plagues hit a town; they stayed behind and nursed the sick.
The church has done that in different ways … I mean, who were the first two Americans to get the Ebola virus? They weren’t UN workers; they were missionaries with the American church. And that’s true all through history. In India, every major advance in treating leprosy came from missionaries, because they were the only ones willing to deal with people with leprosy. And we’ve done that throughout history.
It’s actually more complicated in a place like the United States, where Christians do form a majority, and then you start thinking, “Oh, well we can pass laws, we can make everybody like us.” Jesus didn’t really give us a model for what that looks like; He showed us how to live in any society, even a hostile society.
GLORIA: I love the quote that you give from Bob Moorehead, about how the stuff we do doesn’t really work in the long run. “We have taller buildings but shorter tempers; wider freeways but narrower viewpoints; we spend more but have less; we buy more but enjoy it less; we have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, yet less time; we have more degrees but less sense; more knowledge but less judgment; more experts, yet more problems…”
So often, the human efforts that we do, if it isn’t generated just by loving people where we are, it doesn’t work. I look at our neighborhood; we live in this tiny town of 5,000 people, and honestly, if we aren’t Christ there, what are we doing on stage?
PHILIP: That’s very good. You know, when I travel overseas and come back, I’m always shocked again when I enter my own country. If you look at the list of the top 10 health problems of the United States, straight from the CDC, they are all things that we’re doing to ourselves.
We smoke too much, we drink too much, we take too many drugs, we have promiscuous sex, we eat too much … I mean, every one of the top 10 traces back to our behavior. I think we’re called, as Christians, to show people a better way to live; you don’t find the happiness that you’re looking for by accumulating more and more. You find your life, as Jesus said, by giving it away, finding significance rather than success. If we’re just here to indulge our desires, we end up being a slave of those desires — that’s what addictions are.
We are a blessed people, and we have the opportunity to show the world this is what a blessed people does — we bring blessings to others. So if there’s an earthquake, a tornado, or another problem in the world, the Americans are there on the frontlines. We’ve done that — we still do it, but there’s a part of society that has kind of forgotten that, and thinks we’re just supposed to sit around and play video games or watch the 500 cable channels on our TV and eat popcorn, you know? That’s what the commercials tell us brings happiness, but you and I both know it doesn’t.
GLORIA: Well, aren’t we a whole addicted nation? I think we get attachments to things, and they aren’t all chemical. They are things like our cell phones and our tennis games and our football mania. It seems that because there’s a big hole in our guts, we keep trying to fill it with something. As Richard Rohr says, the first half of life may be about building a container, but if you don’t start putting something eternal into the container, then you just get a bigger and bigger container, and the hole gets bigger and bigger.
PHILIP: Yeah. And just like it happened with Israel in the Old Testament, it was when the country or the nation was doing well that the problems started — again and again they forgot God.
We do have a great tradition, but when we have so many things and so much success, it’s easy just to forget God, forget those other people who have true needs and just indulge. That’s the great challenge and the great risk that I think our country faces.
GLORIA: You gave a great quote from Henry Drummond: “The Holy Spirit is just what Christ would have been had He been here. He ministers comfort just as Christ would have done — only without the inconveniences of circumstance…”
PHILIP: Yes, the presence of God used to dwell in the temple, in the Holy of Holies that not even priests could go in except once a year. Then the presence of God dwelt inside this 30-year-old Jewish rabbi in Israel, which is an astonishing condescension. And now, even more astonishing, the presence of God lives in us, in you and in me.
The Spirit is God set loose in God’s people all around the world. And my goodness, sometimes we’ve really embarrassed God, but at the end of the day, it seems to give God pleasure to see us do, in our ineffective, mistake-prone way, things that God could do with the snap of a finger. He chose ordinary people like us to get across the message of good news.
GLORIA: Yes, and don’t you look around and say, “You know, I think, God, if you made a bad mistake it was to leave all this with us”? Bob Benson used to say, “I think if I had been God, I wouldn’t have put the wonderful mystery into some of those containers.”
PHILIP: Right! I’ll tell you an illustration I use when I speak about this. I live in a little town called Evergreen, Colorado, and unlike many towns this size, the high school here still has a stringed orchestra. Every once in a while, the Evergreen High School orchestra will tackle a piece of music that they really have no business trying. And here’s what I’ve learned: When the Evergreen High School orchestra plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, don’t blame Beethoven. It’s not his fault! Those screechy sounds that come out of those teenagers — that’s not what Beethoven had in mind when he wrote that.
On the other hand, the only way some people tucked into the world where I live here have ever even heard of Beethoven is because of that orchestra. And that’s the commission that we’re given by God. The church sometimes does a worse job at sounding the Good News than the Evergreen High School orchestra does at sounding Beethoven. But God was willing to take that risk; it pleases Him to see us somehow catch that gulp of grace, that glimpse of what we’re meant to be and to communicate that to a messed-up world around us. God seems to take pleasure, enjoy watching us … just like parents sitting in the auditorium at Evergreen High School.
GLORIA: Yes! We had a discussion about praise and worship music at our church, and a lot of the older generations don’t like it, so our church separated the worship services. We had the early traditional and then the contemporary. We did that for about six months, and everybody hated it! We all went to the pastor, and the kids said, “I don’t like just being in the kids’ service! I miss the people that I talk to that are stable in my life.” Then the old people said, “We hate this! We get our hymns, but we don’t get the kids.” Everyone said to the pastor, “We will tolerate each other’s music if we can just have our body back,” which I really loved. The interesting thing is that one of the women who said she hated it the most … when they put the services back together, her grandson was on the worship team. She said, “You know, I used to really hate this music, but I’ve come to like it a lot since my grandson is on the worship team.” We learned that it’s more about the grandson, by far, than what song we sing.
PHILIP: There’s something deeply profound there. Somehow, what we’re doing here on this planet, as strange as it seems, is making a difference to the future of the universe. And that was God’s plan all along, to let us have a role to play in the great battle against evil. We are the characters who are on the front lines of that battle, strangely enough.
GLORIA: I know, it’s weird. You have a great phrase in here: “God uses the talent pool available.”
PHILIP: That’s right! (Laughs)
GLORIA: In your chapter on pilgrims, you have this wonderful list about what it looks like to be Christ. It starts by saying that God intends the best for us; that sin and failure are inevitable but forgiveness is guaranteed; that a supportive community bears burdens and comforts the needy. Then you have this wonderful list: love one another; forgive one another; pray for one another; bear one another’s burdens; be devoted to one another; regard one another as more important than yourself; do not speak against one another; do not judge one another; show tolerance for one another; be kind to one another; speak truth to one another; build up one another; comfort one another; care for one another; stimulate one another to love and good deeds.
We forget, I think … We feel like we have to be articulate and smash people somehow. We’ve got this polarization, not only in the church but in the country, either extremely one thing or extremely the other.
PHILIP: Yes, if we did those things on the list, then it would attract people to us. They would say, “They’ve got something I want.” If the church acts like the church, that’s all we have to be. People will line up at the door!
Dr. Paul Brand used to use this illustration. In the middle of a talk for Wheaton College, he would say, “Boy, I’m getting a little low on energy here,” and he’d reach in his pocket and he’d pull out some grapes and just pause and eat them. People would be a little uncomfortable, you know, because he’s not talking — he’s standing up there by the microphone, eating grapes. And then, he spits them out! Then, people are very uncomfortable; you know, here he is in Edman Chapel, spitting out grapes! And he’d say, “What I’m doing is propagating for the future.”
He said, “We think the grape is luscious and sweet and good-tasting because it will give us pleasure, but from the grape’s viewpoint, it only has one goal in mind, and that is to produce more grapes. And if doing that means it has to be luscious and juicy so that I’ll eat it and then spit out the seeds, all the better! And if I wasn’t inside this chapel — if I was outdoors and I had done this — 30 years from now, there could be a vineyard growing.” Then he’d go on to say, “The fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control — those things are good for us, yes. But if we lived them out, people would want that fruit.”
GLORIA: I love that. And I also love your chapter on artists, of course, because I believe with the post-modern shift, people are no longer ready for us to stand up and give them three points of what they ought to do. I think maybe pastoring would look more like sitting on the edge of the church steps, letting people ask the right questions. I really do believe that art, music, poetry, drama, theater are the way, right now, the “wrappers” that we’ll be able to use to ask people hard questions about life.
PHILIP: Yeah, you’re right. Art always asks the questions. If you go to Broadway, you see play after play about decadence, meaninglessness and violence. There are also other musicals that are kind of “feel good” musicals. But the serious art today is pretty bleak; it’s pretty negative. And the books we read … Two hundred years from now, when they look back on this time, they’re going to scratch their heads and say, “Boy, these people, they were depressed!” (Laughs) And here we are, living in a wealthy, successful society at the top of the world, but the art — it’s like the canary in the mine — it picks up the toxic fumes that nobody else can.
And in the same way, the Christian message can sneak alongside and … I quote Walker Percy in there, “It doesn’t tell us something we don’t know; it tells us something we know but don’t know that we know.” It plucks a chord of response. We say, “yeah, that’s true” or “yeah, I would like some of that” or “yeah, I wish that were true.”
I mention the play “The Mysteries” in the book … to me, that was such a beautiful illustration. Somebody recommended it, so I bought tickets and went to see it, in London. And here was this South African troupe, almost all black. They walk out—the first two characters are Adam and Eve, earth mother, earth father. It’s a blank space, with some garbage cans, and then these people came out and just acted through the stories of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and then Jesus, Mary and the crucifixion. It ends with the resurrection.
They were mostly using the Bible’s words, but it was in five different African languages that nobody could understand. And here’s this London audience, all dressed up. At the end, they were on their feet, standing, waving handkerchiefs, yelling “Bravo, bravo!” And I thought, isn’t this amazing? The cycle is complete, because Africa first heard this story mainly through British missionaries. They went down there, taught the gospel, and now, they’ve forgotten the story! And all these African kids, in their own culture … they brought this pure story back to sophisticated London, and they got it. It was some of the best evangelism I’ve ever seen.
GLORIA: I think with so many great cultural changes, the problem was that laws couldn’t do it. The mores and habits of the culture were so ingrained that nobody seemed to be able to change it, and then comes along a Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, who writes a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I think the power of art to tell a story — that’s what Jesus did, when the Pharisees poked Him in the belly with their fingers and said, “What do you think about this?” And He would just take two steps backward and say, “Let me tell you a story.”
PHILIP: Right. I have a friend named Carl Medearis. He was a missionary in Lebanon for over 20 years, and he has the most disarming style. He and Ted Dekker wrote a book together called Tea with Hezbollah, and they went to Lebanon and met with the Hezbollah. And immediately, the Hezbollah will attack; they’ll say, “This is America, right? You’re the ones who give Israel the F-15s that bomb our people!” Carl would say, “You know, I don’t know about that, but that kind of reminds me of a story that Jesus told.” He cuts right through the issues. And, of course, they respect Jesus — He’s a great prophet to them. He just repeats the stories of Jesus.
So much of our world today is “What do you think about this? What side are you on?” Well, stories aren’t a side; stories are reality. In our polarized society, we need those stories just to remind us that this is what matters most and these are the questions that you need to answer to live a life worth living. Art does that. For most of us, the church was the womb of art, the nature of art that has slipped away. We’ve forfeited a lot of it, and I hope we can reclaim it.
GLORIA: I do too, and I like the quote here about one of the greatest things from Christianity — it’s Pope Benedict, I think — being the art it has produced in its womb.
PHILIP: Well, great art has that surprise factor. If you know where it’s going, it’s not great art. And our faith is based on surprises … who would expect that the terrifying God who’s so clearly depicted in the Old Testament, that fearsome God, to end up inside a woman as a baby? Who would expect the Master of the Universe to be not from Jerusalem, not from Rome, but from Nazareth? “Does anything good come out of Galilee?” And then, to end up dying — who would expect? It certainly looked like the whole thing was over.
It was Dorothy Sayers who said if you didn’t have the crucifixion, the Christian story wouldn’t have power. The story of humanity is redemption. It’s God wresting good out of evil, wresting triumph out of suffering. It looked like the end of everything, and it just ended up being the beginning. We are what follows that beginning, and each one of us has our own smaller drama of redemption — the pain, the sadness that we go through in life, the failures, the injustices, the poverty — whatever it is we face … and the faith that somehow, God can allow us, not to endure it, but triumph through it; not to be delivered from it, but to be delivered through it, with a promise of a new creation someday.
GLORIA: Thank you — this book is going to really, not only speak to the church, but I think, ironically, it will speak to those outside the evangelical church because they’re wondering if we like what’s going on in here.
PHILIP: Exactly! (Laughs) Those over-the-shoulder readers.
GLORIA: It was a delight to talk to you again, Philip.
PHILIP: I enjoyed it, too. Thanks, Gloria!
For more about Philip Yancy, visit philipyancey.com