Yep, you read the title correctly.
On a regular basis, I get requests from publishers to do book reviews. Since I don’t really do book reviews, I sometimes use the chance to negotiate for an interview with the authors.
Wouldn’t you know it, Philip Yancey (The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s So Amazing About Grace) is releasing his first book in a few years, titled What Good is God? It happens to be a fantastic book about his journeys to places experiencing extreme tragedy, and asking the question, “When life is just awful, what good is believing in God?” It also happens to be the first book that he’s published since he nearly died in an auto accident (which you’ll read about in the book). I thought I’d take a shot in the dark, and was surprised that Philip Yancey was really gracious enough to answer questions from little old me.
The book takes you all over the world, from Virginia Tech, to South Africa, to India, to China, to Yancey’s own Bible thumping college. It’s well worth a read, and it comes from an author I have a unique respect and appreciation for. Yancey is my second favorite Philip in the world (right behind my dad), and I couldn’t wait to ask him a few questions about the book, his thoughts, and recent life goings-on. Oh, and I’m giving away a couple of free copies of the book too, so read on!
Mr. Yancey, first, thank you for taking some time for us. It’s been a few years since you’ve released a book. For twenty years, it’s been common to see a book, even two from you almost every year. Where have you been?
I had the broken-neck auto accident in 2007, which upset my schedule for a while. And in the last few years I’ve given priority to international travel for a couple of reasons. First, it’s my “tithe” back to the church, and I prefer speaking in circumstances that challenge me; international events definitely do that. Second, I’m always looking for new material, and indeed I got plenty. What Good Is God? tells stories from six different countries of what was going on behind the scenes as I spoke to some rather unique gatherings. Okay, I must also admit that I’m slowing down. I even spent a few months this summer developing a website and Facebook presence, something I vowed I’d never do.
Well I’m glad you’re on Facebook, so I can finally click a button and officially “Like” you. Also, a poor little sheep ran away from my farm. Can you help me? I just want my wall to say “Philip Yancey helped Matt find his poor lost sheep.”
What is What Good is God? about? Of all the events you discuss in the book, is there a single event that defines and encapsulates the book for you above the others?
I began my career as a journalist, seeking out people I could learn from and spend time with. Over the years my writing turned more personal and introspective, and to my surprise I found that many readers began looking to me as a kind of source. Frankly, that scared me. I’ve always thought of myself as a pilgrim, not a mentor. This book combines the two roles, journalist and speaker. I don’t know of another book quite like it, and I’m always attracted by new forms.
A single event? The first thought that comes to mind is the report from Mumbai, India, where I was scheduled to speak the night of the horrific terrorist attacks. That’s the incident that prompted the book, and it concentrates all the questions I’ve had about the themes of suffering and of grace.
What Good is God? centers around themes of suffering and calamity, but it is mostly the suffering of other people save the account of your car accident. Themes of pain are not unexplored territory with you. Did this book spring from a place of pain in your life, or are you motivated by the suffering you observed around the world?
I keep circling back to the themes of suffering and grace, don’t I? As I travel to other countries, I see those themes amplified in ways we Americans can hardly imagine. A country like India still has a regimented caste system that embodies the opposite of grace, and in many countries Christians are an oppressed minority who face unimaginable suffering. We have much to learn from them.
The chapters based in the U.S. center on those same themes: alcoholics and prostitutes struggle with grace, Virginia Tech with the problem of pain. Any place of pain in my own life seems inconsequential compared to what confronts the people in this book, yet all of us ask the same questions. Sometimes we ask them with more urgency, but I believe pain and grace are universal themes.
You mention traveling to dangerous places where calamities have struck and having your faith “buoyed” by being in contact with people experiencing persecution or hardship. Why do you think people in hard times and hard places show so much faith, while the relatively comfortable West is “jaded” in your words?
Helmut Thielicke observed that the greatest weakness of American Christians is their inadequate theology of suffering. We get spoiled by our comforts. Our entire culture revolves around entertainment. We move from air-conditioned and heated automobiles into similarly climate-controlled buildings. We take more prescription medicines than the rest of the world combined.
As I travel, I’ve concluded, quite simply, that “God goes where he’s wanted.” God never forces himself on a person or a nation. If a society gets comfortable and loses interest in faith, the Spirit quietly moves on. Some cities have 500 cable television stations available; we have many distractions that make the average church service seem boring by contrast. Meanwhile, peasants in China, villagers in the Philippines and Brazil and much of Africa find hope and comfort in the promises of the Gospel, both for this life and for the next.
As a rebellious Bible college student, I enjoyed the break in the middle of the book to read about your experiences at Bible college. For many young people, Bible colleges still represent the old-fashioned, judgmental cultural bubble that can harm faith as much as nurture it. How can a student who doesn’t fit in at a Bible college make that Christian bubble a life-bringing experience, and emerge a well-adjusted Christian?
I try to capture the ethos of a Bible college environment in the late 1960s, aware that to many modern readers it will seem bizarre. “Get over it,” some say to me. But I keep running into people who experience the same harsh legalism, mind-control, and gracelessness expressed in different ways. How to survive? Not everyone is equipped to survive a closed community like that, and ironically many lose their faith there. For those who stick it out, I recommend finding an “underground network” of fellow students and maybe even some faculty members, who stay a bit on the edge, who reward rather than punish honesty, who have a sense of humor about the eccentricities of the place, who realize that God seems to have a soft spot for rebels, as the Bible clearly shows.
A few years ago you completed your quest to climb all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 plus mountain peaks. When contemplating such a magnificient feat, I suppose the only obvious thing I can say is…“Why?”
When I had the auto accident in 2007 I lay strapped to a backboard for seven hours unsure whether I would survive (doctors thought a bone fragment may have nicked a major artery). I reviewed my life, especially my regrets, and knew that as a Christian author I should probably come up with something spiritual-sounding. Instead all I could think of was, “I can’t die yet, I’ve climbed 51 of the 54 fourteeners in Colorado!” So that summer after I got out of the neck brace and went through physical therapy I climbed the last three.
Why climb mountains? My wife and I started it because we couldn’t think of a better way to get to know our new state, having moved from downtown Chicago. We came to love the solitude, the beauty, the physical challenge. Sometimes you get turned back by weather, often you’re miserable, and along the way you learn about endurance. I have wonderful memories, a lot of photos, and a lasting impression that nature goes on in its wild and majestic way whether we observe it or not. If we do manage to observe it, we forever see ourselves and our place in the world differently.
Okay, time for free stuff! Leave a comment here about how much you want this book, or about the last Yancey book you read, or just thank Philip Yancey for being here…but don’t suck up too much. You can get another entry in the drawing by tweeting this post. Winners will be chosen at random on Sunday. Of course, you can preorder the book right here too. Have a great weekend!