Author Interview: Philip Yancey

October 8, 2010

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!

41 responses to Author Interview: Philip Yancey

  1. I’m glad to hear about Philip’s new book. There have been a few voices in the Christian Community who have at times been the voice of reason to me, and at other times been the voice of comfort… knowing that I wasn’t the only one struggling with different issues. Philip has always been one of those. I learn by asking questions. I spend a lot of time with the younger generation who also is not afraid to question the status quo spiritually. I would personally like to Thank Philip for writing books that touch my heart so deeply and that I can offer to my younger friends to help them with their journey as well.

  2. As I read this interview (thank you, Matt!), I found myself seeing a theme that has been getting a lot of focus lately. I’ve seen several books lately about being hurt in an environment where grace should abound, about suffering in/for/with Christ (something that, I agree, we Americans know nothing about). It seems everybody is searching. I have to include myself in this. I’m a spoiled spiritual wimp who thought he was “hot stuff” for God, only to get seriously messed up over the smallest thing. (I’d like to think I’d be much braver facing a firing squad or a sword about to hack my head off, but I know I don’t know what I’d do in that type of situation.)

    It’s as if, as Mr. Yancey says, the Spirit is changing how He’s dealing with the US. I don’t think it’s “divine judgment” or anything, but rather an “okay, you asked for it.”

    I have to admit, I’ve heard of Mr. Yancey but never read his books. I’d like to read this one. (There, does that meet the boundaries of “sucking up?” :) )

  3. I’ve read Phillip Yancey’s books and they are very challenging and encouraging. This is one that would be very close to my heart right now as God is shaking me up and challenging me about all the ‘stuff’ we have and how comfortable we like to be. It’s not about me, it’s about my ‘preferring others’. Another reason I’d really like this book is that today is my birthday – and I’m Canadian, eh? God bless.

  4. Matt .. dealing with major jealousy, an interview with THE Philip Yancey. Good for you and great interview!

    Philip, I’ve read almost all of your books and look forward to reading this new one.
    “Where is God when it Hurts” and “Disappointment with God” not only saved my faith, but also helped save my life a few years ago during a time of depression after I received major injuries. (darn accidents!)
    This interview was great — ‘hearing’ you again reminded me of the “Living Room Conversation” I was in with you in PA (fundraiser for Bridge of Hope) in ’05 or ’06. Enjoyed meeting you and Janet there.

  5. I think I may have heard Philip’s name before, but I am glad for the interview. It sounds like an interesting book, and I will put it on my reading list. Actually, I am amazed that I never heard the name; I used to be the “book police” at a Christian bookstore and do a lot of reading. I also get a lot of questions about bad things happening to good people… and a lot of times, all I can think of is the slums of Brazil, and the drug addicts and prostitutes in the train station in Oslo. Poor or Poor is my most read blog.

    http://fireandgrace.blogspot.com/2008/10/poor-or-poor.html

    “God goes where he’s wanted.” That says it all. As a culture we seem to want God to bless what we are doing, and when it doesn’t go our way, God is all if a sudden a bad God. I mean we’ve pretty much kicked him out of the public square.

    “But I keep running into people who experience the same harsh legalism, mind-control, and gracelessness expressed in different ways.” How the proliferation of religion that honestly does not seem connected to God continues to grow, blows my mind. The talk of rebellion is also sad to me. Instead of acting like Christians, why don’t we live like them?

    Thanks, Matt and Philip.

  6. I would really like this book! I’m interested to hear Yancey’s thoughts on the hard things and God. His previous works have been challenging to me.

  7. Great to read this interview… Oddly enough Mr. Yancey’s book on Prayer is the only one of his I’ve read, but that’s not intentional – I really enjoyed it and intended to read more but just have not gotten to it – so thanks for the reminder to pick his work back up. (I also had the benefit of hearing him speak when I was in college, but unfortunately I was an ultra-conservative freshman at the time who thought he was a bit weird, so I didn’t appreciate what I got to hear – I would now though…)

  8. My husband has the same goal of climbing all of Colorado’s fourteeners (we live in CO) and Matt I ask the same question, “Why?”

    “God goes where he’s wanted”. Love it! Thank you Philip for giving me a fresh perspective this morning on why the church is spreading so furiously in the developing world.

  9. Great interview, Matt! I also really love Philip Yancey’s work. I’d love to win, but I’ll probably buy if I don’t. :)

  10. Yancey has been one of my favorite authors since I first read What’s So Amazing About Grace. I love how he tackles the problem of pain so elegantly.

    I’m very much looking forward to this book. Would love to win it, but will purchase it for certain. Thank you Philip for your heart!

  11. Great interview, Matt! I’ve read The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace. I thank you for reaching out and doing this interview. I especially liked this quote:

    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.

    This needs to be re-tweeted time and time again! GOD goes where He’s wanted! Not the fake God we’ve created in our image. The one true God of the Bible is the one we need! The dangerous God. The God on the edge. The God who is GOD! Not the kindly old grandfatherly type God. Not the pull him out of the toy box Teddy Ruxpin teddy bear God. We need GOD in the church today!

    Oh. I would love to read this book.

    http://wp.me/pKVC6-5z — My latest blog post @ The Lavished Pauper

  12. I’ve read a few of THE Philip Yancey’s books. All great, all push me to think. He talks about returning to this theme and I believe that’s good, because life keeps returning us to this theme.

    Pick me! Pick me!

  13. I’m currently reading What’s So Amazing About Grace and it’s fantastic! My husband is a Yancey collector, so I would love to add the newest book to his collection! Thanks.

  14. I love Philip Yancy’s writing – what a wonderful opportunity for you to get to interview him! Great post.

    Did I suck up too much?

  15. I also have heard so many good things about Phillip Yancy but haven’t bought anything yet because I have been too distracted by four little ones (not so little now). I have a booklist a mile long that I need to read. Now that I dumped Facebook, maybe I can get around to reading them and a Phillip Yancy book. I would love to read about Bible college life because I attended one of those hedonistic public universities and temporarily lost my faith there.

  16. I do enjoy Yancey’s stuff. I’ve read through several of his books and preached a sermon based on What’s so Amazing about Grace? I just moved to Virginia so I’m super interested in reading the chapter on Virginia Tech. I also went to a super conservative Bible thumpin Bible College and would love to hear what Yancey’s experiences were. Plus, I’m a book nerd and always love a free book.

    Philip – Thanks for everything you’ve written and the impact you’ve made for the kingdom.

    Matt – Congrats on getting an interview with Yancey, and thanks for the opportunity to maybe win a free book.

  17. Phillip Yancey is one of my favorite authors. All of his books have been a help in my journey. As someone who has struggled at times with the idea of God’s goodness, I would love to have a copy of his new book.

  18. Dude…you’re getting to rockstar blogger status being able to interview Philip Yancey!

    Great interview and the book looks very interesting.

  19. Thanks for this interview! Good words and exciting news about the new book. I haven’t been this excited about a new book release since– well, since last month when Fred Sanders’ latest came out, but still.

    Those who haven’t read any of Philip’s books, run out to your favorite bookstore right now and start with What’s So Amazing about Grace? You will most certainly not regret it.

  20. I know of Philip Yancey, but I’ve never read any of his books. This is a subject I’m very passionate about and I always appreciate hearing of people who agree with me. :)

    Seriously though, it sounds like something is missing from my life by having not read a Yancey book so I trust you to do the right thing and send me a book, Matt. Thanks.

  21. Disappointment With God – a book I read in the spring – is such a fantastic book – I love his approach and journalistic inquisitive-ness.

    GIVE ME THIS BOOK, please.

  22. I’ve heard of Philip Yancey; but, I’ve never read anything of his. This books sounds intriguing. Faith is hard sometimes, isn’t it?

    Thank you for this interview. I have put the book on my reading list.

  23. Wow, it’s been years since I’ve read a Yancey book. Guess it’s time to fix that.

  24. I have a men’s group and we often circle back to a Yancey book after a while. Glad he’s doing a new one. To me he provides a voice of sanity in a rather nutty evangelical world. Thanks for the great interview. pvk

  25. This is the kind of book I would love to read. I think it is an area that is neglected a lot. Suffering happens everywhere, but we are surprised when we run across it in America and we think that something’s gone wrong.

  26. I would love to read Phillip Yancey’s new book. The subject of suffering has always been one of those I always seem to be mulling over in my head. I ask God ‘why?’ a lot.

  27. even though i have a good Christian background, and despite knowing in my mind the truths of the Bible, i still sometimes ask myself, what good is God? i think the comment about culture and entertainment, not to mention comfort…hits hard.
    as i probably won’t win, i’m planning on buying this book too.

  28. So much of Mr Yancey’s books resonate.

    We are soft, we don’t know real suffering, and I think we are going to find out what it is like. I just pray that I (we) have the strength and grace to stand.

  29. I don’t have the pain of the big stuff, (Virginia Tech; broken neck) I have the pain of everyday stuff. Lonely. Rejected. Living in a place I don’t want to live; with people who don’t want to live w/ me. I need to know “What Good Is God?” in crappy everyday life.
    btw, I’ve been an active follower of Christ for 25 years.

  30. you should try reading new testement only book needed to no christ and all the sufering every christian wil have to go through.No need for any more books .We could feed the world with the money spent on books like this only people gaining anything are the ones writing them .let us remeber freely we reiceive freely we should give.amen come lord jesus.

  31. What a great interview! Thanks so much for sharing. I’d love to read this book, not only because of Yancy’s global perspective on suffering and grace, but also because I’d like to hear what he said about Bible college. My son went one semester last year to a great ministry school and came home with less faith in God than before he left. I’m still trying to understand this and figure out how to help him want to pursue an authentic relationship with God. He is a reader. I’m thinking this book could be good for him too.

    An,yway, thanks for a great blog post! Blessing on you, Matt!

  32. I would love to receive a free copy of Yancey’s new book. His book, Church, Why Bother? was a formative book for me in the middle of my 27 years of ministry in Melbourne, Florida. I can see how his new book would have the potential to have the same effect in these days of helping so many in our church family deal with suffering and the suffering of those they love.
    Peace.

  33. As a previous commenter said, I’ve also seen Yancey’s stuff around (probably my parents’!), but haven’t read any of it myself. The books have always been on my to-read list (and believe me, the list is long), but now I might have to shift them up a couple slots. Grace is such a delicious topic.

    Thanks for the interview! (Simple and concise… because as a high school senior not yet sleeping at 1:44am, you know there’s probably something else I should be doing now besides commenting on blogs.)

  34. To me Philip is the CS Lewis of our time. WOW! What a truly gifted writer. A gift to all of us. Thank you Philip Yancey. Gary

  35. I loved this book! Great interview, Matt. Thanks for sharing. Yancey is one of my personal heroes.
    Jeff Goins recently posted..The 21st Century Guide to Winning Friends &amp Influencing People

  36. ARE YOU KIDDING??? I’m a huge, huge Yancey fan – I’ve read nearly all his books “Rumors of Another World” tops that list! Great piece – you’re a natural interviewer and I’m going to get the book for my Kindle now based solely on your article. Thanks so much for being bold enough to ask for the interview and deft enough as a writer to craft such a great product to share.
    Tor Constantino recently posted..I Want to Hear From You!!!

  37. Philip: I am an 86 year old woman. Still work full time at a job I love.. Librarian in a
    small town library. I am half way through your new book, and am urging library patrons
    to read it. I will be buying more copies I am sure. When I recall my growing up in a
    church that said “we were God’s chosen” and everyone else was wrong. I recall going
    to see “King of Kings” in a church outside of our denomination and sitting through
    that film praying that the second coming would not occur while I was in the “wrong”
    church. Now in our small towns we have “unity” meetings in the various churches in
    our town and I see how narrow my bringing up was! I have used your books in
    my Sunday school class of senior adults. Even old folks can benefit from your
    thinking! Don’t ever say we are “set in our ways.” I know different from our class
    discussions. God bless you!

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  1. Jesus also goes where he’s no longer welcome | Leadingchurch.com - October 8, 2010

    […] Yancey’s books and I love Matt’s blog “The Church of No People” and so when Matt did an interview with Yancey I ate it up. I especially love the line by Yancey that “God goes where he’s wanted” which I […]