Philip Yancey "The Road to Grace" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. I want to welcome you to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences right around the world. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts, taking time to give us a review or thumbs-up or even share this episode will mean a great deal to us and allow us to reach more people with meaningful and, hopefully, deeply spiritual content that continually reminds us of Henri’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that we are God’s beloved child.
So, with that said, let me take a moment to introduce my guest. Today, I have Philip Yancey with me. I’ve been a fan of Philip’s books for the past three decades. He wrote one of my favorite books, What’s So Amazing About Grace? Over his writing career, Phillip has penned dozens of books with challenging and refreshing titles like Reaching the Invisible God, The Jesus I Never Knew, Where is God When It Hurts, Disappointment with God – the list goes on and on. Today, there are more than 15 million copies of Philip Yancey’s books in print in over 50 languages.
Philip knew Henri Nouwen, and he wrote about the profound impact Henri had on him in his book, Soul Survivor. I just read Philip Yancey’s memoir, Where the Light Fell. This is where I would like to start our conversation today. Philip, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Philip Yancey: Thank you so much, Karen.
Karen Pascal: I know that you grew up in a strict fundamentalist church and home. Can you tell us a bit about this? This is really, I think, the core of what you write about in Where the Light Fell. Tell us a bit about your family and about your upbringing.
Philip Yancey: Yes. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. This was right as the civil rights movement was getting underway. And of course, our most famous citizen was Martin Luther King, Jr. My church was on the wrong side of every one of the important issues in the 1960s. We were pro-war, pro-poverty, anti-race. You know, it’s astonishing when I look back on it, but it was one of these very tight, narrow, fundamentalist churches. A lot of people think of Southern Baptists. Well, they were the liberals to us. We were independent, fundamental Baptist. And in those days, we didn’t define ourselves against the general culture by politics, as often happens today. It was by behavior. There were things everybody else did that we didn’t do. We didn’t go to movies. We didn’t bowl because they might serve alcohol in the bowling alleys. We didn’t roller skate because it looked like dancing. You know? So, some of the women wouldn’t wear any makeup whatsoever, any jewelry – one of those groups. And there was also a very strong sense that few of us were going to ever experience God’s love. Few of us would ever get into heaven. Hell would be a very large, teeming place. Heaven, a very small place, slightly larger than our church, but maybe not too much larger.
Karen Pascal: Philip, you know, there’s something you and I share in common, which I found right at the beginning of your book. And that is, we both lost our fathers at a very young age. That played an important part in your life. Maybe tell a little bit about that. And there was, in honesty, real, severe poverty in your background as well. Tell us about that.
Philip Yancey: Yes. And they were connected. My parents were planning to be missionaries. I was one year old; my brother was three years old, and they were planning to go to Africa. They had a mailing list of several thousand people who agreed to support them, pray for them. And then one of the pandemics struck. This was back in 1950 and the fearful pandemic at that time was polio. Most of the people who got polio were children, which made it particularly terrifying. My father was one of the exceptions. He was 23 years old, with these two toddler children and raising money to go to Africa. And then suddenly he’s completely paralyzed. Can’t move anything. Can’t even breathe on his own. So, for two months he was put in an iron lung that did his breathing for him.
During that time, the people who were supporting him, and my father himself, believed that he would be healed by God. They couldn’t understand why God would “take” someone who had that much potential in serving God. So, they took a leap of faith and had him removed from the iron lung, against medical advice, and put him into a little clinic that really had no provision for keeping him alive. And he showed slight improvement for a few days. And then, within about 10 days, he died. And that defined my life. It changed my mother. She was devastated. She was unequipped to deal with life. She couldn’t drive, never had a driver’s license, had never written a check and suddenly she’s left. She grew up in Philadelphia. Now she’s in a different part of the country, the South, with these two young boys, no real source of income. And we did live in real poverty. We moved every year when I was in elementary school, because often people will rent a house a little cheaper the first year and then raise it the next year.
And every time they raised the rent, we found another one that was offering an entry discount. And then in high school, we lived in a trailer, a mobile home, eight feet wide and 48 feet long – about the size of a lot of these RV vehicles you see cruising down the interstates here in Colorado, where I live. And it was positioned on church property. So, this little, narrow, fundamentalist church, we lived there on the property. My mother was head of Christian education. We never could get away from the religious part. We had to be there every time the door was open, every revival – it was like the preacher’s kid syndrome. My mother wasn’t a preacher, but she was in the business of teaching Bible. And sometimes we would go along with it. Sometimes we would test the limits and get in trouble.
Karen Pascal: One of the things that was very striking to me about your memoir was the account of your mom’s dedication of you and your brother, and how that, in a way, hung over you and almost strangled you, in a way. Tell me a bit about how she justified that.
Philip Yancey: Right. And it came directly from my father’s death, because the only way she could come to terms with it was to find a way to replace what she believed God had planned for him. And so, there was a very poignant scene that she told us about when I was maybe 10 years old. She gathered us and told us that right after his death, she went to the cemetery, and the grave was still mounded, as graves are until the ground settles. She threw herself down – we were probably in the car watching, because it was winter – and stretched out her arms, prostrate, on that grave and dedicated her two sons, my brother and me, to God. And she said, “Unless you want them to fulfill their father’s role of being a missionary in Africa, then go ahead and take them now.”
And that played out throughout our lives. Whenever we had a serious illness, and both my brother and I did, before taking us to the emergency room she would again pray that prayer: “Lord, unless you want them to fulfill their father’s role as a missionary in Africa, go ahead and take them now.” And then it became a kind of curse, because my brother, particularly, would be the prodigal son in the family. He was testing the limits and, instead of becoming the good kid, he became one of Atlanta’s first hippies, back in the 1960s. And it became a kind of curse, because she believed that he was resisting God. And until this year, Karen, they had had no contact for 51 years.
Karen Pascal: Isn’t that amazing.
Philip Yancey: Even after I submitted the book manuscript, I finally got them on a three-way phone call, three times. And it wasn’t a reconciliation, but it was baby steps, baby steps. But to think that that was the first time a mother and son, her firstborn son, had heard each other’s voices, in 51 years.
Karen Pascal: Oh, that’s amazing. I really appreciated the honesty of your memoir. And I want to encourage people to get it, because it’s almost like it gives me all the depth of the background of you writing a book like What’s So Amazing About Grace?, because I can’t help but ask myself the question as I go through it: Why didn’t you walk away? Your brother really struggled with the relationship with your mother. And it was quite graceless, if we’re honest, and with the church, and yet the reality is somehow you didn’t end up walking away. Why?
Philip Yancey: Well, that is what’s so amazing about grace, isn’t it? You mentioned the title to the book Where the Light Fell, and growing up in that cloistered, overwrought environment, religious environment, later, I came across this quote from St. Augustine that gave me some perspective. And he said, “I couldn’t look at the light directly, but I could look on where the light fell.” And I had been scorched by looking at the light directly. I emerged from that church experience with this image of God as this cosmic bully, just trying to squash anyone who might be enjoying themselves. And a lot of people actually have that image at root. And I certainly did.
I was softened. I survived childhood by what I call turtling down, trying to create a shell over myself so that nobody could get to me, couldn’t hurt me. And it wasn’t a particularly healthy response, but it got me through high school years. I ended up at a Bible college and then my faith was really afraid at that point. I just didn’t buy the people around me. I didn’t enjoy that environment, but things started softening and that shell started dismantling. The three things that softened it were classical music, the beauties of nature. That’s where I found my place to go, just my respite to get away from the madding crowd around me. So classical music and nature, and then romantic love. And I was softened. And I realized in experiencing the goodness of this world, that that image of God I had was completely wrong, that God had provided the good gifts, the dona bona, as Augustine said.
And I wanted to know that God. But by that time, I had been so saturated, and I knew how to give testimonies, and I knew how to pray, and as my brother would keep saying, “How do you know what’s the difference between what’s fake and what’s real?” And I didn’t know the difference. And so, I tried praying a few times and it just didn’t work. So, I gave up on that and just floated along. And then, I tell the story in the book, and I have hesitated for decades to tell the story of a dramatic conversion I had, which was truly a revelation from God. And I think I had been so inured from just the religious stuff, unable to distinguish the fake from the real, that God knew that God had to speak to me in a very direct way. Something that wasn’t something that I concocted or manipulated; it was something that happened to me in a prayer meeting. And I describe that in some detail.
And you know, Karen, I always have hesitated to talk about my conversion experience, because people will say, “Well, I didn’t have one like that.” And they’re absolutely right. God deals with us all in different ways, the ways that we need. And God knew that I needed something dramatic, something from outside that I couldn’t argue with, and when it happened, it changed everything forever. And as the memoir tells, I went from this cynical, sassy, not-very-likable person to a person who eventually became a writer of faith, exploring faith issues, the rest of my life.
Karen Pascal: It’s a wonderful revelation that you share. And I won’t tell it, it’s your story. And I will encourage people to get the memoir, because it’s like the bottom of the V, you know, and then you come up on the other side. I quite loved it. And for each one of us, we have some experience probably like that, that we confess God broke through, but I liked what you said. It was authentic, what happened. God met you there. And there’s one thing I loved about the memoir, which it carries on, is the fact that’s where you met your wife. You tell that story; I come to like and love her, too, and be excited that here you are down the road and you’re still together. And, it’s one of the great graces of your life that God brought her into your life, I’m sure.
Philip Yancey: Absolutely. Yes. We had our 50th anniversary right in the middle of the pandemic. So, I think she was expecting something like a river cruise on the Danube River. And we ended up with one night in Steamboat Springs. That was all we could pull off, because nothing else was open at that time.
Karen Pascal: Oh, that’s amazing. Well, let’s go on and talk about, you wrote the book Soul Survivor, and it has in it the heroes that have influenced and shaped your life. Tell me a little bit about the key people that have really shaped your life and faith.
Philip Yancey: Some of them came out of my journalistic career, the people that I got to know and interviewed. Some of them are well known – the writer, Annie Dillard. A little lesser known would be Robert Coles, who taught for many years, he won a couple of Pulitzer Prizes and taught at Harvard, introducing people to the literature of faith. And Shusako Endo, a little less known. In fact, I found out as I looked back that about, I think five of the 13 people were Catholics, and more than that were international people. So, G.K. Chesterton, of course, was from Great Britain, Shusako Endo, Japan. . . Mahatma Gandhi made the list. He’s not a Christian, but he is a person who tried to live consistent with the Sermon on the Mount as well as anybody I know, and was deeply influenced by Christians and sadly, was in part turned away from the church because of the racism in South Africa in his youth.
So, some of these were prominent people – C. Everett Koop was Surgeon General of the United States when I wrote this book. Dr. Paul Brand was the one that I knew best. I had written three books together with him. We spent almost 10 years together and he became the father that I never had really as an adult. And then of course Henri Nouwen. And I mean, we could go down the list, but Martin Luther King, Jr., who was, I mean, I hate to even say this, but the church I grew up in, they called him Martin Lucifer Coon. Just this blasphemous, racist statement. But that’s how racist things were back then. And later I realized he was a true prophet, someone who we could use today, if anybody could help be a moral source that the country needs in healing divides. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be the person – and was in the turbulent Sixties.
So, these are the people who… One of them was Frederick Buechner, the writer. And he said, “What a collection of odd fish!” And it’s true. But from each one, I learned something different that deeply shaped me. And like many writers, a lot of my thinking, a lot of my own faith has come through reading. My mentors aren’t always people that I spent time with, but people I spent time with their words, even after their death.
Karen Pascal: It’s funny, because that’s how I found Henri Nouwen. And I think that’s how I found you. You know, you’re asking, who are you reading? Who’s influencing you? Who are you enjoying? And then you go down that path and start reading that person. I have to tell you, I know that I read your chapter on Henri Nouwen in Soul Survivor, probably at the time I began as Executive Director. Somebody gave it to me to read, but I didn’t have it on my shelf. And so, I freshly read it this weekend. And I honestly think it’s one of the best biographies of Henri. It’s short, but I felt like you really got who Henri was. And partly, I was grateful to read it after I had read your own memoir, because I realized you understood some of the pains that probably Henri carried with him into his adulthood, things that shaped him and which he continually wrestled with. And you also, as a writer, understood the reality of somebody who processes their life through their pen. I can imagine the two of you are kindred spirits in that.
What first brought you to Henri’s door? Was it that you were doing an article on him for Christianity Today? How did you find your way to his door?
Philip Yancey: The first awareness I had of Henri was through his book, The Wounded Healer. It’s just a perfect title and the perfect summary of who he was, because he was so open about his wounds, and yet he was a healer. And I followed him over the years at a distance. As you say, he processed things out loud in a book like The Genesee Diary, and Gracias, and The Road to Daybreak. He took apart all of his major decisions and then second-guessed them and third-guessed them, and fourth-guessed them and, you know, was never completely settled, but he was so open and authentic. And I responded to that, because so many Christian books of that era were rather simplistic and propagandistic and had a kind of a smiley face on the cover, you know, and they weren’t giving the authenticity of life. And here was a man who was.
And I had just spent the 10 years with Dr. Paul Brand. And he was an example to me of the most frequently repeated statement that Jesus made in the gospels, at least the record that we have. And I’m paraphrasing here, but what he said, in different ways, was you don’t gain your life by acquiring more and more. You gain it by giving it away. And I would add, in service to others, and in the very process of losing your life, you find it. And that sounds paradoxical. But with Dr. Paul Brand, I realized that’s profoundly true. Here was a man who had been offered – a brilliant surgeon – he’d been offered head of orthopedics at Oxford University, at Stanford University. And he turned them down to serve among the lowliest people on the entire planet. People with leprosy, of the untouchable caste in India. They’d been kicked out of their homes, kicked out of their villages.
And yet, he thrived in that environment. He was a scientist who knew the name of every plant, every animal, every bird, and was just fully alive. And I saw that downward mobility. That was the phrase, you know, where I first came across it. And then when I heard about Henri, who had an equally stellar reputation at the Menninger Clinic, and had taught at Yale and Harvard, and attracted crowds wherever he went, and his books were bestsellers. And yet, he left all of that and moved into L’Arche, first as a healing time for himself. And then, for the rest of his life, it was his base. And I wanted to understand that. So, I don’t know if I called him up. Back in those days, I’m sure I wrote him first – long-distance calls were rare. And he was completely gracious and wonderful.
We spent an entire day together. It was one of those great moments as a journalist where I wasn’t just sitting on one side of the table with a notebook asking him questions. We were together, exploring, because we had a lot in common. Our writing career and the rigid backgrounds we had grown up in. And we became great friends. And I observed it happened to be Adam’s birthday. Adam, of course, was the disabled person that he took care of in those days. And it required a couple of hours of his daytime every day, just cleaning him up, getting him dressed, shaved, clean, and some massaging, whatever else he had to do, and feeding him. And I watched all that happening. And then I went to the birthday party. Some of Adam’s family had come as well, and it was beautiful just being joined to Henri.
And I frankly many times have looked back on that day with envy, because he had just a simple room with a desk and a bed and one bookshelf with a few books on it. And that’s it. And I look at my office with modems and routers and an oversized computer screen and stereo system and all this going on, and I think, “How did I make my life so complicated?”
And of course, Henri had help. He immediately said, “Well, you know, people bring me food.” And sure enough, somebody showed up with a beautiful, simple meal of a Caesar salad and some bread. And I thought, “Henri has found his place. He can meditate. He can be quiet. He can draw from the odd strength of those around him that the rest of the world see as weak.” But these were the clients, you know, the people who lived in community there. They were the ones who gave him strength. And it was just one of those beautiful confirmations that what Jesus said was right. Downward mobility is the path to serenity. You know – the more we strive to acquire more and more, we end up anxious and stressed, as he did. And he had the fortitude to act on it and make a massive change in his life that was hard to understand from the outside. But once I spent that day with him, I did understand.
Karen Pascal: I’m glad you spent that day. I love the fruits of it. I mean, I want to encourage people to get this. I think it’s one of the best; it flourishes on all fronts. There are many wonderful chapters in this, you know: your one on Martin Luther King, your one on Gandhi. But I, as a Nouwen fan, I have to say, I thought it was the best little biography. It was insightful. It was kind. It was honest. You understood his brokenness, his restlessness, and you understood what it was to wrestle with those questions. Both of you were on the same page on that, which is interesting.
Philip Yancey: One way that day changed me, Karen, this is way back, I guess in the 1980s, I think so. And the AIDS epidemic, HIV-AIDS crisis had just really gotten public attention. And in those days, it didn’t even have a name. It was earlier, by the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, called the “gay men syndrome,” because almost everybody who had this strange disease tended to be a gay person, a gay man. And so, Henri, as he was wont to do, immediately flew to the center of this crisis out in San Francisco. And he found an AIDS clinic. There was no treatment at the time. So, all of the patients believed they were going to die. And most of them did, rather shortly. And he went up and down the beds in the ward and said, “I’m a priest. And what I do for a living is listen to people’s stories. Could I hear your story? Would you feel comfortable telling me?”
And some people said, “Get outta here. You know, the church judges me, I don’t want to have anything to do with a priest.” And he’d say “Fine,” and go to the next one.
And he came back and he said, “Philip, I listened to these stories. And some of them were so sad and men who had had maybe a thousand sexual partners, and one of them gave them a fatal disease now, and they didn’t have very long to live.” And he said, “I realized that they were thirsty, thirsty for love. That’s what they were seeking. They were trying to find love and had not found it. And I would ask them sometimes, ‘Did you find it?’ And they would say, ‘No, not really.’” And he said, “That changed the way I prayed.”
And it changed the way I prayed, speaking, as Philip here, prayed as well. When I heard him tell this story, he said, “It’s so easy to put ourselves on a pedestal and judge other people: Those people are offensive. They’re morally offensive. They’re immoral people. And I’ve learned to pray for thirsty people because we all have in us that thirst for love; that thirst for the sound of God saying, ‘You are my beloved, you are the loved one.’”
Karen Pascal: Oh, yes.
Philip Yancey: That he expresses so clearly in The Return of the Prodigal Son. And I thought, what a switch. If in the middle of culture wars, it’s obvious we’re going to have divisions. We’re going to have different interpretations of what’s right and what’s wrong. But even if there’s something that everybody agrees is completely wrong, serial killing or whatever, you know, if we could look at the perpetrator as a thirsty person. And that really transformed how I view people who see the world in a different way than I do.
Karen Pascal: Wow. I want to talk a little bit about What’s So Amazing About Grace? Perhaps it was the first book of yours that I read. And actually, when I went to look on my shelves to find it, it wasn’t there. I have to trust that either I borrowed it from someone or someone borrowed it from me, but it had gone.
Philip Yancey: Funny how that happens with books.
Karen Pascal: It is. Yeah. And it’s always, probably a good sign. It was a book I loved. It was a book that awakened me to a bigger God, because I had some of that evangelical, tight-framed background. And something about this felt so life-giving, so true to who God is. I have to tell you it was a great blessing to me. But it was also a bit of an annoyance, because you go right to the heart of the matter. Grace is there, but you also go to the heart of forgiveness. And that really draws us all in, you know. We have to look at that as well. And that’s a really tough issue.
Tell me a little bit about this book, and then let’s maybe talk a bit about, you know, it was written 25 years ago and you became in some ways called to explain the evangelical community to a liberal, less-conservative community. And at that time, you were in the office of the President doing that. I want to talk to you about today as well, but let’s go back first of all, into What’s So Amazing About Grace? I feel like it’s a theme you’ve come back to in so many of your books. Why is it so central?
Philip Yancey: Well, you’ve read the memoir. So, you could answer that. It’s because I grew up hearing about this thing called grace. You know, “For by grace you are saved, through faith. It’s not of yourselves, lest anybody should boast.” And we’d sing these songs that had grace in them, even Amazing Grace, but I never experienced grace. It was all a different form of ranking. There are spiritual people and then more-spiritual people and then less-spiritual people. And of course, that was happening in Jesus’ day as well, with the Pharisees. And he would cut against that, and just tell these shocking stories of how people who started the day at five o’clock in the afternoon would get the same pay as those who started at eight o’clock in the morning. “Well, that’s not fair!” You’re right. That’s not fair, but God isn’t fair. God errs on the side of extravagance and forgiveness and love and grace.
And when I got that first gulp of grace, it was in another rather graceless environment, a Bible college that had a 66-page rulebook. So, we joked about the Old Testament and the New Testament, because there were 66 books in the bylaws, and everybody was trying to be more spiritual than the persons around them. And I knew how to play that game. And I played it very briefly and then decided, this is just . . . I can’t do it anymore, and became the campus renegade, and lived that out until God met me and melted me. But my goodness, you’re absolutely right. The last thing I wrote, just last week, was a tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And here’s a master of grace and forgiveness. He met with these white nationalists. He sat for three years in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hearing horrific stories of torture and murder and abuse.
And yet he always treated even the perpetrators with dignity, with respect. He and Nelson Mandela, when Mandela had spent 27 years in prison. And as I was going back over that time, during that time, 27 years, the South African government wouldn’t allow any photos of Nelson Mandela. So, he entered prison as a young man. And then when he was released, finally, the first pictures of him came out: of course, he’s a gray-haired, mature man now. He’s 27 years older. And the entire country was just shocked, because they had this image that never changed, kind of like President John Kennedy, who in America, you know, you don’t think of him as old. He’d be [more than] a hundred years old by now, but we think of him as this youthful, football-playing president. And that’s what it was with Nelson Mandela.
And then Mandela stood in front of the people of South Africa and said, “We don’t have time for justice. We don’t have time for revenge. We must find another way.” And that’s when he came up with that Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And there are a few people like that in history, who change history. Václav Havel, the president of Czechoslovakia, before it broke into two, was one of those people. Maybe Mikhail Gorbachev, the same way. And Martin Luther King was one of those people, people who have strong opinions and strong causes for which they fight. But as Martin Luther King said, “Yes, we have to fight, but I use different weapons, the weapons of grace. I don’t demean other people.”
One of the things that really upset me about our former president, Donald Trump, and I’ll just say this, because he would call people things like “human scum” and “deranged.” And once those words are out, once you draw that line, that great gulf, and start treating people like animals, it’s very hard to get back across that gulf. And we need people who know how to show grace. Both of the little things, the little forgivenesses that constitute marriage and going to work and things like that. And also, we need moral leaders who can show us the broad sweep of grace and how it can transform, as it did in South Africa. Everybody predicted a war and it didn’t happen.
Karen Pascal: I’m with you on it. And I look for those voices that call us forward into something better. Can I ask you who you see on that horizon today?
Philip Yancey: Well, I’m still looking. It’s actually, we’re in a time where the other voices, you know, Russia and Ukraine and India, the divisions in China. I’m looking for those voices, too. And in the United States, I know the situation’s different in Canada. In the United States, the evangelical movement is becoming more shrill and more disconnected from the culture at large. Earlier, Billy Graham was a person who was able to show grace toward different groups and bring people together. Of course, Mother Teresa was; Solzhenitsyn was, you know. There were people like that. I’m searching, myself. And I think when someone with moral authority does arise like that, I would hope our country would respond, because grace is a powerful force. And when people see it actually put in practice and it awakens something in them, they realize this is profoundly necessary and profoundly true.
Karen Pascal: You’ve let us know there was a change, but I wonder if I might go back and just visit something. When I read your book, you were honest: You were born a racist. That was a pretty solid situation in your brain and in your attitude. What happened? Tell us a little bit about that doing and undoing in your life.
Philip Yancey: Yes. We were actually taught in church that people of color, especially black people, were inferior. They were cursed by God, and it went back to this crazy interpretation of Genesis 9, the scene when Noah is drunken and naked and something strange happens. It doesn’t really give details. And when he wakes up, he curses his grandson Canaan. So, Canaan must have been involved in some indiscretion. And that, somehow, became a curse of a whole species, a whole line of humanity.
It’s called the curse of Ham, which is very strange because Ham was the father, but he wasn’t cursed. It was Canaan the grandson, and it wasn’t God cursing him. It was Noah cursing him. But anyway, first the Jewish people, then African slave traders, and then southerners would perpetuate this curse of Ham. And it says that he will serve in the tents of Shem forever.
And so, I was taught by ministers of the gospel that that meant that black people – that you’d never find one who’s a CEO of a company or a PhD – but they make very good waiters. They make very good servants. That’s what they were designed to do. That’s what God had in store for them. I mean, I can hardly say the words now, it’s so abominable. And fortunately, a lot of people are saying, “What are you talking about?” They’ve never heard this theory, which is great; I hope it just disappears. But that’s what I was taught.
And then one day, I got a fellowship to the Centers for Disease Control. It was called the Communicable Disease Center back then. And I knew that my supervisor was a PhD from an Ivy league school, Dr. Cherry. And he was a specialist in dying bacteria. So, I checked out the books on dying bacteria, and I couldn’t understand a tenth of what I was reading. I’m a, you know, sophomore in high school, but I was very impressed. And I wanted to at least be able to converse with him. And I got my badge and was escorted to his office. And the door opened, and he was sitting there, Dr. Cherry. And he was a black man. And bells went off in my mind. I realized, “Wait a minute, this is the guy, I’ve been reading these books, trying to understand? This is the guy who’s head of this department? This is who’s my supervisor? The church has lied to me. And if the church has lied to me about race, maybe they also lied to me about Jesus and the Bible.” And it became a real fissure, a doubting time for me, where I wasn’t sure what to believe. I couldn’t believe my church anymore. They had lied to me about race.
And working with him throughout the summer, I got to know him. A very gentle man. He had children my age and was compassionate, was kind of a father figure to me for a few months.
And I started reading: Black Like Me, for example, or James Baldwin. Some of these people. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And I realized that I had been deceived by my church. They were on the wrong side. And man, it took me probably five years to come to a period of trying to piece together what was worth keeping from that church and what I should discard. In fact, I’ve been doing that all my life.
That’s what my books are; they’re explorations . . . I wrote a book called The Jesus I Never Knew, because I didn’t know this kind of Jesus. I had a very different picture of Jesus growing up. And frankly, I feel just privileged and honored to be able to do that full time, because we all have mixed backgrounds. And we all go through a process of reordering, where we pick up things from our childhood and say, “Well, I’ll keep that one, but I’ll throw that one away.” And that’s what maturity is. And because I’m a writer, I do it in public and other people can peek and see what’s happening along the way. But I do it really for myself. And I’m still trying to sort through, as you saw in the memoir, what is worth keeping and what do I still need to discard from my childhood.
Karen Pascal: And there’s a quote I love: “I saw that writing could seep into the crevices, bringing spiritual oxygen to people trapped in airtight boxes.” I love that.
And you also say that you speak to those living in the borderlands of faith. And I think a lot of us are there. And it’s an interesting moment to sort through what can be kept, what is important to keep and what we can say wasn’t true. Wasn’t true at all. I appreciate that.
How do you speak to the polarization that you see today? I know that you have been a voice for the evangelical community in the past. How do you cope with where we are today?
Philip Yancey: People ask me, do you still use the word “evangelical?” And I say, yes. It means “good news.” And in fact, in America, we have this funny thing where every 10, 20 years we change the name of something. You know, whether it’s a race or a movement, like with the feminist movement or whatever, we come up with new names for things, as if that changes the substance. Well, it changes the name but doesn’t necessarily change the substance.
And in most of the world . . . I was talking to the head of the national association of evangelicals here in the United States. And he had just returned from a worldwide congress with evangelicals. And they all said to him, “You can stop using the word ‘evangelical,’ you Americans, but we’re not going to, because we know it means good news. And in my country, it means the Christian presence was started by missionaries who brought orphanages and hospitals and educational institutions and relief and development places. And they fight for social justice, against sexual trafficking, things like that. That’s what the word evangelical means in my country. Don’t take that way. It means good news.”
Well, in the United States, everything is seen through a political lens these days. So, if you ask a New York Times reporter what is an evangelical, he’ll say, “Well, it’s a supporter of Donald Trump,” because 81% of evangelicals, we keep hearing, did support Donald Trump. And no matter what you feel about Donald Trump, it’s always dangerous for your faith to be defined by politics. Whenever state and church get together, church loses in the long term. And so, I do speak out strongly against that. I wrote a book called Vanishing Grace on that very issue.
Like Canada – of course you’re “ahead” of us or behind us in terms of becoming a society less-informed by Christian roots than you had been. But we just have to adjust to the fact, to a pluralistic nation in the United States. Now, there’s a majority of people who are not associated with any church, synagogue, mosque. That’s the first time in several hundred years that that’s been true. Something like 70% at the turn of the century, the last century, 70% of people were affiliated with a religious institution. Now it’s 47%. That’s a dramatic change in just 20-some years.
And how do we respond? Do we grow shrill and keep away from those people and build castles and pull up the boats? Well, that’s one approach, but I don’t think that’s the right approach. We are to be salt of the earth. We are to be a city on a hill and we’re to show a different way, like the early church did. So, I speak whenever I can and write whenever I can about that. And it’s going to take some time for Christians to adjust to the new realities.
I heard somebody say, “It’s like Christians in America used to be the home team. Now they’re the away team” in hockey or football or whatever. So, we’re offensive to society around us. And there are good ways to be offensive and there are bad ways to be offensive. And I explore that area.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because one of the great strengths of America is the separation of church and state. And it was obviously critically important as you formed a nation in the first place. But there is this myth of being a Christian country. And instead of being Christians that influence our country, I think that – maybe I’m wrong to say that – but I think once we actually understand that we are living in a secular world, then to become salt and light in that is really important.
Philip Yancey: Yes. And actually, some of our early founders were fleeing persecution by states who didn’t agree – you know, the Huguenots, the pilgrims, the Puritans – who weren’t part of the majority faith. And as soon as you get close to the state, the state tends to take over, the state determines what’s right. And then the state uses its own powers of violence. And often, the church went along. And it takes a long time to recover from that kind of going to bed with the powers that be. You’re absolutely right.
And if you look at the Bible, primarily it tells stories of the church in exile. Israel was never more than a small, little country and surrounded by neighbors who had very different religions. And then in the epistles, they’re all just small, little groups that Paul is writing to as he’s scrambling around from one city to another, viewed as a tiny little sect of Judaism. Never thought of as a threat by the Roman Empire in Paul’s day at all. And we need to recover some of that understanding of how to be the light on a hill, how to be pioneer settlements of God’s kingdom, which are different than the people around us, so that people say, “I want to be like those people rather than like me. I like the way they live better than the way I live.”
Karen Pascal: Well, I have so enjoyed this conversation and I’m so grateful that you got to know Henri. I loved what you wrote about him. As I said, I think it’s my favorite little piece of biography that’s been written. I did a documentary on Henri and I got to know him through his friends and through his family, because I didn’t really get to know him as you did. I am grateful. And I’m going to point people in that direction and say, “This is something worth reading.”
Thank you for spending this time with me. I also have really valued hearing this story of how you come through what could have been destructive, what could have turned you away from faith, but the way you have processed that and journeyed on in a very deep way. And I also appreciate your sharing your journey from racism to a person who sees that as abhorrent, and is a spokesperson for grace. I am grateful for all those things, Philip. Thank you so much.
Philip Yancey: Well, thank you, Karen. And just one last anecdote here:
I had the opportunity to meet and interview Henri’s brother Paul in the Netherlands. He’s quite a famous man in the Netherlands. He’s head of a group that is like the automobile association, but it’s much bigger. So, everyone in the Netherlands knows the name, Paul Nouwen, and he’s much more famous in that country than Henri. And Paul said, he told me, “I had no idea how many people Henri had affected. And I sat at his funeral.”
He was on the way, Henri was, to film a session with Dutch television on Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and stopped off. And then he had a heart attack and ultimately died. So, people came from all over the world and spoke at his funeral. One by one, they would stand up and talk about how they were changed and how different they were because of Henri.
And Paul said, “I was astonished. I had no idea that he had this kind of impact and it got to me. I realized, okay, I’ve got more success by the way the world measures it. I’ve got more titles, more money, more prestige, more fame. But he deeply changed people at the core.”
And it renewed a faith in him. He was an elderly man at the time. You don’t often see elderly people make a great change in faith, but he did. And it is just encouraging to me that now, of course, Henri’s been dead for a long time. And yet his words live on; his reputation lives on. I’m sure there are YouTube videos that are living on, and there are people who are being confronted with the honesty, the authenticity and the questions that Henri raises. And it is just a beautiful thing to realize that that’s continuing, even when Henri has been gone.
Karen Pascal: Oh, thank you. Thank you very, very much for this. I really appreciate that. And I love that last story. Understanding that Paul Nouwen saw that Henri was changing hearts. It was interesting, because I don’t think Henri felt, at the time, particularly at home in his own family. But that very sense of being uncomfortable there was probably one of the painful realities that birthed some of the best things that he wrote. You know, those things that undo us and hurt us are sometimes the very things that in the end really are what others need to hear, what others need to touch.
Thanks so much, Philip. I really have enjoyed this conversation. I’m very, very grateful for you and for your work. And we will encourage everyone to be reading the latest. I think the memoir is beautiful. And also, to go back and revisit all sorts of good books.
What have you got on the go now? I can imagine there’s something coming next.
Philip Yancey: I may do a book on what I’ve learned about writing.
Karen Pascal: Oh, lovely.
Philip Yancey: Been thinking about it. Haven’t actually started it, but that’s probably what would be next on the docket.
Karen Pascal: Okay. Well, we’ll look forward to that. Thanks so much for being with us today. I really appreciate this.
Philip Yancey: I enjoyed it, Karen, and I’m glad you’re the kind of interviewer who actually reads the books before we talk about it. So, thank you.
Karen Pascal: It’s one of the things I enjoy, but thank you for saying that. It means a lot.
Philip Yancey: Thank you, Karen. Take care.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with Philip Yancey. He was a good friend of Henri Nouwen and he’s the author of books like What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Soul Survivor and his memoir, Where the Light Fell. I’m so grateful for the honest and challenging thinking and writing Philip Yancey has done. I encourage you to get his books. They’ll help you thrive as a follower of Jesus.
For more resources related to this program, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions. And if you’re new to our podcast, be sure to sign up for our daily meditations, drawn from the writings of Henri Nouwen. If you enjoyed the podcast, we’d be so grateful if you would take time to give us a review or a thumbs-up, or pass this on to your friends and family. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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